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What’s your pick: Digital Stylus Pen or Traditional Brush?

The line between analog art (traditional) and digital art has blurred, and these days it takes a keen eye to tell the difference.

It’s been 20 or more years since digital tools came on to the scene, and they’re frequently used by fine artists as well. Yet, there still seems to be a stigma that digital art has less value than analog art.

Both forms of art (analog and digital) require not only inner vision and superb hand and eye coordination, but also knowledge of drawing and/or painting techniques. Although, digital tools present a much steeper learning curve since the artist needs to also engage the analytical part of the brain to figure out a digital interface, designed by a programmer - not by an artist.

Both kinds of art are often mixed today. Drawings and paintings are scanned and enhanced in draw and paint programs. Photographs are changed into paintings with digital filters resembling brush strokes, or with unique brush strokes painted by hand using a stylus pen. And, now there are 3D printers available that can print entire sculptures - to the tiniest detail specified by drawings and specs of a sculptor.

Most fine artists who have already mastered traditional techniques find it fairly easy to transfer to, or incorporate digital tools into their art. But the digital environment also requires plenty of technical knowledge to achieve mastery.

My journey from traditional fine art painting to digital has been an amazing ride. Now I combine the two. This prompted me to share some of my observations.

In my “nutshell” :)

Digital or analog   - the process of creating an image always begins in the same fashion: from an empty page and a tool. To be an artist, you need to have an original creative thought, the tool to express that thought, and the knowledge of how to use the tool. Art is unique to the artist. Repeating others’ ideas and techniques is called craft - not art.

Once a measure of an artist was the originality, and the technique used in the execution of that artist’s creative thought. Now we often seem to be confused by what’s art and what’s craft. For example, learning a specific technique of painting flowers from an artist who developed his/her own way of doing so does not make everybody in the workshop an equal artist. To be an artist, one needs to develop ones own, unique way of creating art.

To make it even more confusing, there is also a popular belief that art created with digital tools is just a “copy and paste” process that’s a push button away from anybody’s reach. This belief places artists who use digital tools among the “lesser” kind, and often it seems that craftspeople who repeat a learned traditional technique are more esteemed than an artist who creates unique digital art. 

How a Digital Illustration is Made

Let’s take a floral digital illustration I made, as an example of how digital art is made. To make it happen, first, I needed to imagine what I wanted to draw, then draw the shapes of the plants and flowers by hand. To do this you could use the Pen tool or a free hand Brush tool in a (vector) draw program such as Adobe™ Illustrator (I used both). Then I had to reproduce these shapes, transforming each individual one to fit the perspective and the lighting conditions in my overall vision. To get the effect I wanted, I used the Free Transform tool and … the Pen tool, Pencil and Brush ! [see Figure 1].

Figure 1: Drawing stage: digital drawing detail in the Outline View in Adobe Illustrator

Digital drawing - outline view

In the next step I had to decide how to add colour or, in other words, how to paint the sketch. I chose the colours I wanted and mixed them from basic ingredients in the Color panel [Figure 2].  Then I had to choose the colouring techniques (solid, tint, blend, fade out, layered, etc.)

Figure 2: Coloring stage: digital illustration detail in the Color Preview, vector-based app (in this case Adobe Illustrator)

Digital drawing - color preview

Finally, I had to figure out how to bring that almost finished illustration to another program that would let me apply more interesting brush strokes and more painting techniques [Figure 3]. In this illustration I used used Adobe™ Photoshop, but Corel™ Painter, could also be used. This isn’t as easy as it sounds in many manuals and tutorials, because not all shapes and colour techniques transfer well from the vector world (drawing tools) to the bitmap environment (painting tools).

Figure 3: Digital illustration: final painting stage in the bitmap-based app (in this case Adobe Photoshop)

Digital drawing, final painting stage

In that bitmap based, paint program, I also decided on the final colour palette that needed to fulfill the secondary purpose of the illustration, which was to look great not only as a visual, but also as a fabric print for a garment [Figure 4]. It had to complement as many body shapes and skin hues as possible. The desired outcome was to make fashion out of art and look fabulous :)

Figure 4: Final garments made from printed fabric

Looking at the final stage of my digital art project I need to ask: is there a difference in the creative process between analog and digital? And is there a difference in the perception of the viewer of that art?

The Pros and Cons: Digital Art vs Traditional Art

To me, there are pros and cons to everything, and usually the truth is hiding somewhere in the middle.

A definite pro for traditional art is the physical experience: the feel and touch and smell of the media that is impossible to recreate in the digital world.

But a digital artist has a whole studio with easels, countless tubes/cans/jars of paints and pencils, pens and brushes packed in one box called a computer or a tablet.

Traditional artists breathe in varnish and oil paint thinner fumes, or get poisoned from the ingredients of dyes and cores of pencils.

Yet, prolonged periods of sitting in front of computer in a dark room also has its downside. The lack of movement, and the fixed distance between our eyes and a glaring screen lead to many muscle, joint, heart and stomach diseases, and to fast degradation of vision.

The most popular argument against digital art is that it can be copied, and that there may be a countless number of printed knock offs. However, any painting can also be copied and/or photographed and printed en masse. As a matter of fact, most people know acclaimed fine art objects only from looking at prints, not at originals.

Furthermore, new technologies such as the giclée method ((, and now 3D printing ( create an experience that looks and feels like real brush strokes and replicates texture. You can even literally print a full 3D sculpture.

And, as for the time withstanding test, quality and quantity of media that was once used as a criteria of the preciousness of any fine object: a random fire or other disaster could destroy both a traditional painting and a digital file just as fast.

In summary, there is no one definitive argument pro or con for either type of art. The question remains, which art - digital or traditional - resonates with you. I believe beauty (and perceived value), is in the eye of the beholder. What do you think?

Lidka Schuch is an educator and creative director/owner of, an online store, which features art on fashion, home décor and tech accessories. Lidka splits her time between running, teaching at GBC Continuing Education School of Design in Toronto and in her own online school.

An author of several guidebooks for Adobe Systems, and scores of feature articles for Graphic Exchange Magazine, where she was voted ‘most frequently read writer for over 10 years’, Lidka is an expert in the latest tools and techniques for digital design for print and web.





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