Digital media as a prototyping tool for fine art

My latest portrait was created using Corel Painter. I used Flickr to find a reference photo for this piece; the subject is a homeless man living on the streets of San Francisco. Using the computer to paint has been a learning experience for me and I have been considering the virtues and shortcomings of this approach. Many detractors will point out that digital media is inferior to classic mediums in a number of ways, the foremost being that the resulting art in not tangible and therefore not “real”. I can identify with this sentiment and I think there is validity in this definition of fine art.

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On the other hand, I believe such a rigid approach to fine art can limit the artist from exploring an approach that serves to benefit their painting techniques. Using digital mediums to create a portrait, for example, is significantly quicker than a portrait rendered using traditional methods. Applying color digitally is a simple matter of selecting the hue from the spectrum without the time intensive process of mixing pigments. There is no delay spent waiting for paint to dry before applying a fresh layer. As a result, a portrait that may take twenty hours to render in oil can be rendered in around two or three hours using a program such as Painter or Illustrator. The digital product becomes a worthwhile undertaking in the context of fine art when one considers its virtue as a prototyping tool in the process of creating a traditional painted portrait.

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For example, if I were to paint a portrait using oil and brush, I would certainly create a number of pencil or charcoal studies of my subject before even selecting a canvas. In doing so I am both planning my layout and training my hand and eye to recognize the regions of my subject. The use of pencil allows the same flexibility for revision as the digital method, though generally it provides a monochromatic tonal study without provision for exploring color. By incorporating digital tools into the planning process of a painting, an artist can render a full color study with attention to brush strokes and size in the amount of time it would take to generate a series of monochromatic studies using pencil. The advantage of exploring a suitable color palette in the planning stage of a painting is tremendous. The final palette can be evaluated and revised again and again without the temporal costs associated with such trial and error in a wet medium.

To proceed by replicating the digital study in paint would be a tedious undertaking, and the spirit of this approach is not to create a rigid plan for the oil painting, but a prototype that is open to revision and interpretation. While it may be counterintuitive to consider the process of art in terms of time efficiency, time management is as much of a reality for professional artists as in many other professional pursuits.

 
 
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