Is Digital Art Cheating?

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In this article we’re going to wake up the old head-to-head debate between digital art and traditional art. The bone of contention here is whether one is easier than the other, or whether one is potentially a form of ‘cheating’. Of course the one getting all of that criticism is digital art.

A lot of people feel strongly that digital art not only fails to meet the standards of traditional art, but also that it offers an unfair advantage to the artist. It gives the artist some kind of shortcut that makes it completely unnecessary for them to go through the lessons and growing pains that they would have to if they were doing traditional art. 

Moreover, we’ve heard a lot of people say that one of the reasons they love traditional art so much is that it is a long and arduous process. When you’ve spent 3 or more hours working on a painting of a garden or view from the shore or human figure, you appreciate it more. You have worked painstakingly on every single stroke and shade in the art, and so you will know it more intimately than anyone else who will ever encounter it.

They claim that it’s just not the same with digital art, where effects that would take hours to produce for a traditional artist can be done with a simple click.

We can understand these sentiments, but think they are sorely misled. For starters, a lot of the detractors of digital art see it through the lens of what traditional art is supposed to be like. Digital art is not just a new medium; in many ways, it’s a new way of thinking – a new paradigm. It comes with its own hills and valleys, joys and tribulations, successes and challenges.

We like to liken this argument to the one about whether computers can really ‘think’. Quite often, people compare computers to humans to prove that they are incapable of every being conscious. They are just machines doing a bunch of simple calculations very quickly. They only appear to think. But who said the human model of thinking is the only one?

If we were to encounter another intelligence, who’s to say it will follow the same systems of math as us, or use the same heuristics we use, which we developed due to the unique evolutionary process we went through (they helped us survive)? If you look into the algorithms governing how computers move bits around to multiply two numbers, they look nothing like the ones we follow to do the same job. And yet they work just as well.

Digital art may make a lot of hard things in traditional art easier, but it also allows us to scale new heights, and with that comes more challenges. It forces us to have higher standards, and produce even more in less time, which means more work for us. Surely that can’t be cheating!

But we didn’t mean to finish this argument in the intro. So we won’t get ahead of ourselves. We’ll talk about why digital art isn’t cheating. But first, let’s be fair to the other side and talk about why it might be considered cheating.

Why is digital art sometimes considered to be cheating?

Automation

One of the greatest issues with digital art is that a lot of people connect it to automation. It wouldn’t be surprising if there are people out there that think digital artists just tell the computer what they would like to appear on the screen and then lounge around watching their favorite TV show until the work is done.

Of course, that’s anything but the truth. Digital art is not automation. Sure, it does have certain advantages, but none of our tools do the creative work for us. We still have to come up with ideas, pick a stylus, and get to work.

Think of an author writing a book. They might pick a pen and put it to paper, writing their story the manual way. Or they might sit at a computer, or even a typewriter, and start typing. We all know it would be rather foolish to expect the computer or typewriter to type out the entire story for them. They can no more do that than their pens can move themselves along the paper and write the story.

Even with voice commands and the ability of computers to convert speech into text, an author still needs to think up a story and then speak it to a computer.

In the same sense, a digital artist is a traditional artist with a different canvas. They have a digital canvas, which takes up less space and makes less of a mess than an actual canvas. They also allow the artist to do quick styles and shading in much the way a word processor might allow a writer to do quick tables and formatting. They don’t do the creative work for you.

You still have to be a creative and original thinker, just like you would if you were a traditional artist.

Mass production

Another qualm people have with digital art is that it can be mass produced, which cannot be said for traditional art. Say you make a really nice digital painting, and want to hang it on your wall. In that case, you can simply print it and frame it, and then hang it on your wall. Some people see this as cheating.

Fair enough, with a traditional painting, you have just one. In fact, the vast majority of the value of traditional paintings is derived from their rareness. There is only one true Mona Lisa, and that’s why it’s so valuable. Many forgers can create Mona Lisa clones, some indistinguishable from the original. However, as soon as it is revealed that they are forgeries, they instantly lose all their value. This is an idiosyncrasy of traditional art.

However, we bet you if a traditional artist could clone their best works, they would. It would be the exact same thing, and you could sell it over and over again. It works in other industries. Every iPhone in a batch looks identical, and yet they sell for the same price. Sure, we all try to customize our iPhones, but that’s to capture our personality. Ultimately, we don’t mind that one iPhone has the exact same specs as another. That doesn’t make the specs any less impressive.

It’s the same with digital art. We could make a painting once and sell it many times, deriving maximum value from it.

Moreover, with digital art, new methods are popping up for making sure no one can just copy our work and sell it. Digitally signed paintings are becoming more commonplace, thanks to advances in technology.

There are no physical pigments

Another common sentiment among those who don’t support digital art is that we aren’t physically applying the pigments when doing digital art. We don’t go through the labor of authoring every single brush stroke ourselves. All we have to do is tap on the canvas a few times and all the right colors and shades are in all the right places. When we go to print the digital painting, everything is done on a machine, and so it’s all automatic.

That said, we should all remember that you still have to understand how to work with colors and mix them. You have to do the hard creative work, and only then can you use the printer as a medium to produce a physical version of your work. This in no way involves less effort on the part of the artist.

Digital art is considered to be risk free

Some artists believe that there is no risk inherent in the creation of digital art. We can undo our mistakes, save our work indefinitely, and work in layers that make it easier to manipulate our work. With, say, a watercolor, you have to try and get it right the first time, or your work is practically ruined.

We’re not hating on traditional painting. We love it! That’s where we started and learned all we know, that we now apply with great success in our work as digital artists. However, that’s not to say that we would not appreciate having layers and an undo option when working traditionally. These tools don’t make our creative work any easier.

They don’t even mean we won’t make mistakes. They simply mean our work gets ruined because we made a single mistake. Sure, the risk is minimized, but we don’t think that’s cheating. The creative work required is the same.

Why is it not cheating?

Alright, so at this point it’s pretty obvious that we don’t consider digital art to be cheating. We’ve tried to explain away all the reasons given above for why some people consider it to be, but haven’t quite given our own side of the argument explaining why it’s not cheating. So that’s what we’ll try to do here.

You need the same skills as a traditional artist – Professional digital artists need to know about the same things as traditional artists:

  • Composition – They need to know about the rule of thirds, the rule of odds, and how to utilize white space just as much as their traditional counterparts, regardless of their medium.
  • Color theory – Digital artists need to know about warm and cool colors, how to split complementary pallets, and using color for emphasis. Just because they are not squeezing colors out of a tube does not mean they shouldn’t know how to use colors.
  • Sketching – Whether you’re working on a physical canvas or a matte screen, you will need to know how to sketch. Being able to draw a realistic image is a fundamental skill that cuts across all media. In fact, we would argue that it’s even harder to sketch on a computer than it is on paper.
  • An understanding of anatomy – You need to draw an arm, a face, and so on. If you don’t, it doesn’t matter if you’re using the latest Wacom or not – it will show. Everyone knows what human and animal figures should look like, whether they were drawn digitally or traditionally.
  • An understanding of perspective – You need to be able to create the illusion of depth as a digital artist. Being able to visualize objects in 2D and 3D space is important, again regardless of the media.

So is it in fact, harder?

Yes, digital art can sometimes be harder, even though it is generally easier, than traditional art. When you’re creating a piece of digital art, you will have a harder time making brush strokes than a traditional artist, especially if your stylus does not have things like tilt recognition.

It also depends on the software you use, as not all of them do it well. Since much of digital art is a matter of emulation, it can be difficult to emulate traditional art.

And that’s just it: digital art is not cheating. It is simply a way to be more efficient. The tools you use will speed up parts of the workflow for you, such as rotating, warping, transforming, and picking colors. These are handy tools that improve turnaround times when you are trying to do a complex project.

Sometimes, as an artist, no matter how good you are, you might have some crazy and, quite frankly, unrealistic deadlines to meet. These make the traditional route infeasible, and so you have to try out digital methods instead. Rather than do actual brush strokes, emulate them in a digital environment for a faster turnaround.

Ultimately, the creative element is just as necessary, regardless of whether you are working with digital or traditional media. That will never go away. In that sense, all digital art does is make you more efficient. But you still have to be creative and know the basics.

To conclude…

The fact is that digital artists still have to be able to create something from nothing. We still have the same amount of creative work ahead of us. More importantly, you don’t have to take sides. Digital art is great, but you should still practice traditional art every now and then in order to hone your skills.

We both, and our digital works are better for it. Until next time, happy drawing! 

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