Is Digital Art Easier than Traditional art? Digital vs Traditional

And importantly, what's the right choice for you?

Written: 
October 9, 2020
Last Updated: 
February 26, 2021
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Which one should you pick to devote your life to, digital art or traditional art? Which one will give you the career you desire? And is digital art easiest?
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I devoted myself 100% to Digital Art in 2016.

I've barely touched even a pencil since then.

I knew it was going to become my career, and give me the freedom I wanted, but I wasn't always so devoted to the medium.

As I'm sure many digital artists did, I started out with traditional art - good old pencil and paper.

Throughout my younger years I didn't try digital art once, and even during the first few years after I decided I wanted to become a professional artist, I spent more time drawing with pencil and paper than I did doing any digital painting.

Pencil and paper was just more comfortable for me.

In my mind, the most important differences boil down to this:

Digital art lends itself to freedom and convenience, traditional art lends itself to familiarity and tangibility.

More than this, there are so many pros and cons to each, choosing between traditional and digital is a difficult task!

The decision is especially difficult if you want to become a professional artist - it's hard to know at the beginning of your journey which one will give you a good career.

What's the difference between Digital Art and Traditional Art in a nutshell?

Traditional art is made using the physical mediums that we have used for years, like pencil and paper, charcoal, oil paint on canvas, etc. Digital art is art made using computer technology, typically with a digital tablet and stylus, some art software, and a computer to use them on.

I'm going to begin with the advantages and disadvantages of traditional art, as I think generally most people are more familiar with it

The Advantages of Traditional Art

Despite being all-in on digital art, I do recognise that there are situations in which traditional art still has, and may always have, an edge over digital art.

1. Traditional art produces a single original piece of work, which means by its very nature each piece of traditional artwork is unique and rare. Original art will almost always be more sought after and fetch a higher price than prints of the same piece of art.

As digital art grows in popularity and more people do it instead of traditional art, original artwork may become even rarer - and it's value may go up even more.

2. Traditional Art is hard to replicate - art theft, while a huge issue in digital art, is almost a non-issue in traditional art (except in art-heist TV shows and movies from the 2000s).

3. Traditional art has tactility and physical feedback - you can feel the friction as the tip of your pencil is dragged across a piece of paper. You can tell the difference between rough paper and smooth paper just from how it feels to draw on it.

Digital art is not able to emulate these sensations very well. Maybe in the future it will improve, but in the current day there is some disconnect between moving your stylus over the digital tablet, and pencil marks or brush strokes appearing on the digital canvas.

4. Traditional art forces you to be more considerate and thoughtful about your process - mistakes are not so easy to fix, so you have to plan and think a lot more before making a new mark on the canvas. Considering your next stroke before you make it is a great practice that will improve your efficiency in time.

5. Traditional art requires materials, and sometimes less is more - when your materials are finite you have a limited amount of materials to work with. It forces you to consider your colour palette more, your textures and mark making and lends itself to a unified end result.

It's really easy to get carried away in digital art and throw in way too many colors, textures and effects, creating an overwhelming, unbalanced or even chaotic result.

6. It's a little easier to feel immersed and in 'flow' when creating traditional art - traditional art will often need a dedicated workspace filled with tools and equipment purely for the act of making art. The benefit of this is that once you're in that workspace, it's easier to zone in on the art.

A lot of digital artists struggle to focus, because their painting space is a computer or tablet, with the infinite amount of compelling notifications and distractions that come with those things. Building the discipline to fight against these distractions is difficult.

The Disadvantages of Traditional Art

Traditional art is diverse, familiar and comforting. I find an undeniable appeal in oil paintings and watercolours in particular. But the mediums aren't without their disadvantages.

1. Traditional Art is unforgiving of mistakes - errors are hard to fix, usually requiring you to redo parts and sometimes you'll even have to start the piece again. Often you'll have to accept the mistake is unfixable, and move on.

2. Traditional art requires a lot of up front planning - changing the direction of a piece of traditional artwork part-way through is extremely hard to do, and again will often only be possible by starting over.

3. Traditional art is hard to capture on camera - which means when you share pictures online they will rarely convey the full impression of the artwork.

On top of this, prints made of the artwork also won't have the same impression and power as the original piece.

4. Traditional art requires you to keep an up-to-date stock of tools and materials - depending on your medium, as a traditional artist you will probably be buying and storing a lot of different tools, paints, materials etc over the years. This will take time, space and money to manage.

5. Traditional art is not very portable - related to the above point, because most traditional artwork needs a lot of materials, you'll probably end up with a dedicated space to do it in.

Some mediums like pencil and watercolour are portable enough to use on the move, but something like oil painting is very hard to do outside of your workspace.

Now let's move on to digital. This is my primary experience so it's a bit more in depth.

I've got a lot to say about digital art!

The Advantages of Digital Art

I've split this up into a few categories, so it's a little bit easier to digest.

Creative Advantages of Digital Art

1. Creating digital art is often more convenient - conveniences are the biggest advantages digital art has over traditional.

You can have an infinite amount of brushes, tools and colors, you can fix mistakes much faster, no color mixing is necessary, you can use layers to keep elements of your painting separated, you can zoom in and out - all of these neat tools that make the workflow of digital art so malleable are an undeniable advantage.

2. You can make changes to digital art really easily -  mistakes are way easier to fix, moving an object in a painting is easy, changing the color of something is simple, rolling a painting back to a previous version - the list goes on.

Because digital art is so flexible, something that would take you hours, days or even be impossible in traditional media can be done in seconds when making digital art.

3. Digital art can be made faster - because the workflow of digital art is so flexible, you can progress a painting faster - there's less preparation needed, mistakes can be fixed faster and you can use techniques only possible in digital art. The same piece of art should be faster to make digitally than traditionally.

Mind you, that doesn't necessarily mean you will be a faster artist or make more art, as the temptation to experiment and endlessly adjust your work is high. What it does mean is that short deadlines can be easier to hit, and larger more complicated pieces of art are more achievable.

4. You can download new digital art tools very easily - on a modern internet connection, you can download brushes, tools etc almost immediately. No going to the shops or waiting for things to arrive in the post!

5. Digital art is less intimidating to beginners - because it's so malleable and forgiving, digital art is way less scary to get into. No need to worry about running out of paint or canvas, or ruining your brushes.

Storage Advantages of Digital Art

6. Digital Art doesn't need a lot of tools - whether making a quick sketch or an epic fantasy painting,  you need the same few tools: a stylus and tablet, a computer and some software - you can even get something like an ipad to make art on, so your tablet and computer are one and the same device!

7. Digital art doesn't need a large workspace - don't get me wrong, you can find huge workspaces for digital art, with gigantic screen tablets and multiple computer monitors, but you don't need one. You can even work on your sofa pretty well.

You don't need to own multiple storage boxes filled with sketchbooks, brushes, paints, etc like you may have to with traditional art.

8. Digital art is extremely portable - since you can do professional quality work with a laptop and tablet or just an ipad, digital art can be very portable. Working from the library or a cafe is simple, and you'll still be able to create finished art.

9. Digital art doesn't make any mess - there's no risk of spilling water or getting paint on the carpet, no graphite smudges on the bottom of your hand, and definitely no need to wear an apron to paint in!

10. There's a low chance of losing or damaging your digital art - as long as you use a cloud backup solution, your artwork will always be safe.

11. Digital art is Pet friendly - for pet owners this might be an important point - since digital art doesn't need materials, this means no toxic paint around your pets. No cats spilling your ink on the floor. No fur sticking into the wet paint on your canvas. No dirty paw-prints on your paper. Good for you and your furry friends.

Career Advantages of Digital Art

12. It's very easy to share digital art with others - Sharing snapshots of your work-in-progress and finished art is pretty simple. Depending on the software you make art with, even sharing a recorded speed painting could be sorted out in just a few minutes.

Procreate on the iPad automatically records you working and makes a timelapse video of the footage. All you have to do is save the video and post it on your preferred social media.

Things like this make marketing and building a following online a little easier.

13. Digital art can be collaborated online - digital art can be emailed back and forth in seconds, and some software even allows people from across the world to paint simultaneously on the same canvas. When you're working on big commercial projects with multiple artists, this alone puts digital art way ahead of traditional art

14. You can sell your digital art to the international market - while it's certainly possible with traditional art, selling digital art internationally is much easier. If you live somewhere without much of a local art market, it doesn't need to negatively impact your career.

There are plenty of digital artists who live on the opposite side of the world from the people who buy their work!

15. Because digital art is lightweight and portable you can work from home, or even while traveling - this is an especially cool point! Working from home is simple since your art and workflow is completely digital, and artwork painted for clients can be delivered with a single email. The coolest part about this: as long as you have the internet, you can be anywhere in the world you want to be.

I myself travelled south-east asia while working for clients who were based in the USA and UK.

16. The entertainment industry almost exclusively hires digital artists - because of all the advantages we've listed, the movie, television, videogames, board games, fiction novels and many more industries hire digital artists over traditional artists. These industries are all trying to make profit, and digital art makes more sense from a financial standpoint.

The Disadvantages of Digital Art

So, now you know what digital art is great for, but where does it fall-flat against traditional art?

1. There is a disconnect in digital art between moving the stylus and making marks on the canvas - this is obviously worse when using a screenless tablet, as you draw on the tablet surface but the marks you make appear on a canvas on your monitor. It can take a while to get used to.

A screen tablet fixes this, though it still doesn't feel exactly like using a real pencil on paper.

2. Being able to easily undo mistakes in digital art can make you lazy and careless - when you can immediately undo mistakes, you become less concerned about making them. This is great in so many ways, but it's easy for digital artists to form bad habits and use inefficient workflows, and may even hinder their artistic growth.

3. Making digital art can be very unergonomic and bad for your posture - most of us make digital art at our computer desks, and we sit all day hunched over a keyboard and tablet.

It's very common to develop wrist and back problems - steps should be taken by all digital artists to guard themselves against these health issues.

4. There are so many tools and methods, digital art can feel overwhelming to learn - so many choices of software, of tablet, of brushes, of workflows and techniques. Just look at the interface of an art software like Photoshop or Krita - seemingly endless buttons and menus.

A lot of artists struggle to begin digital art because they feel intimidated by all the options. Thankfully, the basics are actually very simple, and the rest is optional!

5. Hunting down and collecting digital brushes and tools can become an endless time sink - with infinite brushes out there, and more being made all the time, it's easy to fall into the trap of looking for new brushes to help make art easier.

And what is most devious about it is that you'll feel like you're making progress by finding new brushes, but truthfully it's just time consuming and new brushes never help like you hope they will!

6. You don't need to mix colours in digital art, so you'll never learn how - You get millions of colors for free, without having to learn how to mix them like you would in traditional art.

This is a big hurdle that digital artists have to overcome when they try traditional art.

7. Digital art software relies on the power of your computer - the less powerful your pc, the more limited you are with canvas size, with how fast your brush strokes will appear on the canvas, how fast you can apply filters, any many more things.

With a weak computer, digital art software will generally run slower, and certain things may become frustrating to do.

8. To make the most high-end digital art you need a powerful computer - not only are these computers very expensive, they are also big and heavy, removing the previously mentioned advantages of digital art only requiring lightweight and portable tools.

9. Digital art can be easily stolen and reproduced - since all digital files can be copied and shared very easily, so can your art. When you upload your art in high resolution to anywhere on the internet, you run the risk of someone downloading your art and using it against your permission.

10. Printing digital art is a bit of a headache - when you inevitably try to print your digital art out, you'll hit up against this particular disadvantage. It takes a lot of work to calibrate the color of your computer monitor and your printer so that your art looks the same printed as it does on your computer.

When it is printed, digital art will rarely have the depth of colour of a traditional painting, and will completely lack the texture.

11. Some digital art software is now subscription based - Photoshop recently moved to a monthly subscription model. This means to make art in Photoshop as a digital artist, you have to pay every month.

So, is Digital Art Easier?

With all of the advantages digital art has over traditional art, I've seen a fair amount of conversation about whether digital art is easier than traditional art, and even questions about whether digital art is cheating.

No, digital art is not easier than traditional art, but it is absolutely more convenient compared to most types of traditional art - more convenient to experiment, to fix mistakes, to change direction mid-painting, etc.

Creating digital art is still based on the same fundamental skills that are required for sculpting, drawing and painting traditionally.

Digital artists still have to train their hand dexterity, learn to control the stylus as they would a brush, and develop their hand-eye coordination. You have to study anatomy, perspective, colour theory and composition all the same, and apply it in your art.

What the digital medium does is remove a lot of the time-intensive activities that come with working in a traditional medium, like mixing paint, waiting for paint to dry, fixing mistakes etc, so that the artist can put more time toward the act of actually making the art they envision.

You can generally work faster with digital art than traditional art, and huge complicated paintings are more achievable with digital art, but switching from a pencil or brush to a tablet and stylus will not magically make you a better artist.

You will still have to study and work hard for that!

If you want some further reading on the subject, this article dives into the idea of whether digital art is cheating, and if it should even be called art.

What about the future of art? Will digital art replace traditional art?

Digital art is still young and constantly evolving.

The hardware, the software - everything is developing further every year and getting more powerful with time. The scope of what a single digital artist can achieve is constantly increasing.

As these things develop, the amount of creative business and demand for digital artists will grow too.

Digital Art will probably never replace traditional art completely, just as word processing has not completely replaced handwriting. Digital Art will definitely become the norm for creating art more and more, and become the dominant way of making art.

Besides that, new digital technologies will emerge that open up unexpected directions for digital art to develop in.

Just as an exercise, imagine a future where people can hang digital paintings on their wall instead of physical art, and each painting would come with a digital certificate that proves it is one of a kind and original.

The original paintings of famous digital artists could become very sought after - and digital art could start selling at the absurd prices that we sometimes see traditional art selling at.

This future could actually become possible when we combine 2 emerging technologies: blockchain technology - the technology that crypto-currencies like bitcoin are built on - and augmented reality - like google glasses that let you see digital elements laid over reality.

The augmented reality would let you see the digital painting on the wall, and the blockchain would verify that the art is one-of-a-kind!

It's fun to imagine, and it may not happen exactly as I just described it, but I have faith that as people's lives become more and more digital, the market for digital art will keep expanding.

Should you do digital art or traditional art?

Now that we've seen the advantages and disadvantages of both, we can see that generally digital art is faster and more convenient than traditional art, but it also can be overwhelming to learn and its future is uncertain.

If you are trying to pick whether you should concentrate on digital art or traditional art, I have a very important last point to make:

The markets of traditional art and digital art are different!

The traditional art market generally buys observational art, like portraits, still life, landscapes and wildlife art. Traditional art buyers are also used to buying art in person, in a gallery or art show for example.

If you enjoy making observational art like portraits, wildlife and landscape paintings, and would enjoy building a local customer base by putting your art in local galleries, attending conventions and art shows and deepening your in-person relationships with your local community, traditional art might suit you better than digital art.

The digital art market generally buys imaginative art, like the fantasy, science fiction and horror genres. Digital art buyers are generally used to buying art online, and communicating over email or messaging apps.

If you like to make imaginative art like science fiction and fantasy art, you want to work on games, movies or television, and enjoy spending time in online communities, digital art may suit you better than traditional art.

Of course, these aren't set in stone - you can make imaginative traditional art and sell it online, and you can be a digital artist that paints portraits of people and hangs work in galleries and art shows. There are examples of both.

You can even combine digital art and traditional art! Many artists start their artwork traditionally, then scan that into their computer to finish digitally.

So if you're trying to decide which to pursue, know that both digital art and traditional art are viable careers for you.  

In my opinion, you should pick the one that excites you the most.

Hey, I'm Christopher

I started making digital art in 2009, and became a full-time freelance artist in 2016, able to work on my own schedule from anywhere in the world.

Now, I want to help young artists make the same journey!

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