The major aspects of digital painting explained and illustrated for artists and collectors.
A BRIEF, GENERAL OVERVIEW
What it is, what makes it different from non-digital painting, and what are the main obstacles and challenges. For more detailed information, follow the link to: DIGITAL PAINTING, a complete survey
Updated since 2013. Last revision April 10, 2019
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1. Same process
Digital painters use a pen or stylus to paint on the screen of the computer, tablet or mobile phone. Mostly, they paint stroke-by-stroke. Just like a traditional painter, they can change brush tips, their brushes react to the pressure or movements of the hand, they can work in layers, and there are color palettes. The digital painting box is larger, but the act of painting is not different.
2. New forms
When you paint stroke-by-stroke with a digital brush in an ordinary (non vector) painting program, the paint is registered pixel by pixel on the digital canvas. This is called 'raster' painting. In method and appearance, raster painting most closely resembles traditional painting with real paint and a brush. Apart from that it is possible to use the power of the computer to construct shapes and forms. Think of a perfect circle, or a perfectly straight line. Your hand can't make these. If you order a computer to make a circle, it thinks of the mathematical formula of a circle, and this is what it will put on the screen. Any form or curve or patch of color can be captured like this, by a formula. It can then be changed and manipulated with the help of special tools. This is called 'vector painting'. Alone or in combination with raster painting, vector painting creates a new language of color and form that can in no way be expressed with real paints and brushes.
3. Prints only
It is important to realize that the forms and colors that are characteristic for digital painting can't be recreated into 'real' paint-on-canvas. Yes, it is possible to project the artwork on canvas and paint it over by hand, but the smooth gradients, sharply defined shapes and perfectly monochrome color planes will be lost. A digital painting can only be brought into the real world by a computer. Therefore, all non-digital representations of a digital painting are prints. A print has the same flat appearance as a photo, and carriers for photo art (e.g. paper, aluminum, dibond, perspex) are widely used for representation.
Digital painters paint on the screen of a computer, on tablets, iPads and mobile phones. Their work is small in size. If it is to be brought into the real world, it will have to be enlarged. For vector paintings this is never a problem. The computer quickly recalculates all the math that constructs the forms and neatly replaces them with larger ones. But raster is another matter! Try to blow up a newspaper photo: the more you enlarge it, the more empty space you will see between the pixels. The image will become blurred to the point where you won't even recognize it. Every raster painter has to solve this problem. Sometimes this is difficult or even impossible. Usually, it's just a lot of work. But change is on the way: some programs make a recording of every brushstroke and after that the painting can be automatically repeated on a larger canvas on the desktop.
How to obtain a satisfactory color representation is the digital artist's main technical problem. It is very difficult to reliably transfer colors from a computer screen to paper, aluminum, canvas, or whatever is used to bring a virtual painting into the real world. Of course, colors on a screen are always different from colors on a physical carrier, but there are many more aspects. The survey below will deal in more detail with color management for artists. It suffices here to say that calibration of the computer screen is an absolute necessity for anybody who needs an accurate color representation on the screen. A rough and imprecise calibration (not for artists!) can be done in the monitor preferences of most computers. A precise screen calibration is done with the help of a small device.
6. Uniqueness and limited editions
It is a common mistake to think that a print can't be a numerously unique work of art. It certainly can, and often is. Apart from a manual signature and edition number, certificates can carry barcodes, digimarks, holograms or other personal registration marks of which a clone is embedded in the print. Digimarks and watermarks can invisibly be embedded in the work and traced over the globe even after the painting has been changed. As to the digital carrier, a professional artist will share files with a bona fide printer who stores them safely and deletes them after delivery.
7. New photography
The relation between painting and photography is centuries old, but never before has it been so close. Painters and photographers now use the same toolbox. This creates a new transition zone between painting and photography.
All kinds of filters can make photos or screenshots resemble an oil painting, watercolor, wood-cut, etching, etc. These can be put in the visual framework of Seurat, Van Gogh, Pollock and many others. Special effects can create effects like circle, wave, multiply, mirror, swirl and shear, or break up the image in a kaleidoscope of geometric forms that radiate from a central point in perfect symmetry. Often, these push-button transformations are only part of a complex method that combines all kinds of photographic, computer-generated and painterly aspects in subsequent stages, using different media.
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