What is digital art?

Digital art is a simple term for a big topic. It spans everything from iPhone sketches to electronic paintings, 8-bit throwbacks and mind-blowing CGI.


Many acclaimed artists such as David Hockney and Rachel Whiteread have decided to create and exhibit their work digitally, while budding creatives need only look to their smartphones to get started.


In this guide, we’ll give you the full lowdown on digital artwork from key definitions to techniques and history so you won’t have to start from a blank (computerised) canvas.

Digital drawing of a sci-fi landscape

What is digital art?

Digital art is any artwork that draws upon digital technology as an essential part of its creative process.


It encompasses a wide range of techniques, from digital drawings, paintings and illustration, to photos, videos and even sculpture. All can be classed as digital art, so long as they’re created, enhanced or exhibited digitally.


Some artists may also produce prints and exhibit in-person, while others might go straight to a virtual or online environment.


In an increasingly online world where children might access a tablet as easily as a colouring book, it’s a gateway for many aspiring creatives. And as you’re not confined by physical materials or media, the possibilities can be seemingly endless.


Why do some people use it?

Some people might choose digital art or electronic painting for practical reasons - others for creative ones.


Some of its core advantages include:


  • Flexibility. With digital art, you can give Whistler’s Mother a glow-up (though you’ll likely need permission first!) or create a mind-blowing VR installation. If you can imagine it, you can probably create it all you need is some technical know-how and creative skill.
  • Enhancements. Some creatives use technology to enhance their traditional, physical artwork. A painter could upload their work to editing software to improve an individual stroke, deepen a shade or add an entirely new colour.
  • Accessibility.  Digital accessibility measures, from colourblind-friendly design to image alt text, can help more people enjoy your work.
  • Budget. You can create art on most mobile devices and laptops. Though you’ll need some form of down payment for most equipment, you won’t have to continue buying physical art materials.
  • Efficiency. If you damage or make a mistake on a physical artwork, you might have to start again. If your work is digital, you can repair it with a simple ctrl+z.
  • Aesthetics. Digital art opens up a galaxy of aesthetic opportunities in 2D or 3D media. There are tools for almost every creative decision you could make.
  • Space and waste. Traditional artists normally need a studio full of canvasses and materials. With digital artwork, you can get started with a tablet and create from your kitchen table.
  • Speed. Switch between tools and colours in just a few clicks. You won’t have to worry about refilling your palettes, either.
Creative and bold display of digital artwork

Is digital art ‘real art’?

Yes, it is absolutely real art it’s just a different way of working!


David Hockney made the jump to digital paintings as far back as the 1980s. Writing in 2008, he proudly noted both the convenience and artistic rigour of using digital software.


Though it might not involve physical materials, digital art still requires serious creative skill.


According to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy:


“In order to be a true digital artist, you must learn the same types of skills to perform digital artwork that you would for traditional artwork”.


What can it be used for?

Digital art has diverse applications in the art world:


  • Some artists draw, paint, model and create work entirely using digital applications.  
  • Others scan and edit their physical artwork using computer programmes.
  • Finally, some might be entirely computer generated, using data, fractals and algorithms. 


In the next few sections, we’ll go through some of these types of digital art in more detail.


Digital drawing.

Digital drawing substitutes a pencil for a stylus and a sketchbook for a tablet. As in the physical medium, digital drawings are based around lines and shading.

Artist creating digital drawings on a tablet

History and pioneers.

Tablets have been used to communicate drawings and directions to a computer as far back as the 1960s. Programmes like Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad application then paved the way for modern computer-aided-design (CAD) software.


Another key pioneer in digital drawing was Harold Cohen. Cohen created the AARON computer art programme to create drawings via a robotic device. Starting in the 1970s and 80s, the drawings then grew from abstracts to more representational pieces.


In 1987, Adobe released Illustrator for the Macintosh and it’s still going strong today. This allowed users to create smooth, incredibly detailed vector curves and shapes using mathematical control points.


As computer software grew more advanced throughout the 1990s, layering and 3D functionality added even greater creative freedom and versatility for digital artists. 


Advantages of digital drawings.

Digital drawing and sketching software combines the authentic charms of drawing freehand with the versatility to add layers, details and colours easily.


It can be highly intricate and technical, used to create diagrams and models and also be used for ideas, sketches and illustrations.


Famous examples.


Untitled Computer Drawing (1982)

Harold Cohen, via his intermediary computer programmes, was responsible for a range of highly innovative digital drawings. Untitled Computer Drawing presents sparse, abstract and curiously human shapes created with a computer programme. The forms were then coloured by Cohen.


Untitled, Computer Assisted Drawing (1975)

Paul Brown created a series of dense patterns aided by computer for his own 1975 drawing. Brown would go on to found the UK’s National Centre for Computer Aided Art and Design in 1984.


Tools and software

Today, artists can take their pick from a range of tools, software and online applications.


It’s important to find the right tools and programmes for your work:


  • Adobe Illustrator gives artists the freedom to create a wide range of digital drawings, from freehand sketches to vector art.
  • You can also use specific programmes for detailed CAD drawings and 3D sculpture.
  • For doodling and rough ideas, you can find a range of great smartphone apps to help you to work on the go.


Digital painting.

In traditional art, painters use brushstrokes for form, texture and colour, while a draughtsperson uses pens and pencils for lines, shading and contours.


Drawing and painting aren’t as clearly defined in digital art. After all, if you’re using a stylus on a graphics tablet, you can easily switch between drawing and painting as you see fit, as artist Lois Van Baarle shows in this Adobe Photoshop tutorial.

An abstract digital painting

History and pioneers.

Like drawing, much of digital painting history can be traced to the creation of graphics tablets. But from there, the paths diverged.


Specific paint programmes released throughout the 1980s set the medium apart from drawing and attracted a number of major artists keen to establish their potential.


Andy Warhol caused a splash in 1985 when he digitally manipulated an image of the pop star Debbie Harry.


David Hockney, meanwhile, used Paintbox software throughout the 1980s. He described using the Paintbox tablet and monitor set-up as “painting with light”.


It would mark a decades-long interest in the form for Hockney. During the 2000s, he created a renowned series of paintings - including many portraits and nature scenes - on his iPhone and iPad.


Today, digital painting is accessible to professional and amateurs alike. Apps and programmes are available on almost any smartphone.  


Advantages and applications.

Digital painting allows users to experiment in any location or light, with a huge variety of colour and layering possibilities.


Different brushstrokes are accessible at the touch of a button, which can help artists merge the practices of painting and drawing - sketching outlines with a pencil-like stroke and filling them in with a thicker, more vibrant and colourful paintbrush effect.


Famous examples.


David Hockney - Yosemite Suite (2010)

A series of iPhone drawing/paintings inspired by the Yosemite National Park in California. His Picasso and Matisse-esque landscapes present glimpses of redwoods, boulders, streams and valleys. The scenes are rendered with depth, texture and vibrancy in the distinctive portrait orientation of the iPhone.


Tools and software.

Digital painters can use a range of apps and programmes to master their craft or just to play around. Careful research into the right software for your vision is a must.


Adobe Illustrator gives artists the freedom and flexibility they need to create incredible work. Switch between brushes and colours in a flash, combine media and add layers to make your piece stand out.


Want to go old school? It’s easy to create traditional styles like watercolour and pointillism with the diverse range of brushes and tools.


Other types of digital art.

Digital art isn’t limited to drawing and painting. Here are some of other disciplines you’ll see across the art world.


Digital sculpting.

This allows artists to manipulate 3D models on creative programmes using brushes and tools. These can create a softer, more organic touch than other 3D modelling techniques, which are based around geometric patterns and vectors.


You’ll find 3D sculpture in video games, films and online — while the Tokyo artist Keita Okada has some mind-blowing examples.

Learn more about digital sculpture.


One of the first digital animations was Edmund Catmull and Fred Parke’s 1972 short film A Computer Generated Hand. The two computer science students modelled a hand using polygons and inputted the data into a computer, making the titular virtual hand move, contract and rotate on a computer screen.


Catmull would go on to co-found animation studio Pixar — which has led the way in digital animated films since the late 1980s.

Want to know more about the history of CGI animation?

Colourful Picasso-esque digital artwork

Pixel art.

Pixel art is created on software, using minute image components known as ‘pixels’ - often associated with 8-bit and 16-bit games consoles. For some, this represented a golden era in gaming history, when developers created simple but memorable characters, from Pac Man to the original Mario.


Today, you can find incredible examples of pixel art on platforms like Behance and other social media platforms.

Characters created using pixel art

Create forward-thinking throwbacks using pixel art.


Digital cameras and post-production software make it easier than ever to enhance, manipulate and generally get creative with your photos.


The first digital photo was created in 1957 — a tiny 5 cm x 5 cm image of the photographer’s son. Since then, programmes like Photoshop have taken photography into infinite levels of creativity — from surrealist images to glitch effects and everything in between.

Want to know more about the world of digital photography?


In the 1990s, advances in digital editing and computer software meant videographers could download videos onto computers. This allowed huge freedom to create effects, collages and edits unthinkable in the analogue era.


Fast-forward a few decades and you’ll find video artists turned film directors like Steve McQueen bringing their techniques to mainstream audiences, while CGI artists such as Ed Atkins render extraordinary avatars for cutting-edge exhibitions.


Video art is a thriving and innovative medium. With advances in smartphone technology and easy editing tools like Adobe Express, you don’t need a film degree to get started.

Learn the creative and technical skills you need.

Digital art vs traditional art.

As digital art has grown in popularity, there’s been a considerable debate over the merits of digital art vs traditional art.


What are the differences, pros and cons of digital vs. traditional art?


Digital art

Traditional art

Viewers can access art wherever they are, without needing to visit galleries in person to see original pieces.

Though scans and photographs of original artworks might exist online, this is seen as secondary to the tangible end products made by traditional artists.

As the name suggests, digital techniques are inherent to digital art. This doesn’t mean that you can’t use digital techniques to create physical work, however. Often the two go hand in hand.

Similarly, traditional work can utilise digital techniques. Many photographers use digital editing software but may not consider themselves a digital artist.

In digital art, there often isn’t an ‘original’. The artist creates in a digital format for digital reproduction or print.

In traditional art, an artist may create an original piece for exhibition, print or other reproductions. The original work often carries more value and prestige.

Digital art might utilise traditional practices, but in a digital context. For example, a digital painter would use the same brush skills on a tablet as they would a canvas. However, they can access a wealth of colours, effects, layers and tools that traditional artists can’t.

Traditional art is bound by physical materials. As a result, it can take more time and effort to achieve some of the same results as digital artists.


How do I know what’s right for me?

All artists need time to flex their creative muscles and find their voice. Before you settle on a preferred approach, you should experiment with both physical and digital styles and sub-genre within them.


Who says you can’t mix and match, either? Some artists might use digital processes to help them to create traditional work, and vice versa. Digital tools can be great for plans, drafts and treatments, even if you want to use paint, canvas, clay or ink in your final work.


Remember, some of the most famous artists of the 20th Century dabbled in both digital artwork and traditional forms. Art is about creative expression - not mediums or end-products.

An innovative and striking digital portrait

Digital art: frequently asked questions.


Is digital art easy?

Digital art can remove some of the labour associated with traditional art, but it is not ‘easy’. To become a great digital artist, you’ll need specialist knowledge and creative skills. Many digital artforms involve similar creative processes to their traditional equivalents, such as painting and drawing. Others, like 3D animation, don’t have a traditional equivalent. They are, nonetheless, highly technical and creative.


What is a digital artist called?

A painter who works in digital formats might be called a ‘digital painter’. In some media, there is little to no distinction. Animators would normally simply be called animators, whether they worked digitally or not.


Who is the most famous digital artist?

One of the most famous and influential digital artists is Harold Cohen. His work with his proprietary computer software AARON created some of the very first digital art.


Today, there are a wealth of icons to choose from. Aiste Stancikaite and Sara Lundy are two inspiring artists especially known for innovating in digital techniques.


Discover more about digital art.