Digital Art As Fine Art

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Digital Art As Fine Art

From Brian K. Yoder

Published before 2005


Iian Neill wrote:
One of the reservations I would have about digital art is the level of the artist's involvement in the drawing or design stages. For example, when a painter or sculptor creates a figure they do not simply download a skeleton or musculature model from a digital archive - they have to acquire their knowledge from anatomy books which are then enriched from countless hours of study from the live model. A skeleton or ├ęcorche looks quite different on a flat piece of paper than it does with the artist trying to peer through flesh, hair, loose or even tight clothing. Not to mention the figure placed in a three-dimensional, foreshortened space, subject to lighting from multiple sources, etc.

My point is that every single line or brush stroke from a fine artist reflects their level of study, keen observation, and power of design. I get the feeling that a lot of 3D digital artists have the rendering process simplified by the use - not of clip-art images - but of clip-art anatomies and clip-art textures.

I'm not well-versed in this industry. Can you set me straight on digital art practises?

I can fill you in a little bit. First of all, while it is not uncommon for people use stock imagery in the creation of digital images, it is also not uncommon for them to build their models and images from scratch. It is also not uncommon for people to start from a stock model and modify it to their needs. The human skeleton for example is fairly complex but within broad constraints we all have the same number of bones and they are generally hooked together the same way, so starting from scratch every time isn't necessarily always a sensible choice for an artist (much as the traditional artist may choose to use classical proportions in their work as a starting point. That said, the whole "clip art" design methodology is mainly the way lower quality projects and cheaper productions are done. Higher-quality work by more skilled 3D artists is generally built from scratch (some of the cheaper and whimper stuff is too).

The general approach (and I'm afraid that any brief explanation of this kind is bound to leave off a lot of important details) is to begin with a series of elemental shapes )sphere, cube, plane, cylinder, etc. and successively refine each one until it reaches the desired shape, much as one might do in making a pencil drawing. Even if they start with a stock model, they have complete freedom to change it any way they like. It's a bit like the idea of a sculptor starting with a human-shaped piece of marble to save time, except that in a marble sculpture you can't bend the limbs etc. once their positions are set. With a computer, starting with something like that isn't a problem since it can be repositioned any way you like. The same goes for other kinds of standard models for things like hair, skin, cloth, and so on. Just because I start out with some stock object like silk cloth, human hair, or what have you, that doesn't mean that these can't be modified to suit the purpose at hand. It's just a time saver when used right, not an alternative to getting exactly what you want. You can make your silk thick or thin, this color or that, wrinkled or smooth, stiff or limp, etc. You can make human hair curly or straight, wiry or supple, long or short, blonde, black, brown, or red, etc. That's not to say that you can't or shouldn't build these from scratch, but I don't take the position that starting from generic models is always a bad idea or that it makes the result non-art.

I think it's worth drawing a distinction here between the way someone would use a computer to make images imitating reality (when making architectural drawings of building lobby that doesn't exist yet for example) versus using a computer to make art. It's the same distinction as we make between painters who do the same thing. It's not the tool one uses that distinguishes between these two categories, but the intent of the person using them.

It's also worth making clear that the modeling/rendering approach we are discussing here is far from the only way to make images with a computer. One can make 2D images by "painting" them more or less the same kind of way someone might do with a pencil or brush. One can create 2D images with mechanical precision by mathematically describing the various curves, areas, and lines in a very formalistic way. One can also mix several of these methods by for example applying effects to 3D renderings after the fact, painting textures used on 3D models, or wrapping formalistic 2D images around 3D objects. There's no one way of making images with computers any more than there's just one way of making images with conventional methods.

--Brian