From Computers to iPads: A Byte-Size History of Digital Art

Imagine Frida Kahlo and Ada Lovelace in a room together- what would happen if they collaborated together to create art? Go ahead, laugh. Say that nowadays, technology (particularly computer science) and the arts are mostly kept apart. If Frida Kahlo and Ada Lovelace lived today, Kahlo would be the stereotypical art student, most likely sporting a nose piercing and possibly a curly shag, dressed in bold colours and patterns, always sketching down ideas and hanging out with other art students. Lovelace would be, excluding her being a woman, a stereotypical computer science student who wears glasses (Shorthand for smart. Nay, very smart) and in a hoodie and jeans or academia style clothes. Creative expression and erudition are more often considered to be incompatible than complementary characteristics. Yet this combination has been a vital component in digital art’s genetic makeup all along.

Hommage à Paul Klee 13/9/65 Nr. 2, Frieder Nake

In fact, in some ways, you could say the progress of digital art has been irrevocably tied to the computer’s development. The first adopters and pioneers of computer art during the 1950s and 1960s were mathematicians and computer scientists. One such early innovator was Frieder Nake, who was a mathematician and a computer scientist first, artist second. He began his venture into computer art in 1963, and instead of doodling with his Apple Pencil on Procreate, his toolbox consisted of computer algorithms and a mechanical plotter device. His pieces, visual representations of matrices, look into the relationship between math and aesthetics. The Golden Ratio may be special, but it is, after all, a number.

Walk-Through-Raster Vancouver Version, Frieder Nake

The simplicity of Nake’s work was indicative of the computer art style of the time, which relied on geometric forms given that plotters, for instance, were linear and therefore shading was only possible through cross-hatching. This was just fine because the computer was then regarded by computer artists as a tool through which they could carry out their visual experiments objectively. One of Nake’s early screenprints, titled “Hommage à Paul Klee 13/9/65 Nr. 2”, is a complex example of this. As the title suggests, his piece was inspired by Swiss-German artist Paul Klee’s 1929 painting “Highways and Byways”, which is abstract and utilises geometric shapes to indicate perspective. A similar strategy is evident in Nake’s hommage, which was generated through a series of instructions written by the artist but randomised in order to allow the computer to make its own choices. This is now called generative art, which still has a notable presence in the art world, and has recently been tied to research on artificial intelligence.

“Athlete Series.” AARON/Harold Cohen. (1986)

It was digital artist Harold Cohen’s foray into making digital art with artificial intelligence that saw the first use of the term ‘digital art’ two decades later. By this time, traditional artists began to catch on and began to teach themselves how to program, and the typical profile of a regular digital artist changed. Cohen is a good example, he was already a well-established painter when he started to get into coding in 1968. The most well-known result of Cohen’s experimentation is the robotic AI machine AARON, which was designed and written to draw on large sheets of paper placed on the floor while engaging in a similar process a human artist undergoes when creating art. From then on, most of his research focused on closing in on human cognition, and Cohen eventually introduced the machine to colouring and drawing less abstract figures such as plants and animals.

Untitled Computer Drawing, Harold Cohen and AARON

AARON created art like a computer, but computers and the computer aesthetic was quickly changing. A defining feature of digital art throughout the 70s and 80s was a very clear computer-generated aesthetic, but it wasn’t all straight lines and geometric shapes like in Nake’s hommage anymore. Think of the first app icon designs for Microsoft and Apple. As computers gained software, the pixel even became its own art form, going from 8-bit to 16-bit and so on. Soon, the first personal computers and digital techs like computer graphics and special effects were beginning to permeate everyday life. They were in movies and video games, which in turn increased the popularity of pixel art, a style that carries strong tinges of nostalgia among a generation of contemporary artists who grew up during this time.

Untitled Computer Drawing, Harold Cohen and AARON

Technology wasn’t just changing the art world, but the world in general at a dizzying speed. And it was in these developing times that American artist Nancy Stahl began working as a traditional graphic designer before switching to digital vector illustrations in the late 1980s, after being invited by Charlex, a digital post-production company, to learn how to create digital art on their mainframe computers. She found herself in awe of the near-limitless realm of possibilities digital art had to offer and was hooked straight away. So she got herself a Mac and found that she could recreate her previous gouache technique to create flat colour shapes with vector-drawing programmes even more easily than before. They looked and felt very much like her successful previous analogue design work, and this made it stand out from most of the work being done on computers at the time. Stylistically, digital art now isn’t so different from artists’ pencil sketches, but it wasn’t the norm back then. Like Frieder Nake, Harold Cohen and her other predecessors in the field, Stahl realised that exploration is necessary for an artist’s growth and this is by no means limited to the confines of what is traditionally creative. She said: “How do you explore if you don’t do things that people don’t like?”

The New Republic cover, Nancy Stahl

Clients eventually made the change with her, and she would later be commissioned by corporations, international publications like Der Spiegel, and even to create postage stamps for the United States Postal Service. Adobe requested that Stahl test-drive and serve as a consultant for their very first Photoshop programme, which was released in February 1990. Like Stahl, many others were beginning to realise that digital art was not only a shiny new process in itself but also a more than decent way to replicate traditional processes that would usually have taken much longer. The 1990s and 2000s saw and continue to see a series of growth spurts for digital art in which digital tools such as CGI, video, virtual reality, and NFTs were created and continue to be refined. The internet and communities like Instagram now function as experimentation chambers, having made it possible for artists to share their work with a larger audience than ever before and receive feedback from this audience.

Nowadays, it feels like you can do anything with digital art, choices abound more than ever before. Ada Lovelace and Frida Kahlo don’t just sit in a room together. They party. Hard. And exciting things happen.