The Next Renaissance: Commercial Digital Art

Beatrice Blue, page from Once Upon a Unicorn Horn, 2019.

Beatrice Blue
Beatrice Blue, page from Once Upon a Unicorn Horn, 2019.
A popular new app is changing the field of digital art by bringing groundbreaking tools to the public on a huge scale.

A popular new app is changing the field of digital art by bringing groundbreaking tools to the public on a huge scale.

Jon Juarez

Jon Juarez, Home.

“Procreate is unlike any other drawing and sketching product, because it’s focused on the art of digital drawing.”

James Cuda

Through accessibility and innovation, a groundbreaking app is changing the art world as we know it. The mobility, intuitive use and affordability of the iPad app Procreate has greatly expanded the field of digital art since it was first released in 2011, in part due to its shockingly low price tag: a single payment of 10 USD. That’s equal to the monthly cost of Photoshop.

Its latest update, branded Procreate 5, is creating waves more monumental than its developers at Savage Interactive expected. Released to the public on December 9th, the update includes a range of upgrades and advancements, including an animation feature, at no additional cost. But before the particulars of this update and its impact can be further discussed, it’s important to unpack what digital art really is.

Many people do not know what to picture when they hear the term digital art as it lacks both a concrete definition and a tradition of use. The term can technically be applied to any piece of art made with a digital tool—from a Nikon camera to Microsoft Paint—but it has come to mean different things to different sectors of the art world.

Chris Oatley

Chris Oatley, Digital.

The commercial and fine art camps have particularly distinct understandings and that shouldn’t be surprising since a divide has seemingly always been present between these two corners of the art world.

“Saying you’re an oil painter is a lot more specific than saying you’re a digital artist, because there are people who identify as digital artists who are doing fine art,” explains Oatley Academy founder and Disney artist, Chris Oatley. Though, “typically,” he adds, “when someone says, ‘I’m a Digital artist,’ they mean that they’re an illustrator who works digitally.” For the purposes of clarity and brevity, that is how the terms digital art and artist will be used in this article.

While North Carolina Museum of Art Curator and internationally successful podcast host Jennifer Dasal says digital art has “an immediacy that’s intriguing,” she qualifies that its “ease of access and availability” will ultimately affect the valuation. “Rarity and uniqueness usually increases price in the art world,” she concludes.

Though digital art can indeed be endlessly printed, most digital artists occupy commercial and collaborative art spaces where, instead of selling tangible originals, artists sell themselves as creative contributors.

Beatrice Blue

Beatrice Blue, fold out poster included in her book Wonder, 2019. See full image.


Take digital artist and character designer Lois van Baarle for example. “For me, it’s not so much about the piece itself, it’s much more about having a brand or a voice of my own that I express with my work.” As one of the most popular digital artists, with 1.7 million Instagram followers, Lois does a lot of branding through social media. “I have an easily identifiable style that has a wide appeal. So, I have a lot of followers online and the money is generated, in my case, from getting client work.”

In the words of author-illustrator and visual development artist Beatrice Blue, it’s the person, not the painting, that is valued. Lois and Beatrice also make smaller streams of income selling work printed onto tote bags, coffee mugs, blankets, and more. Considering that digital art provides an affordable way to be surrounded by beauty, one consumers are interested in, says a lot about humanity and our current culture. And yet, there’s still a lot of hesitation to embrace the art form.

Lois Van Baarle, steps for Rose, made with Photoshop, 2016.
Lois Van Baarle

Lois Van Baarle, steps for Rose, made with Photoshop, 2016.

Lois Van Baarle, Neon Nostalgia, color-study, 2017
Lois Van Baarle

Lois Van Baarle, Neon Nostalgia, color-study, 2017.

Lois Van Baarle, Indigo, made with Procreate and Photoshop, 2018
Lois Van Baarle

Lois Van Baarle, Indigo, made with Procreate and Photoshop, 2018.

Chris Oatley, Charcole
Chris Oatley

Chris Oatley, Charcole.

Beatrice Blue, page from Once Upon a Unicorn Horn, 2019.
Beatrice Blue

Beatrice Blue, page from Once Upon a Unicorn Horn, 2019.

Beatrice Blue, made with Procreate, 2019
Beatrice Blue

Beatrice Blue, made with Procreate, 2019.

Beatrice Blue, digital collaboration with Throw and Co., 2019.
Beatrice Blue

Beatrice Blue, digital collaboration with Throw and Co., 2019.

Another major criticism of digital art often levied by members of the fine art world is that, because there is no original, the artist’s hand—often symbolic of genius—is inherently absent.

But, in a lot of ways viewing digital art is simply a different experience. “I’m seeing a mind and I’m seeing a creative process and decisions,” says Beatrice. And that’s because it’s often part of a larger project, like an artist’s preparatory sketches. “Every decision in a painting makes a painting,” concludes Beatrice, “and that doesn’t change if it’s traditional or digital.”

What does change is the visibility of the artist’s choices. Process videos—which are a popular part of digital art, particularly on social media—literally capture the moment of inspiration and the physical stroke of genius.

“In the digital art world there’s a lot of knowledge sharing,” adds Lois. And while part of that is because digital artists are already on the computer, “I think every artist has something to gain from taking it into the virtual world.”

Beatrice Blue

Beatrice Blue, book cover for Wonder, 2019.

Unfortunately, a lot of people from the traditional side are still too scared to do so. Up until about four years ago, Beatrice Blue was one of them. “If we choose a tool to define an idea, we choose the one that we have best mastered,” says freelance digital artist Jon Juarez, “but that does not mean it is the most powerful.” Though Beatrice says developing fear of the unknown is very human, she’s also found it’s not very helpful. “It’s just like learning anything, nothing can hurt you if you learn it.”

Now Beatrice works mostly digitally and traditionally just for fun but it is clear that her traditional experience informs her work. And there are many artists, including Chris Oatley, who split their time evenly between the two. Chris in particular tries to let each inform the other, a practice that he does his best to impart to his students.

Despite all of this, one thing is clear—digital art isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it’s growing and that’s where Procreate comes back into the conversation.

The number of artists using Procreate is growing exponentially. In 2016, Procreate became one of the top ten best-selling iPad apps, by 2017 it was in the top two, and in 2018 it became the overall bestseller. There are several reasons why, but CEO and Co-founder James Cuda singles out the following as “most critical:” “Procreate is unlike any other drawing and sketching product, because it’s focused on the art of digital drawing. It may sound too obvious – and it’s easy to overlook that for many years on desktop platforms, there hasn’t been a pure drawing application like Procreate.”

This focus feeds into the app’s simplicity, the thing that makes it accessible to traditional artists and digital amateurs. “There is such beauty in simplicity,” says James, “But it’s important to note that simplicity does not mean under-powered or featureless. Quite the opposite.” And that’s something seasoned professionals find appealing

Professionals are also attracted by the product’s mobility. Because tools like Photoshop require a serious Mac or PC as well as a plug-in tablet to function, the Procreate—iPad combination is easier to travel with and take into the field.

While all aspects of Procreate follow the aforementioned model of powerful simplicity, the new animation feature, Animation Assist, embodies it on a new level. “We’ve had artists across the spectrum say they’ve never animated in their life,” says James, “but they’re now creating animations like crazy.”

The hype surrounding this new feature is probably part of the reason their servers crashed back in November, when they made a Beta version of Procreate 5 public. “We felt confident that we were OK,” he says, referencing the fact that the days leading up to the launch where spent fortifying servers. “We couldn’t have been more wrong – as soon as the gates opened we got hit by a tidal wave of thousands and thousands of people.”

Like everything else Procreate does, this new advancement puts powerful tools into the hands of people who otherwise might not have access to them. “I’m not sure where exactly we’ll see these animations,” concludes James, “but at a guess I’d say we’ll be seeing artists create incredible things that we never expected. That really excites us.”

About the Author

Anna Claire Mauney

Anna Claire Mauney is the former managing editor for Art & Object. A writer and artist living in North Carolina, she is interested in illustration, the 18th-century, and viceregal South America. She is also the co-host of An Obsessive Nature, a podcast about writing and pop culture.

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