What exactly is digital art?

Digital Information
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Any search on Google will encompass a broad swath of what people think digital art is because it is a term that applies to many forms of media. I’m going to try to break this down into a few concepts that will be useful to you when thinking of the term digital art.

The Broader Term 

Digital art is a term that applies to any art created using digital technology to create a piece of art.  This can be something as small as scanning in a drawing and using Microsoft Paint to fill in areas with color to as broad as rendering Computer Generated Graphics for a movie or game.  The vital part defining digital art is this: something has been created or altered in a non-trivial fashion that is considered a work of art.

In today’s age, digital art is a much more accepted form of creating your masterpieces, but there are still a few people that will argue that it isn’t art unless it’s built using traditional methods.  Despite these opinions, digital art is becoming a strong movement among artists. More and more traditional artists are dipping their toes into the digital art world. Why? We’ll go into that next.

The Benefits of Digital Art vs. Traditional Art

Traditional art, such as oil painting can not only be messy, but it can get expensive.  Think about it for a moment. You have to buy your paint, paintbrushes, and canvas just to get started.  And those are finite mediums. Eventually, you will run out of paint. Your favorite brush will start to lose bristles.  In creating a painting digitally, that mimics an oil painting, you only need a computer, a drawing tablet and the software.  As a bonus, some of that software is free.

Messy paint brushes and paint tubes
Messy Paint Brushes and Paint Tubes
Photo by Andrian Valeanu on Unsplash

Even better, and I’m speaking from experience here, is the wonders of the Undo Button.  The Undo button, or the power to instantly take a step back in my process and correct a mistake converted me a long time ago into a purely digital artist.  And that’s just one benefit of using art software.  I won’t even get into being able to push and pull lines to correct anatomy mistakes or using layers and masks to draw within the lines.  These are just a few benefits of digital art over traditional art.  

Now that you’ve got a basic understanding of what digital art is and why it’s incredible let’s get into some types of digital art.

2D vs. 3D Digital Art

In a lot of the art communities that I’ve joined, one of the things they ask of you is to define yourself as a 2D Artist or a 3D artist.  Why? The software tends to be somewhat different between creating 3D sculptures to a 2D painting. Some disciplines go between both, such as creating a 3D model and painting over it to bring it to life with 2D painting techniques.  Be that as it may, you may find yourself needing to identify your art. Is it 2D or 3D?

2D Art Types

Drawing a 2D drawing on a tablet
Drawing a 2D drawing on a tablet
Photo by wu yi on Unsplash

2D art is an art piece created on a flat surface.  This only goes into the two dimensions of height and depth. An excellent example of this is painting (or drawing, they’re interchangeable phrases in the digital art world).  But wait, isn’t all digital art considered 2D as you’re viewing it on a flat surface (for the majority) such as a computer screen or a tv? 

3D Art Types 

3D Printer with Digital Art Software
A 3D Printer with Software is still digital art
Photo by ZMorph Multitool 3D Printer on Unsplash

3D art, sometimes referred to as digital sculpting, is the practice of creating a work of art using a program that can be viewed as a still object or explored from all angles.  Think of 3D artwork that you might be familiar with. Haven’t come up with something? What about that favorite video game? Can you move around an object in that video game to see it from all sides?  What about a popular movie such as The Hobbit? Smaug looks like the actors can climb onto his back because he is a piece of 3D digital art.

Alright, we’ve got a broad sense of what type of artist you might define yourself as – let’s get a little more granular because, at some point, someone is going to ask you: what type of digital artist are you?

Types of Digital Artists

You’ve started talking with other artists on social media or in a Discord server, and the dreaded question has come up:  what type of digital artist are you? If you’re new, you may not know how to identify yourself best and give them a broad term such as a digital painter.  This is fine! But here are some terms and even careers to help you.

Digital Painter

Speaking of digital painters, let’s define this a little more clearly.  A digital painter is someone who uses a digital art program to create drawings or paintings.  It’s really that simple. Did you sketch something on your iPad? You’re a digital painter. Did you add color to it? You’re still a digital painter.

Illustrator

A fantasy illustration
A fantasy illustration
Art by Pictheas

An illustrator is someone who creates a 2D piece of art usually composing of a scene, a character or some combination of the two.  A painting to hang on the wall, a bit of promotional art for a video game, an image in a book – these are all types of creation an illustrator may make.

Sculptor

A digital sculptor, also known as a 3D sculptor, is someone who uses a piece of software to manipulate an object as if it was made of clay.  They can pinch, pull, push, stretch, and change the object in the program they are using to suit their desires until they have a finalized piece.  Widespread use of this technique is to create models for games, movies, printing, and more.

Concept Artist

Concept Art by Pictheas
A design that is a foundation for further development
Art by Pictheas

Concept art is the process of taking a vague list of descriptors of an environment, character, creature, or other assets and creating the first steps of the design to a finished product.  This usually involves many iterations of an idea so that it can be shown off from all the critical angles. This concept of art is then given to the next stage of developmental artists to create a finalized product such as a video game environment or a character for a movie.  Ever seen one of those “The Art of X Game”? Usually, you’ll see some concept art in there!

Video Game Artist

This is a broad term which a lot of newbies get excited about saying, “I want to be a video game artist!”  There’s even schools and programs on “how to become a video game artist.” The problem with this is much like digital painting, it’s a massive term.  Are you a concept artist working for a video game studio? Do you create textures to go over wireframe models? Do you create the base skeletons of a creature model to design how it works?  It’s best to narrow down your focus to one area, so you become more of a specialist in it.

Comics/Manga Artist

This is one that may come as a bit of a shock, but yes, even the comics industry has moved towards digital art.  A comic or manga artist may use a digital art program to create comic art and panels for web publications, Marvel, DC, or even manga books you can buy in a bookstore.  The ability to create beautiful lines that mimic ink along with the benefits of using a digital art program has not gone unnoticed by the Comics and Manga industry.

Animators

Even big animation studios are filled with Wacom tablets.  Animators have embraced digital technology to create their art due to its versatility, speed, and lowered cost.  Think of the amount of paper cartoonists had to use to bring a few frames of animation to life. How many pencils and pens were used.  Now, animators have gone digital and are loving it.

Don’t Skip the Fundamentals

Just because you’ve decided to become one of the examples of a digital artist above does not mean you are absolved of learning the fundamentals of art and design.  You will need to learn the basics of form, principles of light, color theory, and more. More importantly, you must learn the basics to become an outstanding artist, no matter what your medium.  And practice them regularly! Art is not a talent, art is a muscle you need to build and flex.

Art Fundamentals from popular tutor Sycra

So You Want To Be A Digital Artist

A digital artist uses digital technology to create works of art.  After reading this overview of what digital art is and some of what it is used in, you should have a better understanding of what you’re going to start dabbling into.  And yes, I hope you will pick up some form of digital art because it’s a wonderful experience and a creative outlet that can become a career!

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