The only artist I’m aware of who has received any recognition for digital painting in the contemporary fine art world is David Hockney, and that’s just because anything and everything he creates is automatically reviewed. Gerhardt Richter has the same kind of status, and some of his threadbare digital art is taken seriously, but it’s not digital painting.
Part of this is the insane and dare I say stunningly stupid prejudice against art created using the computer in any capacity, which I’ve covered in a previous article: Against Competitiveness in Art, and a Defense of Digital Art. A curious underlying hypocrisy in contemporary art think is that the camera derailed painting and altered the course of art history, but an astronomically more powerful instrument of technology — the computer and advanced art programs — can’t revive visual art proper and change art history again.
Other factors include the difficultly of marketing digital paintings as one-of-a-kind priceless artifacts, though to anyone who has a fundamental grasp of art, and has ever bought a music CD or a novel (mere copies that don’t deligitimize the quality of the creation in question), such an objection misses the point of the purpose of art, which is much more about manifesting a vision and communication than about producing an artifact for purchase.
Notions that the computer does the work or that it is soulless are sheer ignorance and stupid prejudice. They are about as convincing as arguing that only novelists who use typewriters can be taken seriously, because Word write the novels for you and somehow removes any feeling or substance in a cosmic act of spiritual homogenization. Another outstanding and bizarre notion endemic to contemporary art think is that anything and everything can be art, including taking a crap on a gallery floor, but painting hardly qualifies anymore — it is like a vestigial appendage that is a mere byproduct of evolution, and entirely antiquated — and digital painting is dead on arrival, and then some.
Quite the contrary, digital painting is a core artistic activity which continues the long tradition of painting into the digital era. It incorporates new tools and technology in order to explore new terrain and expand the range of possible imagery that can be realized with the human imagination. Contrary to the tragically inane notion that the computer does everything for you, today’s digital painter will need a very strong grounding in the fundamentals of drawing and painting [lighting, perspective, composition, anatomy, color theory, modeling, texture, etc.] and will very likely branch out into digital sculpting. Ironically, the computer offers the contemporary visual artist the full spectrum of traditional, analogue visual skills, while a contemporary art education offers next to none, focusing instead heavily on concepts and political activism.
Part of the fault of digital painting — which is the 21st century incarnation of painting proper — being completely sidelined as a credible artistic option is art education. This may be already changing, but in recent decades only the students who majored in illustration received full learning about the basics of visual art, and would learn digital painting at all. Those of us who went the fine art route would generally quickly be disabused of any ambition of painting an image, and steered into conceptual art and necessarily in a given socio-political context. A peculiar result of this is that illustrators possess all the traditional fine art skills, and contemporary fine artists little to none. Scant noteworthy contemporary artists can draw or paint beyond a level exhibiting tragic beginner mistakes.
Artists who do go the route of illustration and learn all those traditional skills and concepts — and they do, it’s only the materials that have been updated — are frequently creatively hampered in terms of how they apply those skills, sticking to wholly conventional and commercial subjects and rendering. When they mention classic artists they admire, the two names that most crop up are Anders Zorn and John Singer Sargent. We might get some Rembrandt, Caravaggio, or Velasquez, but it’s consistently the realist painters that are admired, and primarily for their technique. We end up with the artists who are competent at making imagery directing their skills at wholly conventional and realistic imagery, and artists who are unconventional being incompetent at making imagery.
I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that if you asked me who besides me makes contemporary fine art digital painting I draw a blank. There are only a handful of digital painters I admire and am interested in period, and none of them are obviously about fine art. This is undoubtedly my own ignorance, but when you consider this morning I did a search on popular art sites (Artnet News, The Guardian art section, and Hyperallergic) for “digital painting” I turned up nothing featuring an artist except David Hockney. Nobody that I can recall has ever suggested a digital painter (or a digital artist) for me to investigate.
Well, there are a truly shocking 327,000,000 peo0ple in America, and if as many as 5,000 people know who I am as an artist (and despite my 2,628 followers on this blog, I’d consider that a grotesque exaggeration), that’s coming in around 0.0015%, or one in over 65,000 people. If those are the unrealistically high chances of anyone else discovering my digital paintings, than the same may be true of me discovering anyone elses. Note that I’m not using “contemporary” just to mean someone who’s alive today but makes still-life paintings or cheesy abstractions: I’m referring to attempts to make new imagery of a complex nature.
We generally accept in the art world that (as I mentioned above) the photograph displaced painting as the most significant form of visual art, after which visual art was replaced by conceptual art (which rarely offers anything of visual interest). This is dumb, and for the obvious reason that it relegates image-making to only or primarily being about documenting the physical appearance of external, existing objects, and in so doing completely removes the most critical creative element, which is the artist’s imagination. In short, we boldly declare that a machine which is itself incapable of creativity replaces the human capacity for creativity in the millisecond it takes for a shutter to snap.
This is not to denigrate what an artist does with a camera, as there are hundreds of photographs I’m already familiar with that knock my socks off. I’m arguing that the documentary aspect of photography only replaces the documentary aspect of painting [and this is debatable on some levels], which is only a small part of what visual communication through imagery is capable of. Arguing that photography makes painting redundant is along the lines of declaring that the tape-recorder renders music obsolete because it much more accurately describes actual auditory events in the real world.
Painting never died, because imagery and the visual imagination never died as a primary mode of communication. It was sidelined by other practices which, significantly, privilege spoken language (or more precisely, linguistics) over visual language to the point where visual language is eradicated. All hail the “visual art” which sought to eradicate visual language and make “art” a prop for ideas that exist in linguistics. Again, not to denegrate experimental artistic exploration — except the more inane variety of it that gets crammed down our throats and insults our intelligence — but to note that conceptual art is not visual art proper, and one medium does not replace another.
Images are as relevant as ever, even if we in the contemporary art world have disregarded them, demonized them (the art of dead white male oppressors, etc.), and sought to replace them wholesale with something, anything else. And when it comes to making images in 2020, the most flexible and powerful medium for creating imagery is the computer. Anyone who has stacked multiple semi-transparent layers in Photoshop, and had masks on each, knows that analogue methods are not even capable of this kind of elaborate manipulation of imagery, and that’s just scratching the surface. There are, of course, immense advantages to working with traditional mediums, including having any chance at all of being recognized as a legitimate artist, but you are working with a drastically reduced and cumbersome tool set. Consider that if you were starting out as an illustrator, if you didn’t have digital skills you’d be at a very serious disadvantage except for very select purposes. Digital art offers the whole range of visual art making from photography to sculpture and the potential seamless combination of those mediums. I’ve done a lot of those hybrids, though presently I’m more seriously focused on digital painting.
In the last couple decades digital painting has arisen as a full blown, sophisticated, and comprehensive art practice. There is a daunting learning curve to mastering digital mediums, and you need all the traditional fundamentals and the hard work of attaining them. Now seems a good time for some of the people who already have the technical ability to make more imaginative and unusual work, and for some of us with a fine art background to learn the the cutting edge painting tools and underlying traditional foundation in order to level-up our own image-making capacity.