Digital vs Traditional Painting Methods for Fine Art

So do you make thumbnails and sketches digitally? How does that translate to your work when it’s in traditional media? And if you’re doing this digital sketch already, why not complete it all on the computer and then print that out on canvas?

I use both digital painting and traditional pencil and paper for studies. Creating digitally painted studies allows me to quickly plan color and composition, and to establish the initial idea for a painting. So I get that stuff nailed down using a Wacom Intuos3 6 x 8-Inch Pen Tablet and Adobe Photoshop CS6 for Mac. After making sure it looks decent on my computer, I start painting the full version in oils. While I’m working on an oil painting, I also use the color picker in Photoshop to sample colors within my study or reference photos. This allows me to better see the colors I want to represent. I am partially color blind and it is sometimes difficult for me to see subtle variations of colors. Therefore, the color picker is a HUGE help because it isolates and magnifies colors in a given area of a digital image. For this purpose, I also use the rwColorPicker app, which allows me to sample colors from photos on my iPad. Very handy tool at my studio easel. I can pick out a color in a reference photo and then mix it on my palette. I consider this a good learning tool for “seeing” color. You may not realize that a patch of white fur on a cat, for example, is actually more of a tan color when taken out of the context of the reference photo.

Buttons oil painting with digital study

Digitally painted study (left) for the painting “Buttons” (right), 2012, 12×16″, Oil on Canvas

Sabretooth oil painting with digital study

Digitally painted study (far left) with a traditional oil painting study (center left) and pencil sketch (center front) for “Sabretooth” (far right), 2013, 11×14″, Oil on Panel

Regarding digital vs traditional painting, I am committed to traditional painting for fine art. In my practice, the traditional art experience has become more meaningful and fulfilling than the digital art experience. I learn a lot with every oil painting I do. For one, (speaking strictly of paintings) the shortcuts and workarounds that are available in digital painting such as Photoshop layers, an “undo” button, texture overlays etc. are not available to traditional painters, and thus traditional painters are undergoing an inherently more challenging physical experience. These challenges have provided me an opportunity for growth —not just as a painter, but also as a person— and a sense of overcoming and accomplishment that digital painting has not. Traditional art is a more direct and immediate expression of one’s creativity/soul because you are willfully using your physical body as the medium through which to influence the physical reality into a creative arrangement. In digital painting as compared to traditional painting, you have at least one extra layer of mediation added to the creative process. Your physical body (medium 1) is using a digital interface (medium 2) to create a digital object. Then, that digital art object can only exist so long as there is the digital interface (computer) to interpret the information and display an image. Check out Hakim Bey’s concept of Immediatism. Applying this idea to my own process, I feel that the extra layers of mediation separate the artist (being/soul) from the direct experience of art leading to a lack of creative fulfillment. If the purpose of fine art is to bring back artifacts and treasures from the depths of spirit, consciousness, and subjective life experience, as I believe it is, then a digital art object will never be as valuable as a physical art object is, just as a print will never be as valuable as an original art work is. We are physical, not digital, beings first.

Also, I’m not stating that digital art isn’t art; it is. In fact, I admire and enjoy a lot of digital art. My full time profession is graphic and web design, so I am involved in digital art fields. I am only commenting on, in terms of fine art making, my reasons for creating traditional art as opposed to digital art.

  • Dave Kobrenski

    Nicely articulated. The direct physical interaction with the artwork and medium (paint, canvas etc) is so important, and I like your idea about how the increased challenge and commitment this represents adds something to the fulfillment of the artist. While I find myself at the computer quite a bit, designing and creating (and in awe of the power of the tools available today), there’s just something so satisfying about the feel of the charcoal on paper, the brush moving the paint over canvas, and the satisfaction of getting your hands dirty…

    • Aaron Bolton

      Thanks so much for your comment, Dave. I agree. Many young artists (my peers) don’t understand or perceive any particular value in the *process* itself. One reason for this is that it is hard to let go of anticipating an audience, especially in the age of the Internet, when the stimulation of feedback from other people is quick and easy to get. In that case, the incentive is to get the final artwork out there as quickly as possible — bring on the Photoshop filters; integrity be damned. However, I don’t think that the process is ALL that matters either. The process and final artwork should both be equally valued (they are inseparable, really). So I think that to approach fine art-making as a personal discipline, like meditation or exercise, is the most productive and rewarding way to go about it.