Is Digital Art "Real" Art? Facts and Myths About Digital Creating

When you look at beautiful digital art and compare it with the things you draw with a pencil, you can feel astonished and belittled. If only you could afford a graphics tablet, you could be just as good! And if you already have a tablet, your thought is, "If only I could afford Photoshop! So many amazing things can be done with this software." And if you've got both a decent tablet and good software, you're dreaming about the godlike Wacom Cintiq—the bigger, the better. But, until then, you're stuck. You can't be any better. And it's not your fault, it's all about money!

This is probably why there's a misconception that digital art isn't real art. After all, a real artist needs to learn all these hard things, master pencils, brushes, color mixing, different kinds of pigment, and they can't just undo a mistake! And when they finish, their art is one of a kind, it exists physically, it's not just an array of digits that you can copy infinitely. At the same time, a digital "artist" buys some expensive equipment and that's all—they can now produce outstanding art. That's cheating, isn't it?

If that's your point of view, keep on reading. If you've never tried digital art, you'll learn what it's about. If you have, but you're poor at it, I'll tell you why. In both cases I'll clarify the misconceptions that may have been bothering you for a long time.
There are lots of methods of recreating the real world in some small form. You can take a soft mass and mold it. You can take something harder and sculpt it. You can make thin rows in sand to represent the outlines of something. You can take a sheet of white paper and create smudges with a small bit of charcoal. You can make blobs of color to imitate patches of light and shadow. The weird thing is that we don't have a word for all these activities. It's not really "creating"—we don't create a thing, we create an image of it. In the end, we tend to call it sculpting (for built forms) and drawing (for shapes on paper). People more familiar with art add another category to it, painting, to distinguish it from line-based works.
Not so long ago another category appeared—digital art. The computer has turned out to be a powerful tool for an artist. It provides a clean workspace, with the freedom to make mistakes. It's so powerful that traditional artists have started to look at it as some kind of unfair extension. One pen instead of a bunch of pencils with different softness, all the brushes that need to be cleaned all the time, charcoal, ink and whatever you'd like to use? One machine for every size, shape and material of canvas, for every color and way of blending? Everything neatly placed on your desk, with the option to save for later? A dream tool for lazy people!
Computers are also well known for their function of automating boring and time-consuming processes. For example, you give it ten big numbers to multiply, and get a result without any effort on your side. In the same way you can create a brush (one not similar to anything traditional) of a tree, and create a whole forest with simple clicks. Click, click, click—and there you are, every tree perfectly detailed. All in a matter of seconds. Want to create a gradient for the sky? No problem—select white and blue, and it just creates itself. Did the character turn out to be too small? Don't worry, just scale it. Or use a special deform tool to change its shape without having to draw it again. Everything without affecting the background—we've got layers, after all. It's too easy. Too easy to be called art.
digital art transformations
Try to do the same with traditional painting!
Here's the problem: a computer isn't an art tool. It's not a substitute for a brush, or canvas. It's a set of tools that lets you create an image of reality in the same format as photos. That's all. Does it make the creation process more convenient? Yes. Does it make it easy? No.
To understand it, you need to get familiar with the concept of art media.
In sculpting you use some solid material to create a 3D object, usually resembling something known from reality (or imagined reality, like movies or books). These materials should be prone to some kind of crafting so that their form can be adjusted. These are materials like:
  • Clay
  • Stone
  • Metal
  • Plastic
  • Bone
  • Wood
  • Ice
  • Glass
traditional art sculpture
Sculpture—Super Sculpey polymer clay, toothpick
In this method the outcome is made of lines that symbolize some form known from reality. It's characteristic that dry media are used—you need to make the blending yourself with lines or a kind of dithering. Almost any material can be used for it, as long as it's applied with a pointed stick on a material that can keep it for a time (paper, wood, or the human body).
  • Graphite
  • Marker
  • Ink
  • Crayon
  • Paint
  • Pastel
traditional art drawing
Traditional drawing—Progresso woodless pencil, 8B
In English, "painting" and "drawing" are often used as synonyms. However, a simple distinction can be that we use sharp lines for drawings and blobs/patches of paint for paintings. Overall colors, light and shadow, and the shapes made by it are more important here than clear outlines. Wet media are usually used, and the blending tends to occur naturally. For painting we can use:
  • Oil paint
  • Acrylic paint
  • Gouache
  • Ink
  • Tempera
  • Watercolor
traditional art painting
Traditional painting—acrylic paint, canvas paper, two brushes
Digital media will be everything that has a digital outcome, that is, "in the form of digits". When you take a photo of your painting, it becomes digital too (of course, only the photo, not the physical original). That's what links all digital creations—nothing more. We still can distinguish other categories here:
Digital sculpting is about creating 3D models of something known from reality with a software that provides tools for it. The models can be textured and colored, and presented in a light that resembles a realistic environment. Finished works can be brought into a traditional form with a 3D printer.
Digital drawing can be created with software that lets the user create dots of various diameter, which transform into lines. Additionally, other features can be used, like colors, erasers, and the transformation of drawn lines. Finished works can be then brought into the "real world" by printing.
digital art drawing
Digital drawing—Photoshop CS6, custom "pencil" brush
Digital painting requires software that provides tools for creating patches of color and for blending them. Painting programs are usually a more advanced form of drawing software.
digital art painting
Digital painting—Photoshop CS6, hard round brush, soft round brush
As you can see, it's not "sculpting, drawing, painting, digital art". What does it mean for us?
Would you say traditional art is easy? Probably not, because there are so many different categories hidden under this name. You can be great at sculpting, but weak at painting. And even these categories aren't so simple as merely "easy" or "hard". You need to go deeper: clay can't be compared to steel, and oil paintings are made with a totally different technique than watercolor ones. So it's not only the tool that makes the difference—you can use the same brush for different techniques.
It's the same with digital art. You get a set of tools, but they don't have any technique assigned to them. What's more, the techniques of sculpting, drawing and painting are the same between traditional and digital media. Drawing a line on paper or dirt is no different than drawing a line with a stylus pen. The result is created in a different format, but it doesn't change anything.
If you think it is, take a look at my article about style—that's where I explained the difference between the mere action of drawing and drawing with style added. Creating an image that people will recognize and react to in a certain way is an unbelievably complicated process. Talent can help you in the beginning, but then it's all about gaining skills.
There are two forms of drawing/painting/sculpting skill:
  • Using the medium to create an outcome
  • Using the medium to create an outcome that people will recognize
The first form is about manual skills. It's about holding the tool and using it. For example, in polymer clay sculpting it may be about:
  • Softening the clay in your hands
  • Dividing it into smaller and bigger parts
  • Creating balls and snakes
  • Cutting holes in it
  • Sticking parts together
  • Blending stuck parts with a finger or toothpick
  • Not breaking the finished parts when working on the others
  • Baking the model at a proper temperature
What about drawing? What skills do you need to draw?
  • Holding a pencil in your hand, so that precise movement can be achieved
  • Pressing it to the paper
  • Keeping the paper straight when drawing
  • Sharpening the pencil when it stops responding properly
  • Using various pressure levels (subtle strokes, defined strokes)
  • Controlling the direction and flow of lines
Well, probably you've just discovered you can draw! But let's see what skills you need to draw digitally:
  • Holding a pen in your hand, so that precise movement can be achieved
  • Pressing it to the tablet
  • Using various pressure levels (subtle strokes, defined strokes)
  • Controlling the direction and flow of lines
  • Coordinating motion of the pen and the cursor on the screen (in the case of non-screen tablets)
Surprise! Aren't they pretty similar? The only differences between them are associated with the features of the material used (paper, screen). Drawing lines, no matter where, is about the same skill! If you can't draw on paper, don't expect that a graphics tablet will change anything. It won't lead your hand, it won't make your lines clear, it won't give you style. Drawing a horse digitally is no different than drawing a horse traditionally. It requires exactly the same skill—and this skill won't automatically show up when you buy a tablet!
i cant draw a stick man digital
1—traditional stick man; 2—digital stick man. Just kidding!
"I can hold a pencil, I can control my lines, but I can't draw a horse—why?" I'll tell you why, and listen carefully. The most detailed and realistic picture you can imagine is made of the same lines as your drawings. The knowledge of how to organize them to achieve this effect isn't really linked to the action of drawing.
Craft skill is knowing how to use proper words and grammar to write. Artistic skill is knowing how to breathe soul into these words and grammar. And soul itself has nothing to do with the manual skills. You can have great artistic skills without ever touching the paper with a pencil. That's why good artists have no problem with switching among different media—the soul stays the same while the technique is being changed.
To create something, you need to know how to create what you want (craft skills), and what you want to create (artistic skill). "A horse!" you say. But what is this "horse" you're talking about? A good exercise is to draw the object with words first. This way you'll understand how little you know about it—and how would you draw a horse if you don't even know what it looks like?
Let's imagine this is your description:
An animal with four long legs, hooves, a long neck, long head, long body, pointed ears, oval eyes, a mane on its neck, and a tail with long hair.
Anyone can recognize the animal from your description, but it doesn't mean you know what a horse looks like! In your mind you can make up a lot of things you don't really see, but when you go to draw it, you'll need to answer these questions in detail:
  • How long are these legs? Where are the joints placed? What direction do they bend in? What is their shape?
  • How big are these hooves? What is their shape and texture? How are they attached to the legs?
  • How long and wide is the neck? How is it curved? What muscles/tendons are visible under the skin?
  • How long is the head? What is its exact shape? Where are the nostrils and mouth placed? How wide are the cheeks? Are there any anatomy details (tendons, veins?) visible under the skin?
  • How long and wide is the body? How is it curved? At what points are the legs attached to it? What muscles are visible under the skin?
  • How long are the ears? How exactly are they pointed? Where are they attached to the head? What is the distance between them?
  • How big are the eyes? Where are they placed? What are the pupils, eyelashes, and eyelids like?
  • Where exactly is the mane placed? How long and fluffy is it? How big a part of the body does it cover?
  • How long and fluffy is the tail?
i cant draw a horse
This is the object from your description. Looks familiar?
I'm sure you get the point now. Notice that all this knowledge isn't in any way connected to manual skills. A tool—pencil, brush, whatever—is only a medium through which the data from your visual library can be brought into the real world. That visual library—or database, as I like to call it—is being expanded every time you make a conscious effort to understand what something looks like and why. It doesn't have anything to do with the tool you use. That being said, you don't need a tablet to create a vast visual database.
how to draw a horse
Exactly the same manual skills were used for both drawings
Let's say you can control the lines and you know a lot about the topic you want to depict. What else stops you from being awesome? There's one more thing about creating, and it's called style. By default, it's usually realism. To achieve realism you need to gain some basic theory that may be included in your visual database, but it's very hard to get that way:
  • Perspective—drawing forms in 3D space
  • Light and shadow—mastering the basic mechanism our brain uses to recognize forms
  • Colors—understanding the rules of seeing, mixing the colors, choosing the right palette to achieve a coherent outcome
  • Composition—understanding the relation between objects and the concept of focus area
Again, it has nothing to do with a graphics tablet. Sure, it's easier to practice colors on the computer, where you've got an unlimited palette, but you can practice with a mouse—because practice is about understanding something, not about creating a masterpiece in result. That's the main problem for beginners—they tend to treat every picture they draw as a challenge that they can either win or lose. If you're one of them, stop. Distinguish refined pictures from studies, and don't show the latter to anyone.
Practice is a key to achieving your goal. Even if your visual database is bursting at the seams, and you've read and absorbed every tutorial about the theory of drawing, you still need to practice if you want to master your tool of choice. There's no difference between digital and traditional media here. Every tool has a countless number of techniques it's good at, and you need to discover them yourself.
Is digital art easier to practice? I know one thing for sure: it's cheaper and cleaner. However, it's also less mobile—you need to sit at your desk, always in the same place (unless you have a Cintiq Companion, but then it stops being cheap), while it's so much easier to take a sketchbook to a forest or a museum. Plein air painting is also a great way to practice colors and light—the skills you get here can easily be transferred to digital painting.
Let's say you already know it all. You just feel limited by all the tools you need to buy and master to achieve the same effect you could get digitally with one stylus. It's totally unfair, isn't it?
I hear you. While for traditional art you need a whole workshop to store all the heaps of tools, in digital art you only need to buy a graphics tablet, a computer and some good software to be able to do anything, with any technique. As long as it's the only source of your frustration, that's OK. The problem appears when lack of money is your excuse for not being good artist—"I can't be as good as they all are, because I can't afford the equipment necessary for digital art." Is this really the reason for your poor skills?
Imagine the times when there were no computers and nobody even dreamed of digital painting. When the palette of available pigments was limited, and the most beautiful, pure, and vibrant colors were very expensive. We've got two artists, X and Y. X is a great artist, but poor. Because he can't afford expensive pigments, he's developed a method for painting in a limited palette. Y isn't very good at painting, but he's a prince and he's got all the pigments he could wish for. Whose paintings do you think look better?
The moral of it is that X will be a good artist no matter what he uses, but Y relies on the most advanced materials to shine. Y isn't a good artist—only his tools make him look like one. If you could choose, who would you rather be—a skilled artist with limited possibilities you can make the best of, or a weak artist with equipment you're not able to use properly?
If you struggle with drawing traditionally, don't expect that a tablet will change anything. You should develop your craft skills and create a visual database before reaching for more possibilities. If you can't use the possibilities you've got now, why would you expand them? If you can't drive a cheap car, a Lamborghini won't be any better. Let's see what excuses for your poor skills you can create.
Remember—you are the most important art tool
Stop using it, then! Nobody is forcing you into digital art. It's as if you used a heavy rock to draw lines on sand and then complained about how hard it was. Just... why would you do it? Either you decide it's not a good tool for digital art and stop using it, or just make the best of what you have. Complaints won't make you better.
And if you really want to use your possibilities, why don't you learn what a mouse is capable of? Or develop your own way to use a mouse efficiently, like this artist.
digital art without mouse
Digital vector "painting"—Illustrator CS6, mouse
That's a serious problem—with classic graphics tablets, there's a distance between the movement of your hand and the actual strokes. It can be quite unintuitive at the beginning, and some people never learn to feel comfortable with it.
I'm one of them. Seriously, I can't sign my artwork without trying hundreds of times. "Undo" is my favorite command, along with a shortcut I created for zooming out after big, big zooming in to fix a line. That's why I love working on details—they don't require so much movement.
However, there's a trick you can use to jump over it. First, sketch traditionally and scan your sketches when they're done. It's so much easier when you've got a solid base to follow. Second, you can place a sheet of paper on the tablet and draw this way, focusing on the subtle rows your stylus is making on the paper, instead of the image on the screen.
There's one problem about this Cintiq-dream—imagine someone heard your praises and presented you with the most expensive model of Cintiq. If your skills aren't good enough, here is where all your excuses end. Now you can't blame anything outside of you—you become the only factor responsible for your poor skills. So, why don't you start now? You don't need this special kind of tablet to become responsible for what you're able to do.
By the way, did you know that there's a cheaper alternative to a Cintiq?
After jumping from an old version of Wacom's Bamboo Pen & Touch (147 x 91 mm) to a Wacom Intuos Pro M (224 x 140 mm) I can tell you one thing: it's a matter of comfort, not skill. I didn't change to a bigger tablet because the other one was too small, or not sensitive enough—I just changed my computer from a 13" notebook to a 24" self-built PC. It was only a matter of proportion—after three years of working in a smaller configuration, a small tablet seemed to me too sensitive for a big screen.
wacom bamboo intuos comparison
Wacom Intuos Pro M and Wacom Bamboo Pen & Touch
wacom bamboo intuos comparison line
1—Bamboo; 2—Intuos Pro. The difference isn't significant—Bamboo made the lines smoother because I moved "faster" along its smaller work area
Believe me—a bigger tablet won't make you better. If your excuse for your poor skills is "my tablet is not big enough", what you're really saying is, "I'm not a good artist because my tablet is not comfortable enough." Is comfort really that important, or are you not determined enough?
There is one point where discomfort transforms into inability. When every stroke is painfully slow and saving takes ages, it's very easy to lose your inspiration. But, if your computer clearly isn't suitable for digital art, why do you keep using it? Find a way to get a better computer, learn to use the old one at its own pace, or just change the tool for something more effective—maybe traditional painting? It's sad, but that's the truth. Don't try to make your poor art more attractive by arousing pity in your viewers. You can be better than that!
It hurts even to watch this! If you know this well, maybe you should reconsider your digital art career for now
Yes, it is quite expensive. However, I don't know if you noticed that "photo" in the name. Photoshop isn't a tool for drawing/painting. It can be used as one, with great success, but it doesn't mean that's its main purpose. If you look at the brushes palette and see how inflexible it is (no way to modify a brush or organize the palette), or the lack of color wheel window (you need to download an unofficial plugin for it!), you'll know what I'm talking about.
Many people, me included, use Photoshop because it was their first graphics software. After a couple of weeks working in it, a free alternative, GIMP, becomes unintuitive and harsh. And hey, Photoshop is so professional, so when I'm using it, it makes me professional! Right?
Not really. Photoshop doesn't make digital art easier at all. Photo manipulations? Yes, that's something it's good at. But if you want to draw or paint, I'll tell you something—even Epic Pen, a mini software for drawing on your desktop, has better line control. Hell, even Snipping Tool from Windows is better. And when it comes to neat pointy lines? Prepare for frustration—Photoshop doesn't know what it means. I had to buy a special, unofficial set for this!
This is what you normally get when trying to draw nice tapered lines in Photoshop
"But all the great artists use Photoshop!" Probably, but here's the thing. When they started, there wasn't much besides Photoshop. CorelDraw was for vectors, and GIMP... GIMP was crazy. My first graphics software was old Photoshop Elements and this is how it started. If you can't afford Photoshop and you're not addicted to it yet (by comparing all other programs to it), I suggest trying something free from the start. GIMP isn't beginner-friendly, and it's a photo editing tool mainly, but there are others. For example, the small, free FireAlpaca, that lets you paint things like this. And it has awesome line control! Seriously, why would you start your digital painting adventure with expensive software that's 95% made for editing photos?
Digital painting—FireAlpaca, watercolor brush, airbrush. My first picture ever in this program!
One more thing. Professionals use Photoshop because they can simply afford it. They can afford it because they're good at what they do, not the other way around.
I guess this misconception comes from comparing the "before" and "after" of retouched photos. Since an old woman can be turned into an eighteen-year-old, we assume that an ugly traditional sketch can be turned into a beautiful painting, just the same way. Yes, it can, but Photoshop doesn't do it—you do. If you don't know what should be done to fix something, Photoshop won't do it for you. It's that simple.
Every time great digital artists release their personal set of brushes, their fans become euphoric. This is another part of the illusion: if only I had the same tablet as you, if only I used the same program and the same tools, then I would have your skills. This is the almost unconscious excuse hidden under every "What software do you use?" or "What tablet do you have?" question a great artist gets asked. The answer doesn't change a thing! Give this artist a sheet of paper and a blunt pencil, and they'll create a masterpiece—something you need expensive equipment for.
All these cats have been painted with a single brush (1)
Sometimes I think custom brushes are just the last resort for people who already have a decent tablet and Photoshop, and are still not as good as they wish. They were bad at traditional drawing, so they tried digital. Now they're still bad, even with all this equipment, so there must be something else. Skills? No, it would be too easy, it must be because these great artists have different brushes than mine...
If you were bad at traditional painting and a great artist gave you their best brushes, would it make any difference? In digital art it's the same. It's not the tool that makes art great, it's how you use it!
Or do they? I used to think that too, seeing how powerful they were. But they're similar to the Dodge/Burn Tool—they work like magic. If you don't know what effect you want to get, it's so cool to see the effect creating itself. However, it's a guessing game, and skill isn't about guessing.
Blending Modes can be very useful, but only if you know how to get the same effect without them. If you know color fundamentals and you could paint something in the software without this function, then Blending Modes can be used as an accelerator of the process. If you can't drive, Nitrous won't make you win the race.
No need to wait for the layers to dry, and wash the brushes all the time, right? But hey, painting is faster than drawing! One big stroke and you've got a whole area covered, while with a pencil it would take you an hour of careful cross-hatching to do the same. And all the blending happens by itself! So painting must be cheating!
All media have their pros and cons. When you're frustrated and jealous about digital artists, you're probably seeing only the advantages of digital art—and the disadvantages of the technique you're using right now.
So, are there any disadvantages of digital creating?
  • For comfortable work, where the equipment doesn't stand in your way when creating (unintuitive distance between the movement of the hand and the cursor on the screen, small workspace, limited capabilities of the software, lags during strokes and saving forcing you to work with a small canvas, immobile workstation), you need to spend a lot of money (big Cintiq, powerful PC, then electricity bills).
  • All the various tools that have a totally different "feel" in the real world are merged into a single pen. No matter how big the stroke, you always draw with a small tip. It results in using the same movement of the hand for drawing and painting.
  • The "undo" option tempts you to remove your mistakes instead of looking for a creative way of fixing them. It's faster and more convenient, but it deprives you of a chance for a valuable lesson.
  • All of these powerful tools (pencils, hard brushes, soft brushes, texture brushes, photo brushes, dodge/burn, blur/smudge, pen, and whatnot) are at your fingertips. It may be tempting to try them all at the same time to get the effect you're not able to get with one tool. However, if it comes from poor skills, it may become a crazy hunting for the "easier" tool—instead of mastering one at a time.
  • You get all the colors for free, without having to mix them, and hence, without understanding them. They all seem equal to you.
  • You're tied to your workstation.
  • Your art can be easily stolen and reproduced.
  • Your art can't be touched—it exists in the form of digits. When converted to a printed form, it may lose some of its vividness.
What can I say? It's a matter of taste. For sure, digital art isn't pretty by definition—if it was, everything painted digitally would be more attractive than the most beautiful digital painting. Is the illustration below prettier than "Artemis" by Michael C. Hayes?
digital art is beautiful
A collaboration work with my non-artistic fiancé. Photoshop, Wacom Bamboo tablet
It's all about the size of the canvas, and, again, skill. You can have clean lines in traditional art—it's just often undesired and unnecessary. What you're talking about is called hyper-realism, and that's not the only style used in painting—or, as you may think, the highest form of it.
Digital art is often considered "fake" only because it's made of digits, and digits are "soulless". But aren't all traditional drawings made of graphite molecules in some configuration?
All artists use some kind of "particle" to build their works. It's not the kind of particle that makes the art—it's the way they're organized by an artistic mind. Sit beside a working artist and copy all they do, every stroke, step by step, and you'll create almost identical artwork! But does it mean you did the same..?
Art doesn't exist in the brush, the canvas, or the molecules of the pigment. It's not physical—it may have a physical carrier, but it doesn't need to! So it can't, in this sense, be copied—the artwork is only one, even if it uses many carriers. Art is the soul hidden in the medium—but it's not the medium.
There's one harsh conclusion from all this: a bad workman blames his tools. Digital art may be a comfortable, clean way of creating, but it will not make an artist out of you by itself. Digital artists aren't "cheaters" and they need to learn the same things as other artists. I know it would be so cool if you didn't have to learn it all, but there's no workaround. Even if there was, would you still call yourself an artist, or maybe rather an operator of art-making machinery?
To wrap it up: don't search for tutorials on "how to draw/paint digitally", because it would be like "how to write with a fountain pen"—they won't teach you how to write, but how to use a fountain pen! And there's no use for this tool as long as you don't know anything about the process it's used for. Learn how to do magic with a pencil (or paint, if you're not line-oriented), and then the world is open for you! Change your way of thinking from "I wish I could be that good [but I can't]" to "I want to be that good [and I will!]". Good luck!


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