Digital Art for a Digital Age

By Jane Simpkiss

As summative season descends, I find myself more and more looking at Buzzfeed, a terrible habit but a brilliant form of procrastination. In doing this, I have increasingly been coming across different types of digital art and illustration.

Digital art is undoubtedly linked to social media- platforms such as Tumblr and Deviant Art are the main forum for such art to be displayed, and for artists to gain a following, to spread and in some cases sell their work. Perhaps because it appears on such a popular platform, digital art also seems to be closely associated to fan-art. Images from anime, TV, film and books are often the mainstay of much digital art.

            When we consider the broad term ‘visual arts’, we tend to think of painting, sketching, photography or sculpture, mediums which are powerful but traditional, with centuries of practice behind them. We may even think of more modern forms of art – video art or performance art – but rarely do we consider digital art.

            This got me thinking. Digital art can be exceptionally beautiful and is as skilful as any other form of art. If I were to grapple with a graphics tablet my efforts would definitely look more like a dodgy doodle on paint than some of the stunning pieces of digital art which we see online. Just look at any one of the Disney or Pixar films. The digital drawing in those can be spectacular. So why is digital art sometimes looked down upon?

Is it because of the fact that fan art is such a large part of its content? Is it because it adorns the walls of the Internet rather than the walls of a gallery? Why are fandoms seen as a less valid source of inspiration. As a relative novice in this field, it seemed that my answers would have to come from some digital artists themselves. Cue Andrea Lee and Ellen Coleman, two Durham students, and two fantastic digital artists whose own art includes original works and fandom inspired pieces.

Character sketches by Ellen Coleman

Character sketches by Ellen Coleman

            Both Ellen and Andrea told me that ‘there were definitely art snobs out there’ and that it was time for digital art to be recognised as an equally valid and valuable art form. Ellen tackles the issue head on, “They probably think it’s easier, because of the very fact that it’s digital.”

“Also because it’s very new, drawing and painting have been around since cavemen and are seen as the pinnacle of artistic prowess, but digital art is really, really new.”

“The photographic element of digital art makes people think that it’s cheating in some way but it’s not, it requires just as much effort, skill and knowledge of anatomy and colour palette”

Andrea challenges anyone who thinks that digital art is produced more by machine than man “to have a go themselves and see what they can do”. For both of these artists, a graphics tablet, just like a sketchpad or canvas, is just a tool. It is the artist’s skill that’s required to make a masterpiece.

“Digital art is never going to replace real paintings, but having the option of working digitally as a medium just makes it more varied and gives you more choice. Plus, there’s no reason why you can’t create work that combines both digital and traditional mediums.”

Image by Andrea Lee

Image by Andrea Lee

I asked Ellen and Andrea how they felt fan art affected people’s perceptions of digital art. Does the fact that people haven’t come up with the original concepts themselves cause some observers to look down on digital art? Does the fan art element of digital art make people see it as being derivative?

Ellen responds, “I mean people do draw their own stuff, it’s just it doesn’t get as much attention. People like fan art so it gets seen more and people just assume that that’s what digital art is, in fact much of it is original but hidden away.” But, as Andrea comments, “that’s inevitable really. I don’t really know what people’s original stuff is so it’s much harder to actively seek it out.”

Andrea makes a valid point. Throughout the history of art, sensationalist or populist works have always had more currency than perhaps more subtle works. Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child (Divided) in which a cow and a calf are preserved in tanks of formaldehyde is not necessarily great art but it is eye catching.

Just because digital fan art might often depict characters from popular films, books or TV, doesn’t mean that the work is not as beautiful, as skilful or as powerful as pieces with original subject matter. As Andrea points out “nothing’s ever a hundred percent original, everything is inspired by other things, if you take inspiration from something you like, that you’re a fan of, you’ll probably produce something just as valid”

“And after all, all the great masters did was basically bible fan art. You don’t imagine that anybody went around shouting at those artists saying, “Oh my god Michelangelo – do you own original stuff!” She’s right – If you walk around any gallery, you’ll almost certainly spot characters from plays or stories you are familiar with.

Hinata from Haikyuu by Hairuichi Furudate By Andrea Lee

Hinata from Haikyuu by Hairuichi Furudate By Andrea Lee

Both Ellen and Andrea are interested in making their own original work, at the moment Ellen is working on her own graphic novel but neither of them will be abandoning fan art anytime soon.Andrea has helped to contribute to several themed collections including most recently 1001 Knights and an upcoming collection of images of fictional siblings including Harry Potter favourites and the Bennet sisters from Pride and Prejudice. As Andrea comments “I think the day I stop drawing fan-art is the day I die”.

Digital art is a complex and skilful medium, which can produce some stunning work and is equally as demanding on the artist as any other type of art form and deserves more attention and credit from a wider audience. The fan art which seems to make up a substantial amount of the content of digital art is nothing new and furthermore shouldn’t be disparaged and disregarded. Digital at is a new medium but it’s one that’s here to stay. Next time you want to see some new art, don’t go to a gallery, don’t even leave your room, get off Netflix and explore some of the fantastic digital art being produced around you from all over the world.

Featured Image – Illustration of the Interview by Ellen Coleman

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