Digital art is an expansive field whose genesis can be traced back to the 1970s and the emergence of the Information Age. MoMA defines this period as one abundant in the “publication, consumption, and manipulation of information, especially by computers.” From that point on, as the world became immersed in digitization, a new category of art arose, commonly called “digital art” or “computer art.”
Digital Art Definition
What is digital art? Digital art encompasses any works created with digital technology — either with computer hardware, electronics, or software — the programs and websites that serve as the new “palette” and “canvas.” Back in the ’70s when it first emerged, the category was met with skepticism and resistance. In the decades since, many have embraced the medium, seen perhaps as a new era of “painting” paralleled with technological advancement; a computer-generated Renaissance, of sorts.
Whether or not you’re ready to install a digital work of art in your home, one thing is clear: this contemporary genre is changing the landscape of art and collecting. And as museums entirely dedicated to digital art pop up in major cities like Paris and Tokyo, the increasing relevance and evolution of the category inspired us to further explore what digital art is and how digital works are created.
Digital Art: Understanding a Complex Field
When you think of digital art, your mind might conjure all-encompassing, mesmerizing installations often found in contemporary art galleries, museums, and public spaces. Chicago, for instance, will soon have what is touted as the “world’s largest digital art installation” projected on its Merchandise Mart building. This 35-minute video installation will be shown in 3D with the help of 35 individual projectors.
Early Digital Art
When it comes to digital art, perhaps you think back to some of the early pioneers of the genre. At the brink of the Information Age, the first well-known piece of digital art came about: a work titled Young Nude (1966), created by computer graphics specialist Kenneth C. Knowlton. The piece started as a photograph of nude woman and was transformed into a pixelated image. In that same year, gridded computer art by Hiroshi Kawano like Artificial Mondrian also gained popularity. Other famous digital artists also include Andy Warhol, who manipulated an image of American singer Debbie Harry, adding color using flood fills on a Commodore Amiga PC when the computer was introduced in 1985. The video images of video art pioneer Nam June Paik that were displayed on a mountain of television sets at the MoMA became part of a notable digital sculpture in the early 1990s.
Forms of Digital Art
Digital art takes on several names and loose definitions because it is evolving alongside the advent of newer and more sophisticated technology. Thus, the category encompasses a broad range of art and media, which can make the genre even more difficult to define. There are some things we do know about digital art; for one, it is created using computers and technology, and often involves methods of mass production and digital media. Graphic design, for example, in the filmmaking, advertising, and mass media worlds can even fall under the umbrella of digital art.
Digital art has, in many ways reinvented the disciplines of drawing, painting, sculpting, and music and sound art. In 2010, sculptor and instrument maker Ian Schneller teamed up with performing artist Andrew Bird to produce Sonic Arboretum, a multi-media installation blending sculpture and a custom musical composition. Later, in 2016, a sound art exhibition in Lima, the largest of its kind in Latin America, featured 40 different sounds as “the principal vehicle for the production of meaning.” Other notable sound artists who work in a variety of media include Christian Marclay and Chantal Dumas, demonstrating that this recent exploration of the relationship between visual art and sound, for example, is one of the many fascinating byproducts of the digital art age.
Video art is a form of digital art that involves the use of moving images, often combined with audio. It is created with broadcasted recordings, video installations with projections, or live video seen in galleries or museums, online streaming, tapes, or DVDs, and performances using TV sets or video monitors. Artists began experimenting with this medium in the 1960s when video tape recorders became widely accessible to everyday consumers. The art form, unlike theatrical cinema, does not necessarily involve actors, dialogue, nor a plot.
After Korean-American artist Nam June Paik displayed his Sony Portapak tapes of Pope Paul VI’s procession through New York City in 1965, video art is said to have officially emerged. Other notable video artists include Bill Viola, Matthew Barney, Tony Oursler, and Steina and Woody Vasulka, the pair who used video synthesizers to make abstract pieces. Video art pioneers Ira Schneider and Frank Gillette created “Wipe Cycle,” which was displayed in a New York gallery in 1969 and combined live images of gallery visitors, TV footage, and pre-recorded tapes.
New editing software and more sophisticated devices in the 1980s and ‘90s allowed for video artists to explore interactive components, as with Jeffrey Shaw, whose work explores both physical and digital techniques. Shaw’s work “Legible City” (1988-91) takes viewers on a motion ride, letting them pedal a stationary bike while virtually touring scenes of major cities. Further to the advances that emerged in the 1990s, the latest editing capabilities developed in just the past few years have allowed video artists to avoid using their own content; Marco Brambilla’s 2008 work, “Civilization,” selects specific movie clips in a ‘video mural’ to depict his conception of heaven and hell.
Digital visual art consists of 2D or 3D information shown or projected using an electronic visual display. Digital installation art, on the other hand, is immersive, putting the viewer inside the artwork, and collective, consisting of many works meant to be experienced together. In some installations, viewers even interact with the work; Random International’s 2012 work, Rain Room, for example, was an installation that simulated rain falling from the sky. Those who entered the room were tracked, and the rain was programmed to stop wherever they stood.
As part of this immersive and interactive environment, digital art installations also experiment with more of our senses. We no longer just see; now we see and hear and feel, which perhaps better allows us to perceive meaning.
In addition, digital art can include:
1. Photo manipulation, such as a photo that has been scanned in and manipulated using specific software;
2. Natural media, or software that mimics traditional media like pastel, chalk, and watercolor;
3. Algorithmic art, or patterns based on the internal functions of computers and fractal geometry; and
4. Integrative art, which is a combination of all of the above.
Digital art is not, however, art that is created using other non-technological media and simply scanned in; rather, it refers to art that was significantly modified by a computer.
Famous Digital Artists
Perhaps the best way to better define digital art is by examining the artists who are currently responsible for molding the genre. Below are six famous digital artists working today who are shaping the trajectory of new media.
Based in the United Kingdom, Nik Ainley is self-taught in digital art and first discovered it while studying physics in college, where producing computer graphics turned into a hobby, and eventually a profession. Today, he produces personal and commissioned illustrated works for over 10 years. He works in both 2D and 3D softwares, and is happiest when learning new programs and techniques.
Also known as Shadow Chen, Leiying is a mixed media digital artist and illustrator based in Shanghai. Her passion is to create colorful, emotional images inspired by a love of nature and a fascination with the evolution of life. Her psychedelic colors and shapes, tones and textures used in her works, she says, can “reveal the existence of the energy of the five elements,” or the Wu Xing, in Chinese thought. Of her work, Chen says, “Nothing is better than swimming with all the colors of the rainbow in a big white piece of paper, sometimes inside of a computer screen.” Currently, Chen is looking to travel while creating artworks encompassing various cultures.
Kristina Gehrmann is an illustrator and graphic novelist from Germany. In her work, she includes historical and fantasy subjects which reflect examples of classical Western artwork from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Gerhmann uses Wacom tablet and Photoshop to create most of her pieces. She mainly works with small publishing companies and self-publishers.
Evgeny Kiselev’s works feature symmetrical and mirrored tiled patterns that are “forced to push beyond the confines of their logic.” He aims to create infinite spatial depth using complex color and layering, which he says “manifests the controlled lawlessness” of his works.
Born in Milan, Alberto Seveso’s passion for graphic art began at a young age. He was fascinated by the skateboard deck graphics and metal band CD covers of the early 1990s. Since his career as an illustrator and digital photographer took off, he worked with brands like Adobe, Nikon, National Geographic, Ford and Disney, to name a few, and his work has been featured in many magazines, books and blogs.
Interested in movies, comics and pop culture, Alice X. Zhang is a highly influential young digital artist who most recently started working with Marvel comics as a solo artist on a fully illustrated book of female superheroes. She’s also been commissioned for works for major films and TV shows like Star Wars, Dr. Who, and Sherlock. She has been featured in a number of publications and exhibitions. More of her works can be seen over at Bottleneck Art Gallery’s official site.
Collecting Digital Art
Are people actually collecting digital art? In a word, yes. While this is a relatively recent trend, about 10 percent of total art collectors around the world “are solely digital art collectors.” That’s pretty significant. Some, like Richard and Pamela Kramlich, who were among the first digital art collectors, say that video art is “the art of our time.”