Thursday, 21 January 2010

Do digital drawing tools improve our sketching skills?

Just over a week ago, I read an interesting little post on Jen Pringle's blog about the Brushes app for the iphone, in which she expresses her reservations about the quality of images produced using this and similar programs (you can read the original post here.)

It got me thinking a lot, especially when she confessed to feeling like an 'aging technophobe'. It's certainly true that people who criticize technology often risk looking like backwards fogies who are perturbed by unfamiliar new developments. However, I think that Jen's post raises some valid (and important) concerns about artwork made using drawing programs. It got me thinking so much that what started out as a short reply suddenly turned into a small essay... and as the thing was practically typed already, I thought I would share it with you all and see what you thought!

Though I can certainly see the merit and convenience of having a digital sketchbook wherever you go, for me it will never have the same range of expression and mark-making as good old pencil and paper. It seems to me that digital drawing and painting eliminates the gesture and physicality of the artist or illustrator. For instance, the author of non-digital work can often be identified because the subtleties of their drawing style are recognised, ‘their hand’ is literally present in the piece. However, when you draw with (for example) the brush tool in illustrator, the quality of the line produced is the same for whoever is wielding it. That is not to say that such tools do not offer the artist choice, but that the choices that they represent are limited by the application's programming; a drawing made in real life presents literally limitless possibilities. Furthermore, over time, artists develop a relationship with their medium and thus have a unique way of using it. My concern is that this crucial relationship between artist and material may be lost if people resort to using these programs too much.

It would be easy for one to react by condemning all digital work as un-artistic, and eschew all but the purely handmade. But this would be a grave mistake, especially given that even ‘handmade’ images are often require digital manipulation at some point in their inception. Furthermore, there exist illustrators like Dave McKean, who seamlessly blends handmade drawings and digital imagery with stunning results. For me, this kind of work brings together the best of both worlds: beautiful hand drawn images with all the possibilities that software offers.

That does not mean that purely digital work is without merit, however, as the identity of the artist can be expressed through means other than medium. Certainly, other factors such as the content of the work and the ideas of the author are always important as expressions of identity. And as technology becomes more advanced and sensitive to human interaction, it seems only a matter of time until a drawing mat is developed that can respond in as many diverse manners as can paint and pencil. But one cannot deny that the traditional method of drawing is a useful and beneficial tool for all artists, even those that choose to make their work digitally. As for me, I will be sticking with my trusty sketchbook and pen for the time being.

If I've not totally bored you into giving up reading by this point then I sincerely hope you have enjoyed this post! I am really interested to see people's reactions and ideas about this, so let me know what you think. Take care folks and have a good night!


  1. Fab post Emma - really well put and I couldn't agree more. Nice to get a insight into "Cowley's School of Thought" too. x

  2. Actually it's me who should be thanking you, forgot how good it was to write properly for once... and your post inspired me to do that! ^_^

  3. Some really good points hun!

    Speaking from a digital perspective, I agree that there are a lot of artists who rely on the in-built line tools of illustrator for example, although for many digital artists like myself the process goes further. The Wacom tablet, when programmed correctly using its CD, now has a range of different brushes with nibs similar to that of pens and are pressure and angle sensitive. You can also use Photoshop to create your own brush tips rather than using the presets. And, on a personal note - I did some drawings recently for the first time in YEARS and they were far better than anything I had done before Photoshop. But that's just me, I don't account for the entire population of digital artists.

    I agree that for the most part, yes, digital software removes the hand of the artist. On the other side of the argument though, digital art has only realy been around for the last 40 years in comparison to several thousand years of drawing. Surely it is unfair to judge technology on its short history in comparison, when technology is evolving every day? Take for example this youtube video on the Rhonda project...

    could you honestly tell me this is not beyond the realms of hand drawn sketching?

    Gah, I've gone and gotten dragged into the debate too! Guess this is going on my blog now!

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  5. Indeed, I agree that it would be unwise to dismiss digital media before their full potential has been realised, and even less so to try and categorise different kinds or methods of producing images as 'good' or 'bad'. I believe that continuing experimentation into using both traditional and digital methods to produce images will be very fruitful.

    However, a drawing program, like a pencil, is but a tool. It will not cover for an illustrator who has not learned to draw well (and I do really think that most people can draw, it is simply a matter of practice - furthermore, when I say 'draw well' I do not necessarily mean the most representational or lifelike drawings possible.) It seems to me that to get the very best out of digital media, one should also be good at drawing. The most amazing illustrations that I have seen have demonstrated a mastery of both drawing and using computer programs to execute/enhance them. The video link you posted, for instance, would not have been possible had the illustrator not also been good at drawing. I guess what I am trying to say is that a wacom tablet 'will not an artist make'.

    There was an excellent essay I read a while back, in which a graphic designer lamented the general lack of emphasis on developing drawing skills in the profession. I cannot remember the name off hand, I will have to dig it up again... but the author was an advocate of drawing in as much as it is crucial for visualising the murky depths of the imagination, which can often be difficult to pin down as anything concrete. Drawing is the language which one uses to create a visual space, and as such is a crucial tool for all illustrators, however they choose to create their work.

    Look at us and our debating... Sheena would be proud!

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