Graphic design and illustration have come a long way since the first modern computer was invented. It began as a way for computer scientists and engineers to test the limits of new technologies. As more advanced digital tools were developed, artists gravitated toward the technology, pioneering a myriad of new techniques in the process. In time, graphic design and illustration evolved into a diverse field—one built on fundamental principles as well as personal practices and styles. Digital illustrators continue to apply emerging tools to new kinds of fine art along with corporate logos, user interface icons, animated films, and even images for postage stamps. Today, there are thousands of digital illustrators creating interesting and innovative artwork all over the world. But what is digital illustration, and how did the best graphic designers make the field what it is today?
Here, we’ll answer those questions with a brief review of the history of digital illustration and a primer on some of the remarkable artists that made the field what it is today.
What is Digital Illustration?
Digital illustration (sometimes known as graphic illustration) involves the use of computer technologies to create works of art “from scratch”—pieces that are distinct from a scanned or digital photograph, for instance. Digital illustration is an artist’s high-tech alternative to using pencil and paper to express themself, convey a feeling, or communicate a message.
Digital illustrators use a variety of tools to create art, often including a mouse, a stylus, or other digital pointing devices. Today, many use these physical tools to create work in applications like Adobe Illustrator or Adobe Photoshop—though early digital illustrators used much more rudimentary programs (or were forced to create their own) as the field was being developed.
The art that digital illustrators ultimately create is usually classified into one of two data formats: “bitmap files” (also called “raster images”) and “vector graphics.”
Bitmap files, like illustrations made in Microsoft paint, are a collection of pixels organized into columns and rows of a fixed size and shape. Each pixel contains information about specific colors, hues, and saturation points that, when viewed from a distance, blend to give the human eye the impression of lines, shadows, and textures. Bitmap files tend to be fairly large, but they’re great for artists who want to create grayscale, multitone, or full-color illustrations. The major drawback to creating a bitmap file is that pixels don’t scale well: If you enlarge a bitmap image too much, you’ll start to see blocks of colors. If you reduce it too much, you will lose the sharpness of your edges.
Vector images, on the other hand, are created when individual points are connected by parametric curves called Bezier curves. Vector drawings are made in programs like Adobe Illustrator and are characterized by clean, sometimes unrealistically precise lines. Unlike bitmap images, they tend to be small files and can be scaled without a loss in quality. For that reason, vector images are ideal for abstract images like logos.
The first digital art was highly experimental, born from the desire of both artists and engineers to use new, expanded technology to push the boundaries of visual innovation. As computers progressed from large-scale military and industrial models to smaller, more portable personal products, groundbreaking artists began to create new styles of digital art by drawing with pixels and light rather than pens and paper. The digital age revolutionized the ways artists could work, but it also revolutionized the ways that audiences were able to interact with images and art. Today, illustrations and images are easily and instantly transported to viewers through the internet, providing new opportunities for digital illustrators and graphic designers across the globe to capture the public’s attention.
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The Greatest Digital Illustrators and Designers of All Time
Although there are thousands of digital illustrators who have created great art, there are some whose work has shifted the history of design or pushed digital illustration into brand-new territory. Here are a few influential figures that you should know.
A trained mathematician and computer scientist, Frieder Nake has the distinction of being one of the world’s first digital artists. He began experimenting with creating art using a high-precision drawing machine, the ZUSE Graphomat Z64, in 1963. He generated more than 300 “aesthetic drawings” between 1963 and 1969, ushering in the first wave of modern digital art. Nake was heavily inspired by oil paintings and created Hommage a Paul Klee (1965), one of his most famous works, by using computer algorithms and a mechanical plotter device to create a series of horizontal and vertical lines similar to those found in Paul Klee’s Highroads and Byroads (1929). It was one of the most complex computer artworks of its day. Nake stopped creating digital art in 1971 after publishing a paper called “There Should Be No Computer Art.” In it, he described the moral conflict that he felt between his professional work creating digital illustrations and his political activism against capitalism.
Bell Labs’ Leon Harmon and Ken Knowlton
As one of the first companies to support digital illustrators, Bell Labs employed several innovators who went on to shape the future of the field. In the late 1960s, Bell Labs computer scientists Ken Knowlton and Leon Harmon became particularly well-known for their work in digital image-making when they printed their Studies in Perception (1967) as somewhat of an office joke. The twelve-foot-wide print of a reclining nude woman was an early bitmap file made of pixels large enough that colleagues had to step far away from the image to fully understand the (risqué) depiction. Although the stunt was short-lived, Knowlton and Harmon’s piece lived on: It was shown by artist Robert Rauschenberg in his salon in 1967 and was leaked to the New York Times afterward, causing a stir among their readers and cementing it in the public imagination as one of the first digital artworks.
Paul Brown is a British digital art pioneer who created some of the world’s first computational and generative art pieces in the late 1960s and 1970s. As a Slade School of Art student, Brown wrote programs that created computer drawings in which simple, individual forms “evolved” by repeating and regenerating themselves in an algorithmic tile pattern. He went on to help found some of the first computer graphics companies in Europe. Today, Brown continues to display his work in galleries around the world. His son, new media pioneer Daniel Brown, has been known to exhibit work alongside him.
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Susan Kare is a graphic designer best known for her work in pixel art and icons for early Apple Macintosh products in the early-to-mid-1980s. As a member of the original design team, Kare created some of the most basic elements of the visual language that Apple Macintosh used to convey meaning in its original operating system. She is responsible for ubiquitous user interface illustrations like the trash can, the happy and sad mac computer icons, the bomb symbol, the command key icon, the lasso, and the paint bucket. After her time with Apple Macintosh, she created images for Microsoft, including the famous deck of cards used in the company’s Solitaire game and the original Notepad application icon, among others. Kare is also known for her inventive typefaces, which include the Chicago, Geneva, and Monaco fonts.
Although he is more popularly known for his analog paintings, sculptures, and screen-prints, Andy Warhol was indeed a groundbreaking digital illustrator, too. In the 1980s, after being commissioned as Commodore International’s “brand ambassador,” Warhol created a series of digital pieces for the company’s Amiga 1000, an early version of the personal computer. Using rudimentary graphics programs, he designed twenty-eight known works of art, including digital reproductions of his famous “Campbell’s Soup Cans” and a portrait of musician Debbie Harry. After Commodore International went bankrupt in 1994, Warhol’s digital files were trapped on archaic hard drives and remained largely unknown to the fine art community. In 2014, they were rediscovered after a determined group of Carnegie Mellon computer scientists and others embarked on an electronic excavation mission to extract the files and view his innovative art. Warhol’s digital illustrations are now on view at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.
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Sylvia Harris applied her formal training in digital design to help public services and organizations work more efficiently for social good. As a Black woman raised in Richmond, Virginia, during the Civil Rights movement, Harris held a deeper understanding than many of her peers in the design community about how public policies—and the communication around those policies—could affect public health and wellbeing. Harris worked with the U.S. Census Bureau to redesign the 2000 census to boost participation from groups that were previously disproportionately underrepresented. She improved hospital signage to ensure that new patients were able to find care quickly. And she was a teacher, mentor, and inspiration to many along the way, serving on the USPS Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee and sharing her knowledge as a faculty member at Yale University. Harris died in 2011, but her legacy lives on with the AIGA’s annual Sylvia Harris Citizen Design Award, which honors designers who use their work to make an impact on their communities.
Nancy Stahl is an award-winning American art pioneer who began creating digital vector illustrations in the late 1980s. She worked as a traditional graphic designer for years before Charlex, a digital post-production company, invited her to use their mainframe computers to create new digital illustrations. Rather than create a new style with the computer, Stahl broke ground by being one of the first to faithfully recreate the look and feel of her previous analog design work—a remarkable feat in the first years of the digital revolution. She later served as a consultant on Adobe’s first Photoshop program and went on to digitally illustrate many United States postage stamps. She was inducted into the Society of Illustrators’ Hall of Fame in 2012.
Manford Mohr is best known for his work creating algorithmic geometric digital illustrations. Originally a jazz musician, he began programming his first computer drawings in 1969 and has worked steadily since then, showing his art at group shows, galleries, and museums around the world. Many of Mohr’s pieces include abstract geometric forms, like multi-dimensional cubes, that juxtapose with one another in highly dynamic ways. Mohr is often credited with having an almost musical quality, and his pieces are celebrated for reflecting a consistent and innovative personal style. In addition to many other achievements, awards, and fellowships, Mohr received the ACM SIGGRAPH Distinguished Artist Award for Lifetime Achievement in Digital Art in 2013.
Edmond Alexander and Cynthia Turner
Edmond Alexander and Cynthia Turner are artists behind Alexander & Turner, a firm that creates digital illustrations for the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries. They specialize in using digital tools to create images that convey scientifically accurate and visually complex biomechanical systems in clear, concise, and educational ways. As certified medical illustrators, Alexander and Turner have worked for more than twenty years creating images of the human body and other biological processes. Alexander’s expertise lies in digitally illustrating cellular and molecular subjects, while Turner’s work focuses on portraying organs and larger parts of the human body. All of their art is distinguished by being scientifically accurate, visually dynamic, and beautifully polished.
Pixar Animation Studio’s Bob Pauley
Pixar Animation Studio, a subsidiary of Walt Disney Company, is an award-winning digital animation company that is renowned for highly creative and innovative films such as Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and Brave, among others. Initially established in the early 1980s, Pixar Animation Studio catapulted to new heights with the critical and financial success of Toy Story in 1995 and has since been established as a groundbreaking force in the field of digital design. In his role as a production designer on Toy Story, Bob Pauley contributed to the character Buzz Lightyear and has gone on to design characters for Cars and Toy Story 3. Through the success of Pixar, Pauley’s iconic character design work has influenced graphic animators and digital illustrators alike.
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Most of the designers on this list helped make digital art what it is today, but artists like Danielle Coke are shaping the field for tomorrow—and if her compassionate, colorful illustrations are any indication, the future of digital art is a bright one. Followed today by hundreds of thousands of fans on her Instagram account, @ohhappydani, Coke got her start as a graphic designer for an event-planning company before launching her own creative agency for mission-based brands in 2019. At the time, her Procreate illustrations were a side project—an outlet to express thoughts and emotions around current events, social justice, and activism. But Coke’s colorful renderings quickly drew larger audiences, and soon her work began to drive global conversations about privilege, empathy, equality, and anti-racism. Today, Coke shares her art physically, through her store with prints and T-shirts, as well as in conversation, via speaking engagements and other advocacy work. She’s paving the way for the next generation of changemakers, too: Her Skillshare Original offers tips on how others can share their perspectives with the world thoughtfully and responsibly.
As digital technologies have developed and flourished, many other graphic designers, artists, and digital illustrators have used computers and electronic toolkits to create influential work. By becoming more familiar with the history of the medium and familiarizing yourself with the field’s pioneers, you’ll be better equipped to appreciate great digital design—and create some of your own. Get started with digital illustration today: Whether you’re a beginner looking to get started with the fundamentals or a seasoned pro hoping to brush up on character design or animation, the perfect class awaits.