Bringing Digital Art to Life

From pixelated images to digital brushes to painting in VR, we are just scratching the surface of what’s possible for digital art.

by Adobe Communications Team

posted on 12-13-2017

Master painters relied on canvas, brush, and paint to work their craft. Artists today not only have these same tools, but they also have a variety of technology at their fingertips — from digital brushes to sophisticated algorithms. For many years, we’ve had options for traditional forms of painting on physical surfaces as well as creating art on digital screens. And now, digital art is coming full circle to the physical space — thanks to technologies like augmented and virtual reality.

The evolution of digital art

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when “digital art” first began, but one interesting early example dates back 50 years. In 1965, German artist Nake entered an algorithm into a room-sized ER 56 computer to have it interpret a Paul Klee painting mathematically. London’s Victoria and Albert Museum later called Nake’s effort the “most complex algorithmic work of its day.”

Other artists — including Andy Warhol — experimented with computer algorithms for art, as well. For example, in the 1980s, the pop artist agreed to create digital art to advertise the computer.

Over time, technology has evolved the artist’s workflow, too. “It used to be that everything we did began on paper, and then we brought it into a digital tool like Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator,” says Daichi Ito, a technical artist at Adobe Research. “We still do this sometimes, but it was our only practical option in the early days of digital art.”

“There were other issues, too,” he continues. “We had to clean up the lines because there was so much noise on the scanned image. The resolution wasn’t high at first, and things like rendering took a long time — like a couple of days for one image.”

Today, he says, if you’re not using digital tools, you can’t compete.

From pixelated images to digital brushes to painting in VR, Adobe is just scratching the surface of what’s possible for digital art.

Enhancing digital creativity

Adobe is experimenting with technologies like augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and artificial intelligence (AI) — which are all advances that can work in partnership with an artist.

“We’re starting to see the potential of things like AI, machine learning, and deep learning — not necessarily to have the answers for the artist, but to become a powerful companion in the artistic process so it can surface and control information in a collaborative way,” says Erik Natzke, principal artist in residence at Adobe Research.

Erik gave the example of using natural language processing and AI to change the color or the composition of a digital drawing in a more nuanced way.

“Those are complex assessments, but the hope is that we’re able to learn what people want to iterate on — and what will add meaning to their creative process — so they’re thinking more about the content they’re creating and less about the tools they’re creating it with,” he says.

Emerging technologies are powering projects at Adobe like Wetbrush, Project Dali, and Playful Palette that illustrate how far you can push the boundaries of art when you marry technology and human creativity.


Much of the mood and magic in painting happens when the painter dips their brush into the oil paint, lifts it to the canvas, and blends layers of pigment until they achieve the image that’s in their mind. What if you could have that same experience in the digital world?

Adobe Wetbrush is a technology that’s exploring this very idea. It brings physics-based brush and particle simulation to oil painting on a pressure-sensitive tablet, enabling artists to paint digitally in 3D.

“One of our goals in building Wetbrush was to make a system that takes our intuition from the natural world and maps it into a computer. You can create highly detailed ripples, ridges, and bumps that can even be 3D printed to get the natural lighting effects,” explains Nathan Carr, principal scientist for Adobe Research.

The result, for the digital artist, is an expressive stroke that responds more naturally to the angle, pressure, and length of the brush stroke.

Wetbrush is an Adobe research project that explores how to effectively oil paint on a pressure-sensitive tablet.

Playful Palette

Besides being able to paint naturally, it’s also important for artists to be able to blend colors organically in the digital world. Digital media offers many color options, of course, but some of the standard color tools don’t allow you to blend colors creatively.

Playful Palette debuted during Sneaks at this year’s Adobe Max conference and allows professional and novice artists alike to play with colors naturally.

It’s a color-picker interface for digital paint programs that derives intuition from oil paint and watercolor palettes, but extends them with digital. Playful Palette allows artists to easily mix — and more importantly, unmix — colors as they paint.

“It gives you great control as an artist to do large global effects that would force you in the analog space, or even in the existing digital space, to start over again,” Erik says.

Project Dali

Moving digital painting beyond the screen is Project Dali, an immersive drawing experience.

“Imagine painting in a space that has no solid form,” says Kyle Webster, design evangelist at Adobe. “Imagine making a mark that would hover in front of you, and that you could move around it and make another mark, and then build in layers — and to do it all in a 3D environment.”

With Project Dali, artists use custom brushes to create — and move around their creations — in three dimensions. They literally can walk through their own paintings.

Project Dali is technology for an immersive drawing experience that allows artists to use custom brushes to create in three dimensions.

We’ve only scratched the surface

With all of these exciting changes, what does the future hold? Kyle thinks digital painting for hobbyists will become more common.

“It’ll have to be affordable. Hobbyists can’t put down thousands of dollars for equipment and software,” he says. “But I do think we’ll see a lot more art coming from people who are simply doing it for themselves, and not just for some commercial purpose.”

As for how technology will continue to optimize the painting experience, it’s likely beyond anything we can imagine today.

“In five years, we might have surfaces that react to more than 1,000 different touchpoints and can read them all simultaneously, allowing us to paint virtually without even feeling a difference,” Kyle says. “We’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible.”

Read more stories from Adobe’s 35th anniversary series.

Topics: Creativity, Art

Products: Photoshop, Illustrator, Premiere Pro, Creative Cloud