The History of Digital Art

Michelangelo was advised by his contemporaries not to use stone as a medium. They said it was not befitting an artist who should have been using marble. Three centuries later the Impressionists were reprimanded not just for their technique, but for using paint from tubes, the popular opinion being that true artists obtain pigments from dedicated colorist paint mixers. In earlier years of the 20th century we saw sculptors being criticized for using modern industrial materials like plastic and steel. Photography was not considered fine art for many years after its beginnings. More modern movements like Dadaism, pop art and constructivism were snubbed initially for their use of popular and/or found materials.

Near the beginning of this century art created with computers received similar resistance, although thanks largely the breathtakingly beautiful imagery technology brings us through popular media, this opinion has changed. Digital art, both static and animated, small scale and installation sized, can be found in most major fine art museums.

You might be surprised to find out that such a new art medium has a history going back 70 years. Humans are innovative creatures and we'll make art out of just about anything we get our hands on, including technology. I'd like to tell you a little about the rich history of electronic and computer art.

Engineers as Artists: 1950 – 1970

Seven or eight decades ago, such terms as digital art, virtual reality and computer animation had not yet entered our vocabulary. The period between 1950 and 1970 was a time for the experimentation and innovation that produced today's industry of computer art and animation, along with the new media (hardware and software) for creative experiences with computers.

Referred to as the “oscilloscope era” this series of work represents the first purely aesthetic expression through electronic media.


, 1956


Within a short time, engineers coaxed their machines and fine tuned their knowledge and were generating images that were much more intentional, interesting, and traditionally beautiful.


Ozcillogramme, Herbert Francke, 1958


Walk-through-Raster, Frieder Nake, 1966


Now we go from Oscilloscope to CPU. The ability to program the machine to perform specific tasks and the introduction and refinement of display systems allowed artists to provide input directly, and to manipulate images pixel by pixel to achieve the desired goal. This was the beginning of digital painting and drawing, which were and are referred to as bitmaps. At the time the image below was created, the computer mouse didn't exist. Visuals like the nude below were made through coding and programming.


Perception, Harmon-Knowlton, 1966


Then, artists began to explore a collaboration… What the artist could envision in combination with how the computer could modify and enhance that vision.


Cubic Disarray, Wurful, 1966


Night Scene, Lillian Schwartz, 1968


Prismatic Variation – 1970

The Paintbox Years: 1970 - 1990

Enter Color. A few leaps in monitor technology meant finer detail and the capability to display thousands of different colors on screen at one time. Artists were also starting to see how technology could be used to alter existing images into new works. This particular image was captured from a television screen and modified to suit the artist’s vision.


Pipeline, David Em, 1979


Digital harmony, Uncredited, 1982

Around this time, software developed for industrial uses like mechanical drawings, blueprints, and plans was snapped up and reprogrammed to do the artists’ bidding. Much of this artwork was fundamentally different from bitmap images, they were vector images. Vector images are not pixel based, but are math-based. Unlike bitmap images, vector images were especially well suited for indstrial applications because they can be infinitely scaled with no loss of resolution—the data simply recalculates at the new scale and displays accordingly.


No Title, Frieder Nake, 1969



Plotter, uncredited, 1986


Math meets art in fractals and algorithmic art. The computer had long since been able to display visually the results of complex mathematical equations in charts, graphs, and even 3D representations of numeric input, but fractal art is purely about the undeniable beauty of math.

There are two major mathematical equation “sets” that were most prevalent in fractal art, the Mandelbrot set and the Julia set. These sets are equations that repeat within themselves and degenerate to zero eventually. Both are represented visually in two dimensions here. Remarkable visuals can be achieved by using different colors and arrangements to represent different parts of the equations.


Mandelbrot set


Julia Set

Julia set variation


Mandelbrot variation

The mainstream availability of 8-bit (256 color) computer painting software suddenly provides classically trained and not necessarily computer savvy artists with new tools and capabilities, both for bitmap and vector images. Prior to this, some programming ability was required to create digital art.


Portrait, Harold Cohen, 1988


Abstract 8, Mike King 1988


Reality Redefined: 1990 to present

The 1990s brought about huge changes and almost constant improvement in computer hardware and software. Faster, more powerful computers and monitors that could display millions of colors allowed artists more freedom to create complex and engaging work. The imaging tablet became available, simulating traditional media. Tablets work much like a re-usable digital pad and pencil that translates the artist's lines and strokes to the display, and allows for much more natural brushstrokes and organic lines.


Crazy Horse Eyes, Bruce Brown, 1993


Untitled, Sue Gollifer, 1994


Untitled, Bruce Brown, 1998


3 Dimensional art changed much about our modern media. It began with the refinement of programs that had previously been used in industrial applications to create visualizations of equipment parts for testing and machining. Early 3d software was also used for mapping.

Example of industrial application for 3D wireframe software


Example of geographical application for 3D wireframe software

3D wireframes are visual extrapolations of geometry. A shape is defined by points on a grid, but that grid has depth, width, and height. When you look at a 3D shape like the ones here, they are complete objects, they have backs and fronts, depth and width.

While this technology had been available for some years, and was in use by the movie, video game and television industries, the early software was prohibitively expensive and was inaccessible to the average artist until the mid to late 1990s. Even then, it was pretty costly and very limited, but that changed quickly. With the release of home computer (desktop) level 3D software from companies like Autodesk, The digital artist was able to go from painter to sculptor to world builder.

The following image is the same Julia Fractal presented earlier, but realized in three dimensions instead of two.

Julia Fractal, uncredited, 2003

Some 3D software allowed the artist to not just create objects by importing equations or building from numeric geometry, but using additive and subtractive methods to sculpt objects onscreen.

Faces, Yoshimu Morita, 2001

Landscape, uncredited, 2004

With my own digital artwork, I started at the early paint/pre-3d days. Because my parents were both in technology fields, we had a home computer and I was able to try simple drawing programs. In the early 2000s I moved to 3D software, and really found my voice there. Here are few of my own early images.


Infinitea, Cynthia Decker, 2005


The Thief, Cynthia Decker, 2003

Temple of Perpetual Autumn, 2006

Digital art continues to push boundaries through animation, multi-media, and the internet. Today, we see 3d in just about every movie and television commercial. Those slick car commercials with the vehicles speeding over exotic landscapes? All 3d. No real cars anywhere near those visuals. Drinks pouring perfectly into chilled glasses? All 3d. Architectural visualizations, city planning, product development are all heavily reliant on 3d technology.

Other technologies continue to move forward as art, (and move art forward) as well. Experiential art installations and video based artwork can be found in museums everywhere. Thanks to the internet, worldwide interactive online exhibits and performances make digital art something to be experienced and participated in, and not just observed. Crowd sourced projects mean the viewers can contribute directly to the final product and create art with people from all over the world. Check out “This Esquisite Forest” on YouTube here for an example of a digital online collaborative effort.

With tech like virtual and augmented reality now becoming mainstream and very accessible, it's exciting to think about where technology might take artists in the future, and what things might come about that we haven't even dreamed of yet. I know creative people will continue to push the boundaries of what's considered a fine art medium. Not only do I look forward to it, I hope to be a part of it.