View Full Version : Everything I Know About Being a Digital Artist Part 1

02-20-2009, 11:59 AM
Hi all--
This was published in a collection of essays edited by Jane Frank called "Paint or Pixel: The Digital Divide in Illustration Art". It is a little off topic for mattepainting.org, but I wanted to post this to force, I mean, allow my students in the matte painting class to read it. A lot of this essay comes in response to a segment of the art world that thinks anything done digitally isn't art, which I think is pretty silly, but I humbly think I make some good points here. This is in 2 parts to get it in under the wordage limit.
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Everything I Know About Being a Digital Artist

In September 1993 I borrowed $10,000 from my brother John and bought my first computer. In the intervening years, I have had a lot of time to think about the plus and minuses of working digitally. I’m going to share the best and worst things I know about being a digital artist.

Part One: It was the best of Pixels, it was the worst of Pixels…..

The best thing about working digitally is:
The undo button.

No matter how talented the artist, it is difficult to make radical changes in a painting using oils or acrylics. If you are half way through a piece, look at it and think “what if I shifted the entire background more toward blue?”, you probably won’t do it, since it is such a pain. However, working digitally, you can make the most radical experiments with a composition at any point in the creative process with no fear that you will totally screw it up. When I was painting in acrylics, I can’t tell you how many times I would rework a face, only to think, “Crap, it looked better BEFORE I did that.” In a digital painting, you just create a new layer, try out a new idea, and it if works, keep it. Otherwise, you pick up where you left off – none the worse for the detour. A digital canvas encourages experimentation, and even if a concept fails, you inevitably learn something in the process. From my perspective, the digital artist is aided and abetted by technology, not enslaved. You’re in control, and part of that control is the ability to erase mistakes and make errors in judgment disappear. Working on a computer has made me a less timid painter, which is a good thing.

The worst thing about working digitally is:
The undo button.

There is a lot to be said for planning ahead when you are doing a painting. Working traditionally forces an artist to make decisions about a composition and stick with them. Part of why working digitally has not speeded up my rate of production is because I am constantly trying new things as I go along. You can indulge yourself. It’s like eating anything you want and not putting on weight. When you work with paint, the stakes are high. Every step of the composition is for keeps, unless you are willing to wipe out what you have done and re-do it. The medium itself imposes discipline and precision. Working digitally can foster bad habits, such as ignoring problem areas or putting off difficult decisions. There is a false sense of security that any problem can be fixed “later,” which is not always true.

The second best thing about working digitally is:
No original.

I know, I know. You were thinking I would say this is the worst thing about working digitally. But let’s get real—if you are an illustrator, almost no one will ever see your original, while thousands of people will see the printed piece. Worrying about the original is so last Century. You should only worry about what the printed piece will look like—that is your real obligation. Thinking about how exquisite your transparent underpainting looks, or how magnificent that impasto light passage is has nothing to do with how it will be seen by the vast, vast majority of your audience. All of the subtlety you love so much in your original painting will be lost in reproduction, and working digitally requires you to focus on what will really be seen.

The second worst thing about working digitally is:
No original.

Is there anything better than going to a museum and seeing a painting you have admired, only to find that the original is 100 times better than any reproduction could be? I was never a big fan of Monet’s work until my wife Cathleen and I went to Paris and I saw a bunch of his original paintings. What a painter! I can’t believe how exquisite his transparent under painting looks, and his passages of impasto lights make me feel like I’ve seen god. But you have to experience the paintings in-person. None of the shimmering color or subtleness of form reproduce well. When I was working traditionally, I always loved to be able to hold the original in my hands after I was done. The tangibility of a painting – the physical “thing” the artist creates - is a wonderful quality, and there is no “thingness” to a piece of digital artwork. You can make prints of the digital art, sign and number them, print them on canvas, have other people or yourself paint on top of them .authenticate its “originality”, but when you work digitially you don’t get an original that has the same value as an original painting. Anyone who has a real appreciation of art can tell the difference between an oil painting and a Giclee print. By any other name, a print is a print, and no gimmick, no matter how clever, is going to transform it into an original painting. I went to art school with Tom Kinkaide, and knew him a little, so I have been amazed by his success at selling glorified prints to people at fine art prices. Seriously, if you are paying more than 100 bucks for a print, you are being taken—unless of course, it is a lenticular 3D print. (please go to: HYPERLINK "http://www.davidmattingly.com/Pages/Depth_view.html" http://www.davidmattingly.com/Pages/Depth_view.html for details. (Have your credit cards ready…..©2009 David Mattingly “Painter of Science Fiction”, all rights reserved.)
Not everyone realizes that there is an “original” of a digital painting, but it is in a form that the general public can’t appreciate. That is the uncollapsed Photoshop file. If you look at an accomplished digital artist’s working file, with all the layers intact, you can learn a lot by going through and turning on and off layers. You can see how the piece was created. Steve Youll, an astonishing artist who has successfully made the transition from paint to pixels, lets me look at his uncollapsed working files. He leaves in all kinds of informative stuff, such as alternate versions of the image, reference pieces, and his transfer layers. You feel like an archaeologist sifting through layer upon layer of a hidden world. Don’t ask to see my uncollapsed files—I don’t want people discovering my secrets!

The third best thing about working digitally is:
Using your reference directly.

When you work digitally, if you have a perfect piece of reference, like an ideal sky, you can just drop it directly into your composition and avoid the tedium of repainting it. In any composition, there are always a number of things you have to paint. Why waste time recreating something that exists and suits your needs perfectly? Even today, quite a few digital artists consider this using your reference directly“ cheating.” I think that opinion is impractical—why force yourself to rework an element that nature has already created perfectly? Directly mixing good photo reference with painting is a terrific way to work.

The third worst thing about working digitally is:
Using your reference directly.

How many digital compositions have we all seen that are just a bunch of photographs sandwiched together to make a picture, perhaps with a few passes of Photoshop filters over the elements to make them look more “painterly” One great thing about painting is that the artist must create every element in the composition. When you are working with paint, even with a superb piece of reference, it must be interpreted on the canvas by the artist’s hand and brain. Any idiot can drop a photograph into a composition and call it art, but only an artist’s hand can really make it so.
Actually, I have a nice compromise between these two positions. One of my favorite digital artists, Bruce Jensen, gave me a piece of advice that changed how I think about composing a picture. A little background information-- I assume everyone reading this book knows what I mean by “resolution”. If you have a piece of reference that is 400 pixels by 400 pixels, and you drop it into a picture that is 2000 pixels wide and enlarge it, it will look fuzzy and lack detail. When I started working on the computer, I always tried to get high-resolution imagery for every element in a painting, since low-resolution elements look so awful. What Bruce suggested was to drop in whatever reference you have for a composition, not worrying about the resolution, and then paint over it. If your reference is too pristine, and high resolution, you won’t want to paint over it, since it already looks so good. But if the reference isn’t perfect, it will free you up to use it just as reference and rework it with impunity. Plus it gives you a lot more sources to take reference from, since it doesn’t have to be high resolution.

02-20-2009, 12:00 PM
Part 2: It is a far, far better thing that I do with pixels, than I have ever done…

Lastly, a few words of advice for anyone struggling to decide whether to make the leap to the computer: Look at your work—are you an artist that takes advantage of what paint can do? When you look at some of the finest painters in the field, like Boris Vallejo, Frank Frazetta, and Danoto Giancola, these are guys whose work is all about what paint can do. They glory in what happens when paint blends on the canvas. The decision for me was easy, since my work was never about virtuoso passages of painting, but rather about detail and trying to make the piece look as realistic as possible. If you are an artist that loves the feel of paint on canvas, and your work communicates that, owning a computer will only make your work worse, because every moment you spend fiddling around with the computer is another moment you should have spent painting.

Part 3: Call me Pixmael….

I, on the other hand, have loved being part of the digital revolution. I think I have the same feeling as the artists who lived through the advent of photography—some must have loved it, some must have hated it, but once it happened picture making was never the same. When photography was invented, it freed artists from the task of just representing things, since you could get a photo of your loved one, or your favorite horse, or whatever, rather than having to hire an artist. That freed the artist to think anew about what picture making was all about and led to a lot of great art, like the impressionists and abstract expressionists. I think the digital revolution will do the same thing. It has removed many of the mundane tasks from the illustrator, and sadly eliminated many markets along the way. Some things have obviously gotten worse from digital imaging—how many of you prefer the illustrated movie posters of 15 years ago to the photomontage pieces that dominate the market now? I miss the time when a month wouldn’t go by without a new movie campaign by Drew Struzan instead of the umpteenth digital montage posters we suffer from now. However, digital imaging has created new meaningful tasks for artists, like concept art for video games and movies, digital compositing and matte painting, and computer animation. None of these markets existed 15 years ago like they do today.

Living in a time of revolution in never comfortable, but in this revolution I am sure there is work for artists on both side of the lines. Really, who cares how you make a picture—all that matters is “does it work”, or “ doesn’t it work”. When all is said and done, the artist’s only obligation is to make a great picture—who gives a damn how it is done?