Digital Illustration as an Art Medium

Written by Joely Rogers

Like many artists, I enjoy exploring new art mediums as often as I can to challenge myself creatively. From Plein Air painting and sketching with graphite or colored pencils to acrylic portraiture and digital illustration, if I can learn a new technique from a skilled master or fellow creative, I’m there! Some of you may remember my post, All I wanted for Christmas Was an iPad, in which I gave a peek into my digital art and gushed about one of my inspirational heroes, David Hockney. As one of the most influential artists alive today, Hockney has, for the past several years, created iPad drawings using a program called Brushes Redux. In that post I also offer tips on apps for other artists to go exploring, and some hopeful research on the future of digital art. But today, I want to take a look back. 

Aquatic Illustration Art

Digital art by Joely Rogers.

My History with Digital Illustration

I've been drawing and painting for over four decades now and started participating in art exhibitions during the early 2000s. From 2017 - 2018, I trained with Gretchen Halpert via her Scientific Illustration Distance Program and became fascinated at how art can be used to depict aspects of the natural world. It was during this program that I started dipping my toe into the digital art world by editing my hand-drawn illustrations for class in Photoshop. In 2020, I began seriously studying Illustrator and Photoshop, which I used to create all of the images for my solo show at the Black Mountain Center for the Arts called "Night Creatures of Rainbow Mountain”.

A Brief History of Digital Illustration as an Art Medium

Digital illustration uses computer technology to craft artworks from scratch — as opposed to scanned art or digital photos. Rather than using pencil, ink, or paint on paper or canvas, the artist uses a variety of tools like a mouse, stylus, or other digital devices. The artist may use applications such as Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop. Of course, early innovators of the medium used much less sophisticated methods. But computers soon advanced to portable, personal sizes, and trailblazing artists started creating with light and pixels. 

Digital art trailblazer Frieder Nake.

Digital art trailblazer Frieder Nake.

Early Pioneers

As one of the world’s first digital artists, mathematician and computer scientist Frieder Nake used a finely tuned drawing machine to create over 300 “aesthetic drawings” between 1963 and 1969. He returned to his roots in digital art. His teaching and research activities have contributed immensely to the areas of computer graphics, digital media, computer art, design of interactive systems, computational semiotics, and more.

Other early adopters of this new art form were Susan Kare, best known for her work creating pixel art and icons for maiden Apple Macintosh computers in the early 1980s. To wit: She came up with user interface illustrations such as the “happy” and “sad” Mac icons, the trash can, and the bomb symbol. Even Andy Warhol was among the cutting-edge digital illustrators of his day, innovating digital art for computer company Commodore International, for which Warhol was a “brand ambassador.” You can view his digital art at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Another noteworthy digital groundbreaker was Sylvia Harris, who used her design talents to impact public health. A Black woman who grew up during the Civil Rights movement, she helped redesign the 2000 census to increase participation from people groups that had been underrepresented and enhanced hospital signage to help new patients find their way around quickly. 

Today’s Digital Artists

Now that technology has caught up with our collective imagination, digital art is pervasive across the globe. Top digital artists include Mike Winkelmann, aka “Beeple,” famous for selling a portion of his works for $98 million.

Digital art by Beeple.

Digital art by Beeple.

The medium has expanded around the world, from Ireland (The Rusted Pixel, a 3D designer who works for Adobe, Google, Disney, and more) to Israel (Ori Toor, who says he creates “freestyle worlds … to get lost in” for the likes of Apple, Cartoon Network, NY Times, and Nike).

If you’re looking to adorn your walls with digital art that’s a bit more, shall we say, accessible, I have a few suggestions. Check out SpaceFrogDesigns, a husband-wife team who explores the relationship between color, shapes, and textures — often with a hint of metallic in the mix. 

Digital art from Space Frog Designs

Digital art from Space Frog Designs.

I also encourage you to explore artists featured on Society6, like Joao Incerti and Ana Rut Bré. A self-taught artist living in Rio de Janeiro, Incerti creates works with Brazilian themes, like tigers, flowers, and suns.  

Digital art by Joao Incerti, via Society6.

Bré specializes in modern abstract designs born from a discerning eye for color, composition, and form.

Digital art by Ana Rut Bré, via Society6.

Show Us What You've Got

Though the future of digital art is complex with the recent proliferation of AI-generated art, I am confident that the pros and cons of this highly debated and nuanced subject will lead to honest conversations about new forms of self-expression, authenticity, and authorship. Its ultimate impact on the art world and society as a whole will come to light over time. As for me, I will continue to create and celebrate original digital works of art, while appreciating those legends who have inspired us to do so. And if you’re ready to show off your original works as well, apply to be featured in our Artist Spotlight series.   

Last updated September 28, 2023

Written by Joely Rogers

Joely Rogers Joely C. Rogers is an artist/illustrator and writer living in the mountains of western North Carolina. She has professional training in both natural science illustration and the culinary arts, as well as graduate academic training in education, sociolinguistics, and folklore/storytelling. She is a Blue Ridge Naturalist candidate with the North Carolina Arboretum and a member of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators.