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MIND MELD: Art in a Digital World

The digital revolution has affected all areas of out lives, with some sort of computing device present in just about every gadget imaginable. The world of artistic endeavor has not been immune to the advance of technology, but most people may not realize how technology can affect the production of an artistic work.

We asked the following question of this week’s panel:

Q: How have digital tools affected the way in which you create your artistic pieces? Will a 100% digitally created work of art ever be considered a ‘masterpiece’, able to take its place alongside the current masterpieces?
Alan M. Clark
Alan M. Clark is an author and artist, best known for his works in the horror genre. He is a 2008 Chesley Award Nominee and he also run his own publishing company, IFD Publishing.

Although I almost always produce my artwork in a traditional manner (pencils, paints, brushes, etc.), I create digital files of each piece to archive the work and facilitates its use by publishers. When creating these files, I have no problem manipulating them digitally to improve them. Occasionally, when I have altered a piece digitally and really like the results, I’ll use paint or pencil to alter the painting or drawing to match the file.

Yes, I consider some fully digital pieces of art to be masterpieces, but I’m not concerned with what others of the present and future might think about digital work.

There is something to be said for artwork that is so obviously hand-made that it offers the viewer a sense of the artistic process involved in its creation. This is not common among pieces of digitally produced artwork, but there are many other ways in which a piece of art can be successful.

Ruth Sanderson
Ruth Sanderson has illustrated over 70 different books as well as written and illustrated 12 more. She is a 2008 Chesley Award Nominee.

Rick Berry creates digital masterpieces all the time. The computer is just another tool. It still takes creativity to use it to its highest potential, but it is as valid a medium as any other. Same tool, different brain behind it.

Greg Bridges
Greg Bridges was born in Australia and, after studying art ifor his introductory year at college, he set out to combine the work of fine art, surreal art and Sci-fi art into his now unique art form. His vision was to create science fiction art as fine art. He is a 2008 Chesley Award Nominee.

They have effected it in ways that enable my work to be created in greater detail and more choices of subject development than traditional work. This is mainly due to the time savings in preparing and mixing paint, and the ability to “undo” mistakes thereby minimization of deadline stress, along with ease of file transfer across the globe.

David A. Hardy
David A. Hardy produced his first work of space art in 1950. Since then, he’s become a world renowned space artist, producing numerous works. He is a 2008 Chesley Award Nominee.

May I recommend Jane Frank’s recent book, Paint or Pixel? (Nonstop Press), and indeed my contribution in it, which says much more than I can here!

I have been painting professionally since 1954 (I was 18 when I illustrated my first book for Patrick Moore), and have always embraced new technology and experimented with different media and styles. So apart from gouache, acrylics and oils I have used xerox, photography (including ‘derivative’ darkroom techniques, like Kodalith and high-contrast). So when computers for the home came along I got an Atari 520ST with 512 k (yes K) of RAM, and worked my way up via one of the first PowerMacs to my current Mac with 4GB of RAM, 2.8GHz and a couple of terabytes of storage.

I do hardly any 3D work, apart from Terragen to compose landscapes and Poser for figures, and I feel that it is this side of digital art that gives much of it the same ‘look’; it can be difficult to tell one artist’s work from another’s, because their work is produced by the same algorithms. I now produce some 90% of my illustration work in Photoshop, which I use as just another tool — albeit one that can speed up production and allow effects which are virtually (no pun. . .) impossible by other methods. But I still enjoy painting when I have an opportunity, especially on a large canvas, and I often use a thick impasto, because this is something that can’t really be done on a digital print. Because that is the problem with digital media: there is _no original_, nothing about which the artist can say “This is an original piece of work, and there is nothing else in the world exactly like it.” Yes, we can produce excellent prints and giclees, but the fact remains that the buyer has only the artists’ word that only one, or ten or a hundred copies will ever be made.

Having said that, I see no reason why an image that is crated electronically cannot be considered a masterpiece. It is, ultimately, the image — the end result — that is being judged, and its method of production should not be a barrier to the viewer’s judgement of it as a piece of art.

Maurizio Manzieri
Maurizio Manzieri is a professional artist living in Turin, Italy. His artwork has appeared in many international exhibits and renowned annuals including Spectrum, The Best in Fantastic Contemporary Art. He is a 2008 Chesley Award Nominee.

Can a virtual work of art be considered a ‘masterpiece’ without the existence in the material world of a real canvas? What about artists from traditional school enhancing their productivity by shifting to a drawing tablet? Since the advent of digital technology I’ve been discussing these issues in many artistic circles. The debate will go on for decades until electronic tools will blend in such a way with traditional methods that they will be fully accepted by future generations.

If you think for a moment about it, prices are dropping and sophisticated equipments are becoming accessible to a wider range of artists. We can take as an example the Cintiq family of Wacom graphic tablets.They allow any artist to draw directly on the flat screen monitor/tablet. Jump to this videoclip about a Cintiq 12UX reviewed by Stephan Dube at CGChannel and you’ll understand in a flash what I mean saying that traditional and digital tools are going to blend. A digital tool is nothing without an artist. When you are focused on your vision, it represents just a medium and while you are digi-painting directly on the screen with electronic brushes or airbrushes, you are using your mind, your experience, the teachings of your school… so the digital medium becomes indeed a cyber-extension of your fantasy.

Personally I like to draw my preliminary sketches with conventional pencils – it’s a manual legacy – and then move my work to the electronic realm. My illustrations included in the Spectrum collection are expressly indicated as realized with a digital medium, and so are the creations of many other artists. When you browse through the pages of this awesome series showcasing ‘The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art’, you don’t think you are looking at something lower just because it was made with a computer, you feel you’re watching awesome expressions of Art… maybe created by artists that just a few years ago were used to paint the same artworks with acrylic colors and brushes.

In 1997 I was invited in Rome to the first international Exhibit of Digital Art together with renowned digital artists coming from all over the world, like Laurence Gartel, Gil Bruvel, Cher Threinen-Pendarvis. My featured illustration, a cover for Interzone titled “Lady of the Year 2800”, was printed on a huge high-quality canvas. It was terrific! You couldn’t say at first sight it was born as a digital painting. We artists wrote down on the spot a manifesto whose words still sound interesting after twelve years. I’m pleased to report here a few lines:

“The Digitalism is a movement towards the future with a powerful memory of the past…As we approach the new millennium, we are filled with the anticipation of a new global awareness…we do firmly believe and so, strongly state, that the new Art dwells not so much in the artifact that hosts it, but in the concept that molds it… Thanks to technology, our Art, all Art, can be universally enjoyed and eternally preserved… Art, as ever, springs from the mind and the heart of the Artist. Whatever their subject matter, whatever their means to the end, it remains an expansive, personal experience for both the creator and the viewer!”

Stephan Hickman
Stephen Hickman has been illustrating science fiction and fantasy for three decades. His work is inspired by the masters of fantasy and science fiction writing — J.R.R. Tolkien, H.P. Lovecraft, A. Merritt, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Clark Ashton Smith. He is a 2008 Chesley Award Nominee.

I personally love the computer for 2-D work — it is in it’s essence the ultimate 2-D paintbrush. I use it more and more in my cover work, and recently turned in a painting which was 100% digital, though this just sort of happened. It’s like a whole new playground, I love it. I’ll never give up doing paintings using the whole gamut of Rennaissance materials either, but I don’t see a conflict here — it is simply a matter of what the painting is intended for.

And like every paintbrush ever made, the computer is only as good as the artist that uses it. The subtext to this issue [digital vs. traditional mediums] is: will the computer replace brushes and canvas? This is a semi-hysterical issue that I for one am getting a bit fed up with. This sounds like a high-tech issue, but is only an extension of the controversy that started between Trog and Alley Oop circa One Million BC, when Trog invents the airbrush [rolled up birch bark filled with powdered charcoal], walks up to the cave wall where Alley Oop is toiling away with colored clay and animal bristles tied to the end of a stick, and PAH-TOO! the outline of Trog’s now-blackened hand adorns the cave wall — But Is It Art?

When the world of tempera painters was threatened by the invention of the egg-oil emulsion, which Van Eyck introduced, the same thing probably occurred. And on and on

Art is in its essence Vision — if the artist has the vision of a masterpiece the artist can render it in whatever medium they prefer. I’ve seen any number of digital pieces I consider masterworks, ALL of which happened to be done by traditional painters who saw the computer is the next logical step in the evolution of their painting process.

As far as replacing an oil painting with its tactile surface and subtle brilliance, I don’t think a print-out can, at this stage, compete. But I suspect this is only a matter of time. I understand that there are already a photocopy process that can duplicate the impasto of an oil painting by a process of paint deposition — this is duplicating an already-painted oil painting. I can’t see it would be so impossible to write a software that could include the impasto option to a painting program, but this is not really the province of a digital image: the image in glowing light on a large, flat screen, with its visual texture, is its true form.

Art is a matter of taste — which medium to choose, and whether the painting is a masterpiece. Essentially, it is a matter of Vision, and the choice of medium and preferences of the viewers only add the charm of variety to the World of Art

Todd Lockwood
Todd Lockwood‘s work defined the 3rd Edition of D&D, graced the covers of R.A. Salvatore’s books and for Tor, DAW, Pyr, Asimov’s, Analog, and others. He is the winner of 12 Chesleys, umpteen art-show awards, and is a nominee for the 2008 Chesley Award.

I wish I knew the answer to that question. I personally believe that image is image, regardless of how it was created. There is no one, original photo by Ansel Adams. There are is only one, true “original” of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony — his first performance of it. The only true original of a digital painting is the one on my own monitor, the day that I created it. That doesn’t lessen its impact. In the case of a digital painting, the prints can far outshine the image as seen on my computer. At the same time, however, I miss having original paintings to hang and to sell. There is something about the surface of a real oil painting that no print can achieve. But if the two images are reproduced on book covers or as a collectible prints, the digital image might well seem superior. So where do you draw that line? In illustration, the final product is the determining factor. Are you painting for the client or the collectors? Should collectors get to decide what is “real art” and what isn’t? Or is a juried competition like Spectrum a better guide, in which only image is considered?

Lou Anders
A 2007/2008 Hugo Award and 2007 Chesley Award and 2006 World Fantasy Award nominee, Lou Anders is the editorial director of Prometheus Books’ science fiction imprint Pyr, as well as the anthologies Outside the Box (Wildside Press, 2001), Live Without a Net (Roc, 2003), Projections: Science Fiction in Literature & Film (MonkeyBrain, December 2004), FutureShocks (Roc, January 2006), Fast Forward 1 (Pyr, February 2007), and the forthcoming Sideways in Crime (Solaris, June 2008) and Fast Forward 2 (Pyr, October 2008). In 2000, he served as the Executive Editor of, and before that he worked as the Los Angeles Liaison for Titan Publishing Group. He is the author of The Making of Star Trek: First Contact (Titan Books, 1996), and has published over 500 articles in such magazines as The Believer, Publishers Weekly, Dreamwatch, Star Trek Monthly, Star Wars Monthly, Babylon 5 Magazine, Sci Fi Universe, Doctor Who Magazine, and Manga Max. His articles and stories have been translated into Danish,Greek, German, Italian and French, and have appeared online at, and Visit him online at and

As to the second question, considered by whom? I certainly think that Stephan Martiniere produces masterpieces, and he works purely digitally. Meanwhile, while John Picacio creates all his paintings by hand using traditional media, he does composite them digitally, meaning their is rarely a single physical version of the final work that you could say was “the original.” This hasn’t stopped him winning awards, nor selling lots of prints at conventions. Then there’s Dave Seeley, who does a digital underpainting, but then prints it out and hand paints on top of it (often for weeks), so that he DOES have a final, hand painted original, even though it’s paint on top of a print out.

Digital tools are just that – tools. Just as brushes are tools. They are only as good as the artist that wields them. Those who don’t understand the fundamentals don’t produce art when they wield them, whether their brushes are online or in their hands. And those that have put the time in – they win Hugos.

John Picacio
John Picacio has illustrated covers for books by Harlan Ellison, Michael Moorcock, Robert Silverberg, Frederik Pohl, Jeffrey Ford, Charles Stross, Robert Heinlein, Joe R. Lansdale, L.E. Modesitt, Jr., and many, many more. A four-time Hugo Award nominee for Best Professional Artist, he has won the Locus Award, the International Horror Guild Award, the Chesley Award, and the much-coveted World Fantasy Award – all in the Artist category. In February 2008, Ballantine/Del Rey released a major trade paperback edition of Michael Moorcock’s Elric: The Stealer of Souls (Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melnibone), featuring Picacio’s cover and interior illustrations. He’s currently a 2008 Chesley Award nominee and a 2008 World Fantasy Award finalist. He and his wife, Traci, live in San Antonio, Texas. For more info and pictures, please visit

If Pablo Picasso were alive, I wonder if he’d experiment with a Mac to create art? What about Salvador Dali? How about Leonardo Da Vinci? Would they be any less of an artist for using digital tools? I suspect the answers are yes, yes, yes, and no.

I think that the great artists are equivalent to the role of shaman in early tribal cultures because, at their best, they point society toward the next uncharted frontier. In the case of someone like Vincent Van Gogh, or even Picasso when he painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, sometimes the artist is ahead of their time. Maybe we’ll look back at digital tools as having that same problem, at times in our art history. Digital tools are as valid as any other tool in an artistic arsenal because the real and the unreal can now be combined in fresh ways. I’ve said it before, but I look at digital tools not as a substitute for good drawing and painting, but as a way to combine materials in new and provocative ways. I like the surprises in the juxtapositions and it forces me to react in ways that I might not have to, if I were simply painting on a canvas in the real world. It’s interesting to bounce back and forth between non-digital means of working, and digital means, and finding the spaces between the two. Personally, I’m most excited by the hybrid spaces between traditional and digital, and there’s still fertile territory to explore there.

I understand how some purist painting collectors feel threatened by works that aren’t pure paint, but good art isn’t created sitting in a room to satisfy a collector. I think it’s personal and it’s a provocative act. It’s an act of trying to ask a new question, an act of trying to express a view of the world or a vapor of a dream, and in the case of a book cover, an act of trying to make a connection. Let’s face it – the best art throughout history responds to the times that it lives in. That response can be voiced in infinitely effective ways. So in an indisputably digital age, it seems to me that it would be silly not to respond to our own digital times, both inspiring and perversely troubling, with a digital tool at some point or another. I think it’s part of the evolution of an artist in this day and time. As to the question of masterpieces wholly traditional vs. masterpieces wholly digital, that’s not for me to say. That’s for the audience to decide.

I’ve got a question though – if the best art responds to its times, and if Picasso, Dali, and Da Vinci were alive today in this 21st century, would they be any less of an artist if they chose NOT to confront digital tools in some way, shape, or fashion, even if meant confronting them and discarding them for media that’s centuries old?

About JP Frantz (2322 Articles)
Has nothing interesting to say so in the interest of time, will get on with not saying it.

8 Comments on MIND MELD: Art in a Digital World

  1. Another fascinating question with fascinating responces. Well done.

  2. I’m happy to hear from so many forward thinking creative folks, but there really are people out there who look down on artists who don’t smell of volitile organic compounds and toxic solvents. Great question!

  3. In terms of my job, digital or traditional makes no difference. Once it’s reproduced on a book cover the media is a stylistic difference, not a qualitative one.

    As for being a person that loves to see museum and gallery exhibits, then I do think there is no replacing a traditional painting, if you are presenting it as a traditional painting. I think digital art for exhibition will come into it’s own when it it thought of as installation art. How great would it be to walk into a large empty room with Stephan Martiniere’s work projected throughout!

    But where I see digital as having its most surprising effect isn’t in the outcome of paintings, but in the learning process. When I went to high school out the suburbs of Long Island, no one around me had any interest in art. With some effort I went to summer programs and weekend workshops, but I was fairly isolated in my interests. Now any 15 year old can post their work on any number of art boards and get feedback from their peers and working professionals. They are banding together, pushing each other, and getting good fast! I’m seeing college kids that I want to hire, and that was unheard of 10 years ago.

  4. I for one would love to, as Irene suggests, walk into a room and see large format versions of Stephan  Martinierre’s work.  Large enough to really appreciate the scope of his work that doesn’t translate as well as it could on small book covers.  That would be amazing.



  5. Sebastian // August 24, 2008 at 9:51 pm //

    Very interesting discussion. I am a collector of this style of art, and coincidentally own one of Todd’s original paintings. You can see my collection, along with many others that are much larger, over at the Illustration Exchange website.

    I personally value the artistry of digital works, and certainly agree that the masters of digital art produce artistic masterpieces that at the very least equal in artistry to more traditional forms of painting.

    To me digital art isn’t inferior artistically – it is simply a riskier investment for a collector.

    The issue boils down to originals versus limited editions. Given the costs involved with buying art from successful artists, purchasing originals is a serious financial investment. I personally am not interested in investing significant amounts of money in any limited edition print.

    I certainly would never argue that an artist should focus purely on producing works for collectors. I would have thought however that producing hand crafted originals could at the very least be a useful sideline to help further an artist’s career, and provide an additional income stream.


    On the topic of masterpieces, I think it will be interesting to see how public art galleries handle acquiring purely digital masterpieces into their permanent collections.


  6. Working digitally has totally transformed the way I approach an image.  Pre-digital, I used to work up from sketches, planning gesture and value before color and detail.  Now my process is far more cyclical than linear, where I am constantly testing overall color, focus, and even details or character expressions in early stages, and that informs the development path throughout.  I’d “draw” a parallel to typing / word processing, where I now brain dump, then cut and paste -restructuring- and finally refine (a method far more sympathetic with my kind of brain in producing written AND visual works).  Digital tools are clearly far superior to traditional methods of doing “studies”.  They also allow you to experiment in directions that would have been terrifyingly risky in traditional materials….  so I’d argue they have allowed artists a faster growth curve.  

    Like David…. I’d recommend the Paint or Pixel book for anyone who wants to explore this dialogue in multifaceted detail.

    On the “masterpiece” question… clearly I’m unqualified to answer that one because I had assumed that they already HAD taken their rightful place…..;-)

  7. Mike Oxley // August 25, 2008 at 3:28 pm //

    To an artist, the computer is just another tool; the latest step in technology that started with hand-ground pigments smeared on a wall, to canvas to synthetic brushes to the wacom tablet. The important issue for artists is getting the final piece to look how we want it to look, regardless of the tools used to produce it. It’s in the manner of viewing a piece of art that the differences become apparent.

    Digital artwork does one thing that traditional media cannot do and that’s paint with light. The whole visible spectrum of light, RGB, is your palette and the brightness of color this can produce is stunning….when viewed on a computer monitor or, as Irene suggested, projected on a surface. When viewed like this, no traditional piece can hold a candle to a digital one. When printed in CMYK and held next to a traditional piece, the digital has lost what soul it should have and appears somehow less for the loss.

    Traditional artwork has a clear advantage over digital when viewing an actual, physical piece. You can see individual brushstrokes and can almost ‘feel’ what the artist was doing with the brush. You can purchase that piece and know that it’s the original piece. When scanned into a computer, however, and shown next to a digital piece, that traditional piece appears dull and less vibrant.

    The great equalizer would be the Almighty Press. Book covers and magazines erase (to varying degrees) the advantages of both traditional and digital giving both a level playing field. I enjoy hand-painted Giancola and Dos Santos pieces as much as I do Martiniere and Sparth.

    So I would say that for printed media, digital has indeed matched traditional and has taken an equal place in that field. In the field of a ‘masterpiece’, you will have to view digital in it’s best…er…light or you’re doing it a disservice and making it always subservient to anything done in traditional media…digital will always loose something in the transition. To go back to Irene’s comment, if a gallery were to show Martiniere’s work, they would become masterpieces if they were viewed as projections, or better yet, the ‘canvases’ would be large HD monitors hung on the walls, displaying each piece with the stunning glow that only RGB can provide.



  8. Of course, digital tools are just that, tools. To the question as far as masterpieces go, the main difference is obviously in the original work. Not so much for collecting’s sake, but for appreciating the piece and verifying the one-of-a-kind authenticity of the author. There’s nothing like seeing the actual painting and getting some sense of the battle that went on between the artist and the canvas.

    We judge much of the great art of centuries ago by very physical means (signature analysis, pigment analysis, brushstrokes, infra-red tests) and digital pieces don’t offer that as an option. Perhaps living in the information age, we think we won’t need to use those techniques any longer. Goodness knows today, nothing is attributed to the wrong person (ha). Giclees attempt to bridge that gap by making a print more unique to it’s origin, but I suspect they only do so much. Creating on a virtual canvas vs. a physical one, does change things.

    All of us can admire digitally created art for the craftsmanship and skill applied by the artist. But down the line, it’s only shortcoming is indeed the lack of a physical fingerprint on the work that says “This piece was created in this day and time, by this person– and is unique.” In that regard, a print forever remains…well, a print.

    That said, I too know many students that are getting awfully good using digital tools as their launching point. Even Martiniere himself was initially drawn to the use of Photoshop because of its freedom and flexibility. Would I prefer to live in a world where the amount of work he’s created would be cut down to a third just to know there’s more “original” art out there?

    Hell, no.

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