Digital vs. Traditional

Sometimes I wonder if I accidentally fell into a time machine and woke up in the 90's. Another artist's rant against digital art has been spreading through my news feed on Facebook for the past 24 hours and I'm puzzled that this is still ongoing within the art world. I'm not going to link to it because I'm not in the habit of giving traffic and attention to content that isn't helpful or informative, but I thought I would share my experience as an artist who uses many mediums, including digital.

I started out painting at a very young age. This is not unusual, but I suspect that not many children were afforded access to easels, artist's quality materials, canvases, and computers at the age of 4 or 5. I loved paint early on, but when my family purchased our first Windows 3.1 computer, I discovered digital art and was enamored with that for a long time.

I kept drawing and painting as well as picking up photography, but well into my teen years my favorite method for creating art was on the computer. Eventually my parents purchased a copy of Photoshop for me (I think I had to get a 4.0 in school or something) and for the next ten years I worked primarily with Photoshop. I started out editing my photos, then creating photo manipulations from my own photographs and stock photography, then I began to incorporate digital painting, and finally I was digitally painting everything from scratch.

I actually learned how to digitally paint with a mouse, and I did for a few years before I received a very small Wacom Graphire tablet for Christmas one year. Several years later I upgraded to an Intuos 3, and eventually a Wacom Cintiq 24HD, which was as close to traditional art as digital painting ever came for me. The ability to draw right on the screen with the stylus mimicked the interaction with the canvas, but I was really dissatisfied with my digital art and I felt like I had reached the limit of what I could learn from digital art.

It's worth noting that throughout my nine years creating digital art as a professional, I continued to return to my traditional roots, but it wasn't something I stuck with long-term because I didn't have the skill in those mediums to paint the types of images I could paint digitally. This isn't because digital art is "easier" - it's because I had more experience with digital art by far. Using watercolors a couple of times a year and creating mediocre art, then using digital mediums for thousands of hours a year and creating much better art, is not an indicator that digital art is easier, and anyone who draws that conclusion is mistaken. It's an indicator that practice is important, and that knowing all the principles of Good Art won't help if you don't practice using the medium.


In 2013, at the behest of Paul Vincenti, I marched my ass into the Dick Blick store in Savannah, Georgia with a fistful of hunnies I'd earned at Dragon*Con the previous weekend. I was on a mission, a mission I'd not had the courage to tackle before: Oil paint. Frustrated with my limitations as a digital artist, and desperately lacking the artist-canvas connection of actually touching the painting, I browsed the racks of endless colors and scratched away at a faint memory of a materials list for a figure-painting class I took in art school five or six years before. What were the basic recommended colors? Were there twelve or sixteen? But what would I actually use? I ended up walking out of the store with over $200 of oil paints and mediums, 20 or 30 colors from Dick Blick's Studio range. I figured that was a good place to start.

I've now accumulated 70-something colors and I'm hopelessly in love. I've never really returned to digital art, except as a tool to help me with my oil paintings. Yes, you read that correctly. I still think like a digital artist, but the translation from screen to canvas was seamless. I had "leveled up" considerably from all the thousands of hours I'd spent painting on the computer, and with the correct medium in my hot little hands it was almost as if nothing had ever changed, except that many of my favorite work-shirts are now stained in an array of colors and I was much, much happier. It took some getting used to, and many hours of studying and tinkering, but I found the medium mix that I like and a technique that "clicked" with my brain and I can't imagine I'll ever go back to being a digital painter unless necessity dictates that I do.

What's more, I've improved my skills as a painter (and drawer, draftsman? draftswoman?) tremendously in the last 3 years and those are skills that translate easily across any medium I'm experienced with. My watercolors are much better than they once were, mostly because I'm just better with paint, whether it's digital or oils or acrylic. I use it all, and my skill as a painter doesn't change between the mediums because I use them all fairly regularly now.

But digital has definitely not lost me forever or entirely. I still use digital painting to create colorways and mock-ups for larger oil and watercolor paintings. I create step-by-step "maps" of what I'm going to do, which I can print out an infinite number of times and draw or paint over the top of as ideas evolve. I can scan a painting that is almost done but not quite right and use Photoshop to overlay semi-transparent colors until I find the exact shade I need to "wash" the painting with to make it unified and finished. And when it's all said and done, if a painting defies photographing or scanning, I can use Photoshop to stitch together multiple good shots of the painting, and paint over areas that were too glossy to photograph without reflective glare or other problems that sometimes arise in capturing traditional paintings. Otherwise I would be shelling out hundreds to hire professional photographers to do this exact work for me.

Digital art is an invaluable tool for modern artists, and anyone who wants to pretend that artists haven't traditionally embraced technology (projectors, camera obscura, vellum and tracing paper, etc.) that was available to them is either not well-informed, lying to themselves, or a purist to the point of complete and utter delusion. There is no shame in tracing when you own the material being traced - what are you proving by wasting time drawing what you can already draw? There is hardly any difference between tracing and using grids and rulers to measure distances anyway, but many people fool themselves into believing that there is an ocean of difference between the two. There is no shame in embracing whatever technology is available to you to save time, create better art, and in the end, have more time to make more art! If digital tools are the answer to that problem for some artists, then so be it. Looking down on them and passing on the elitist, snobby, "genuine artiste" bullshit we all must wade through is, quite frankly, for old farts.

It's my turn to be an old fart for a minute: As someone who has gained proficiency in many mediums, including digital art and the all-encompassing "traditional art", I'm sick of these digital whippersnappers getting uppity about digital painting when they can't even do it. I'm sick of hearing people whine about Photoshop's infamous "undo" button, as if that magically makes an artist better. And here's a newsflash anyway: Every medium has an "undo" button, you just need to know what you're doing. Ever heard of a rag and turpentine?