Is Digital Art Real Art?

I wanted to respond to a question that some of my followers, here and on my Facebook Art Page, have asked me recently. They wanted to know when I was going to turn my digital images into paintings? I think that at least some of them see a distinction between the two, where one is art (a painting) and the other is something else, but not art. So, if digital art isn’t art, what is it? Indeed what is art?

When I attended school we drew with pencils (carbon, granite lead etc., – hard or soft) and painted with, in my case, powdered paints and brushes, on various grades of paper. If the art teacher thought your work was good, it was hung on the wall. At art college, and then, later, university, the powdered paint pots were replaced by tubed paints and the quantity and quality of the hair in the brushes improved too, as a consequence of higher budgets and, possibly, an acknowledgement that if you had chosen to specialise in art, at further and higher academic levels, then you were worthy of better materials. I graduated in 1997 as a mature student and whilst we were using computers then (Apple Macs in the Art Department of course) and even constructing rudimentary static web pages, we were still a fairly long way from the idea that art could be produced and presented in digital format.

Art history suggests that Paleolithic humans could be thought of as artists because of the marks they made on cave walls, which were, it is thought, created not just to communicate and express ideas and thoughts of the times, to themselves, but as a legacy for those that might come later. Some historians suggest that some of them are religious or shamanic in theme, providing outward manifestations of inner thoughts. Whatever the truth of this, we know that human beings have long used a variety of available materials to express themselves aesthetically through a variety of mediums in two and three dimensional form.

The earliest art tended to represent animals, especially those that were considered to be totemic because of their special powers, such as being able to fly or breath under water, but as the heaven became separated from earth (the sacred and the secular binary opposite), symbolically, so the idea of the lone artist, working for the early churches and the monarchy, emerged. This is probably where the idea stems from that art should demonstrate hours and weeks of intensive labour and endeavour and should showcase technical mastery. Medieval painters in Europe were sponsored or patronised by the church or the monarchy so that they could acquire their materials (colour was ground from stone, for example) and maintain a studio. The idea that an artist could choose their own subject matter or express their own ideas was unthinkable. There was nowhere for art to be displayed, apart from inside the palaces of kings and queens and churches or palatial residences of wealthy religious leaders. Artists were, even through the Renaissance period, regarded as tradesmen, albeit highly trained technicians, and prized in certain cases. Some even became rich in their own right if they pleased their sponsors especially if they made them look highly attractive, desirable, powerful, influential etc. A select few would become known as geniuses, such as Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci.

It wasn’t until the turn of the twentieth century, though, that the concept of the self-determining artist really emerged. One who chose their own subject matter, based on their own world-views, ideas, beliefs, opinions and so on. They still needed sponsors if they were not independently wealthy and we only have to think of Van Gogh, as an example, who could not have painted without his brother’s financial patronage. Interestingly, it was at this same point in art history that impressionistic art was born (art that broke the rules of how and what to paint).

From here on there were significant advances in technology that had a huge impact on art and art production. Paint was produced in tubes (which was the reason why the impressionists could paint ‘en plain air’) for example. The invention of photography (at the latter part of the nineteenth century) also changed art forever. Now that it was possible for ‘reality’ to be captured by the camera, there was no need for artists to produce faithful reproductions of the world in front of them. Impressionism gave way to Expressionism and then on to Cubism, Fauvism and Surrealism as artists experimented with colour, form and shape and played with approaches to reality.

The introduction of photographs meant that ‘prints’ or reproductions of paintings could be produced, which made art more accessible to ordinary people. I still remember reading, at university, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935), an essay by Walter Benjamin, which proposed that the mechanical reproduction of a work of art devalued the original because it detracted from its uniqueness. It is certainly still true to this day that when an artist paints a picture, they will place more commercial value on it, than they will the prints, (or reproductions) and in some cases, they refuse to sell the original at all. This is where we reach the crux of the question I posed at the start of this post.

The reason why the original work of art, produced in paint on canvas, attracts a higher price tag than re-prints of it (by both the artist, agents, galleries, critics and consumers), is not just because of the uniqueness of the original but because the mass production of the reprints is viewed as a form of dumbing down. The fact that the art becomes available in vast numbers detracts from its value. If it can be bought anywhere by just about anyone then it almost has no value at all. Added to that is the fact that the brush strokes have become flattened and the colours do not calibrate. It is no longer the original painting. It is a poor imitation. It is a fraud.

These sentiments lie behind some people’s suspicions about digital art. As if it wasn’t bad enough that prints of great (and not so great) art can be churned off the presses, now anyone can be an artist. We have the technology. We can make art on our computers, mobile phones, lap tops, tablets and so on. Anyone can post a digital picture anywhere and call it art. The process might only take minutes and there are no worries about finding a gallery that will accept it. Instagram, Facebook and Twitter (among many others) are all willing to host our creative efforts.

I’ve done the same myself. I have set up a web site and a Facebook art page and called myself an artist. I don’t wait for critics to affirm my work, I just go ahead and produce it and present it to my fans and followers. My online gallery contains photographs of all my original paintings but it also contains photographs that I have worked on to create a digital piece of art. Here is one such example:


I worked on this photograph extensively using Photoshop and Pixlr. The original picture was very impromptu but I could see it had potential so I worked on it to make adjustments (e.g. size, aspect ratio, lighting, tone, colour saturation, texture) to every aspect of it until I was happy with it. I then finally applied filters to give it that ‘painterly’ quality. It was generally well received but several people asked me if I was going to do a painting from it and that’s really what provoked me to ask the question about digital art.

Interestingly, when I do a painting, I don’t use photographs. I may resort to them only if I need to go back and check some small details because the weather, season, lighting etc. have changed since I started the painting but, apart from that, I paint from what it is in front of me. However, when I take a photograph, I like to turn it into a painting. The reasons for this are various but it’s largely about what people like. People don’t buy photographs in the same way that they do art (and when I say art here, I mean paintings or prints). I think there is a snobbish attitude to photography, in some people’s minds, which causes them to believe that because technology has been used to create the photograph and it took one second to press the shutter-release button, it can’t possibly show as much craft, labour, training, planning or even thought as a painting. Interestingly, when I studied on an art foundation course (the pre-requisite to studying for a degree in art) I specialised in fine art (painting), which was differentiated from sculpture, ceramics, textiles, illustration, graphic design and photography. Sculpture and ceramics also suffered from the distinction drawn between an original work and a facsimile. Consider this article as an example of that point:

Since David is one of the world’s most popular pieces of art, there are reproductions of it on t-shirts, mouse pads, and just about any medium you can imagine. But even full-fledged replicas exist—and Florence has two of them: While the real David sits in a museum, a full-sized copy stands in its original place in front of the Palazzo Vechio, and a bronzed replica towers over the city from its perch on Piazzale Michelangelo.

There is a wonderful piece of software for digital artists who work on iPads, called Pro-Create. It is very complex and it replaces physical paints, brushes, pencils and canvases with their digital counterparts. Diehard enthusiasts of traditional painting and painting methods might wonder why artists would even consider painting digitally but there are many, many reasons why they would do so. The portability of an iPad is one of the major considerations but it’s also about versatility and what can be done with the image afterwards. It’s beyond the scope of this post to describe the exciting ways that Pro-Create images can be processed and used in other applications, including the moving image, but suffice to say those artists who have embraced digital, have found that it enhances the potential for creativity.

I found this digital picture to be in some ways reminiscent of the work of Henri Rousseau, the French Primitive artist who was, ironically, self-taught and had never seen the desert, jungles, lions, tigers or any of the other creatures and landscapes (in their original contexts) that populated his paintings. I located this picture on a web site called and it wasn’t attributed. If I could, I would. I would be happy to hang this on my wall and I could print it, frame it and do that. I wouldn’t be able to afford a Rousseau. The issue about what kind of art we want to hang on our walls will be the subject of another blog (as well as the issue of whether we should appropriate images from the internet, just because we can) but I thought this was a fitting picture to finish with, to illustrate my point.

I believe digital art has as much value (commercially, culturally, aesthetically, socially, ethically) as traditional painting. I think they both have their place. I still want to paint with ‘real’ paints’ on actual, physical canvasses but I enjoy the fact that I have choices of materials, formats, technologies and methods. I am happy with the digital image I produced of Chloe, one of my two beloved cats. She wouldn’t sit still for long enough for me to ever be able to capture that pose and the expression on her face, which was what I wanted at that precise moment.

Surely, after all the battles that have been fought, to win autonomy for the artist, let’s celebrate artistic choice and freedom, which means that as consumers of art, we are also free to look at, appreciate, study, preserve and buy the art that speaks to us as individuals – however it was produced and distributed.

One thought on “Is Digital Art Real Art?

  1. People are slow to catch up, and the sometimes extreme prejudice against digital art comes from people who have no idea whatsoever how a digital work is made. That’s their own blind spot, but it is an enormous hurdle for the digital artist who wants to make a living, or sell anything, or get any recognition. And there’s a lot of irony and hypocrisy here as well. People who accept Andy Warhol’s silkscreens — which were executed by assistants, and sometimes created by them, and were mass produced as art — reject digital art because it isn’t a one-of-a-kind physical original.

    Artists who have extensive experience using traditional materials and digital tend to go digital. If you know how to use layers and masks in PS, it’s kinda barbaric to go back to just working on one layer. It’s like going from typing your novel in Word to using a quilt pen. Digital techniques open so many possibilities that it is the most flexible medium with the most potential. It’s the future, and a lot of people are starting to prefer its aesthetic — well, the more standard digital illustration look — to traditional painting.

    I’ve had to deal with this a lot because I’ve been working digitally for a couple decades. Here’s an article I wrote about the divisiveness in the art community, and stupid prejudice against digital art:

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s