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An in-depth survey - The major aspects of digital painting explained and illustrated for artists and collectors


What it is, what makes it different from non-digital painting, and what are the main obstacles and challenges. For more detailed information, follow the link to:  DIGITAL PAINTING, a complete survey

Updated since 2013. Last revision September 23, 2017

This website builds on the experience of a handful of pioneering digital painters. The information you find here is independent, revenue-free, and cookie-free. The images are protected by copyright. The text has been dedicated into the Public Domain by a CC0 1.0 universal license. You are free to copy, print and use it in any way you like. 
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1. Same process

Digital painters use a pen or stylus to paint on the screen of the computer, tablet or mobile phone. Mostly, they paint stroke-by-stroke. Just like a traditional painter, they can change brush tips, their brushes react to the pressure or movements of the hand, they can work in layers, and there are several color palettes. The digital painting box is larger, but the act of painting is not different.

2. New forms

When you paint stroke-by-stroke with a digital brush in an ordinary (non vector) painting program, the paint is registered pixel by pixel on the digital canvas. This is called 'raster' painting. In method and appearance, raster painting most closely resembles traditional painting with real paint and a brush. It is also possible to use the power of the computer to construct shapes and forms. Think of a perfect circle, or a perfectly straight line. Your hand can't make these. If you order a computer to make a circle, it thinks of the mathematical formula of a circle, and this is what it will put on the screen. Any form or curve or patch of color can be captured like this, by a formula. It can then be changed and manipulated with the help of special tools. This is called 'vector painting'. Alone or in combination with raster painting, vector painting creates a new language of color and form that can in no way be expressed with real paints and brushes.

3. Prints only

It is important to realize that the forms and colors that are characteristic for digital painting can't be recreated into 'real' paint-on-canvas. Yes, it is possible to project the artwork on canvas and paint it over by hand, but the smooth gradients, sharply defined shapes and perfectly monochrome color planes will be lost. A digital painting can only be brought into the real world by a computer. Therefore, all non-virtual representations of a digital painting are prints. A print has the same flat appearance as a photo, and carriers for photo art (e.g. paper, aluminum, dibond, perspex) are most widely used for representation.

Pauline van de Ven, Digital vector painting
Ceci est un oeuf (2015)

In Ceci est un oeuf (above), the two upper eggs and the smaller forms in the image are vectors, constructed by formulas. The sharp edges, 'perfect' shadows, 3D illusion and smooth gradients are typical for vector painting. The lower left egg is a raster form, showing the imperfections and insecurities of a human hand. As in this case, raster and vector painting can be combined.

4. Enlargement

Digital painters paint on the screen of a computer, on tablets, iPads and mobile phones. Their work is small in size. If it is to be brought into the real world, it will have to be enlarged. For vector paintings this is never a problem. The computer quickly recalculates all the math that constructs the forms and neatly replaces them with larger ones. But raster is another matter! Try to blow up a newspaper photo: the more you enlarge it, the more empty space you will see between the pixels. The image will become blurred to the point where you won't even recognize it. Every raster painter has to solve this problem. Sometimes this is difficult or even impossible. Usually, it's just a lot of work.

5. Color

How to obtain a satisfactory color representation is the digital artist's main technical problem. It is very difficult to reliably transfer colors from a computer screen to paper, aluminum, canvas, or whatever is used to bring a virtual painting into the real world. Of course, colors on a screen are always different from colors on a physical carrier, but there are many more aspects. The survey below will deal in more detail with color management for artists. It suffices here to say that calibration of the computer screen is an absolute necessity for anybody who wishes to see colors accurately represented on the screen. A rough and imprecise calibration (not for artists!) can be done in the monitor preferences of most computers. A precise screen calibration is done with the help of a small device.

6. Uniqueness and limited editions

It is a common mistake to think that a print can't be a numerously unique work of art. It certainly can, and often is. The number of possibilities to effectively protect limited editions is steadily increasing. The use of a certificate has become standard practice. Certificates can carry personalized holograms of which a clone is embedded in the print. Prints can be hand signed, and watermarks can visibly or invisibly be embedded in the work. Large online galleries keep sold artworks online with the clear message 'sold' after the edition is finished. In addition, limited editions on paper can be registered at an independent database. As to the digital carrier, a professional artist will only share files with a bona fide printer who stores them safely and deletes them after delivery. When the sale is completed, the artist deletes the file. You ca never entirely prevent duplication, but with a few simple precautions the risk has become acceptably low.

7. Fusion and confusion

The relation between painting and photography is centuries old, but never before has it been so close. Painters and photographers now use the same toolbox. Photographers paint over photos or automatically convert them to 'paintings'. Many painters do the same. This creates a new transition zone between painting and photography. Apps and programs offer a variety of standard filters to manipulate a photo and make it look like a watercolor, a lino-cut, an etching, in the style of Seurat, Van Gogh or Pollock - anything you like. Many people are skeptical about the art claims. Still, if the process generates an expression of the heart and mind of an individual spirit, a reflection on life, by all common definitions the result is what we call a work of art. That being said, it's worth noting that at the time of writing, probably only a handful of professionals worldwide have the technical skills to distinguish what comes out of the app from what comes out of the artist.

2013-2018 Amsterdam - Gent






2017/09/13 New certificates (version 5.0)

2017/08/30 Update of 'characteristics'; 'uniqueness and limited editions'; 'links'

2017/08/22 Update of 'detailed survey'

2017/08/14 Update of 'brief overview'

2015/08/08 New certificates: (v.4 for originals, v.1 for editions)

2015/08/06 Major update 'Market for digital art'

2015/08/03 'About color'

2015/05/21 'File formats'

2015/05/01 'Pioneering digital artists'

2015/04/25 'Visual characteristics'

2015/04/19 'Assessment'