Is Digital Painting Real Art? Thoughts From An Oil Painter.

Graphic title slide showing a hand holding a stylus and a painting in vibrant colors of a portrait of a woman. Text reads Is Digital Art Real Art?

Digital painting – is real art or not? I’ve struggled with this question ever since I picked up a tablet and started painting digitally. Through the years, I’ve created art by making real, tangible pieces with paint on canvas that I can hold in my hands. Real art could only be made with real art supplies – not pixels, right?

After having done both traditional and digital painting, I think the answer is that as far as talent and creating a work of art in today’s world, digital painting is “real” art. If you are only measuring digital art based on it taking on a form that is handcrafted with a variety of materials, then no, it doesn’t qualify as “real” art. But is that second sentence true or is it just a perception? To find out, I’ll explore the definition of fine art, the biases in art, art-shaming and how the world of art is responding to digital art.

If you would like to watch a short video on this subject, there should be a video floating around somewhere on this page. Otherwise, you can find the video on my YouTube channel. Make sure to subscribe for upcoming painting videos.

Times Are Changing

Look at sports. Until a couple of years ago, online gaming wasn’t viewed as a viable sport or a way to make money. Now some eSports tournaments draw thousands and the winners make millions.

Digital detail study of John Singer Sargent's "Ena and Betty Daughters of Wortheimer"

Digital study of John Singer Sargent’s “Ena and Betty Daughters of Wortheimer”

If the sports world is allowing for digital, maybe the art world can too. I’m sure the art world thinks it has allowed for digital already because of the experiential art, but digital painting still isn’t included in that scenario to my knowledge. It still seems to fall mostly into the illustration category.

Does The Definition Of Fine Art Need To Change?

The way we create things has changed a lot over the past couple of decades. What about movies and music? They are mostly digital now. Are they not considered to be art in many instances? And if they are, then why not digital painting?

When I walk through modern art museums, I see experiential, interactive art that has been created digitally. It is considered to be fine art since it’s in a museum. But I don’t recall seeing any digital paintings on display that didn’t have some sort of interactive or AI component to it.

digital painting practicing jewelry

Digital painting practice. A detail from “Portrait of a Lady” by Antonio Moro (1520-1578).

When you google the definition of fine art, it is “creative art, especially visual art whose products are to be appreciated primarily or solely for their imaginative, aesthetic, or intellectual content.” Digital painting should fit right in. However, Wikipedia makes a distinction that historically it includes the “five main fine arts being painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and poetry, with performing arts including theatre and dance”. Wikipedia also makes mention of graphics being included in some definitions of fine art. It looks like digital painting isn’t quite making the list, even though it certainly can fulfill many definitions of fine art.

Bias Against Digital Art

If I ever did see digital paintings in a museum, I’m still not sure how I would react to them because of my own bias.

I have admitted in previous articles that when I was first asked by a colleague to try painting on the iPad, I felt a lot of snobby artist resistance. There was no way that painting digitally could be remotely viable.

Painting an eye study in Procreate on the iPad Pro

Painting an eye study based on a portrait by Karen Offutt in Procreate

I worked in advertising and created a lot of images in Photoshop. There was nothing in that program that could compare to painting on a canvas. It was flat, had patterned brushwork, and looked fake.

Sure, you could make some graphic pop art pretty easily through digital means, but that wasn’t “real” either. At least in my mind, it wasn’t. After all, when Andy Warhol did it, he used various forms of printmaking which are acceptable in the fine art world. Plus, photoshop is synonymous with fakery. Any cover of a magazine proves that point. I’m sure this fakery has led to the bias against digital art for many people.

Changing My Mind About Digital Painting

After a lot of resistance, I decided to give painting on the iPad a try. I had heard good things about Procreate. A lot of the art looked promising, although it still had a more flat or graphic look to it. My colleague did incredible drawings in the program, however, his style is very different from my style. I was looking for the feel of paint and canvas but it never seemed like I could get there using Procreate.

Digital painting study of silver teapot

Digital painting study of a silver teapot

After trying to paint a few paintings, I became uninspired and gave up. I didn’t understand painting in layers and all of the technical stuff was too complicated and frustrating. I had enough of that with my programs at work. When I painted on a canvas, I could just load up my brush and paint. It was much more simple.

I felt terrible that I had spent a bunch of money on an iPad Pro and wasn’t using it anymore. But then I researched a few more programs and came across ArtRage. I took to it instantly and it gave me much more of the look and feel I was going for. It wasn’t exactly like oil painting, but it was pretty darn close. Suddenly I was creating art on the road when traveling, while watching tv, and would steal 5 – 10 minutes here and there to get a little practice in.

Sargent Self Portrait Study

Digital study after John Singer Sargent’s self-portrait from 1906

Within a few months, I had been contacted by ArtRage to have an artist feature written about me. I was excited but sort of felt a little weird about it at the same time. I’m a traditional artist, so what did that mean for me if I got recognized for digital painting?

Was I Experiencing The Effects Of Art Shaming?

I was feeling uncomfortable about getting recognition for my digital work. The reason for this was that I was afraid my traditional art colleagues may think less of me or be dismissive. And I get it. There are no juried shows for digital painting. At least not ones that rival the shows in the art world.

Art shaming has been around a long time. When I was in art classes in college, my area of interest was realism. However, modern art had taken over at the time and realism was “out of favor”. Representational artists were relegated to the status of technicians, but an artist that could sling poo or blood across a canvas – now that was considered “real” art. And if you duct tape a banana to a wall you could become world-famous these days.

Sktchy #30faces30days challenge painting day 24

Sktchy #30faces30days challenge. Digital painting was done in ArtRage.

I think of an artist like Norman Rockwell who never got the recognition he truly deserved because he was labeled as an illustrator. He wanted to be thought of as a genre painter because that’s what he was. Illustrators are classified as a part of commercial art. Unfortunately for Rockwell, commercial art is like an actor working on TV soap operas and fine art is where you’d find the movie stars. There was a lane and you had to stay in it.

Art Shaming And Traditional Painting

The first time I painted in oil I was 12 years old. Unfortunately, I was extremely sensitive to the smell of turpentine and had to give it up. As a result, I switched to acrylic paints. It’s a great medium to work in but soon I realized whenever someone found out my painting was in acrylic, I could see the look of judgment on their face. Suddenly I felt like my work was less valuable not because of my talent, but because of the medium I used.

"Lemon Water" | unfinished study | acrylic on canvas board greatest creators pm360 cover contest

“Lemon Water” | unfinished study | acrylic on canvas board

Oil was viewed as superior simply because it has been around longer and was thought to be more archival. But as time goes on, it looks like the opposite may be true. Acrylic stands a better chance of holding up over the years due to less decay of organic ingredients.

Fortunately, acrylic painting has become more widely accepted over the years and many painters are finding success and fame using the medium. Hopefully, this will be the same for digital painters in the future.

teapot with persimmon

“Teapot with Persimmon” – is it oil or acrylic? It’s acrylic!

Should I Share Digital Paintings?

I approach my digital painting the same way I approach my traditional painting. I’ve used a lot of my digital step-by-step paintings as tutorials here on my website. Younger artists seem to have no problem knowing that the original medium is digital and happily follow the tutorials in whatever medium suits them best. I love seeing the work they create. I’ve seen them use color pencils, acrylics, oils, graphite, watercolor, and even makeup as their medium.

tips for painting silver objects

Adding medium tones after establishing dark areas in a digital tutorial

I do have to admit that I feel very self-conscious when I post digital step-by-step tutorials as opposed to my traditional tutorials. This could very well be my mind getting the best of me, but at the same time, I know traditional artists scoff at digital work and would be dismissive. The thought of this still gets to me. This is a thought that is not serving me and needs to be dropped.

Some of my digital paintings are much harder to create than traditional paintings. If it wasn’t so convenient to paint digitally, I probably wouldn’t do it. But I’ve found painting digitally has improved my traditional paintings simply because I’m practicing more.

Remy digital painting

A digital portrait study I did that wasn’t as easy as I hoped it would be

Can Digital Painting Ever Be “Real”?

Digital painting is real. It takes time, talent, effort, and technical capability. Who knows if it will ever be accepted and given a place in the art world, making it officially “real”. The artworld is a fixed system and slow to change. Digital painters will have to find a way to make their work marketable in a world that doesn’t favor them yet.

I shied away from joining the art world because it seemed complicated, political and fake. There are wonderful parts of the art world and I’ve experienced them first hand, but there is always “behind the scenes” bullshittery going on that makes my skin crawl. I love the artists, it’s the operating system that needs to be rebooted.

Oil painting of a senior dog, Duke

A traditional oil painting portrait of Duke

Does Digital Painting Have Value?

Digital painting is thought to have less value because it can be printed out an infinite number of times. Because it doesn’t have the “only one of its kind” factor going for it, it makes it less valuable.

This ultimately is the number one reason that devalues digital painting in comparison to traditional painting. People like knowing they have something rare and are willing to pay more money for a “one of a kind”.

Of course, the kind of digital painting I’m talking about here would be done by real human beings. If you’re an art collector and an opportunity comes along to bid on a painting done by artificial intelligence, suddenly the value of the pixels change. In 2018 the Portrait of Edmond Belamy, created by a generative adversarial network (GAN), sold for $432,500 – 45 times the estimated price, which was also ridiculous.

Portrait of Edmond Belamy (GAN)

The Portrait of Edmond Belamy constructed by GAN (generative adversarial network) sold for $432,500

That’s right, a robot printed out an ugly portrait in ink and fetched a small fortune. In the meantime, human beings are producing work and would be lucky to make that much money in their lifetime. What’s that word again? Ah yes, bullshittery.

What About The New AI Art Like Midjourney?

I have left art created by prompting robots out of this conversation. Large language models trained on art and photography created by humans are very controversial. The uncertainty and ethical issues around its use is alarming for visual artists to say the least. But, it looks like AI is here to stay, so my hope is that artists will use these emerging technologies to supplement their creative endeavors and find inspiration for creating something completely new.

Can Digital Art (Created By Humans) Be Fine Art?

I think it can be a component of fine art and some argue that it is a viable form of printmaking.

I met an artist who was a printmaker and used digital art as a base for a large print on canvas. He then painted original art on top of it. It had the benefit of digital art to get started on the piece but then became a one-of-a-kind when the artist took it to the next level. This was a mixed media piece and was accepted as a piece of modern art.

At the time I heard about this method, I must admit that I thought it was cheating (I was art-shaming him in my mind). But having done printmaking in the past and also now doing quite a bit of digital painting, I am changing my opinion on this. However, I believe that putting an image on a canvas and then painting directly over it to make an oil painting is cheating. The whole idea about making art is creating something new.

8 tips for painting black fur traditional and digital in artrage

This painting was done in ArtRage on how to paint black fur digitally and traditionally

Can Digital Painting Replace Traditional Painting?

If we’re only talking about human beings, I don’t think that digital painting will replace traditional painting any time soon and I really wouldn’t want it to. I do see that it has a place in the painting process though. I’ve used digital painting to help me create studies and tutorials. It’s another tool in my artist toolbox and it’s fun to use.

You can see how I included digital painting in my traditional painting process when I painted this portrait of Maiden.

Final Portrait of White German Shepherd Maiden

I did a digital study before painting this oil portrait of Maiden

Art is ever-evolving and artists have been pushing the boundaries of expression for centuries. Just because there are new tools available to create art doesn’t mean traditional methods of art making will become obsolete. Actually, I think it will have the opposite effect. As the world becomes more artificial, I think humans will begin to crave physical art that is made by hand.

Is Digital Painting Easier?

When I first painted on the computer, I thought it would be much easier than painting on canvas. In some ways it is and in some ways, it isn’t. As I said above, I see it now as another tool and a method for practicing my artwork.

How it is easier:

It can be easier to draw in your subject using a tracing feature. This is completely up to the artist to decide. If you want to practice drawing skills, eliminate the tracing feature and draw freehand. Here is a portrait I drew using the sight-size method and then painted all in ArtRage.

It has been found that many master painters such as Vermeer used the technology of their time to render their subjects. Vermeer was a master of composition. That was his real genius. He allowed technology to help him achieve an outcome. The technology did not replace his vision as an artist, it enhanced it.

Final portrait of Tippy

A portrait study I did on how to paint a cat. Tippy was painted in ArtRage.

Digital painting also makes it easier to figure out the values of color if you have your subject uploaded as a reference photo. You can sample portions of an image to get a color. I wouldn’t recommend always using the color your computer or tablet samples. It is selecting a pixel of color which may be too bright or too dark than what you should paint. It is, however, a great way to train your eye to see values overall. Values are the most important part of the painting to get right when painting representational art.

Sktchy #30faces30days challenge painting day 16

Digital portrait from 30 Faces 30 Days challenge.

How it’s not as easy: 

If you are technically challenged, learning a painting program on top of learning the basics of painting and drawing could be overwhelming. When I paint on the computer, there are what seems to be an endless amount of features for achieving desired effects, and learning these features takes a great deal of time.

What I have found to be successful for me is to keep it simple. If I want to draw or paint on the tablet, I use the same settings every time for the pencil or paint tools and keep my color palette limited. I also paint all in one sitting and one layer alla prima style. I only use the basic drawing tools or paintbrushes. There are a lot of other options to choose from, but I like to keep it as similar to the tools I use traditionally.

“Lemons with Glass Bowl” – 2018 Greatest Creators runner-up

“Lemons with Glass Bowl” – A painting done in ArtRage

After painting and drawing in ArtRage for a while, I have a lot more respect for digital artists. It isn’t any easier, in my opinion, it’s just different. You can learn shortcuts to help you create your work faster, but in the end, painting and drawing on a tablet won’t make you any better of an artist than you already are. Practicing drawing and painting is what makes you a better artist.


There was a lot more ground to cover on this subject than I originally thought. Digital painting should be considered real art when you look at the definition of fine art. However, the art world has not embraced digital painting by human beings. It has embraced digital painting by robots though, which is disappointing, to say the least.

If you’re an artist and want to add digital painting to your toolbox, I would say to go for it. I’m seeing more and more traditional painters do digital painting. They are mostly using it as part of their practice as I am doing. Who knows, maybe one day digital painting will get the respect it deserves.

Thanks For Stopping By

If you enjoyed this article and would like to see some of my traditional oil painting tutorials or find out about other painting tips, check out my tutorials page here.

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