💿What is digital art?

A brief overview of digital art's history


Digital art is defined as an artistic practice or medium that makes use of digital technology as part of its process. The Austin Museum of Digital Art defines it as “art that uses digital technology in any of three ways: as the product, as the process, or as the subject.” Ultimately, digital art is art that could not otherwise exist without digital technology.

In order to understand digital art as we know it today, we must first look into its past; in the midst of its journey through the art world's paradigm shift.

The Beginnings: 1800s to 1960s

One of the earliest instances of humans using technology or mechanical means to create art would have to be the first photograph ever taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. In 1826, Niépce creates View from the Window at Le Gras using the "Heliography" process. This moment is seen as the precursor to digital art.

In March 1895, the Lumière Brothers screened La Sortie de l'usine Lumière à Lyon in Paris. At a later showing, in December 1895, Georges Méliès attended a special private demonstration of the brothers' cinematograph. Méliès immediately offered to buy one of the Brothers' machines, seeing the potential for it to enhance his art, but they refused.

Méliès' Star Film Company consequently geared towards the "fairground clientèle" who wanted his specific brand of magic and visual illusion.

In 1925, Scottish inventor John Logie Baird built one of the first Mechanical Televisions, as seen in the image below. This was a revolution in its time, as it was the first time in history that you could send and receive an image.

Two World Wars later, we find ourselves with the first computers. These lumbering, city block sized machines were capable of incredible things. For example, the CSIRAC originally known as the CSIR Mk1, was Australia's first digital computer in 1949. It is the oldest surviving first-generation electronic computer and the first in the world to be able to play digital music.

The 1950s were a time when computing power was so scarce, it required a national defence budget to finance it. Knowing this, in 1956, an anonymous IBM employee used a $238 million military computer, the largest such machine ever built at that time, to render an image of a curvy woman on a glowing cathode ray tube screen. This was a historical moment in computer graphics. Using equipment supposed to safeguard against a nuclear strike, a pin-up girl had been drawn. She was possibly the first human figure to ever appear on a computer screen.

A year later, in 1957, MUSIC-N was born. It’s creator, Max Mathews, had conceived the first computer program capable of creating music on a digital computer. In 1962, physicists of Bell Labs made history by using an IBM 704 computer to synthesize speech and recreate the song Daisy Bell, with musical accompaniment from Mathews. Arthur C. Clarke was coincidentally visiting friend and colleague John Pierce at the Bell Labs Murray Hill facility at the time of this speech synthesis demonstration. He was so impressed that six years later he used it in the climactic scene of his novel and screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the HAL 9000 computer sings the same song.

In 1958, Willy Higinbotham, a member of the team that developed the first nuclear bomb, created Tennis for Two, the first interactive analog computer game and one of the first electronic games to use a graphical display.

The Journey: 1960s to 1990s

The sixties was an innovative time to be in the field of digital art because this is when things started to get really interesting. In 1964, pioneering graphic artist Charles "Chuck" Csuri, was described by the Smithsonian magazine as the father of digital art and computer animation.

1965: Sony Portapak Sony Corp.

Sony gives Nam June Paik the first portable consumer Video Camera, the PortaPak. Paik is possibly the first artist to use a personal analog recording system. Rumor has it that he videotaped the official visit of Pope Paul VI in New York while being stuck in traffic on his way home from collecting the camera.

1969: " TV as a Creative Medium"

Opening in New York at the Howard Wise Gallery, this exhibition of 12 artists included renowned names like Ira Schneider, Frank Gilette, Nam June Paik and Paul Ryan. This was the first show in the United States devoted entirely to video. Historically, it positions itself as both the grand finale of the kinetic art movement of the 1960s and an indication of the future — the impact of video and television in the hands of artists. It consequently inspired many to take up the medium.

1969: "Videoplace"

Myron Krueger established the artificial reality laboratory pioneering virtual reality. The installation features computer projection which interacts with the viewers shadow.

1969: The Advanced Projects Agency Network

ARPANET comes into action in 1969. It was the first wide-area packet-switched network with distributed control and one of the first networks to implement the TCP/IP protocol suite. Both technologies, invented by Lick Licklider and Lawrence Roberts amongst others, became the technical foundation of the Internet. These ideas were originally designed to connect universities to communicate and share research information.

1978: Mandelbrot Set

Mathematician Benoît B. Mandelbrot, PhD , best known as the "father of fractal geometry" introduces this equation. The Mandelbrot set is a set of points in the complex plane, the boundary of which forms a fractal. It has its place in complex dynamics, a field first investigated by the French mathematicians Pierre Fatou and Gaston Julia in the beginning of the 20th century. The first pictures of it were drawn in 1978 by Robert Brooks and Peter Matelski as part of a study of Kleinian Groups. One significant way of creating digital art is by using fractals.

1983: Founding of Wacom Co., Ltd.

Wacom is a world-wide company head-quartered in Japan producing graphics tablets and related products used by artists, graphic designers, architects, and cartoonists. Wacom tablets are notable for their use with a patented cordless, battery-free, and pressure-sensitive stylus (an on-screen writing pen).

1988: Release of Photoshop 1.0

Photoshop is a graphics editor developed and published by Adobe Systems created by Thomas and John Knoll. It has been described as "an industry standard not only for graphics editing, but digital arts as a whole".

Now: 1990s to Today

Since the 90s, digital art has been expanding into every corner of the world. This expansion was made possible thanks to the use of rapid evolving softwares and computers becoming increasingly. Museums around the world have exhibitions dedicated to digital art. As well, there are dozens of awards rewarding digital art, such as the Lumen Prize.

With the propagation of this media, there has also been an important development in terms of the different types of digital art, the main categories being:

  1. Fractal/Algorithmic Art

  2. Data-Moshing

  3. Dynamic Painting

  4. 2D Computer Graphics

  5. 3D Computer Graphics

  6. Pixel Art

  7. Digital Photography

  8. Photo-painting

  9. Digital Collage

  10. 2D Digital Painting

  11. 3D Digital Painting

  12. Manual Vector Drawing

  13. Integrated Art / Mixed Media and Hybrid Painting

  14. Raster Painting

  15. Computer-Generated Painting

Further reading on all different types of digital art available here.

In today's world, digital art is ubiquitous. In fact, a majority of art consumed and appreciated on a daily basis is now digital. From streaming services such as Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, churning out ridiculous numbers of shows and movies, to major video game studios releasing game after game, to a whole generation of artists using their computers to create on a daily basis and to musicians uploading their digitally made music to Youtube, Soundcloud or Spotify; the digital art revolution has already begun.

For digital artists, it can be very difficult to thrive, because the very nature of the internet is for information to spread freely. Moreover, the main beneficiaries of this digital revolution were the owners of the platforms, racking in the ad revenues from views and listens and paying out very little sums back to the artists.

Thankfully, an ongoing revolution in the art world is at our doorsteps , with its impact yet to be fully grasped. This revolution is made possible with the use of blockchain technology and NFTs (non-fungible tokens).

In the next guide, we will explore what NFTs are, how they work, and the role they will play in this revolution.

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