by Dieter Carlton from his book, The Science of Art (Copyright, Dieter Carlton, 2009-15)

Introduction to Digital Art

If you can imagine yourself an artist during the mid 1800's, you could not help but be confronted by the advent of photography as well as its threatening implications upon the future of traditional art forms. Up until that time, traditional art was literally the only platform of pictorial communications and was considered a highly respectable, prolific and lucrative career field. It took years for traditional artists to realize that photography would not "rule the roost", as it were. In fact, photography actually became a medium through which traditional artists would cultivate their ideas.

Having, in modern times, overcome the threat of photography to traditional art forms, the advent and advancement of computer technology has introduced an even newer "kid on the block"--digital art. Although we can't really classify either photography or digital art as floating within the mainstream of major art forms, the ambiguity of their rule over the art world makes them both extremely formidable contenders for this coveted distinction. Like photography, digital art is really more a medium than an art form. With digital art, instead of a paint brush, you would use a pointing device such as a mouse or digital stylus to create a composition through various computer applications like Adobe Photoshop, Corel Draw, MS Paint and others. You can also create negotiable three--dimensional objects and spatial compositions using highly interactive applications such as G-Max, 3D Studio Max, Poser, DAZ Studio, Carrara and/or Bryce; however, these applications are very expensive and require extensive training and practice to use effectively.

Digital art is not without its critics, many of whom are ruled, in my opinion, either by their limited grasp of this important form or by their inability to master the various digital design platforms. Critics argue that digital art, like photography, automates the creative process and leaves little room for original development. They further contend that this form is difficult to judge in terms of individual style and character. Digital art is also not well understood enough to gain classification among eligible entries to modern competitive art shows; however, the internet provides many avenues for digital art competition. Advocates give high marks to digital art for its extraordinary flexibility and potentially stunning outcomes. With digital art, there is no mess. If the artist makes a mistake, it is easily corrected with the swipe of a mouse pointer. Digital art also offers maximum opportunity for pre-composition planning and development, light experimentation and general advanced study without the use of paper media, under-paintings and so on.

Digital art is not easy to master and, contrary to lay belief, there is no computer or computer software application available that self-creates a completed work of art. To be a successful digital artist, you must to be an artist in the traditional sense and understand all of the structural elements accordingly. Then you have to know how to use a computer and whatever software or digital platform you will use to create your work. Furthermore, to reproduce digital art in anything larger than 13"x 19", you must take your work to a digital print vendor or fork up a couple grand for a large format printer. Using a print vendor is risky since your digital work will be presented in one of many image formats that are easily copied to a mass storage device such as a portable hard drive, jump drive or DVD. Although 13"x 19", medium format printers can cost as much as $1,500, the large formats, for print output starting at 18"x 24", range in cost from about $1,800 to $25,000 depending upon desired output quality.

Most of the mainstream digital art platforms are very difficult to use since they require an understanding of spatial geometry and world-space, fluid mathematics. Even the more user-friendly platforms such as Bryce and DAZ Studio still require many hours of study and practice to produce convincing art. Such platforms often come with basic elements called primitives that you must use to build objects such as buildings, bridges, boats, planes, trees, grass, terrains, etc. With the more advanced applications, objects can be formed like clay through what digital engineers refer to as "nurbing" of mesh geometries. This can be a very tedious and frustrating process since you are actually working in a three-dimensional space from a two-dimensional point of view. Although DAZ Studio provides an excellent means of creating human figures and animals, you must still be able to manipulate their poses and build clothing and props that are not already available. Then too, the world-space environment of the artist's scene must be constructed with real world physics in mind. Such things as light ambiance, color composition and scale must be clearly understood in order to create believable art.(go to top)

Digital vs.Traditional Art

When we think about the visual arts, conventional wisdom conjures the two common forms--photography and traditional art (Including painting, drawing, graphic design, sculpture, etc) . Until recently, photography required the use of film and subsequent laboratory processing of the film exposure. Now we have "digital" cameras which require no film at all even though they work pretty much the same way as their traditional predecessors. Instead of film, the image is captured onto to an array buffer and stored into memory. When the photographer wants to process the exposure, it is exported into a computer on which software like Adobe Photoshop is used to polish the image or simply print it onto inkjet photo paper. Although the processing of digital photography is largely automated, the inherent skill and talent of the photographer is still required to produce successful photographs. In comparison to the early days of photography, when the unwieldy box cameras were being used, the modern digital camera is simply a more advanced and efficient tool of the same trade.

In similar fashion to the distinction between traditional and digital photography, traditional art has now advanced into the world of computer technology to the controversial and largely misunderstood medium of digital art. Again, like digital photography, digital art simply advances on the traditional tools of art. Instead of paintbrushes and canvas, for example, these tools in digital art are replaced by the computer mouse pointer (or digital stylus) and computer monitor, respectively. Where paint, ink, clay and other media are used in traditional art, with digital art there are dozens of software applications which mimic virtually every artistic medium. Although digital art in any form can be very difficult to learn and apply, many believe erroneously that entire works of art are created automatically by the computer. On the contrary, digital art is just like traditional art and, as such, requires artist skills and/or training to produce convincing and successfully works of original art. In fact, the only real distinction between traditional and digital art is in the tools that are used to create the final work of art.

Among the principal advantages of digital over traditional art is that (1) it eliminates the need to purchase expensive tools and the need for studio space; (2) it eliminates the clean-up required after each session toward the development of the final composition; (3) it offers immediate copy preparation for print sales, either from a studio, wide-format printer, print vendor or through third-party internet sales outlets; (4) it provides the means to apply digital signatures, hidden water marks or other security devices to protect the artists' copyrights.

There are actually three major forms of digital art: (1) Photo-morphography, (2) Digital Paint; and, (3) 3D Computer Modeling. These forms are explained in more detail as follows:


Photo-morphograph is a form of two-dimensional digital art in which original photographs are digitally manipulated on a computer using re-mastering software such as Adobe Photoshop. Photo-morphography, by its strictest definition, is the process of creating an improved or new photograph on a computer by selecting parts of one or more original photographs and converting these parts to vectors or layers which can be moved about independently of each other to create new compositions or to repair an original photograph. There are seven major categories of Photo-morphography as follows:

  1. Photo Restoration and Repair: the digital manipulation of damaged photographs to restore them to their original state
  2. Photo Segregation: the digital elimination of unwanted elements from an original photograph
  3. Photo Extraction: a form of photo segregation in which one or more wanted elements are extracted to emphasize those elements in a new photograph
  4. Photo Integration: the digital merging of two or more photographs to create a totally new image
  5. Photo Transposition: a form of photo extraction in which, rather than to eliminate unwanted background content, the subject is transposed or extracted into another photograph having a more desirable background
  6. Photo Transformation: (often called Mixed-Media Photography), the integration of unrelated, multiple photographs to create an original abstract, impressionist or realist image, in some cases, enhanced by the use of filters and special effects
  7. Photo Masking: the process of digitally separating the various channels of a given subject to create a layer or vector for use as a billboard in a 3D modeling environment or as an elemental component of a photo-transformation

Digital Paint

Digital paint is a form of two-dimensional digital art by which an original composition is created on a computer monitor (replacing the traditional canvas or paper), using digital paint brushes, pens, pencil, etc., which are controlled either by a mouse pointer or a digital stylus. The latter is moved about on a pressure-sensitive pad to give the artist more control over the composition. With digital paint, computer software such as PC Paint, Corel Draw, AutoDesk Sketchbook Pro, etc., provide the artist with a virtual palette which provides the means to select brushes, colors, textures, lines, various shapes, etc. As with photo-morphography, the artist can create staged components of a composition in negotiable layers and then flatten these layers to finalize the completed work.

In order for an artist to transition from traditional tools to digital art tools, a bit of practice is necessary. With traditional art tools, a paint brush is loaded with paint from the palette and applied by hand onto the canvas; hence, there is a natural interaction between the artist and the medium being used. With digital paint, the artist moves a stylus, which looks much like an ink pen, across a pad. The pad provides the only natural interaction of the traditional method; however, the behavior of the stylus can be changed at will on the computer depending upon the software platform being used. The stylus can be a paint brush of any size and shape, a pen, a pencil, a can of spray paint, etc. Virtually any medium can be used within the chosen software application, including oils, pastels, water color, color pencil, acrylic polymer, ink, etc. The obvious advantage of digital paint over its traditional predecessor is that is no lengthy preparation, no mess to clean up, no expensive tools and no space requirements other than that of the computer itself. There is also no need to discard unwanted compositions. The artist needs merely to erase or delete all or part of the composition or simply paint over it.(go to top)

Advanced 3D Digital Art

Advanced 3D digital art is clearly the most complex and esoteric of the three major forms, but accordingly, offers the potential for the most stunning artistic compositions. Most of Dieter Carlton's digital creations are in this category. 3D Digital Art is so named because the compositions created in this form are done so within what is called a virtual or world space on the computer. This virtual world is limited in scope only by the amount of computer memory available; hence, a scene can be as small in scale as the interior of a doll house, garage or sports arena or as vast as the earth itself. The larger the scale, the more computer memory is required and the more time it will take to render the outcome. The predecessor of 3D Digital Art is known as CAD (Computer Assisted Design). In the early days of CAD, engineers and architects created precision models such as aircraft, ships, buildings, etc. which were then easily rotated, scaled and moved about in a virtual space on the computer.

Modern 3D digital art transcended CAD by providing the means to create any object, including natural 3D shapes such as trees, grass, terrains, animal and human figures and the means to organized these objects into a virtual space in which lighting and atmosphere could be applied to create entire still or animated scenes. A tree, for example, is created by forming, like you would with clay, a leaf and branch using digital software to bend, pinch, stretch, scale and mold a geometric primitive (i.e., cube, sphere, pyramid, etc.). The single leaf is then replicated in random directions to create the foliage of the tree. In similar fashion, the branch is replicated, resized to create trunks in decreasingly smaller segments, down to twigs and even leaf stems. Once a single tree is completed, it too can be replicated with random changes made in size, shape and position to create an entire forest. Trees of every species on earth can be created in this way; however, it is a very tedious and time--consuming operation. Terrains or other objects are created much the same way, by shaping a primitive into something that looks like a mountain, hill or river valley. The process by which these objects are formed is known as "nurbing", a derivative verb of the acronym NURB (Non-Uniform Rational B-spline). With this process, a primitive object like the sphere is moved into a virtual space where it can then be manipulated by the artist. The complexity of the object being formed by the artist will depend upon the number of negotiable points, called vertices, that make up the sphere. These vertices make the sphere appear like an armature of chicken wire--the more the vertices the denser will be the chicken-wire armature and the more surfaces one can form thereon. The vertices are negotiated sort of like one would mold chicken wire to create the armature or underlying frame of a clay figure.

Building 3D objects by the process of "nurbing" is only the first step. The completed object must then proceed through various methods for applying textures, colors and opacity. A tree leaf, for example, is somewhat translucent in that it both reflects and refracts light. It is also textured so that it appears green and waxy in its early life and then diffuse yellow and brown in its later life; therefore, the construction of a particular tree must take into account these factors in creating realistic forests for all seasons of the year. Human and animal figures can be particularly difficult because of the myriad anatomical shapes and textures that must be applied to create a realistic look. Without strict attention to form and texture in the creation of animal and human figures, they can appear very much like mannequins. Water and clouds present a myriad of special problems for the 3D digital artist. Although water is essentially transparent, its color and reflective characteristics depend up many factors including density of water suspension, surface integrity and movement. Water begins with a flat plane and is textured to give it a wet, rippled appearance; however, rough water like that of a stormy sea requires that textures be applied to a plane that is pinched and molded using the "nurbing" process described above. Clouds are complex objects created from primitives then exploded or pixilated to give it the translucent, steamy appearance of cloud formations.

Because of the extraordinary amount of time, patience, as well as experience and skill, required to construct a single 3D object, digital artists will store these in an object library for use in multiple works of art. Many digital artists, in fact, exchange objects they create for money or for objects created by other artists. Even after creating individual objects (the so called subjects and elements of a work of art), these must then be arranged in the same or another world or virtual space in which the artist can manipulate lighting, atmosphere and ambience. The latter three elements will determine how realistic or convincing the final image will appear, considering of course that the texture and color of the objects in the scene are natural. In any case, it really doesn't matter how good the artist is in using the tools of digital art, the creation of successful works of art requires an understanding of all the characteristics and structural elements of art just as it does for traditional art.

Among the reasons why 3D Digital Art is misunderstood and controversial is that it can be very difficult to master and thus often discourages traditional artists not willing to commit the time or those who may be intimidated by computers. The tools of 3D Digital Art are advanced (and very expensive) software applications such as Maya, 3D Studio Max, DAZ Studio, Poser, Bryce, Carrara and others, all of which require many hours of work to create believable objects and scenes. This is, of course, preceded by many years of study to learn how to use them effectively. Computer and mathematical skills, particularly solid and coordinate goemetry, will make it somewhat easier to learn these applications, but not necessarily to use them effectively. There are many skillful engineers who can use these tools, but because many of them do not have training in art and/or natural artistic abilities their outcomes often make this obvious. Many Colleges and Universities now offer degree programs in 3D Digital Art, Design and Animation; however, these are often provided through the school's applied engineering departments. Some of the more advanced career programs will make traditional art studies a prerequisite of any major in 3D Digital Art and Design Engineering. A degree in 3D Digital Design can be very valuable, especially for those seeking careers in commercial art, graphic design and engineering, movie and cinema animation and computer game design.

Among the most important advantages of Advanced 3D Digital art is that there really is no need for copyright protection. Even if digital signatures or hidden water marks are used, if the image is screen-captured or the internet image file is stolen by art thieves seeking to mass-produce and sell unauthorized copies of the work, it would be impossible for these thieves to prove that the work is theirs. The reason for this is that they would not be able to produce the original source because it is stored inside the virtual space of whatever software platform was used to render the final image. All of the elements of a 3D Digital composition are contained as geometric matrices having dozens of variable image property settings that are stored in a proprietary file. When the artist completes a scene within the virtual space that it was created, a marketable image is rendered in one of the many two-dimensional image formats that can be viewed on the computer. These formats include BMP (Bit-map), JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group, JPG for short), GIF (Graphics Interchange Format), PNG (Portable Network Graphics), TIFF (Tagged Image File Format), etc.(go to top)