Digital Art in Focus: An Overview, Past, Present and Future


When I began writing about Digital Art four years ago, I drew a comparison between the art one found on the web and a vast, trackless jungle. My point being that one had to hack thru a lot of useless undergrowth before encountering something of real value. While there appeared to be no lack of computer skills or knowledge of the software, what was missing was knowledge of Art. The ability or desire to set-up a controlled and selective palette of color, to employ compositional theory, create line and rhythm and then tie all this up into an image that supported or elicited an emotional or philosophical response was either absent or way down on the list of priorities in this work. After re-viewing some of the works on display in numerous new web based “galleries”, I might, happily, have to renege those words. The exhibited works reveal real control not just of the tools, but genuine thoughtful expression and manipulation of the image. Creativity has not been shackled by restraint and control it has been focused into highly crafted and powerful statements.

The majority of the work appears to be rooted in photographic explorations, but this is to be expected, given the history of the development of digital art making tools. Unlike most every other art making tool or medium, Digital got its start in the commercial art world of magazine and advertisement layout. Most of this work involved the manipulation and preparation of photographic images. But, it also involved typography and herein lies an important analogy to a prevailing strength in digital art making. Before the computer, typographic manipulation was a mind numbing and tedious task. After the computer (and much to the chagrin of the old school) everyone could “play” with type. The machine kept the lines sharp, the columns straight and sizing and spacing was automatic. The Exacto knife, pica rulers and mechanical drawing pens were replaced by keyboard and mouse and young punks were “experimenting” with type.

Almost overnight, anyone with a MAC and little or no knowledge of the “do’s and don’ts” of typographic design, was creating exciting and fresh typography. The purists wailed that the computer fell short in the ability to make minute kerning and other spacing adjustments, therefore the quality of the type suffered, but these complaints could not deter the art director who could now resize, replace, colorize and distort type instantly experimenting with new designs almost on the fly. The creative bandwidth was increased exponentially and creativity and the ability to innovate won out over old-guard precision. This is what is happening in Fine Arts and will continue to happen as more and more people “play” with images on their computers. Rules have been broken and over looked and just like those earlier days of typographic exploration some awful and even unreadable work was created. But, digital tools have irreversibly expanded the creative bandwidth of nearly all the arts; the genie is “in” of the box and, as we see in numerous Digital Art displays cropping up all over the web; Art is creeping back into the process.


Photography and the related field of Collage, for example will never be the same. Photograph has become so malleable now that it is an instrument of sheer poetry. Along with the photograph’s acculturated ability to both represent and even replace reality the fuse of Surrealistic imagery has been relit within the world of Digital Fine Arts. The integration of disparate photos has become so seamless that the term “collage” has been augmented by a new term “composite”. “Reality” as it is represented in photographic imagery is no longer sacrosanct. The camera lies quite skillfully and “seeing”, rather than “believing”, is much more akin to dreaming.

Beyond the photograph, the digital artist now has powerful 3D rendering tools to create scenes and place lights on subjects that do not even exist. The painter paints with pure light and nearly all the image qualities of traditional tools, from pen to oil paint, flow from one stylus. Compositions, no longer hampered by the preciousness of the materials are worked and re-worked without fear of losing elements that have been resolved. This not only gives the artist more control, but more opportunity to explore and choose and polish the work. But, this does not mean that the digital artist cannot work with accident and chance. Multiple applications of filters and fractals provide plenty of surprises that can be altered or integrated into a composition. The age-old dance between the artist and the materials, between the maker and what is being made, survives in the virtual and accelerated environment of pixel and bit.

As the “digital painter” ventures beyond traditional tools, we see more and more work that mines this rich field of pixel and bit. Given the integration of photography and traditional graphic means into the digital palette, artists look deeper into the digital tool for means of expression that did not exist before the invention of the tool itself. We ask, what is it that this tool does that no other can? We find an answer in integration and iteration, the ability to compute and to plot pure data into a graphic display. Filters and Fractals offer one means to this rich visual field, but there are pitfalls. The risk is that taken purely in and of itself this sort of imagery hovers on the edge of appearing trite or at least lacking in human warmth. Critics say that this is “machine art” and that the artist did nothing to achieve the image short of “point and click”. But, to the contrary, Machine Art is important because of these very same reasons. It is the most challenging and the edgiest work because it entails the artist turning over control to the process. Machine Art is the imagery of the computer’s virtual soul, never before seen and at the same time so familiar to the forms we see in nature and the shapes we sense behind closed eyes. There is definitely something there and the bravest among us explore it. By tackling the problem of integrating the computer’s own imagery with a human’s vision they stand the best chance of creating something we have not yet seen.

And still there is more. Beyond photography and paint, past the algorithms and automation there lies the true power of digital art technology, the power of synthesis. What is important about working digitally is not in the replication of traditional tools, nor the expansion of existing processes. What has been and always will be important in Art is creative evolution and the age-old question, “what’s new?” The strength of computers lies in synthesis, in bringing together existing forms in such innovative ways as to yield completely new ones. The mix of photo, of fractal and the human hand, virtual 3D modeling composited into virtual paint holds this answer. Artists are moving in that direction, now more often out of necessity in order just to get the work done or to make that transition between elements just a bit more seamless. But, what is truly “digital art” is the work that begins in the mind of the artist with this notion of synthesis. Using all the software tools and all the traditional processes together to make something that has not yet been imagined. This is the power and the challenge of working digitally to make Art.


The term “Digital Art” is a double-edged sword. On one hand it suggests something new and different in the world of Fine Art. On the other hand, it focuses too much on the tools and gives rise to those issues that some have with those tools. For example we don’t call it Oil Art or Marble and Hammer Art, nor do we use the term Photo-Art or Etching Art. For all these endeavors we say “Art”, then follow it up with the form, “painting”, “sculpture”, “printing”. Nor does “Digital Art” describe a particular style or look. In fact, today, music is digital. All sorts of design from clothing to cars is digital. Most writers use word processors. All of these are some form of “Art”. So, what is “Digital Art”? As we see on the web there is no single style of “Digital Art” that can describe what that term means, but there is definitely and most strongly visual Art that is created digitally.

In fact, as an artist, I long for the day when someone will look at my work and see Art not “Digital Art”. On that day, the arrogance and ignorance that holds so many critics and galleries in check concerning the acceptance of art created digitally will have fallen by the way side. By that time, enough people will have had direct experience with the digital tools to realize that without the artist’s direct manipulation and aesthetic judgment a computer does nothing. On that day, the old-guard will have once again succumb to the overwhelming wave of increased creative bandwidth and new materials and processes will have become integrated into a world of art made richer and deeper by their presence. Once this period of discovery and adjustment has been surmounted Digital Art (or should we say "art created digitally") will have a run that will surpass any and all previous art movements.

If I were to guess as to how future art critics might describe this period in the development of digital media and the effect it will have on the world of Fine Art, I might venture to say; "The turn of the new century was a heady and revolutionary period in the development of Art that saw, through the introduction of digital tools, a great democratization in art making and began a period of time wherein the cracks in the dam of the traditional Fine Arts world began to show."

Pass the dynamite.

JD Jarvis August 2001

(first appeared on the Digital Arts Group website and was published by "EFX Art and Design" magazine)

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