In Defence of Digital Art


Defending Digital Art – A guide to ensuring your digital works are respected as art

defending digital art, Mark Taylor, Beechhouse Media, digital art, art world,
Why do we still have to defend digital art?

Each week I write a brand new article for members of our four wonderful art groups on Facebook, The Artists Exchange, The Artist Hangout, The Artists Directory, and The Artists Lounge. This week we take a look at why digital art is seen as something inferior and ask the question, will digital art ever be viewed completely as an art form by everyone?

I frequently get asked what it is like to be an artist. I think there are still a lot of people who have some sort of romantic vision that we sit alone in a dark studio in the early hours under candlelight. Of course, we don’t, because a lot of us now own some kind of electric light. The other idea they get is that we go out every night to arty events and sip prosecco and munch on canapes. Usually, we are so absorbed in our process that we can forget that we also have to eat, maybe that’s where the term starving artist originated from.

Inevitably they always ask the question of whether we use oils or watercolours as if those are the only two mediums an artist can ever use. They become surprised when we answer something along the lines of Gouache or ink and even more surprised when we say digital. The latter being the one medium where you can almost see the person question if you are even an artist at all. The stigma of being a digital artist is way better than it once was but there are still a lot of digital artists who even today find themselves in a position of having to justify why their practice is an art all. 

Throughout you will also see some of my latest works, scarily each was painted by hand on a screen! If you want to take a better look then you can do so right here

Evenings Low Tide, Artwork, art by Mark Taylor, Beechhouse Media,
Evenings Low Tide by Mark Taylor

A Brief History…

The year is 2019, digital art has been a thing for years. Take a look online and some websites will tell you that digital art became a “thing” in July 1985, when Andy Warhol fired up his Commodore Amiga and a digitized image of Debbie Harry was captured in monochrome from a video camera through a computer program called ProPaint.

Take another look and you will read that MacPaint is said to be the first commercial program that allowed users to design, draw and manipulate objects on the screen, and which was introduced to the world on January 22nd, 1984 and appeared on the Apple Lisa.

But none of these dates come close to the very first instances of digital art. You see, in 1981 I was creating digital art using the limited graphics capability available on a Sinclair ZX81 home computer and digital graphics had been around long before even then. Now we might say that the images pre-Warhol were never truly digital art per se, but take a look at Victoria and Albert Museums page on the subject and references of digital art can be found as far back as the 1950s. They go on to say that one of the earliest electronic works in the V&A's collection is 'Oscillon 40' dating from 1952. The artist, Ben Laposky, used an oscilloscope to manipulate electronic waves that appeared on the small fluorescent screen. An oscilloscope is a device for displaying the wave shape of an electric signal, commonly used for electrical testing purposes. You can read more about that here

The point is that digital art has been around for many years and whilst Andy Warhol capitalised on it and found an early-ish niche, he wasn’t at all the only artist to have given it a go. Warhol was a master of his art but he was also, without doubt, a marketing genius too and the digital art movement has a lot to thank Warhol for.

I can’t think of any time in history where a particular artistic practice became quite as widespread as digital art has become so quickly. Take a look around you and if you see a label on any product then there is a chance it was created using some form of digital technique. Digital art is everywhere from product design to gallery walls and interactive public displays. It creeps into our everyday lives in so many ways yet many of us never take a moment to stop and think about product labelling or digital art in general, in fact, we rarely stop to consider things like labels as anywhere close to being small artworks, yet an artist or graphic designer created them.

Then we have the naysayers, the art purists, the very people who hold such disdain for digital art that they will tell you that there is no place for it in the art world at all. Art has to be crafted by the hand of a human. Believe me when I say that over the many years I have practised digital art I have never been in a position where I have not had to use my hands and I have heard what the naysayers have been saying because they have frequently been saying it to me.

I have never quite fully worked out why a minority of people feel that digital art isn’t art, perhaps they think there is a magic button that one simply asks the computer to apply, maybe even telepathically. Or maybe there is some thought of digital as being a way of cheating your way to creativity. Yes, we digital artists have heard that a lot too.

Throughout art history, we have always seen that art of any period has reflected whatever period it was created in. We have seen that art imitates life, whereby the painter, the artisan, the sculptor, represents whatever he or she sees through a concept we call mimesis. Originally a Greek word, it has been used in aesthetic or artistic theory to refer to the attempt to imitate or reproduce reality since the days of Plato and Aristotle.

Oscar Wilde opined in his 1889 essay, The Decay of Lying that, “Life imitates art far more than Art imitates Life”. The essay was a platonic dialogue and where Wilde held that anti-mimesis "results not merely from Life's imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realise that energy”

Art is of the moment, and artists will forever reflect on that moment whenever it is and in whatever medium they choose. It just so happens that the period of time in which we live today is one where digital is beginning to consume everything we do in our daily lives beyond art. Digital underpins or influences almost everything we do as a human race, from filling in forms to writing a book, or banking, medicine, design, never before have we all had a digital footprint so vast, and that’s exactly one of the reasons why data has become the greatest economy. Forget oil, that’s the business of the old-timers and oil’s time is running out, even forget big-pharma, if you want to become rich and powerful today then data is where the smart money is at.  

It no longer matters whether or not you chose to use a computer, you will have a digital footprint somewhere. Digital in art though is simply another medium in which we can express ourselves as artists. Digital is a medium and a practice that allows us to express this exact point in time maybe even just as it should be expressed at this very moment. We live in a world of minimal matter, where the smell of a book, the grooves of an LP, and many other things have become only distant experiences for many.

So why are some people so set against digital art if digital everything else is everywhere around us? Why is digital still at times seen as inferior to a traditional painting when digital and technology has made today the best day ever for an artist to find exposure without having to wade through a wall of gatekeepers and why when so much of what we do now has a digital replacement are there some people who are more reluctant than others to recognise digital art as a practice that artists can freely use to express and capture the digital moment in time? Perhaps in 300-years and assuming mankind is still around, art historians will look back at now and suggest that this time we are living in today was the true emergence of the digital movement.

The answers to these questions are so complex and the answers to each will vary depending on who you ask. When I first exhibited in a gallery many years ago there would have been no way that they would have entertained the idea of showing any digital art, and believe me when I say I tried. For a start, I might as well have had a conversation about the benefits of using Styrofoam to package up Styrofoam for shipping. I got nowhere, the answer was just “why would we even do this” and yet I am told that Styrofoam is indeed used to package Styrofoam before it is shipped. Who knew!

Today similar galleries to the one I exhibited in have walls upon walls of digitally created art, galleries who still retain the gatekeepers. Perhaps it is because many of today’s gatekeepers have grown into their positions through this digital age making them more accepting of the medium and the practice, although there are still a few galleries and exhibitions where digital is not welcomed or embraced at all. Those are the naysayer galleries but thankfully they are not all like that!

I speak to many artists, traditional, digital and those who like me, are more of a hybrid where any medium is fair game to be turned into art. One of the things that often strikes me is just how many digital artists I have come across throughout my life who describe themselves as digital artists in a manner that makes them sound inferior to any other visual artist. It is always unintentional but there is often a suspicion that we merely facilitate the creation of digital art by uploading a photo.

Oh, you are an artist I hear, yes, I am a digital artist. It might be said in the hope that it somehow elevates the position of the digital artist a little higher because they understand how to use technology. Yet the opposite perception is often formed by those who asked the question. It is both the gorilla and the elephant in the room whenever the conversation turns to “so how do you create, what’s your process?” At one time whenever I was asked this, my stomach would sink and I would know immediately that the conversation was nearly over.

last light of the day, artwork, art, Mark Taylor, beechhouse media,
Last Light of the Day by Mark Taylor


It is at this point when the words “I am a digital artist” are followed by an immediate justification about why digital art is art, why so many traditional skills are still needed despite using a computer, and then the argument begins. Is digital art really art? There are a lot of digital artists who feel a pang of guilt because they never or rarely use traditional mediums and I have met many over the years whose confidence in being a digital artist is undermined by those who think they have no place in the art world.

 I have a theory. Perhaps the issue of people not getting digital art is for some, because of the explanation of the process given by the artist and the immediacy in which those artists feel they must jump to the defence of the practice. You don’t have to defend it at all. You create art, you are an artist.  

Maybe if digital artists took the lead and explained their magical process in a better not quite so complicated and not-quite-so-defensive way, those naysayers might just begin to look at the art instead of the process which they believe to be the wrong way of creating it. I’m pretty sure that when artists transitioned from cave walls to the canvas they never had to justify it to anyone and today we visit caves to observe the art on the walls. Hey, there is one artist who springs to mind who even painted a ceiling once and you should see the queue to view it.

How we justify being digital artists…

Some part of me can’t quite figure out why I needed to write an article in defence of digital arts and digital artists, but there remains a tiny minority of people so entrenched in their beliefs that digital art is not an art that, it can and does affect those who create it. I know all too well because even just a decade ago I would constantly find that I was justifying my move from traditional to primarily digital, and I have had to do it frequently since. That was in 2009 and I had been using digital technologies to create art since around 1981.

In the early days, it was seen as a novelty and those practising the form were often seen as artistic geeks in an aww, bless, way. But something changed and I can’t quite place my finger just on when or why. I have lost count of the times when someone has said they love a particular work and then when I tell them I created it using an iPad Pro or a Mac, there is almost a look of disappointment and you can hear the internal, “oh my goodness, I thought you were an artist” thing going on. Yet here I am with kind of a career thing going on and doing just that!

Whenever I have spoken with friends who are digital artists they tell me that they have had to do the same thing too and they have hundreds of justifications lined up for whenever they have to have those conversations, even today.

What are the justifications?


We paint digitally because it is cheaper than buying art supplies. That’s just one justification that I have heard being used but to be frank, it is a bit of a stretch to suggest that digital art is any cheaper than traditional art to produce and it is certainly no cheaper in terms of effort.

It might be that you have some of the equipment already and creating art becomes a by-product of everything else you use that equipment for but once the digital art bug has bitten, there is every chance that you will need to upgrade and go on to buy more equipment, and then you have to keep it all maintained.

Sure, you can create many more works than you would be able to buy canvases for the same price but add in the subscriptions that you need to use any of the pro-level tools, and suddenly there becomes less of a disparity. Add in the costs of running off proof-prints to ensure that the colours you have used will match the printing process, or add in the cost of printer inks and toners, then costs start to become even more significant and you will no doubt be doing a lot of printing off things like proof-prints.

Go all out and buy a complete digital studio with specialist lighting and reference monitors add in essentials such as graphics tablets, then you could be talking tens of thousands of dollars. The point is that digital art can be made more expediently and cheaply over time, but that isn’t always the case and there is usually some not insignificant outlay, to begin with. Often it is that artists forget just how much each individual work costs them to produce over the lifespan of the equipment and software used but those are the things that should be factored into your pricing of digital art.

The more digital art you create the cheaper it becomes but only if those works go on to sell or hold some value other than sitting on a hard drive and don’t forget that the time learning the skills is a factor in digital as it is with traditional art mediums and practices and learning digital skills formally post-traditional art school is yet another added cost. When we buy traditional artworks we factor the materials, skill and training into the pricing but we often forget to do this when it is digital.

I create digital art because it is easier isn’t a justification that comes from any good digital artist, just because you find it easy doesn’t at all mean to say that it is. Sure digital art can be really easy, I could create a hundred works in a day, but that doesn’t mean that they will be any good. Instead, we might spend a few hours on a piece or a few days, but we might spend 300 or more hours working up a complex piece and push the limits of our hardware and applications and even our minds beyond their limits. Add in a few technical glitches when something doesn’t perform as expected and the time to resolve it can take hours, days or weeks, or money, assuming the expense of calling in an expert isn’t then added to your bottom line. My annual subscriptions today cost more than I earned in an entire year in my very first job.

I started to teach myself how to use Photoshop around a week or two after its very first release on the 19th February 1990 and I have been learning to use it ever since. Every new update brings new functionality, new tools and with major updates, a whole new workflow and Photoshop is only one of a dozen or so tools I regularly use. Those other tools can be even more complex, Illustrator needs knowledge of nodes and text kerning, or calibrating a monitor and printer, or dpi settings and while some skills cross-over between applications, not every skill will. But sure, once you have all that figured out, it’s super easy for a month or so until the next update.

digital art painting, Mark Taylor, Beechhouse Media,
Digital is just like painting


What the naysayers will see is the finished product and because it exists on the screen instead of it existing physically as you create it, their assumption is often that its value must be lower as does the importance of the work. Or that it must have only taken minutes and not the months you spent on it. Digital art can be quicker than traditional painting but that’s not always the case. An acrylic pour might take me half an hour, to get a similar result with digital could take a few days.

The traditional/digital debate is often held by those who work within each discipline too and the results of the many polls carried out online over the years are often that digital falls short of traditionally painted art because there is a loss of human connection. As a hybrid-artist, where I use both traditional and digital practices I can say that there are many differences between the practices and it is ultimately about personal choice. They both give very different results and it becomes more alike in comparing apples with bread.

Whether you paint digitally or traditionally, in both practices you need a knowledge of colour theory, perspective, a general knowledge of art history, and you need to know about the surface you will be painting or printing on, and because for the most part digital artists will be using graphics tablets or a stylus, you will also need to know how to use a brush or pen. Not as one respondent in a poll on debate.org suggested, that all digital artists do is move a cursor. The Apple Pencil is so close to a pencil in everything it does, angle it, press harder, it mimics everything about a pencil. I love the feel and texture of a traditional artwork but digital and traditional are different yet have many skills cross-overs.  

Art comes in all shapes and sizes. Traditional art has a market, digital art has a market, and pitting one against the other is much like suggesting that glass blowing is easier than throwing a clay pot and that both are the same.  Some people prefer clay vases, others prefer glass, they are two very different disciplines and this is why as digital art as the term we use to encompass everything we create using technology is far too broad. It is like calling a glassblower a potter and we all know that you should never upset a glassblower because they play with fire for fun.

It might not be the naysayers market…

Those who dislike digital art with a passion aren’t too dissimilar to those who find works painted by many traditional artists off-putting when one artist's work is compared to another’s. I have a really eclectic taste in art, I love Matisse, Banksy, Renoir, the list goes on and on, but I also love the work of independent artists who you might never have heard of, and much of that work I love much more than anything created by a Great Master. I’m not into any-one art medium more than any other, art is art and it either appeals to me or it doesn’t. I really don't care how it was made.

Art really is subjective, it is all about individual taste. So maybe what the naysayers might mean is that digital art doesn’t appeal to them as much as traditional art does, and no one will ever convince them otherwise, and that’s fine, each to their own. But the naysayers who say that digital art has no place in the art world are really missing the point.

Can we change their mindset?  Probably nothing that we do or say as digital artists will change an opinion of someone who believes whatever they believe about digital art. But what we can do as digital artists is to educate people about the process much more than we do and begin to dispel the myth that we produce it because it is cheap, or quick, or super-easy. As artists whenever we defend digital arts we feed the naysayers who spread their almost loathing of the practice, but how do we do that?

I think we have to open up more as digital artists. Explaining the process of digital art can be complex, how much does the person want to know about the technology or the application or the coding that went into the work because some digital works are created by entering lines and lines of code, and it also depends very much on the exact process and discipline within digital art that has been used to create the work. We might produce artworks using applications like Photoshop but equally, we might be using neural networks or artificial intelligence or even hard computer coding. Each is a sub-practice of digital art yet they are often described simply as digital art. It is just too broad a term. 

Each of the many ways of creating digital art has its own process. Like I said earlier, digital art is just too all-encompassing to describe the nuances of how a work might have been produced because there are just so many different ways to create it. In short, similar comparisons are often at least, subconsciously made to the art of applying a digital filter over a photograph and creating an entire 3D environment. Both can be described as digital art yet the creation of a 3D environment is going to be much more complex than the act of applying a filter, and both will need very different tools, skills and equipment.

There is a great research paper written on the Creation Process in Digital Art which came out of the Dept. of Information Systems at  the University of Minho in Portugal which you can read right here.  Any digital artist would do well to take a look through the paper as would those who want to understand more about digital arts and the creative process that sits behind them, but to paraphrase, the paper suggests that:

There has been much debate over the years around the creative process. Creativity and the human ability to innovate are complex processes which have often been studied from the perspectives of cognitive science, design, artificial intelligence, social psychology, behaviour, and computational aesthetics, yet despite all of the research there is no singular and authoritative perspective of creativity, there is no one standard manner in which we can measure it.

Digital art has its roots firmly within the first decades of the twentieth century with isolated experiments which had been created by visionaries who would then put them on display at art fairs or festivals, and would often display their works within exhibitions based around technology. It is here where many of those works were classified as marginal to the mainstream world of art, and much like the Dadaist movement, many were seen as anti-art.
What we see and label as digital art today has been strongly influenced by a number of art movements such as Dada, Fluxus, and conceptual art.

In conclusion, the paper goes on to say that the creative process within digital art is essentially about the design of the message and the experience. It places the computer-based medium in a role that enhances the creative process, and goes on to explain that digital art is often created around some sort of collaboration, and by that, I think what is being said is that if we use a tool such as Photoshop there is an element of collaboration in that someone else coded the tools for the artist to use. In traditional art, there is little difference as very few artists manufacture their own pigment.

We also have to stop being so defensive of our practice. We shouldn’t apologise that we choose to paint using digital over traditional techniques, we can do both, hey, we can even throw a pot or blow glass. Things are as I said earlier, getting better. More people have started to accept digital art as a serious and non-gimmicky art form and today I am just as likely to be asked why I still go back to traditional mediums as I am to be asked about why I moved away from them in the first place. 

But there is still a way to go before digital art is held in anywhere near the same prestige as traditional art forms. There is a sea-change beginning to happen but that’s not really the point, there is a difference between digital and traditional art so maybe as digital artists we need to embrace those differences, and we certainly need to be able to explain them much better.

Other things you can do to help your digital art…

Many artists go through something known as imposter syndrome. They might feel inadequate in marketing their work or explaining their practice, they might not believe that they have the talent which they clearly demonstrate to everyone else. It’s normal and it is human, even CEOs of major companies can experience it. I do believe though that the perception of digital art by the few is a significant contributing factor to a digital artist feeling that they are an imposter in the art world.

You have to give yourself permission to talk about you and your work and stop worrying that people might call you out. You are the expert in you and your art and so long as you are authentic, there is no one better than you to convey your story.

We need to become more confident…

At some point in time, almost every artist will struggle with confidence. Comparisons will be made to other artists work, but the only comparisons any artist should really be focussing on are the comparisons between you and you. Every artist, every person, is unique and by making these comparisons you will feel less and less confident and it makes your own self-worth contingent on how successful you feel you have become or not become. It is far better to compare your past self to your current self and stand back in awe of the distance you have travelled every time you pick up a brush or a stylus, or whatever else it is you use to create your art.

There is no problem in saying “I need to be better at this or better at that” that is where, as an artist, we should constantly looking at an reviewing our own self-development, but not to the extent that we beat ourselves up. You have to give yourself a break.

Comparisons when pointed in the wrong direction just add to the overall lack of self-confidence. We live in a world where you do have to be bothered to do things in order to make things happen but we often forget to ask ourselves what is it exactly that we want to accomplish. Focus on you, not this perceived competition from other artists because that competition isn’t really there, and certainly not from traditional painting or any other artful practise because art is different, it has to be.

There are many things I struggle with when it comes to confidence. I am probably the least confident person you will ever wish to meet when it comes to certain things, but with other things, I become a very different person. You have to challenge yourself, move frequently in and out of your comfort zone, but the one thing you never have to do is apologise for being you or for creating digital art. You are you, you are an artist, so go and be exactly who you are.

Natures canvas artwork by mark taylor, beechhouse media,
Natures Canvas by Mark Taylor

Just Maybe…

Maybe it isn’t the digital artists place to be defensive at all, maybe it is the naysayers who needlessly see digital art as some kind of threat. Digital art is as real as any photograph, yet we never hear the same argument when a photograph is sold for millions on a Tuesday evening in some crowded auction room.

It cannot be original if it is not physical. Yet digital art can be sold as original work and now we have technologies such as Blockchain, provenance and future replication become needless concerns. I sell work produced digitally where the buyer will be the only person to own the work. What they do once they own the work is up to them, they might want to replicate it, but that is true of any original work too. I have a governance process to ensure that files are deleted and in the past, I have sold works on the very technology on which it was produced so how much more original can it be?

We buy copies of books and we love first editions, but we also download books but the argument is lessened, we are still reading a book, and it becomes a lesser argument when we look at the digital works of Hockney or Warhol. Maybe the argument is that there are many digital artists who don’t have Hockney levels of provenance, but we have to consider the many traditional artists who don’t quite have Hockney levels of provenance too.

Digital artists take inspiration from a photograph, well that argument falls flat because in traditional art we use reference photographs too. Devoid of feeling and a personal touch, let us then try to forget that Kinkade sold originals that were created by a talented team of assistants, Koons, Hirst, even art history’s greatest masters used assistants too.

Maybe, just maybe there should be no argument at all. Maybe it should be able to coexist. Digital work has a place, traditional work has a place, and if the passion of art is so strong then shouldn’t we just be celebrating that it is being created however it is being created?

I pondered for days on how I would conclude this article and in the end, there was only one way. 

Mic drop.

About Mark…

I am an artist and blogger and live in Staffordshire, England. You can purchase my art through my Fine Art America store or my Pixels site here: https://10-mark-taylor.pixels.com  
Any art sold through Fine Art America and Pixels contributes to the ongoing costs of running and developing this website. You can also view my portfolio website at https://beechhousemedia.com

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