What is Digital Art?

What is Digital Art?

We are in a relatively new world, the Information Age.  The days of Pony Express, telegraphs and hand written letters are over.  So what does this mean in the art world?  It means that we have a wonderfully flexible, complex, and sometimes abused new tool to help us create art – the computer.

Many people confuse the two definitions, and this article will try to de-mystify the process of digital art, and allow folks to understand the way it works.

Before I get into an explanation of digital art, I’d like to set out some definitions.

  • Digital Art:  This is a broad term that encompasses many different methods and work flow.  Some people apply it to anything that touches a computer, even scanned copies of oil paintings from which prints are made.  Others apply it only to pieces that are painted entirely using the computer.  Many others have definitions that fall in between.  For many folks, digital photography could easily be considered digital art.  The DAPTTF (Digital Art Practices & Terminology Task Force) official definition for a digital fine art print is:  “A fine art print made by any digital output process conforming to traditional fine art qualifications and requirements.”


  • Computer-Generated Art:  This would be art actually created by the computer, with little or no input from the artist.  Some programs, such as a fractal generator, can create such things using random numbers and a command.  They are often complex and pretty, but have no composition, line, contrast or design considerations.  Most artists who create art with fractals use these as a base.  They then take those computer-generated fractals and do so much post-work to it that it is now their own creation, and bears little resemblance to what the computer originally created.  The DAPTTF official definition is:  “A misnomer that implies that no human, artistic control is required to produce artwork. In general it may mean having come through a specific kind of device, but essentially it is understood that computers do nothing without the input and control of human beings.”


  • 3-D Art:  This is art created in a 3-D program like Poser, Bryce or Daz Studio.  It takes a base figure or prop that someone previously created (either the software company, the artist themselves or another artist), and allows the artist to position it in different ways, apply lighting to it, changing perspective, etc.  Many artists take a base figure and customize it, making a ‘character’ that they can then use as a figure in different settings, situations, etc.  Again, this is taking a previously created piece and customizing it to the artists’ own creative vision, like in the fractal example above.  The computer doesn’t do the creative part, the artist does.  Trust me, a figure straight out of Poser, with no post-work done, looks bad!

As an example of Digital Art, I will explain my work flow and process.  This is not, by far, the only way to do things – just the way I like doing them.  I think everyone can agree that it qualifies as Digital Art.

  1. I draw something.  It could be a complex composition with background, details, and shading, or it could be a quick sketch of an outline of a figure.  Pencil drawing is my favorite type of art, so I don’t want to give that up!  I could do it on a Wacom tablet, but haven’t gotten used to that medium yet… so I draw.
  2. I then scan that drawing into my computer, and open it in Photoshop.  I don’t have a high end scanner, this is just to provide an ‘under drawing’ that I then use as a guideline to paint over.
  3. I then paint, using Photoshop, over the areas I have drawn out.  I      choose the size and ‘edge’ of paintbrush I want to use, and paint, using the mouse, in the different areas.  Sometimes I layer several colors, and ‘smudge’ them together.  Often, when I am painting hair, I’ll have 4 or 5 layers and pull very thin, fine smudge lines through them, to draw the individual hairs.
  4. Usually I will zoom in on particular detailed areas to paint them, such as the eyes or the mouth of a figure.  This way I can draw details such as individual eyelashes, the folds in the eyelid, the speckles in the iris, etc.  I then zoom back out to see how it looks from normal distance.  Often it looks completely different, so do this often!
  5. On any one portrait, for example, I have several layers; one or more for skin, a couple for hair, one for the eyes (which later gets collapsed into the skin for blending purposes), the lips, any adornment like jewelry or clothing, etc.  This allows me to adjust individual layers for contrast, color, shadows, etc.
  6. I then have additional layers for props, background, etc.  Sometimes I will do an over-layer to give everything a color cast, like golden light at a sunset, or cool blue for a night scene.  I will paint these colors in, but a      uniform layer over everything helps tie it in better.
  7. After I am done, I will save it in a collapsed form for printing, but I always keep my original layered file.  Usually these have take anywhere from 30-40 hours to produce, and it is really the only proof that I created it.


It takes me just as long to create a piece of Digital Art as it would an acrylic or oil painting – but there is no mess, it is flexible enough to allow me to change the composition halfway through, and I can undo what I just did.

Digital Art is still art.  It is created using a tool more flexible than a camera or a canvas and paintbrush, but the computer is still just a tool.  It is the artist that provides the inspiration, the creativity, and the talent and technique to turn that inspiration into a beautiful piece of art.



Glossary of Digital Art and Printmaking


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