Digital art hasn’t been around very long in the grand scheme of things, but it has already become a giant industry filled with lots of different types of art and artist.
If you’re new to it all, it can be confusing to figure out which type of digital art is which, and what the many different kinds of digital artists actually do!
Hopefully these explanations help you figure out the direction for your own digital art and career.
Types of Digital Art
These are many of the main disciplines, but this list is not exhaustive. There are specializations, and also instances of combining these. For example, many artists will model or sculpt in 3d, to create a base image for their digital painting.
1. Digital Painting and Drawing
Digital Painting is my personal expertise, and it’s what I concentrate on giving advice about on this website.
Digital Painting is often used for imaginative illustration work, particularly in the fantasy and science fiction genres for games, films and books.
Digital Painting emulates traditional painting, such as oil, acrylic and watercolor painting. You use a stylus either on something like an ipad, or with a drawing tablet plugged into a computer, in conjunction with some art software like Adobe Photoshop, Clip Studio Paint, Krita or Procreate.
The artist moves the stylus over the tablet like they would a brush over a canvas; the art software on their computer interprets this movement as a digital brushstroke on a digital canvas, formed of pixels.
Technology has come pretty far, and digital painting and drawing actually feels pretty good nowadays - I can’t say it feels exactly like traditional drawing and painting, but it is a lot of fun and satisfying in its own right.
2. Vector Art
Vector art produces a similar end result to digital painting, but with a distinctive cleanliness to its aesthetic.
This kind of art is often used on t-shirts, logos and graphic elements - anywhere that a clean finish is desired. Illustrations are also perfectly achievable with vector art.
Put simply, instead of making pixel-based strokes as if with a brush or pencil, as you would in digital painting, vector artists designate points for the software to draw a line or shape between. The artist can then manipulate the straightness or curve of that line, or of the edges of the shape, and fill the shapes with solid colours or gradients.
Layered and built up enough, the lines and shapes can be used to compose a piece of art. This is done using a piece of software such as Adobe Illustrator.
Vector art often blurs the line between graphic design and art, as usually it has a very strong core of composition, shape design and color theory, just like graphic design.
The biggest advantage of art made with vectors is that it can be resized to as big or as small as you want, and it will still be crisp and clean. Pixel-based digital painting doesn’t have this luxury, and will look worse when resized
3. 3d modelling
3D modelling is used to create a digital, 3 dimensional representation of characters, environments and objects for use in things like movies, games and illustrations.
Similar to vector art, the artist designates points in a digital 3D canvas, which the software will draw lines and planes between. Multiple planes grouped together are called a ‘mesh’, and the artist will manipulate and create planes to craft a mesh to look like the desired object.
This mesh can be animated if built and prepared correctly.
The graphics for nearly all modern games are made using 3D modelling, as well as most special effects for movies, television shows, architectural mockups, and many more uses.
Common 3D modeling softwares are 3DS Max, Maya and Blender.
4. 3D sculpting
A newer form of 3D modeling, 3D sculpting is designed to emulate the traditional method of sculpting with something like clay.
Just like sculpting in real life, artists start with a simple block of digital clay, and push and pull it into the desired shape. Just like traditional sculpting, they can add and subtract digital clay when they want to, or stamp it with texture and smooth it out.
Because 3D sculpting is a little faster for creating organic shapes than 3D modelling is, it will frequently be used to sculpt characters and creatures.
The most well known program for 3D sculpting is Zbrush, but the free and open source software Blender has been gaining a lot of recognition for its 3D sculpting capabilities.
5. Matte Painting and Photomanipulation
Matte painting is similar to digital painting, but also integrates heavy use of photographs and occasionally 3D modeling to create photorealistic landscapes and environments.
Matte painting is most often used in movies, when a scene is required to have a realistic background that is either too expensive to film in, impossible to film in, or simply doesn't exist.
Matte painters will instead craft a background that seamlessly blends with the actual live-action footage, using photographs, 3D modelling and digital painting techniques in a piece of software such as Photoshop.
These techniques have allowed most modern films to have huge sweeping vistas and mind-blowing scenes that are fantastical but still convincingly realistic.
Photomanipulation is closely related - the techniques and purpose are extremely similar to matte painting, using photos, 3D and painting to craft images, but typically will be used to make character-based art for things like book covers.
6. Pixel art
A type of digital art that was born out of necessity of the era, when games needed graphics but ran on hardware that wasn’t powerful enough to display large or complicated art.
Game artists were forced to depict characters and objects in extremely simple ‘sprites’, now known as pixel art.
The art is made out of large blocks of colour (called pixels), typically with limited colour palettes and each object restricted to a maximum size of 8x8 pixels, or 16x16, 32x32 etc.
This forces the artist to get clever about how they design each piece of art, so it is recognizable in such a simple format.
It can be made in a typical digital art software like photoshop or krita, but there’s also a small selection of software designed specifically for making pixel art.
Nowadays gaming has progressed a lot and is capable of much more advanced art, but many games choose to use pixel art anyway - it's fast and cost effective to make, and also lends a ‘retro’ aesthetic.
7. 2D animation
2d animation is used to create the illusion of movement in 2 dimensional art, which is a necessary art form in nearly all cartoons, games and on websites.
There are 2 major types of 2D animation - sprite or frame-based, and skeletal-based.
In frame-based animation, objects are drawn multiple times, each drawing (known as ‘frames’) slightly altered from the previous drawing. When played quickly in sequence, the changes in the drawings make it look like the drawn object is moving.
It is normal to draw 24 frames per second of animation, which makes this a laborious technique.
In skeletal-based animation, the art of the object is divided into parts and assigned ‘bones’ to be moved individually, much like we have a skeleton that consists of bones. The animator decides where each bone will move at each point in time.
This is typically less laborious than frame-based animation, but can also produce more artificial-looking results.
2D animation, while closely related to other art forms like digital painting and pixel art, is a huge discipline with its own set of fundamental skills. While it’s certainly possible to learn to animate your own 2D art, artists will usually specialize in one or the other.
As far as 2D animation software, the most popular is Adobe Animate CC, previously known as Flash.
8. 3D animation
3D animation is also skeleton-based, and is used to create the illusion of movement in characters, creatures, and vehicles created by 3D modelers and sculptors.
Just like skeleton-based 2D animation, parts of the 3D object are assigned bones, and the animator decides the movement of each of these bones at specific moments in time, to craft the illusion that the 3D object is moving.
3D animation is used in most modern games, but also in movies and television shows, to bring characters and creatures to life.
And just like 2D animation, 3D animation is a complicated discipline with its own set of fundamental skills. Because of this, in a typical professional setting the models and sculpts will be already created by other artists, and the animator will be given finished objects to animate.
Maya, 3DS Max and Blender are all softwares that are used to create 3D animations.
Types of Digital Artist
Along with confusion over the types of digital art, there is also some confusion about the different types of digital artist.
I've tried to write down the main types that can be the digital art industry, to help you make a decision about what kind of career path you might want to pursue.
You will probably come across many other job titles for digital artists, but most will be alternative names for the types I've listed below, or more specialised versions.
1. Concept Artist
Concept artists explore the visual design of characters, creatures and environments, typically by making multiple sketches and slowly refining their best ideas into a final design.
Concept artists are usually expected to be able to create art quickly and efficiently, using up to date methods, and produce a lot of different ideas in a short time.
Concept artists also have to be able to handle their art being critiqued and rejected all the time, and not take it personally.
They typically use digital painting skills, but often incorporate 3d modelling, 3d sculpting and photomanipulation.
Illustrators create final pieces of 2D art designed to be viewed by the general public, usually as part of a product. This includes book covers and interior art, promotional and marketing images, card artwork, static game visuals etc.
They are able to take more time over creating each piece of art than a concept artist is, as the final quality of the illustration matters a lot more than in concept art.
Illustrators will often have images such as concept art or a written description to work from, as they are usually depicting something that has already been designed.
Illustrators need to readily accept feedback from their clients and make changes to their art, and not feel too attached to illustrations despite spending a lot of time refining and polishing them. Illustration also requires a focus on building strong art fundamentals, to produce the highest quality art you can.
Most illustrators rely on either digital painting or vector art skills, and many will also incorporate 3D modeling, 3D sculpting and photomanipulation to allow them to get a higher quality finish in less time.
3. Character Artist
A character artist is a 3D artist that models or sculpts characters, creatures and sometimes objects and props for the entertainment industry.
They use 3D modelling and 3D sculpting software, and often will be handed concept art to work from and be tasked with creating highly detailed and convincing characters and creatures.
The 3D models they create will be used in the final product, so they have to be able to produce extremely high quality work.
This will require not just a good knowledge of their software, but also strong art fundamentals, especially human anatomy and drapery.
There is a certain amount of confusion about the term 'character artist' - in some informal circles, artists that draw or paint 2D characters are also called character artists.
So if you read advice about character artists online, make sure that you know whether the advice is for 3D character artists, or 2D character artists!
4. Environment Artist
Environment artists make the 3d landscapes, buildings and scenery for use in things like games and films.
They typically will get a design to follow from a concept artist, and build the final environment in 3D modelling and sculpting softwares. The environments they build will be the finished asset used in the film or game they are working on.
Like illustrators and character artists, environment artists are creating finished art for a commercial product, so they must be able to create high quality and polished landscapes and architecture.
On top of their art looking good, environment artists in the games industry must also make functional environments that players will be able to interact with properly.
Environment artists should be most familiar with 3D modelling software, and also with game engines. The art fundamentals that they should focus on improving at are composition, perspective and lighting.
Animators bring life and movement to art, usually with creatures and characters for films, games and television, either in 2D or 3D.
For larger commercial projects in the entertainment industry, animators will not make the models for the characters and creatures themselves - they will be designed by concept artists, and the models created by character artists.
Using 2D softwares like Adobe Animate and 3D softwares like Maya and Blender, animators are tasked with turning a static digital model into a convincing illusion of a living, expressive being.
Animators must have strong knowledge of the art fundamentals, particularly of gesture and human expressions. Most of all, animators must understand how to communicate movement, which is a huge and completely separate skill.
6. 2D Artist and 3D Artist
2D Artist and 3D Artist are catch-all names for multi-disciplined artists that create a variety of art used in things like games. They might create character and creature art, environment art, effects, the User Interface and even animate.
Larger companies will hire a group of specialised artists, like those I’ve listed above, to each handle a specific part of the art pipeline.
Smaller teams don’t have the finances to be able to hire so many people - instead, they will look to hire a generalist artist, who can handle making as much of the different kinds of art as possible on their own.
On a smaller project, a 2D or 3D artist may make the concept art, then make final models of the characters, creatures, props and environments, and finally animate those models, as well as create illustrations for marketing purposes and potentially make many other kinds of art.
Because of this, these generalists are expected to be jack of all trades, with a natural curiosity to learn about new things, and a willingness to switch tasks as the project needs.
I hope this list helps you figure out the kind of art career you want to pursue - the amount of enjoyment and fulfilment from each will honestly come down to personal preference.
If you aren't sure which would suit you best, I advise you try many of them out. You may find that there are certain things about some that you don't enjoy, and that’ll help you narrow things down.
I tried many of them as well, and I found that making concept art can be a little too fast-paced for me, and 3D modelling and making character art relies more on software knowledge than I really like.
Now I am an Illustrator, using Digital Painting to create my art.
This allows me to spend less time learning to manipulate the software, and spend more of my time on improving my knowledge of the art fundamentals and creating high quality paintings, which fits my personality and goals best.
Hopefully with a little exploration, you'll also be able to find the art that suits you best!
Hey, I’m Christopher
I started making digital art in 2009, became a full-time freelance artist in 2016, and now I’m able to work on my own schedule from anywhere in the world.
I created this blog to help other artists make the same journey.