A Defense of Digital Painting (and digital art in general)

Bareknuckle-Brawl-revised-final-copy

Bare Knuckle Brawl, by Eric Wayne [digital painting, 30X46″ at 300dpi]. Click to see sized for your monitor.

As I was reworking the image above, over the last several days, I was contemplating all the attacks I’ve read against digital art, and my work in particular. I created this piece about a year ago, but in the earlier version my clouds were too cartoonish, so I went back and fixed them as well as made a lot of other adjustments. I’m happier with it now, and think it stands as a traditional painting in the manner of Edward Hopper, George Bellows or the contemporary artist, Eric Joyner.

automat

Automat, 1927 by Edward Hopper

A lot of traditional artists and others take umbrage at me calling something I created using a computer, drawing tablet and stylus a “painting”. But as I was working on this, which was not easy at all, even compared to doing traditional painting (I taught myself to do art on the computer only AFTER I got my MFA), it was obvious to me why their arguments are bogus, and probably defensive. So, here I’ll shed a bit more light on this piece while also slamming attempts to dismiss my art as inauthentic, or somehow inferior to painting with oils, or whichever traditional medium comes to mind.

stag

George Bellows, Stag at Sharkey, 1909, oil on canvas,

This piece is based on a real fight I saw on YouTube. I thought the kind of violence that is popular on the internet said something about contemporary culture, and I wanted to see what the fight in question would look like as a traditional sort of painting. People will tend to assume that whatever I’ve done with the computer was just some magic filters applied to an existing photograph. Not at all. Below is a clip from the actual fight.

brawl

Screen shot from video of the fight I used as inspiration.

I based my image on multiple screenshots, and invented the fence, the clouds, the trees, and modified all the people, poses, and their physiognomies. So, you can’t say that I just played with an existing photo. And if anyone wants to argue that I used photos at all, well, so do traditional painters, and I’m as likely to use only my imagination as not. The piece I recently finished below was done completely from the imagination.

The-End-Came-Swiftly-Revised

The End Came Swiftly. Digital drawing by me, done completely from the imagination.

The-End-Came-Swiftly

Color version in progress.

One might also want to pause and look over some of my early physical drawings and paintings to see more work done in various styles, and showing that I know how to use traditional mediums.

Now for some of the arguments that have been leveled against me stating that my digital art is inferior, or not art at all.

1) It is not a painting if there is no paint involved. I rather like this one, because it’s at least clever. However, it doesn’t hold water. My counter is that “painting” here is a verb and not a noun, and addresses a process of image making. My “Bare Knuckle Brawl” is a “digital painting” because it is done in color and uses strokes like a traditional painting. If you are still on the side of the argument against me, consider how it falls completely apart when applied to a “digital drawing”. They have to say, “It’s not a drawing because there is no draw involved”. Ah, but you can see in the image above that there is quite a lot of “drawing” involved. It looks very similar to my early charcoal drawings, because it’s the same basic technique.

Visiting the Dead. Charcoal on paper.

Visiting the Dead. Charcoal on paper, @1990. The reason it looks similar to my digital drawing is because the process is closely related.

2) Digital painting just uses the “rub” tool so it isn’t like real painting. This argument is kinda’ funny, because it’s really saying, “digital painting isn’t painting because it uses a brush tool, and smears the color,” which is precisely what one does with paint and a brush. And this is why it ends up looking a lot like a conventional painting: it’s the same basic process.

bloody-finger

Detail of “Bare Knuckle Brawl”.

fighter's-mouth

Detail of “Bare Knuckle Brawl”.

3) It’s not art if it’s not done by hand. This is a bad argument. First off, this kind of work uses both hands extensively – It’s at least 95% drawing with a tablet – so the argument isn’t even relevant. Beyond that, if we apply the same argument to writing or composing music it completely dissolves. If you compose a poem in your head, is it not art?

4) It’s not real because it’s not physical. First, it’s as physical as any photograph is, because you can print it out as a photograph. Thus, unless you are prepared to argue that photography isn’t art, or is inferior to any traditional thrift store painting, you probably want to shelve that argument. This digital painting can be printed out on canvas if you like, or even on metal. Because I made it quite large, it can be printed out at magazine cover quality (super high resolution) at 30X46 inches. However, because one will generally be looking at it from a distance, it can be printed at half that resolution, which is 60X94 inches, or about 5X8 feet. Just because it was created using a computer, and is a digital file, doesn’t mean it isn’t intended to be printed, large scale, and beautifully. By the logic of the attacking argument, any 3D printing would not be sculpture because it was originally a digital file.

"v" Acrylic on canvas, 3'X4'. 1990

“V”. Acrylic on canvas, 3X4′. @ 1990, by me. This is one in a series of 12, 3X4 foot paintings I made when I was in my early 20s. I don’t think digital painting is any easier or less real.

5) Prints are inferior to actual paintings. This sounds oh-so-convincing, because we are used to this argument in terms of comparing prints to the actual paintings they are copies of. Of course the original is better than a copy of it. Then, without doing much thought, the arguer will simply think that when it comes to a digital painting there is no original at all, because there’s no physical painting. Thus, they think, all you have is a copy of nothing, which makes it less than nothing. There is an orginal, for what it’s worth, and it’s a Photoshop file around a gig, assuming I’ve flattened the final image (but still retain previous versions). From this original, endless perfect copies can be made in any number of formats. But they are right that there’s no physical, one-of-a-kind object. This is the centerpiece of their arguments, so worth devoting some time to demolishing.

There is no one-of-a-kind physical original when it comes to most the art we enjoy. We buy copies of music, books, photos, and movies (or just download them). So, in general, a one-of-a-kind original is perfectly irrelevant to most of the art we enjoy. However, if I wanted to, I could use the same trick that people do with prints and photographs, which is to make a limited run. I could decide to only make 5 prints, which would create scarcity. So it is easily possible to artificially create a unique physical object, say one high quality print on canvas, and call it a day.

My opposition, if they will agree with that, will still maintain that all things equal, a painting by someone else is automatically superior to any “digital painting” I might make. There are two problems with this argument. One is the easy assumption that any painting is better than any print of any “digital painting”. One can see why this argument appeals to painters. But without actually looking at two examples, it’s unfair to automatically conclude that all physical painting trumps all digital painting. I think a 5X8 foot print of “Bare Knuckle Brawl” might outshine quite a lot of physical paintings, including those by my esteemed detractors. Compare the two paintings below: an oil painting by Charles Thomson (who I’ve butted heads with on the issue of digital art), and a digital painting by me.

Charles_Thomson_e9b3e1_c

New painting by Charles Thomson, in his “Crazy Over You” series. Oil on Canvas.

The Human Fly, by Eric Kuns, digital image

“The Human Fly”, by me. [Digital painting, 3×4′ at 300 dpi., or 6X8′ at 150 dpi.]

Sure, many, many people will prefer Charles’ painting over my art. There’s no accounting for tastes. Besides which, he has a gallery and I don’t. He sells and I don’t. Nevertheless, in my eye, my work is clearly more complex, interesting, beautiful, sophisticated, and relevant. From my perspective, a quality print of my work (it could the 6X8′ version) would be much more impressive than his original oil painting. Please allow for my tastes. I’ll take a pizza and donut eating/barfing human fly, rendered in an Impressionist style, over cartoonish happy outlined figures any day.

the-consul

The consul (detail from “The Human Fly”)

The second problem is that all things are not equal. I can achieve more using a computer than I can with conventional mediums. It’s more of a struggle to make imagery on the computer, but one has more flexibility and with perseverance can take things further. Below is a small painting I made, and then the digital version I created after scanning it.

Robot Versus Monster

Robot Versus Monster. Acrylic and ink on watercolor paper.

Robot Versus Monster

Robot Versus. Monster, digital painting version.

There are some directions in which one can go further when working digitally, and it would be extremely time consuming and expensive to attempt the same thing with traditional oils.

I also can’t accept that prints are inferior, because I’ve accessed most the art I’ve seen in my life through reproductions, whether they were of fine art paintings, or were album or book covers. I became a huge fan of Van Gogh, and Francis Bacon through pouring over books of their art, and only much later saw their work in person. For me it has always been the image that mattered. To say anything else would be a lie. How the image was created is of secondary importance.

6) Digital art is just clicking buttons and doesn’t require real talent or skill. Anyone who is good at drawing with a pencil, and then tries to draw with a stylus on a tablet knows it’s harder. We are used to looking at the point where the pencil, pen, or brush touches the surface. When you use a tablet, you are looking at the screen and not at your hand at all. It takes a while to properly judge distances and trajectory, especially since the drawing tablet moves around as well. And anyone who has seriously undertook learning a program like Photoshop knows it can become very involved. I’ve found myself working on pieces with over 70 layers, layer masks, paths, adjustment layers, and so on. You can also, if you want to, set things up so you are just drawing and not clicking the mouse or keys until you want to save the document. Beyond that, if you are doing ambitious digital painting it requires both traditional drawing/painting skills AND computer imaging skills. You may have to do modeling, lighting and shading, establish a composition, render anatomy,  balance colors… If you still say it’s easy, let’s see you do it. If you can do it well, you will magically be converted to realizing just how creative digital art can be.

hell-journeysm

Eric Joyner, Along the Mysty Path. Oil on canvas. Joyner’s handing of paint has been an influence on my digital painting, which can be seen in “Bare Knuckle Brawl’ and “The Human Fly”.

7) Digital art should not copy painting but do it’s own thing. Oil painting has no monopoly on making imagery. If I draw with a stylus, it’s going to look like a drawing with pencil or charcoal; and if I apply color by using strokes, it’s going to look like a painting. I’ve used the computer to do work that computers are uniquely capable of, such as heavily collaged works, or abstract text paintings [see below], but also choose to make images by hand using the stylus and drawing tablet. A lot of my background is doing that kind of work, and if I choose to do it digitally, I’m using my own skills I’ve developed, but just switching out a pencil and paper for a stylus and drawing tablet. If you have a problem with that, it’s probably a personal one. The attack is a bit like saying one shouldn’t use a synthesizer to play notes, because if you do so you are imitating a piano. In practice you can use a synthesizer to do all sorts of things, including making music using traditional arrangements.

Feed the Fish

Feed the Fish. Digital art by me. There are 300 layers of overlapping text. It’s vector, and therefore printable to any size.

Last-scene-in-Vientiane-updated

Last Scene In Vientiane, by me. A collage composed of photos I took in Laos.

robot-heads-cont

Using 3D modeling software, Blender, to make a robot head to integrate in an upcoming digital painting.

Death, Dissolution, and the Void

Death, Dissolution, and the Void. by me. This piece incorporated photos and drawing with a stylus.

Just as a musican can use computers and synthesizers to make traditional music and sounds, as well as material that those other mediums couldn’t do, the same is true of digital art.

8) Digital art is devoid of feeling, soulless, etc. This line of attack is just an idea that springs out of an association of art with handicraft. Because you are not outside molding pottery under a warm sun, whatever you are doing is somehow less human, is artificial and contrived. By this logic all writing done on the computer would similarly be purely cerebral rubbish, which would include most any novel written in the last two decades. Art takes place in the imagination, not in the pores of the skin. Sure, there is an appeal to getting out in the field with an easel and oil paints and painting a sun setting on the hills, but that is just one kind of art making. If you think the image above is soulless, than you are blinded by your own rhetoric.

Some more details, and then the  conclusion. Note that to really appreciate my digital art you would need to see it on a huge monitor (at least 6ft wide), or a large print, because only then could you see all the details and the whole image at once.

mechanical-shit

Detail of “The End Came Swiftly”.

detail-2-of-work-in-progress

Detail of “Fugly Fish for Sale”.

mouth

Detail of “The Agony and the Extraterrestrial”.

detail-3

Detail of, “The Extrusion of the Psychonaut”.

Conclusion

I think I covered all the lines of attack. Feel free to share more. In my case, using the computer allows me to make ambitious pieces I couldn’t contemplate without a studio, significant surplus income, and time to burn. Beyond that it allows all sorts of experimentation that traditional mediums do not. For example, you can stack hundreds of photos in transparent layers in Photoshop, move and rotate each one interdependently, and give each its own mask… A special machine would have to be built to do this sort of thing mechanically. And if you want to do more traditional looking art, the computer offers infinite flexibility, though it is a bit cumbersome to work with until you master the tools, shortcuts, menus, options, and whatnot. I suspect that many of those who are against digital art are intimidated by all the possibilities of exploration that it opens up, and prefer to work simply within a more confined range (that was MY original reaction to it). That’s fine, and I have nothing against traditional painting, or pottery for that matter. But if people want to say that work done using the computer is inherently inferior, they are going to need to come up with a lot better argument than I’ve heard so far, and I don’t think it exists because the computer opens avenues of imaginative exploration, and you can’t make that into a limitation. Au contraire.

~ Ends

Below is a gallery of my favorite of my digital works


You can make a small donation to help me keep on making art and blogging (and restore my faith in humanity simultaneously). I don’t make anything blogging, and survive barely by teaching. I don’t make any $ of my art either, yet. I need more time and exposure. $5 would help.

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4 thoughts on “A Defense of Digital Painting (and digital art in general)

  1. I’ve often thought about the challenges of digital art as I recognise that the image that is created on the computer is usually more aesthetically pleasing than that created with paints. Therefore, is the bias to painting somewhat like a carpenter having a bias to hand tools even though power tools can do a better job? I would probably say yes.

    I like painting more due to the process and also the materials.

    In terms of market accepting digital art, I think one of the problems of digital art is that (like other artists), many digital rely on skill of creation as the selling point; however, as the software evolves, somewhat that once required amazing skill using something like Photoshop 1 suddenly becomes easy for someone with an hour or two training. I liken it to those movies that rely on special effects to sell but a couple of years later, the special effects look dated and the lack of a plot leaves the movie feeling empty.

    Which brings me to your boxer painting. It is an image that will age well as it doesn’t rely on the special effects. I don’t think you should ever try to make a digital image look like a painting though just as I think painting should be made to look like a photo. I think the medium should be chosen for the task required.

    Incidentally, the images makes me laugh so again gets me thinking about humour in art. Well done

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    1. I agree about cheap tricks like filter magic and fractals (though I may be being a bit close-minded about the latter).

      There is the temptation to rebel against new technology, and it’s something I’ve struggled with in the past. When I was first introduced to Photoshop I hated it.

      Anyway, check out this digital artist’s YouTube page with all the tutorials. https://www.youtube.com/user/idrawgirls

      He knows his shit, even though he doesn’t call himself an “artist” and doesn’t use his skills to make “fine art”. He really uses his skill for more commercial applications. However, to say that his work doesn’t require skill would be, well, closed-minded defiance. I WISH I could hammer out images that quickly, but I can’t. In reality, he has more technical skill in some areas than I do, and it is the result of hard work. He knows Photoshop and digital rendering techniques on an expert level, as well as how to draw and paint traditionally. Any thing I could say to diminish his achievements would be mere excuses born of jealous competitiveness.

      To watch one of his digital drawing/painting tutorials and say it’s not real drawing or painting is also a kind of self-consoling. His work is cliched, concept art, but it answers the question of whether or not digital painting is any less real than conventional painting.

      It’s just a question of which mediums one prefers. Do you prefer markers, egg tempura, colored pencils, oils, gauche, pastels, acrylics, watercolor, air brush, spray cans, using Photoshop, or Corel Painter…? Just because digital media can be used with photography doesn’t at all mean it can’t be used brilliantly for drawing and painting. It’s a question of skills and technique. Nowadays digital art is just another conventional technique for making imagery. Only us older artists separate it. I wonder if someone who is trained in both traditional and computer approaches from an early age would even consider that there is a difference.

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      1. I think we are talking about slightly different issues. I was more moving into long-term market acceptance for a medium where the skills used to create are constantly changing (which isn’t the case with acrylics, oils etc)

        Anyway, on a more microlevel, a lot of the prejudices you refer to also exist in relation to the choices between acrylics and oils. In many respects, acrylics are superior. They are safer, et more quickly allowing for more layer complexity (and error correction) and mediums can be added to allow them to replicate the look of oil. Despite these advantages, there are the ‘purists’ who hold up oil on canvas as the pinnacle of painting.

        For me, the absurdity of the prejudice is when people design on computer software but then print out an image which they then copy as a painting or have printed onto canvas and subsequently go over the top with some oils to try to portray it as the authentic oil painting. It is fake and pretending to be something that it isn’t rather than being proud of what it is.

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        1. Those are good points. I was worried I came off too hard in what I wrote yesterday. I’m not sure if I succeeded in sharing my own prejudices against digital art. I have my own biases, and I get annoyed that so many people are impressed by really easy Photoshop manipulations, even when they’re botched. I don’t know if you’ve see all those Malkovich manips where his head has been put on other people’s bodies. It’s not difficult or imaginative work, but has enjoyed enormous popularity. So, even though I defend digital art, and work digitally myself (nowadays), I’m quite hard on the medium.

          I also agree about the prejudice over acrylics. But acrylics are much more suitable for a lot of kinds of work, including combining styles (such as doing thin washes over this painting).

          Jeff Koons comes to mind when talking about making oil paintings of digital art. He makes his collages, then has his assistants make giant paintings of them with tiny brushes and oil paint. On the other hand, people have painted over photographs, used camera obscura boxes to delineate their forms, painted over tracings, and used grid systems to enlarge pictures… If someone establishes a composition in Photoshop, and then wants to have a painterly surface, it’s not much different that making sketches, using a grid system, and making a larger version. Eric Fischl would use tracing pap a lot of establish his compositions.

          Market acceptability is far less relevant than actual creations. Art expands my consciousness by allowing me to see through the eyes of others. But no matter how sellable unoriginal work is, which doesn’t have any particularly new, individual, or even personal perspective, it adds nothing to the richness of my consciousness/mind. And I think the market is rather corrupt these days, and mostly has to do with a game of investment. It’s a sort of commodities trading, which is probably another reason former commodities man, Jeff Koons sells so well. If the economy hadn’t been destroyed by lobbying for special corporate interests, any working person could afford one of my prints. And if I weren’t barely scraping by, I could also afford other people’s prints, and there are some I surely would have bought. Artists could afford to buy each others work.

          On top of that I find that the work of the oil-painting purists can be rather hackneyed, clumsy, amateurish, and visually uninteresting. I’ve seen some canvases that look like they were painted by Fauvists over 100 years ago, and I’m not a fan of Fauvism.

          I always like to come back to music to help me think about art. If I were a musician, I would be torn in two directions. On the one hand I’d wish to play the acoustic guitar and sing, like Dylan or Nick Drake. It seems an amazing skill, that is highly communicative. And on the other I love the sound of the synthesizer (I love all those old prog bands), electronic music, and experimental computer music. Some people even combine those things (the Beatles were early pioneers).

          For me, the reason I use the computer is because I’ve found ways to translate my traditional drawing, painting, and photography into digital equivalents, and then of course there is the possibility of combining them in any possible way, as well as completely new possibilities. And contrary to popular belief/faith, a quality print of one of my large digital paintings is more impressive than even my own physical paintings. On top of that, endless affordable copies can be made. It’s the democratization of art. I can sell it myself without a gallery. All I need is a computer and enough patience, perseverance, and ingenuity. And if I can do it, so can artists living in the developing world (including the new developing world within America). But when it comes to making large scale, oil paintings, and selling them through a prestigious gallery, most people including me don’t have the time, money, space, or connections to do it.

          Though, I make absolutely nothing off of art, and everything I’ve done is funded by me. The only upside of this is that I can de exactly what I want.

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