So what is Digital Fine Art?

A thoughtful article on what is digital fine art.
In the interests of stimulating some debate, I propose to attempt to
answer this question and then encourage you to email us your
reactions/feelings/ideas for publication.

I would define digital fine art as any art in which computer or digital
technology has been used in some part of the artistic process. This is
a very broad definition but a good one I think. One could be very
limiting and say that digital fine art is only that which is entirely
‘made’ using digital processes. Whilst this is also a valid definition
it is too narrow for our purposes here. Whilst I can foresee a point
where the word digital can be dropped and we can simply concentrate on
the art, not the technology of the process, we are not their yet. We
are at a point in time where some individuals have seen the potential
of digital technology in the artistic process but the vast majority
have not, or consider it too ‘easy’ to really be art.

Digital technology can be applied to the whole artistic process or to
only part of it. An example of the latter is the following. My wife is
a traditional decorative artist who tends to leave the digital side to
me. She was commissioned to do a large, quite complex painting that had
important issues of perspective and scale to resolve. Rather than doing
this in her more usual trial and error method I convinced her to
prototype the painting on the computer. To do this we scanned various
elements from books of photographs that were close to what she wanted.
We then played around with these, changing their size and perspective
until we had a mock-up of the painting that worked compositionally and
impact wise. We than printed this off as a reference and off she went
to paint in her usual acrylics. Here the end result is totally
non-digital yet an important roll was performed in the digital domain.
The same could have been achieved with pen and paper but the ease with
which we could reposition things and experiment greatly facilitated the
process and improved the end result.

Digital technology can be applied to any of these areas and processes of art:

o    Photography;

o    Painting and drawing;

o    Printing of the painting, drawing or photograph;

o    The physical painting of the artwork;

o    Planning;

o    Design of sculptures;

o    Production of sculptures;

o    Motion picture, video and animation work;

o    Lighting and sound for performance art.

The most important thing to remember is that you can incorporate as
much or as little digital technology into your art process depending on
what you feel comfortable with, what works with your vision and what
you can afford.

Further, we can divide digital fine art into a number of categories. As a working basis we can divide it into the following:

o    Algorithmic or mathematical art;

o    Digital replacement for natural media;

o    Photo-manipulation;

o    Digital Synthesis.

Algorithmic or mathematical art includes a number of areas of digital
art. We have all seen Fractal art, which was very popular for a while.
Other types of algorithmic art include initiatives in artificial
intelligence to allow computers to ‘paint’ and various programming
approaches to turning images into paintings (some of the Photoshop
filters, for instance). Some other authors include 3D art in this
category, arguing that the production of models of objects, the
positioning of lighting and the camera and then allowing the computer
to ‘render’ the scene by mathematically calculating the light/optical
effects puts it in the algorithmic category. I actually disagree with
them and, as we shall see, put 3D in a different category.

Digital replacement of natural media basically uses the computer to
emulate various ‘conventional’ artistic processes and materials. The
results of such work are frequently indistinguishable from ‘the real
thing’. The actual process of creating the work is effectively similar,
except that rather than brushes, a canvas and paints, we use a graphics
tablet, monitor and software. Digital natural media offer advantages
and disadvantages over the real thing. It can be far quicker to work,
easier to mix otherwise incompatible media, like oils and watercolours,
and the ready ability to correct mistakes leads to a bolder
experimental style. Also since the output is actually significantly
independent of the creation process, it is possible to later choose
things like the size of the work and the media it is printed on. The
disadvantages are that it is not real paint, the tactile sensations are
not there and the reality is that some techniques that are so natural
when working with natural media don’t translate well into the computer
(at least not yet).

Photo-manipulation is perhaps the most prevalent form of computer art.
In many ways this is also digital natural media because most of the
things that you can do to photographs in the computer could be done in
the darkroom, just usually more slowly and far more difficultly. The
most heavily commercial of the digital art areas, along with 3D, it
offers the challenge for surpassing the ‘play’ to be truly fine art.

Digital synthesis or what I would rather call ‘Holistic or Integrative
Art’ uses any and all techniques, including conventional ones, to get
the result you want. In this form, quite akin to ‘mixed media’ the end
result is what matters, not the ‘racial purity’ of the techniques used
to create it. My own preference for this type of art (and digital art
specifically) is that it puts the focus where it should be, on the
quality of the art, its message and how well it communicates it. Whilst
the media used has some relevance to a collector or gallery when
considering issues of permanence and suitable display and storage
conditions, it has, I believe, been too long used as a form of
selective snobbery.

In reality there are very few digital artists who work purely in one
mode. For example, when I was heavily involved in algorithmic art, I
would still commonly use photo-manipulation techniques on the resulting
images to finetune colour, contrast and composition. I would then often
use conventional techniques to arrange multiple images into one
‘piece’. This is also why I don’t put 3D art in the algorithmic
category alone. As an artist that works in this area I actually feel it
combines many techniques. It mixes sculpture, set design, industrial
design, photographic lighting and photography with digital natural
media painting, and mathematical art. I have also never seen 3D art
done well without post-production photo-manipulation. Thus it combines
so many forms of conventional art with all the forms of digital art.

So Where’s The Beauty?

A good friend of mine, Steve Danzig, and I were having a long ICQ chat
the other day and ended up discussing beauty in digital art. It had
occurred to me that when you look at a wide cross-section of digital
art it not only divides to into looks: beautiful and optimistic; and
dark, depressing and im
ages to cut your wrists by. Interestingly most
of the beautiful and optimistic appearing digital imagery that is not
kitsch lies in the mathematical art domain, whilst the dark imagery is
mostly photo manipulation and 3D. Is this a real perception? Does it
reflect the personality types of the people drawn to these differ
approaches? Email in your thoughts.

The old examples of my algorithmic art show one type of such work.


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