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Covers the major aspects of digital painting, written for artists, art students, art historians, galleries, curators, collectors and art lovers. For a brief overview, follow the link to: DIGITAL PAINTING, a brief overview
Updated since 2013. Last update January 13, 2019
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Differences in method
Protecting originals and limited editions
Digital painting and photography
Size, resolution, enlargement
Vector and raster painting enlargement
Quality-quantity convention, limited editions
Collecting digital art, assessment
Market for digital art
A 'digital' painting is created on the computer using a graphics program, a virtual paintbox with brushes, colors and other supplies. The definition applies to a painting on its primary digital carrier (as a computer file) as well as when it is transferred in a non-manual process to a secondary physical carrier (printed on paper, acrylic glass, aluminum, canvas, etc).
Apart from the traditional tools, the virtual painting box contains
instruments that don't exist outside the computer. The use of these
instruments distinguish a digital from a non-digital painting.
Typical characteristics can be traced back to the power of the
computer to attach geometrical formulas to lines, shapes and forms.
While it is impossible for a human hand to create exactly identical
forms, or construct a perfect circle or a perfectly straight line,
for a computer it is difficult to do anything but this.
Formula-based shapes are easy to recognize by a degree of perfection
that is literally inhuman. They bear some resemblance to paper
cut-outs or stencil art. Specific traits include:
- Sharp, bold appearance
- Exact repetition
- Perfect circles, squares and other shapes
- Embossing, shading and other 3D illusion
- Perfectly smooth gradients
- 100% monochrome color planes
- Absence of brushstroke
- Slalom or flip forms
The flatness of the physical representation is typical for the digital medium. It is possible to create a convincing illusion of texture on the virtual canvas, but not to translate this to real texture on paper, dibond, perspex etc.
In most programs it is possible to undo all or a large number of brush strokes and other actions without a trace. Whereas a traditional painting can be spoiled with one stroke, the ‘undo’ and a number of push-button transformations give digital painters the freedom to make mistakes and to take a more experimental and spontaneous approach. One kind of digital painting involves the manipulation of vector shapes with a specific tool. This is a slower and more deliberate process than stroke-by-stroke painting.
When the digital artist is done, the painting is on the hard disk of a computer. In order to sell it, it will have to be transferred to a physical carrier like dibond, fine art paper, acrylic glass, etc. What happens to the primary digital carrier depends on how the artist wants to offer the painting. If the print is sold as an original, the digital carrier is either deleted or transferred to the buyer. If it is offered as a series, the artist deletes the digital carrier when the prefixed number of copies is sold. For an open ended series, the digital carrier remains on the hard disk of the computer. The buyer should be informed about the status of the digital carrier.
Obviously, forms and shapes that are typical for digital painting cannot be transmitted to a physical carrier in a manual process. The digital characteristics would be lost. The implication is often under-emphasized: a digital artwork, in its physical representation, is and can only be a print. If an artwork that was created on a computer is printed on canvas and, as is often the case, painted over with real paint, the result is a traditional painting but the original work on the computer still meets the definition of a digital painting.
It is a common misunderstanding that a print cannot be a
numerously unique work of art. It can and often is. There are a
number of ways to protect uniqueness and limited editions.
The artist should protect full-size, high resolution files of the artwork by choosing safe methods of transfer and sharing full scale files only with printing companies that delete them after use. Depending on the difference in scale between the original and the online image, raster and combined vector-raster paintings can be effectively protected by using low resolution and small size files for online display. Stronger measures such as DAM are needed to protect duplication and enlargement of online vector paintings.
Protection of the print (PAM)
PAM (physical asset management) consists of a manual signature and/or a unique mark both on the printed artwork and the certificate. The mark establishes authorship and protects prints from duplication. With a GS1 or EAN code an artwork (any product) is identified worldwide with a unique number. The number is translated into a small image like a barcode or a datamatrix which can be attached to the certificate and the printed artwork. GS1 codes are issued in over 100 participating countries.
Protection of the digital image
DAM (digital asset management) is used to establish authorship of the digital image and to prevent it from being copied and used to produce prints and certificates without marks or with forged marks. A unique digimark is registered and embedded in the code of the image. Other than a digital watermark, that is placed over the image and can easily be removed, an invisibly embedded digimark survives a variety of manipulations and transformations, even duplication by screenshot. Digimarks are optionally supplemented with a search service that crawls the Internet tracing and reporting copies.
Based on differences in method and appearance, four mainstream
directions can be recognized:
1. Computer generated painting - Characteristics of digital painting are present.
2. Raster painting - Characteristics of digital painting are absent.
3. Vector painting - Characteristics of digital painting are present.
4. Vector-raster painting - Characteristics of digital painting are present.
Computer generated painting
In procedure as well as appearance a 'raster', 'grid', or 'bitmap' painting resembles most closely a traditional painting with real brushes and paint. The image is created on the screen in a stroke-by-stroke manner. Colors and lines are registered pixel by pixel on the digital canvas. The characteristics of the individual painter's hand are preserved.
Problems with enlargement are the main disadvantage. Often, the length and width of the creation is as small as a (mobile) computer screen and the resolution as low as 72 dots per inch. If the image is to be transferred to a physical carrier of customary size, it has to be enlarged considerably. This generally entails manual correction, a tedious and time consuming process which is a serious obstacle for printing.
In recent versions of some raster painting programs, 'scripting' allows the painter to enlarge the canvas size in an automated process of replay without loss of resolution (see 'size, resolution, enlargement').
A manual vector painting is made by choosing basic shapes like circles, triangles and squares, or by painting them freehand, and then transforming them with special tools. The mathematical basis of vectors are 'Bezier curves', named after a French engineer who developed them in 1962 for the automobile design at Renault. The painting process is somewhat like sculpture and less suitable for intuitive, spontaneous work than raster. All lines and shapes are captured into geometrical formulas. They obey to one-click operations such as change color, make transparent, emboss, flip, group, cast shadow, etc. The formula based method leaves no room for characteristics of the individual painter's hand. The personality of the maker can still be felt in aspects like the choice of subject, composition, palette and gradients, atmosphere, concept of a painting etc., Although it can to some extent be simulated by forms, there is no brushstroke.
Vector paintings have the advantage that files are small and can be enlarged without loss of sharpness. Size and resolution can be set to the maximum the printer can handle. Computer generated painting (above) is non-manual vector painting.
Hybrid vector-raster painting combines the personal brush style of raster with the formula-based lines and forms of vector. It is done in one program or by combining different programs for vector and raster. The raster elements still lose sharpness when they are enlarged. Some hybrid painting programs (e.g. ArtRage) use Bezier curves in the background to smooth raster lines and curves without intervention of the artist. The painting procedure is spontaneous, stroke by stroke, and the output is a fixed resolution raster file. The smooth, non-raster, non-vector appearance of the painting reflects the hybrid basis. Smoothing mitigates the loss of resolution when the image is enlarged.
In addition, in recent versions of hybrid painting programs, ‘scripting’ allows the painter to replay brushstrokes on a larger scale without loss of resolution.
Over the centuries, artists have used a variety of tools to put the outside world on their canvas as raw material to be digested and molded into their own subjective interpretation. It is nothing new that painters use a camera. To place a picture on a digital canvas and transform it into a painting now requires nothing but a push on a button. This entails changes in painterly development (see below) and shifts existing boundaries between disciplines. A photographer now uses the same software for editing and transforming a photo as the artist for creating a painting. Digital painters often use the physical carriers that were developed for photography. The shared toolbox and presentation establish a transition zone between photography and painting, or between recording and creating images. Classification is not always easy if a photo is used as input in a creative process. If photographic aspects dominate it is usually classified as 'digital photo art' or 'new photography'. If painterly aspects dominate as ‘digital painting’.
When the artist increases the height and width of an existing image, its resolution or information density decreases and it will become vague. Resolution is usually expressed in dpi (dots per inch). While the image on the screen already looks sharp at the standard resolution of 72 dpi on the web, a physical carrier needs 300 dpi or more to look sharp. Moreover, the physical carrier is usually much larger in height and width as well.
For a vector painting, where colors and lines are controlled by
formulas, enlargement requires nothing but a push on a button. There
is no loss of resolution. For raster painting, information will have
to be added to fill in the gaps. This is done with the help of
enlargement software or by the 're-size' option in the painting
program. Automatic enlargement usually needs manual corrections.
Although much progress has been made in automatic enlargement, it remains difficult to fill in the empty space between handmade lines and shapes. Lines become unsteady and crumbly and unintended 'noise' appears along the edges of color patches. The image above shows two different types of online enlargement of the same fragment of Pierre Bonnard's Getting out of the bath. Note that each entails its own noise and deformation.
In order to eliminate deformation and obtain a faithful representation of the original, automatic enlargement is usually followed by manual correction. Depending on the speed of the computer and the chosen size and resolution of the image, correction can be slow or even come to a halt. The screen, of course, is not enlarged: the artist can no longer see the whole image and has to zoom in and out, switching between corrections and reviewing the results. Depending on the size of the file, the process can be slow and time consuming.
Recently, several programs for raster and hybrid painting introduced ‘scripting’. Strokes and actions that compose the image are recorded and can be repeated in an automated process and without loss of resolution on a larger canvas on the desktop.
For artists and collectors alike, a faithful representation of
colors is of prime importance.
To see colors
Every computer screen deviates to some degree from the 'true' colors that are set as a standard by the international color convention (ICC). These deviations can be corrected by a calibration of the screen. For anyone working with colors it is necessary to calibrate the screen regularly. It is done with a small sensor that calls up a number of colors on the screen, compares them with the standard values and creates a monitor profile which is automatically installed as the default. It runs silently in the background and has only one task: to keep the individual screen fixed to the standard. Although, confusingly, this profile is listed between a whole range of optional profiles for printing, it should be left alone. It is not embedded in an artwork.
To create colors
In desktop painting software, the basic profile types have their corresponding palettes and matching color spectrum in the workspace. It is advisable to work in the palette and the spectrum that matches the destination - CMYK for printing, RGB for online display and grayscale for black and white. Changing RGB to CMYK profiles is not (yet) possible on mobile devices.
To display and print colors
The artist should embed a color profile in the finished artwork that matches one of two destinations: a webpage or a printing company. This is important because the color palette for printing is much smaller than the palette of a computer screen. If the artist sends a painting to the printer that has the RGB profile for online display embedded, every color that is not available will in an automated process be translated to neighboring color that can be printed. The result can be disappointing.
This is especially relevant for painters working on mobile apps because they have the RGB profile embedded in their artworks. A desktop painting program should be used to convert RGB colors to a CMYK profile for printing. Most printing companies supply their own profile, tailored to the machinery, ink and choice of paper. They can also prescribe one of the CMYK profiles that are available in most computers. Some accept files with the RGB profile and convert them to their own CMYK profile.
Colors in browsers
Only 216 colors are standardized between browsers. The artist who whishes to avoid online color deviation has the option to use the 'web safe color palette'. However this seriously limits the choice of colors.
In conclusion, three things are needed to see and to represent
(1) The screen should be calibrated.
(2) The artist should paint with the color palette that matches the destination. If this is not possible, paint in RGB and convert to CYMK before sending the work to the printer.
(3) The right profile should be embedded in the artwork, RGB for digital destination and CMYK for a printing company.
Over the centuries art lovers have felt the hand and mood of the painter in brush strokes and paint. Many find that a painting without texture is fine in a book, but doesn't feel right on the wall. Though a stylus can be as sensitive to the pressure of the hand as a traditional brush, and the pressure can be made visible on the screen, a digital painting is entirely flat. Some artists accept flatness as a property of digital painting. Many print or project their work on a physical carrier and paint it over, thereby using the computer as a preparatory device and sacrificing the digital characteristics. Brushstroke gel is widely used to simulate brush strokes on a printed canvas.
In traditional painting, the numbering of a limited edition by
convention follows a quality/quantity notation 'i/n' in front of the
artwork. Where 'i' indicates a rough ranking of the individual print
according to technical and aesthetic quality and 'n' is the size of
the edition. Since all prints of a digital artwork are identical,
'i' has no other meaning than to let a buyer know how many prints
are still available. The meaning of 'n' is still the same: the size
of a limited edition has economic significance for collectors. As in
traditional painting, the size of 'n' is set by the artist prior to
the first sale. The artist keeps register of the number of copies
that are sold. Open series are referred to as '∞' and numerically
unique prints as '1/1'. In the automated printing process, the
unnumbered run-up prints that are traditionally labeled as 'E.A.'
(epreuve artiste) or 'A.P.' (artist's proof), can still occur.
A great variety of digital tools brings the artist new means to
express thoughts and feelings. On the negative side, the more the
computer facilitates their work by offering easy imports, taking
over painting processes and offering a wide array of styles, the
more difficult it becomes for painters to develop their own idiom,
to take distance from images that are already created and to make
the voice of the computer secondary to their own.
The choice for an app narrows to some extent the development of the artist by bringing him within the possibilities and the style of the software. Further development is a process of interaction. A considered choice should also assess the risk that the software developer will not be able to keep up backward integration. In such a case paintings created with older versions of an app may no longer be transferred or printed.
In order to eliminate the color bias of the individual screen, it
is important to regularly calibrate (see 'about colors'). Even then,
it is difficult to assess the look and feel of a painting online.
Colors to some extent vary with the physical carrier of the artwork
and with the type of screen of the spectator.
The best way to judge a digital painting is by way of a proof. It should be printed on the chosen carrier and executed with the same resolution and by same printing company that prints the final artwork. Most printing companies offer watermarked proofs at a reduced price.
To browse the many online portfolios is not yet as easy and pleasant as it can be. There is a great deal of room for improvement in search algorithms. Some of the world's largest online galleries show collectors hundreds of very similar computer generated images that are made by only a few painters. If they tire from so much homogeneity and decide to resume another time they will have to go through the same images again. Some galleries lower the resolution of paintings to speed up browsing, which results in vague images and deprives collectors of the more time-efficient method of judging sharp thumbnails at first sight.
Not withstanding the major visual differences of the mainstream
painting directions, many search engines do not allow to filter on
‘raster’, ‘vector’, ‘hybrid’ or ‘computer generated’ digital art.
Primary aspects like the resolution or the number in a limited
edition are often not included in the description. The used software
is rarely mentioned. Yet, in order to appreciate originality and
technical skill, and to distinguish what comes out of the app from
what comes out of the artist, collectors need to know which program
was used to create the painting. (Visit Ben Guerette's A
Blog appArt for a wild variety of styles and
technical skills that are a property of the software.)
As a result, finding interesting art online and gathering the relevant information asks for some perseverance and independent acting. Once a choice is made, it is important to buy from a trusted party. While most painters are still alive, work can be bought directly from the artist or at online galleries where they show their portfolios.
The market for digital art is gradually maturing. Collectors start
to realize that digital painting is a new visual language that can't
be expressed with traditional means. Many problems have been solved.
Color representation has become fairly reliable thanks to
calibration and the use of color profiles. Digital and physical
asset management and a responsible handling of digital files have
brought the risk of duplication down to an acceptable level. Slowly
but steadily, digital paintings are finding their way to museums,
auctions and galleries where they meet a new generation of
Yet many highly professional, even pioneering digital painters lack the technical know-how to get their work out of the computer and into the real world. Most rely on an online gallery. The larger galleries offer an abundance of originals and limited edition quality prints worldwide with good sales conditions. This relieves artists of technical concerns. On the negative side, if printing is left to the gallery and the print sent directly to the collector, the artist can no longer evaluate and if necessary adjust the (color) representation. Physical asset management such as a manual signature is likewise not possible, and the computer of the artist is no longer the only location where a high resolution file of the painting is stored.
A certificate is a document that bears a mark of identity such as the signature of the artist, often supplemented with a personalized sign, watermark, bar code, fingerprint or hologram which matches an identity mark on or in the artwork. It contains a copyright declaration, distinguishes between an original and an open or closed edition, states the size of a limited edition, binds the artist to deletion of the digital carrier after the sale, and conditions the display of the artwork after it is sold. A Certificate of Unicity for a numerically unique print ('original' or '1/1') a Certificate for a Limited Edition and a Certificate for an Open Edition is regularly updated and freely available on this site.
Brushstroke gel: Water-soluble acrylic polymer
containing a UV inhibitor which helps protect the art from yellowing
and fading. Also used to recreate brushstrokes on digital paintings
printed on canvas. http://www.artandframingsolutions.com/BrushstrokeGel.htm
Don Archers blog, Digital art, artists and commentaries
Spyder calibration sensor
Carriers for digital painting:
Xpozer, Prints on polyester coated paper, floating, unframed mount (sRGB profile accepted)
Whitewall, Prints on Hahnemuele paper, canvas, brushed aluminum, dibond, perspex, (printer's color profile supplied, sRGB profile excepted)
Drukwerkdeal, Postcards, large format prints on dibond and brushed aluminum, and postcards (printer's color profile supplied)
Certificates, For original, limited and open edition
Automatic conversion, photos to paintings, drawings and cartoons
Waterlogue, Automatic conversion of photos to paintings, drawings and cartoons
Many programs listed
Oneone perfect resize, (enlargement correction)
ZoomPro5, Ben Vista
Enlargement, manual (projection of physical and digital image on walls, canvas etc.):
beamers (choose a led beamer to work in daylight)
Fractal art, video1
Fractal art, video2
Agora West 25th Street, New York, NY)
K16 Keizersgracht 16, 1015 CP Amsterdam, NL)
Hand painted copies:
Dafen Village, China: By artist, style, size
Mark, barcode, digimark, hologram (print and digital
Barcode registration GS1
Digimark (invisibly embedded watermark with tracing option, a Photoshop plug-in)
MOCA Museum of Computer Art (MOCA) of New York State University offers emerging directions in digital art an online platform since 1993. Annual competition in digital art, catalogues.
Programs for painting on iPad and iPhone:
Adobe Eazel (raster) (no undo option)
Adobe ideas (vector) (in combination with Adobe Illustrator)
ArtRage (has scripting)
Procreate (maximum canvas depends on device. iPad Pro 16,384 x 4,096)
Inkpad (vector, open source)
Programs for painting on PC and Mac:
Adobe Photoshop CS6
Programs for fractal painting:
Programs for vector painting:
Overwiew of vector programs and file formats
Adobe ideas (iPad) (in combination with Adobe Illustrator)
Inkpad (iPad/iPhone) (open source)
CorelDraw for Windows
For artwork on paper
A Blog appArt, An overview of styles and features of apps and painting software by Ben Guerette
vector art, video
Blood sweat vector
Vectorization, online (raster to vector conversion):
2013-2019 DigitalPainting.be Amsterdam - Gent
2019/02/12 Updated characteristics with flip form. Added tip jar.
2018/12/18 Update of 'Protecting
originals and limited editions'
2018/11/28 The text is corrected and modified
2018/03/13 The text is dedicated into the Public Domain
2017/09/13 New certificates published (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'