After Photoshop, everything in digital art changed
Adobe’s Photoshop wasn’t the only graphics based software in the digital art market, but it bundled most of the tools you could need for image creation, editing, and layering in an affordable package, just as computers began to be commonplace in the home.
Beyond just enabling high quality art more affordably, Photoshop also opened up a range of tools like typesetting, retouching, or colour adjustments which previously required specialist machines and often specialist technicians to work them, whilst tools like layers made massive, time consuming adjustments, small and fast. Digital art wasn’t just going to be about digitally replicating traditional techniques, it put an entire image production studio at your fingertips, a range of options to create art prints, and all the opportunities to experiment which that offered.
There’s always some pushback against a new technology, and some artists saw the concept of digitally based art as soulless, or restrictive; complaining the Photoshop toolbox was only so big. Other artists pushed themselves to master the technology and found old workflows massively sped up, and that it was possible to dive deeper into the software to create custom palettes, tools, brushes and textures; for them the toolbox was limitless.
The World Wide Web arrives, and changes everything in digital art again
Digital art was evolving and innovating, but the digital component was still largely limited to a digital tool affecting a digital canvas; it was digitally enabled art rather than a form of art unique to the digital medium, and was still a rare sight, not exactly belonging in a conventional art gallery. A huge shift in technology was coming though, as the Internet and World Wide Web started to enter into wider awareness, gain increasing functionality and capability, and once again offer artists new ways to express their ideas.
The web almost ensured that digital art would embrace a multi-media approach, providing an online art gallery that could effortlessly display scans of traditional art, digital images, animations, video art, audio recordings, and 3D modelling all linked or collaged together. And as this became possible artists could absorb aspects of these other media; pixel art from gaming, 3D modelled environments from animation, or special effects from film; and a single person could realise all of it on their PC, and display it to the world through the web; this was a perfect playground to mix media.
The greatest gift the web gave though, was that of connectivity; even in it’s infancy in 1994, the artist Heath Bunting used the power of publishing a web page to list all of the pay phone numbers in London’s Kings Cross Station, along with a date and time to call the numbers and “have a chat”. The result was a fun intervention into the bustle of the station and a lot of random conversations between “nerds” and London commuters; the artist was connected to the world, the world was connected to each other, and the art could exist anywhere amongst that mixture.
A maturing art form that continues to embrace every shift in technology
Technology soon ensured that digital drawing, painting, and even sculpting was all possible to an exceptionally high standard little distinguishable from traditional media, but true digital art, while hard to define, certainly has set some patterns, and it rarely sits in traditional places like a London art gallery or conventional art print. Mixed media remains a core feature, with practitioners eager to experiment with new media and technologies as soon as they emerge to see what may be possible, but interaction through uniquely digital means is perhaps the keystone of the form.
The Whitney Museum of American Art defines digital art as one that “uses digital technologies as a medium… such as its real-time, interactive, participatory, generative, and variable characteristics.” contemporary artists seek out those ways to interact with a diverse web audience or a single viewer, affecting them in some way or asking them to affect the artwork, which thanks to digital technologies can react to them based on pressing buttons, their movements, or things they say.
AI is beginning to enter art in a big way, duplicating human styles and masters to create art with random variables or viewer-inputted information. Websites like NeuralBlender ask visitors to type in a descriptive phrase, which an AI interprets through web searched images, before producing it’s own visualisation of those words inspired by the images it saw. The AI understands nothing of the words offered to it, producing often surreal images which are highly representative of whatever you type.
A digital art style can often be seen in other media, both traditional or modern; many lenticular art prints mix media, movement, and collage with clean digital lines, but true digital art builds interaction, feedback and response into the heart of the piece, and developing fields such as NFTs, geo-locating RFID chips, wearable tech, and virtual and augmented reality, point to a near future where digital art can begin to blend seamlessly with the real world in similar ways to modern street art.