Thursday, November 5, 2015

Working in digital versus traditional media as a genre artist.

Yesterday I received an e-mail from a student asking for my thoughts on digital versus traditional art:

"Hello sir!

I'm a college student pursuing an art career and currently trying to assemble information for a persuasive speech. I wanted to know if you would maybe be interested in answering a few questions about your career? If you could, I'd appreciate it immensely! You are one of my favorite artists and you are in a career path that I plan to follow.

1. Since you are an artist who does both traditional and digital art, would you consider the digital interface just as "valid" as any traditional work? Why?
2. Have you ever been faced with someone who claimed that your digital artist career wasn't true art?
3. Do you find that your techniques for digital art are similar to your techniques for traditional art?

Thank you so much in advance!"

  Fortunately, a couple months ago I had written an essay for a book on just this topic, so I sent her my article.  I intended to at some point post this publicly but forgot until yesterday when the exact question was asked, so I guess it's the perfect time to make a blog post.  
Below is the essay, I hope you find it interesting:

Working in digital versus traditional media as a genre artist.

"How different everything is for the craftsman who transforms a part of the world with his own hands, who can see his work as emanating from his being and can step back at the end of a day or lifetime and point to an object- whether a square of canvas, a chair or a clay jug – and see it as a stable repository of his skills and an accurate record of his years, and hence feel collected together in one place, rather than strung out across projects which long ago evaporated into nothing one could hold or see."-Alain De Botton. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.

The above quote would indicate that I am firmly in the camp of the traditional painter. While in spirit that is true, in practice my computer is a powerful and valued creative partner.
There are significant differences and ramifications in the choice to illustrate traditionally or digitally. To the uninitiated fan, non-artist or even adept with a refined process, this question may seem like a simple matter of preference. While media preference is a huge (and possibly most important) factor, it may also be at odds with long term success in this challenging industry. For young artists mulling their options, I hope my relatively equal experience with each media can provide some insight and direction.

My experience with digital art stretches back to art college in 1994, with the use of Photoshop 2.0. The early versions of today's powerful digital tools still provided a massive shift in capability at that time. There was much easy and "free" graphic results that easily impressed, compared to an average student's attempts with markers and letraset. The following year I was thrust into an environment working on video games with homemade and early versions of 3-d digital tools. Over the next 12 years I worked at BioWare as an art director and Director of Production art, working in Photoshop, Corel Painter, Lightwave, 3d Studio Max, and various game engine technologies. At the same time that I was immersed in the digital world, I studiously attended workshops, visited the museums of Europe and educated myself in the centuries-old craft of oil painting.

After leaving the video games industry in 2008 I embarked on the journey of becoming a "fantasy illustrator", modifing my painting procedure to facilitate the look and speed needed to work for publication. Sable brushes replaced hogs hair ones and factory-prepared panels supplanted bulky, bumpy canvas.
Working equally in paint and on the computer today, each project demands I constantly answer the question of what media to use. Its usually not as simple as choosing the stylus or the brush, as each step in the illustration process can be a digital or traditional one, and there is a gain-loss balance you need to be consciously aware of for every step and every project. Our tool choices are generally a combination of practical requirements filtered through preference, as we will see.

In October, 2011 I took the plunge and switched to using oil paints instead of the computer for a professional assignment. I was doing 25 lower-expectation-lower-risk interior book illustrations, and I knew the inclusion of some oils wouldn't cause alarm.
The results of my first few paintings were fine, but not spectacular. My minor dissatisfaction with the results provided a greater motivation to eliminate their shortcomings which served as omnipresent tangible reminders, not simply buried in a computer folder. There is more at stake in creating a physical painting than a digital one. It can take twice as long, but more importantly its permanence demands it to be an expression of your best efforts. This is the first lesson I learned when I made the switch. Something hanging on a wall and constantly looked at will mercilessly remind you or the viewer of its shortcomings, while a sub-par digital painting can easily be deleted or forgotten. My first few oils didn't utilize much reference, and I regretted not being totally thorough with the process. The 5% additional labour of taking some quick photos made the difference between a passable published work stored in my closet and something I am happy with displaying for posterity or selling. My annoyance with a painting's shortcomings led to much growth from the motivation to fix issues and apply lessons immediately. They were much more work, so I needed to make it count.

Producing tangible oil paintings also allowed me to get better by enlightening me to the key aspects of good art by viewing it in different contexts. Catching a glimpse of a finished work in a dim room under different lighting impressed upon me the importance of a simple, effective value structure. Seeing a painting in less-then-optimal light or from a distance, the success (or lack thereof) of compositional structure became clear. Making real paintings will give you an appreciation for other real paintings, the hierarchy of effective visual choices and the importance of planning. There is no "undo" button. Working traditionally will force you to become a better artist and open new artistic avenues for exhibitions, original sales, personal works and a legacy of tangible, appreciating artifacts.

Personally, my oil paintings take about double the time as my digital ones of similar scope (Notwithstanding the time-cost of buying materials, varnishing, photographing, etc.) If the original painting is worth the same value (eg. $1000) of the commission fee for the image, then it's technically a wash. I could do 2 digital illustrations in the same time as 1 oil, and thus the money is equal. However, take into full consideration the difference between doing 2 pieces versus 1:
2 compositions, 2X the communication with the client, 2X the potential for things to go wrong (many changes, not being paid, not having a good idea, etc). Now compare this to completing 1 painting in twice the time where the labour may be greater by the focus can be distilled and the painting be made to be a large, expensive original piece. The math starts to make more sense when the $1000 original is worth $3000 or more. Suddenly that $1000 illustration assignment is a month-long project that is building your reputation in other areas, growing your artistic capabilities and giving you a portfolio of larger works. A portfolio of big images will lead you to get more of the same level of commercial assignments and private commissions, but if you go the purely "volume" digital route, then you will have to find the extra time to make larger, personal works to have the same portfolio and opportunities. (And with today's illustration rates good luck with that!)
In fact, illustration rates have changed little in the past few decades, even dropping in some cases as quality expectations have only increased. This poses an issue for artists in every medium and underscores the need for commercial work to have potential for secondary income streams. The supply and demand rule would indicate that we would need an increase in top tier companies and projects outpacing the influx of new artists to force illustration rates higher. Those prospects are dubious and out of your control. Alternatively, increased demand and escalating prices for your original art is a realistic goal based on the quality of your work and your efforts to build a collector base, rather than market forces outside your sphere of influence. There have been a number of bulk purchases by well-heeled collectors in recent years snapping up large quantities of originals from popular franchises. Fans are just starting to realize that this art is available for sale, and the more mature comic art market may be a harbinger of potential future value for fantasy game art-collectibles.

Today's illustrators need to look at the lifetime-value of each artwork. Can the art be made into prints and "merch", re-licensed or spun into physical by-products: studies, sketches, originals. Can you gather the work into a book or have a gallery show? A great piece of digital art trumps an average oil painting in your ability to extend it's value into new and profitable forms. If my Facebook feed is any indication, only a small subset of artists, fans, and clients care to differentiate between digital and natural media. Inspiring and memorable digital images don't need an asterisk qualifying that it took less effort; as imagery, it just doesn't matter. What matters is that the method of creation you chose is the best choice for maximizing impact and income over the long-term.

What are the professional implications of changing your tools? I have been fortunate enough to not lose any clients with my media switch, but it was also a transition almost 10 years in the making. Understandably there is little sympathy from your clients if you can't be "on brand" or provide the fidelity required to illustrate an awe-inspiring narrative. No one may care that you put triple the time into your oil painting or that it's layers and texture delight in person. In fact, that painterly charm might make the work difficult to photograph or read as messy once the art is scanned for publication. You may have no choice in media if you are set on the particular highly rendered, low-paying fantasy genre marketplace if you can't seamlessly transition.

Digital art has many advantages in fidelity, finish and flexibility. My 20" cintiq monitor zoomed into a digital painting is the equivalent of working with a 000 brush on a 4 foot wide ulta-smooth panel. The amount of detail and control digital art allows has made traditional media a rarity in the corners of the illustration field that demand such rendering. (Interestingly, the ascent to these standards has seen new trends in flat, simplified and stylized illustration as a counter-point to the mass of glowing ultra-detailed digital work.) Most of the top traditional illustrators in the fantasy genre got in and built-up before the digital arms-race had a chance to exclude their talents. Oftentimes, being a traditional painter of these subjects means you simply won't be able to render at the speed and complexity of your fellow artists, and your work will need to survive on effective composition and evocative mood. Alternatively, as a digital artist, you have almost no bounds to the visual expressions of colored pixels. Digital art is valuable in relation to its ability to empower the artist to make effective imagery efficiently. Digital imagery can be reproduced, licensed and leveraged into product for sale and be far more profitable than originals who's content lack similar potential.

One of the strengths in using digital tools is the ability to quickly produce alot of work and grow your compositional picture-making skills. If you make good, purposeful decisions, they can transfer across media. My advice in the use of digital media is to use it simply. I generally use one "brush" and one layer in Corel Painter. Each bit of pixel-paint being a color and value that I know should be there, with sound reasoning. If you are using a bunch of adjustment layers and continuously fiddling with the overall tones of the image as an equal task to the pixel-painting-application, then you are using the tool for discovery and that process is not going to build painting facility nor be transferable across media. Go slower, do the preparatory studies and make sure the act of creating digital art is an intentional process-driven craft. The assurance of efficient results is key to art under deadline.

Digital art is so empowering that its benefits can close the very doors an artist is trying to open. Thousands of digital artists (including me!) are clamoring to produce the slickest, most vibrant awe-inspiring imagery and are upping the ante so fast that the benefits of digital media are nullifying itself due to its over-saturation or unattainable standards. Just as a young artist's portfolio is approaching an acceptable quality bar, that bar is pushed higher by the marketplace. Do we keep pushing forward or do we find a way to make our voices heard by taking a step sideways? A change in media is one of the obvious ways to start on a different path. We therefore have to ask ourselves if the goal of our art is imagery or artifact, expression or self-expression.
I don't want to make a qualitative assertion that physical art has any universal dominance over digital art. An image can change the world, and an oil painting can languish forgotten and unseen if there is nothing that resonates. Each has obvious utility in different corners of the art world. Both have advantages, and as a genre illustrator being able to do both is an empowering angle in a career defined by internal and external change.
As previously stated, my prescription to utilize digital's benefits and avoid it's pitfalls is to paint with the same intelligent mindset regardless of tool. To ensure that hand dexterity is exercised I always do initial sketching on paper, even if the other 95% of the work will be on screen. Most professional illustrators in the fantasy gaming field employ a back-and-forth approach, switching from paper to computer frequently as a tool's benefits dictate. Most of the painters I know prepare roughs and create color studies on the computer, as their paintings needs to compare side-by-side with digital art in its published context. I have no issue using the computer extensively in service of a painted end-product, and strict adherence to some sort of inflexible process-dogma is professional suicide.

I guess the discussion of "traditional versus digital" is somewhat moot considering the fact that digital processes are so widespread with so-called traditional painters in this field. The real question is if the efforts to obtain a physical end-product are worth it. There are real risks and rewards to working in paint, and it's a balancing act to determine if your preferences and abilities are properly aligned and the timing makes sense.

The most important aspect in your choice of media is the question of "what do you love to do??" Since the remuneration aspects are dicey, your fuel in this industry is your passion. The traditional path is a steeper one, and its potential future benefits are irrelevant if your oil painting skills hold you back from gaining career traction and momentum as an illustrator. Choosing a primary media doesn't preclude you from switching in the future or using other tools in your process. The important thing is that your path leads to growth and fulfillment. Choose wisely!

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