What is Digital Art?

As can be typical of discussions surrounding the use of computers to advance various human activities, where does “digital” become “art”? Digital art uses technology to build upon established skills in other traditional art forms, and is only one step forward in mankind’s effort to express himself through creative activities. But to look further into how we got to this point, we must consider how it came about, what defines digital art, and examine some of the leaders and works which represent outstanding digital art.


Digital art is a somewhat vague term; it encompasses any form of art where the creator uses a computer to produce works, whether the computer is simply part of the process or a key factor in the final work and/or presentation. Digital art builds on traditional artists’ tools and mediums, like painting, drawing, sculpture, and use of various materials. In digital versions, an artist still maintains the essence of uniqueness through style and technique. In other words, the focus is on the work created and not just the adoption of the new tool.

Digital Art encompasses a wide variety of works, focusing on:

  • Painting
  • Drawing
  • Sculpture
  • Architecture
  • Animation

Some digital art is static, while others incorporate movement, lights, and sound. To be distinguished from basic internet content, one would follow the lines of the question “What qualifies as fine art?” where single pieces or editions are created as works, designed to invoke feelings in an audience.


Perhaps the “birth of digital art occurred in 1965 when artist Frieder Nake used an ER 56 computer (the size of an average room in a house) to interpret a Paul Klee painting with an algorithm. Several variations of “Highroads Byroads”  were created, and he named the one he felt most successful Hommage à Paul Klee.  Several artists and computer scientists worked together during the same period to create computer-generated artworks, and during the 1970’s, the focus changed to programming, where art could be created and not simply reproduced or translated. The creation of the stylus allowed artists to utilize their natural talents on the computer, and distinguishes the work from being computer-generated to computer-aided. The 1980’s saw growth in digital media as a generation of artists began to manipulate video, audio and graphics. By the 2000’s, the explosive growth of computer use allowed artists to expand their reach with digital technology.


John Whitney Sr., may be considered the father of computer graphics. He created computer generated footage for movies, television shows, and commercials, long before anyone who understands today’s CGI was born.  His linking of music and computer-generated imagery in breathtaking motion was amazing enough, even without comprehending that it was done on a computer he built on his own. His presentation of the computer as a tool of artistic creation stands alone in the 1970’s.

Along with Frieder Nate and another pioneer Manfred Mohr (who also used computer algorithms in his artwork and creates digital artwork to this day), Andy Warhol may be the most renowned digital artists. Famed for his works on celebrities, and bright works representing popular culture, Warhol created some of the most recognized pop art images of the 20th century, but was also an innovator in digital art. In fact, in recent years, artist and Warhol enthusiast Cory Archangel discovered previously undiscovered digital artworks Warhol created on a groundbreaking (at the time) Amiga 100, a personal computer designed by Commodore International.


Andreas Gursky is made famous in part by creating the world’s most expensive photograph, Rhine II, a digital masterpiece which sold at Christie’s New York for $4.3 million in 2011.

Frank Gehry, one of the most renowned Deconstructivist architects, designed several landmarks, including the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, using high tech CAD techniques.

Andy Warhol’s various Campbell’s Soup Cans, created both by hand and in silkscreen, was later found on a disk having been created digitally as well.


There may always be discord between traditional artists and those employing digital tools of varying degrees. Contemporary artists are particularly defensive of digital art, expressing their belief that it is still a highly skilled activity, while those artists using more well-understood mediums assert that feelings cannot be expressed through computer-aided art. Digital art has, despite the discord, flourished in the age of online presence. Art is bought and sold online, and is often used (whether legally or not) online for a variety of commercial purposes (leading to the question of if digital art is FINE art).

However, the overwhelming amount of digital art has created a confusing atmosphere, where enthusiasts cannot determine if they are viewing art or simply content. Digital artists are pushing for more of a tangible experience, where one must go TO a digital art exhibition, versus simply viewing it on a device. In fact, to the average person simply observing digital art, some digital prints may be considered no different than simply traditional print making. What makes it more than simply a printed copy is the intention to refrain from reproduction (other than those created as editions), and to be viewed as an individual piece, where it invokes feelings and tells a story to viewers. Along with the large variety of movement-based digital art, the future of computer-aided artworks is bright, and appreciation will inevitably only grow with availability.

Digital art is only as good as the artist, and one cannot make an artist out of someone without artistic ability and inspiration. Technological tools are just that—tools to support the creative output of the artist.

Sybaris ARTclub

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