Apple exercise.

The apple above illustrates a typical digital approach to painting (which I do not typically use myself). This is just an exercise I did as part of a digital painting course I’m going through [I’ll explain why], but take note that it was done from scratch and achieves a high level of realism with a minimal of effort. There’s no photo in this, either collaged or painted over, or anything.

To create this apple one uses mostly masks and gradients, the closest analogue equivalent of which would be using an airbrush and masking film such as Rubylith. The brushes imitate a rough oil brush, a splatter effect similar to something you might achieve with an atomizer, and then an airbrush for the gradients. And then you use a hard edge eraser for some of the details. All of this is done in stacked layers for easy editing.

This kind of approach evolved from photo editing techniques rather than traditional painting, and it’s a bit alien for me, though I already knew all the techniques. I’m much more inclined to use just one brush and base everything around drawing (as in the recent image below):

I used the same technique for this portrait:

and this realist image:

I like the more traditional feel better, but I have to admit, I couldn’t match the level of realism in the apple exercise with ten time as much time and effort.

The apple is rather on the extreme end of the opposite spectrum from how I work, but there are lots of people who work somewhere in the middle, or much closer to my range.

Why I’m Learning Conventional Digital Painting

When I started doing digital art, the only training was using Photoshop for photo editing purposes. I bought a few very thorough books which included exercises and tutorials, and religiously plowed through them. This was my foundation for digital art, though I used the tools for my own imagery. Here’s one of my earlier pieces:

When it came to the digital painting parts, I just used native Photoshop brushes in a way that seemed appropriate to me. Note that I created this image around 15 years ago, long before some of the people I’m now learning from even started to make digital art.

What has happened in the last couple decades is that professional illustrators switched over to working digitally, and the computer game and film industry started using digital art extensively. Because of the demands for quick sketches and turnaround, illustrators have communally developed highly efficient techniques and workflow to make realistic or fantastic imagery.

Today’s illustrators are not only fluent in digital processes, but in traditional drawing and painting fundamentals. [Us contemporary artists, on the other hand, are mostly schooled in postmodern philosophy and social justice activism, and use whatever means to make objects, video, performance, or installations to promulgate our agenda. Well, that was my graduate education, anyway.] The result is that in the last 5 years a sort of industry standard for digital painting has evolved, and there’s both a huge audience and ample employment opportunities for skilled digital artists. [Most skilled contemporary artists, on the other hand, will have to seek jobs in other fields and give up on art entirely.]

The demand for learning digital painting is enormous, and YouTube instructional videos will get hundreds of thousands of views [ex., this one by Borodante]. In the same way that email brought back letter writing — which was a quaint rarity as compared to making a phone call — digital mediums have brought back painting to hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people around the world.

Digital Painting for Contemporary Fine Art

No, not really. I’m sure it’s out there, but I can’t think of anyone that’s really doing it except yours truly. That doesn’t mean it’s not out there, because anyone else that’s doing it most likely has never heard of me, either. When professional digital painters talk about career options, they don’t mention fine art.

I saw a video in my YouTube feed today by a prominent digital painting instructor titled What is your art career plan? It’s never too late! [note 4.8k views in just 9 hours]. I haven’t watched it yet, but I seriously doubt that contemporary fine art is one of the possible plans. I’ll watch it now and get back to you.

OK, apparently getting a job at “that triple A game studio” is the most popular and coveted plan. Alternatively you could be making comic books. Apparently you need to be sending your digital paintings to COMPANIES.

His advice includes: “Formulate a plan based on [your] goals using models of other people who’ve done those successes in the past, and adapt as you progress…”

But all the models of other people work for gaming studios and the like. The people teaching digital painting are not gearing it at all towards fine art ends, but rather primarily (if not exclusively) toward working for someone else in the capacity of an illustrator.

I’ve seen maybe a few people who seem to have a career using digital painting, and not for some company. However, I wouldn’t exactly call their art contemporary or modern art. It almost universally revolves around pretty girls and/or WOW magical sorts of cheesy digital trick effects (a waterfall flowing UP, for example).

I was the TA for a Photoshop class when I was in grad school, so the idea of using it for contemporary art has always been there (I first learned about it in a Photography class at UCLA), but not for digital painting. Rather, one would use it for some sort of collage or image-and-text work, along the lines of Barbara Kruger or David Wojnarowicz (which means with a strong political message). Using Photoshop for digital painting in the tradition of fine art painting wasn’t mentioned. [Incidentally, there weren’t enough computers, so while I was the TA, I didn’t get to learn Photoshop myself. I was just there for critiquing work, which was normal, because any technical skill was considered completely secondary to the political and philosophical underpinning of the art in question. I taught myself Photoshop after getting my MFA.]

What’s Missing?

Digital painting is mostly used as a kind of applied art where it serves a greater purpose than itself. One of the things that always bothered me enormously about commercial art is that someone else would be the ultimate arbiter of what I created, and have the last word. They would be the real brains, and I’d be the skilled artisan intermediary.

In the fine art realm, visual art proper has been largely purged as a legitimate approach that is taken seriously. There are exceptions, but the general narrative is that conceptual art superseded visual art, and there’s no going back.

Image-makers therefore find themselves making things like big-boobed girls with elf ears, dragons with saddles, and oversized robots with tiny heads for the gaming industry. Let me just give the musical equivalent to illustrate how strange this is. It’s as if music was used for film scores and video games, but not to be listened to by itself for the sheer enjoyment of the music.

What’s missing is artists making images that are intended to function alone themselves as significant cultural productions. The vast majority of digital painters don’t even aspire to producing such a thing, as far as I’ve seen.

The Opening of the Ripened Mind
Opening of the Ripened Mind, by me.

It would never occur to your average digital painter to make something like the above, either in terms of subject matter, rendering, or technique. The same could be said for the image below:

Sunshine Superman Selfie, by me.

Or even this one:

BBWF, by me.

But in the above picture, a very accomplished digital painter/illustrator might have gotten some of the shadows down better, or the reflections in the water. I made a serious flaw in the next image:

Monster Maiden #1, by me.

Her right hand should be casting a shadow on her body, but isn’t. Also there needs to be more color in her eyes. I can go back and fix it, and maybe someday I will, but this same piece shows lots of other little innovations, such as in digital impasto (below).

I’ve said for a long time, and believed it the whole while, that Jackson Pollock (or Willem de Kooning) would have been a better Abstract Expressionist painter if he did plein air landscape oil paintings on Sunday afternoons. If it’s not obvious why, let me give you another example. Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist, Randy Rhoads, had studied classical and folk guitar, as well as piano and music theory from his mother when he was a wee lad, starting at age 7. That formal training separates him from leagues of other guitarists.

The trick, in music or visual art, is to hammer home the conventional skills without being trapped by them. Quite often the classically trained musician only plays classical music, or the skilled illustrator only makes illustrations very similar to his or her contemporaries in all aspects.

I’m still hammering out some of those fundamentals, er, now, and I think doing so will help me take my images to another level.

In short, there’s an explosion of digital painting going on — one might even say a revolution of sorts — but it doesn’t realize it need not be in the service of something else, and can be art for art’s sake. Instead of making cool art for computer games, or that looks like it’s for computer games, or fantasy book covers… artists can start exploring outside of those boundaries and coming up with novel images.

Oddly, there’s a ton of resistance in the painting community to this, especially among the still lifes ‘n nudes community, but I can’t take their objections seriously anymore, and have dealt with them extensively elsewhere.

Where I’m going with all this

If I could roll back the decades I’d switch from majoring in fine art to illustration. If I did as well as an undergrad in illustration as I did in fine art, I would have graduated with tons of job opportunities instead of none. Grad school would have made me potentially rich, rather than completely gutting my prospects. Even with my strong objections to working commercially, it would have been better than working as a long-term -temp for a bank making endless PowerPoint presentations, and I could have probably segued out of it into other art ventures. Better yet, illustration doesn’t care about politics or your DNA.

But at this point, my best bet might be to be a bit of a pioneer in the intermediary zone between fine art and illustration. A lot of my work already belongs in that area, and I predict that image-making is going to have a major resurgence in the fine art realm when artists and art audiences realize that image-making never died, we just convinced ourselves that nothing new could be made (again, I deal with this in lots of articles elsewhere on this blog).

For now, my next step is to learn from what I’m calling the “industry standard”. While there’s lots of stuff I do that they never do, I could surely benefit from absorbing their tried and tested techniques, which are not just digital, but always in conjunction with the fundamentals of image making [ex., lighting, shading, composition, anatomy and so on are considered absolutely essential material to master].

Right now I’m doing a lot of training, so we may see a bit less production from me in coming months. After that I may be able to produce pieces which appeal to a much wider audience. if I can absorb the popular approach and incorporate it, there’s an established audience for it, a portion of which will be hungry for anything a bit different.

I often take periods to bolster my skills, so this is nothing new. What’s new is that there’s now much better ways for me to do so.

Lastly, on the topic above, if you are a visual artist and want to develop your vision, my recommendation would be to skip art school and teach yourself. For a tiny fraction of the cost, you can take courses online that are especially good if you want to be a digital painter (er, for the entertainment industry). You can turn those same skills to fine art, but, it will be a bit like doing a musical set for an audience of three for a while yet.

Also, I often do things the hard way and reinvent the wheel, so, it’s going to help me to nail down a few essentials and learn a lot of shortcuts [will come in really handy if I do more portraits, too].


2 replies on “Difference Between Digital and Traditional Painting Approaches

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