Feature Story: Edmonton artists going digital?

Edmonton artists going digital?

Cathy McMillan is part of a growing number of artists going “digital” – using tablets and other computer art applications to produce their work.


* Note: this was the first freelance pack I’ve put together since graduating from NAIT. I used my friend’s Canon XF100 to shoot and Final Cut Pro 7 to edit. Unfortunately there were lav mic audio issues on location and hence the interview audio sounds a bit off. I intend to invest in my own professional video camera this Fall, so hopefully that means more videos to be uploaded and I’ll be able to continue honing my shooting/editing/writing! :)

Linda Hoang, Monday, August 22, 2011

EDMONTON – Cathy McMillan has been doing caricature art for 27 years.

Her main tools are markers and water colours but after attending the International Society of Caricature Artists conference in Spain in April, and seeing other artists using tablets for their art, McMillan decided to go digital.

“When I’m drawing somebody on pen and paper, in the same amount of time that I do just a black and white shading, that takes the same amount of time as when im doing it digitally to do it in colour, so the speed, colouring is a huge factor,” McMillan said.

She says more and more artists are choosing tablets as their sketchpads these days, largely due to the number of advantages that come with digital art. It’s quicker to produce an image, it’s easier to reproduce and distribute, and there’s the added perk of instant undo.

“When you’re working with water colour or marker or anything like that, you are 100% committed to that line the minute you put it down, and while that’s probably been really good for development, (digital is) really nice and actually relaxing and adds an extra play quality to my drawing,” McMillan said.

There are a number of advantages of doing digital art, instead of using more traditional platforms, including the ability to “undo” – which then allows the artist to take more risks and be more creative in their work.

“I’ve found with the digital I’ve played a lot more. I’ll do a really courageous line and go ‘no that doesn’t work’ and I’ll erase it or go backwards and that’s a nice thing after so long to have the ability to do that.”

With advice from other digital artists, McMillan began testing out the new platform using her iPhone. She then borrowed a friend’s iPad before making the jump to a tablet specifically designed for artists.

McMillan started with a smaller tablet that forced the artist to look up at the laptop it was connected to in order to see the drawing. She found that functionality didn’t work for her. She ended up purchasing a Wacom 12″ screen Cintiq tablet that allowed artists to view what they were drawing on the tablet itself (although still needs to be connected to a computer).

She sees digital art as a new medium and says at the caricature conference she attended, “digital” was considered in its own art genre.

But some would disagree.

Kim Fjordbotten runs The Paint Spot at 10032 81 Ave., and doesn’t believe the digital impact is quite here yet.

“It’s just another tool. I haven’t seen a whole switch over. Designers and graphic designers certainly can do a lot but for artists it’s just another tool, it’s a time saving tool, it’s a way to work through a lot of different versions of the same drawing, but I don’t think that it’s going to fully replace,” Fjordbotten says.

In fact, Fjordbotten thinks digital actually takes away from some of the most important aspects of art.

“When you’re using real tools there are accidents and serendipity and muses that help you. You still need to know that in digital land. I like the accidents and trying new materials and pushing yourself,” Fjordbotten says.

“It’s a tactile feel and I think art will never get away from having the tactile.”

Still Fjordbotten says there does appear to be some growing interest for digital in the art industry, at least for certain types of artists at this point.

“We have recently had someone approach us looking to do digital workshops. I haven’t had a lot of interest in my little sphere but my sphere is not digitally oriented yet. But there is interest out there,” Fjordbotten said.

It’s predicted more than 24 million tablets will sell in the United States alone by the end of the year.

More people are using them for school, work and play.

It’s fast becoming a powerful gaming console and its uses in the art world is only expected to rise.

McMillan and Fjordbotten agree that digital isn’t going to be taking over traditional forms of art.

But McMillan believes digital art is here to stay, and what digital will do now is change how people perceive art.

“People will eventually start to be challenged. Someone does a painting on here, gets it printed onto a canvas – which we can do now – and the challenge is does that mean it’s good art or real art?”

What Fjordbotten is finding most interesting about digital art is its ability for output onto different and new mediums.

Along with ease of speed and the ability to ‘erase’ when using tablets as platforms for digital art, there are also advantages in digital art output.

“If you’ve got a digital photograph or drawing, now you can output it on fabric, tin foil, you can put it on netting. There’s so many different surface preps, metal, wood, you can also transform it onto traditional print making and that’s really exciting.”

And she thinks digital art uses could open up the industry to more people.

“I watched a group of kids playing with the pottery (application) and I thought it was really good. It’s exposing them to art and now they may have curiosity to maybe go and make an actual pot in pottery,” Fjordbotten said.

While McMillan doesn’t see herself moving completely away from the marker and paper anytime soon, she’s excited about delving further into digital.

She’s currently only using a sketchpad application on her tablet but says she’ll soon dabble into a painting app as well.

“I’m kind of in love with this right now,” she said with a grin.

“I’m shocked actually, I’m not really a technological person but I really enjoy it and I think it’s exciting what can actually happen with it.”




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  • I loved to see Cathy Studio it is always full of art materials and books. Even if she loves her digital pad….she is virtuoso with paints, pens and canvas. Her artworks have a lot of texture and tactile feel that digital can’t reproduce. Thanks for letting us peak into to your studio Cathy!

  • Logan Foster says:

    Great story Linda!

    I think it is interesting to see how artists who work in traditional/physical mediums feel towards the adoption of digital technologies from their own point of view.

    From my point of view however, as an experienced and employed digital artist, I think that your article also shows the dark side of how traditional artists overlook the benefit of the digital medium and in many ways look down upon it and its users poorly as if they are not “real” artists or creative people. Call it fear of the unknown and fear of competition, but it is this type of prevalent attitude in our society and in our government that has unfortunately resulted in almost no funding, grants or other assistance being available in Alberta (and much of Canada) for digital arts. What little is here is deems this medium as “experimental”, as if this 30+ year old form of presenting and expressing art, creativity and ideas is something that is uncertain, a fad or would never work commercially (which we all know is not correct).

    Unfortunately though until the traditional arts scene can look past their medium and believe in what they accurately preach in which tools, physical or digital, are still just tools and it is the user behind them that crafts a wonderful result, we will not see a change in this attitude of Digital being looked upon poorly. Digital isn’t canvas, canvas isn’t paper, paper isn’t gesso and so on and so forth. The medium is not relevant; it is the application of an idea that is.

    The simple fact is that Alberta is home to as many successful digital artists as traditional artists, producing millions of dollars of commercial work that is beloved by even more millions worldwide and as such it is time that we embrace digital instead of fearing it.

    Digital is change and it is something that is feared by many because it is new and not fully understood by some. However with that said while it is a “game changer” with regards to adjusting how people will develop and consume the creative results created with its assistance, it is also something that can create a significant boon as well for the traditional arts industry too. As artists who have honed their craft on the digital platform will continue to look for other mediums to also express their talent and ideas upon as well (much as we have already seen with digital photography enthusiasts also adopting film and traditional cameras once again).

  • I am so excited to see an interest in mobile digital art (also known as “finger painting”) here in Edmonton. Art created with apps such as Brushes, ArtStudio, Inspire and Sketchbook to mention only a very few, have exploded onto the international scene and led to the creation of an international organisation whose sole purpose is to promote mobile digital art and artists around the world.

    iAMDA (International Association of Mobile Digital Artists) is the name of the organisation hosting the second international Mobile Art Con in New York this October. Here is the website for more information: http://iamda.org/

    I began “Fingerpainting” two years ago when I heard about the Brushes app and got an iPhone just for that app. I now have an iPad, also just to do mobile digital art. There may never be a gallery in Edmonton willing to promote or even display mobile digital art, but there is a world of fellow finger painters who share their work in many Flickr groups and some have had gallery showings in their local areas. The premier web site for mobile digital artists is fimgerpaintedit.com where app reviews, artist interviews and more are available to those who are interested in trying this new art medium.

  • Linda Hoang says:

    Thanks for all of the information Lorraine! It’s great to see more and more people jumping into “fingerpainting” as you call it :) I should have gotten a quote from someone with the IAMDA for the story. Would have been wonderful extra insight :)

  • ThNks for your great article, Linda. If you were to consider a follow up, the conference is still a month away – time enough to get an interview in! iAMDA, I should add, covers not only mobile visual art, but all the arts in mobile digital form!
    Here’s the FB page:

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