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Paint or Paint App? Value of Creating Digital Vs. Traditional Art

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While it may be easy to imagine how iPads can support classroom studies with reading, history, or science, some of the most groundbreaking -- and creative -- work with digital tools may be happening in arts classes. Schools using iPads are incorporating them in art and music classes, too -- and not only as tools for measuring and remembering, but for creating as well. Whether or not students grow up to become the next David Hockney - who has created several New Yorker covers using the iPad’s drawing tool - teachers say there is value to learning to create using digital tools, especially when blended with more hands-on means of expression.

Susan Sonnemaker, a middle school chorus and band teacher at San Francisco Day School, uses school-provided tablets in limited amounts throughout the year. She finds them most useful for managing technical aspects of music class with record speed -- like recording practice sessions, using a tuner app to help kids tune their own instruments, and collecting digital practice sheets. For practical matters, Sonnemaker says, the iPad has been invaluable, because streamlining and managing tuning and practice leaves more time for actually playing or singing music.

But what about using tablets for inspiration and creating new music? When it comes to creating something new, Sonnemaker says that technology helps her students be more creative, not less: “In regards to composition, students are not only more engaged in their own projects (with iPads), but they're using real life technology," she said. "We still do a good deal of composition exercises using old-fashioned pencil and paper. But using Garageband on the iPad is what many professional musicians use, so students are also acquiring skills to compose in the real world if they choose to continue.”

Benefield’s colleague, visual art teacher Karen Richards, notes that iPad apps have made the tools that digital artists use much more accessible for young children, but having the digital technology available doesn’t at all diminish hands-on art making. “I must stress that technology is one of many tools our students have to execute their critical and creative thinking. We believe that they must also know how to sew, woodwork, sculpt in clay, paint, draw, make prints, shoot a good photo, animate an image, and know about the artists that they stand on the shoulders of,” Richards said.

Richards describes a recent photography-based project she developed in order for children to blend the two: “They're all taking tons of photos (with the iPads), so we worked on photography. We also learned a bit about Photoshop with Photoshop Express, and we had each student (K-8) edit and alter their photo before printing it out on watercolor paper," she said. The final outcome was a sewing project inspired by textile artist and San Francisco Day School artist-in-residence Ehren Reed, where the students sewed into their photos.


In January of this year, the Indianapolis Museum of Art opened the Star Studio, an interactive exhibit that includes a room filled with iPads featuring a museum-customized drawing app. Tools include digital blending sticks, markers, chalk and paint brushes. Originally intended for children ages five to eight to explore the fundamentals of art alongside their parents, says Jen Mayhill, Senior Coordinator of Play and Learning at the museum, in reality the exhibit’s popularity has extended much further. “We're seeing people of all ages and abilities using the application now.” Mayhill mentioned that, even though she doesn’t have the numbers yet, the exhibit is popular; a feature that allows visitors to email their finished iPad artwork has already yielded over 1,500 emails of art. “Purely from my own observations, I cannot imagine this space without these components, since they appear to be as popular as the tables including more traditional art mediums.”

Media and communications scholar/philosopher Marshall McLuhen wrote in 1964: “We shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us.” McLuhen’s eerily prescient observation of today’s interactive world hints at the idea that some essential aspects of what we think of as traditional art fall away as we increasingly move to more digital forms. Louisville-based artist Douglas Miller confesses to “secretly abhorring” computer-generated art, and some of his ink-and-paint hand-drawn works are actually a response to the speed of creating work via technology. “I have made images that are ‘reverse engineered’ as a commentary on the ease of computer art -- I will painstakingly re-draw a mirror image of a subject when it could be done easily with a simple click in Photoshop.” Miller, 39, has noticed the generation gap when he lectures to college students who have always had computers at home and in classrooms. “I see the overuse and reliance on it in classrooms as possibly detrimental to artmaking.”

While work like Miller’s is decidedly un-tech, his painstaking efforts to stay analog highlight the tension between handmade and digital art - about what it means to be creative, and what constitutes art. In this way, can digital art become a catalyst for students, an opportunity for them to ask, what is the best means of creating my message?

Plano, Texas, high school art teacher Christine Miller, who was chosen to pilot this year’s Arts and Digital Literacy Initiative funded by the Texas Cultural Trust, explains that, while she gives students free reign to create art by both digital and hands-on means, her students are actually more reluctant to use technology than one might assume. “Not all young students are interested in utilizing technology to make their art," she said. "There can be much resistance in my classroom when we work on an art project that is going to be produced using Photoshop. I explain to my students that these are just alternative tools, and like any other tool, you can create something digitally that would be impossible to create by hand. Conversely, you can create something by hand that you cannot replicate digitally.”

Miller teaches Art and Media Communications for the pilot program, and while her school doesn’t provide an iPad for each student, the course is designed to bring fine arts and digital literacy together. She describes the curriculum as aiming to be relevant to students' lives through the use of technology, while also helping to foster collaboration and divergent thinking. In order to get students to focus on divergent thinking, she shows them Sir Ken Robinson’s famous Changing Education Paradigms video on the first day of school.

“It [divergent thinking] is extremely difficult for the majority of my students. Truly, only a small percentage of my students think on a level I would call divergent," Miller said. "In the regard that technology is affecting their perceptions of the world and they regurgitate those perceptions out automatically, then yes, technology is impacting their thinking and artistic creativity in a huge way.”

The biggest influence of technology on students, Miller said, is the amount of "visual culture" in their artwork. “Because of the prevalence of popular cultural imagery everywhere, those characters (Sponge Bob, Anonymous, Pokemon) are the first images that show up in many of their art pieces. Their brains have been so saturated with this imagery, they are often unable to come up with a unique image or character of their own,” she said.

Finding - or creating - the original idea in a massive sea of ever-present information, images and text might prove difficult when it comes to art created using online and social networks on devices that can fit in a backpack or pocket -- there is, simply, so much input. But Susan Sonnemaker said she doesn’t really see that happening in her music class.

“I think that in a world where kids are inundated with technology, I could see the point about less thought and creativity, but I don't think it's what happens," she said. "The kids I see using iPads are able to engage in creativity in ways they couldn't before, and in an instant, rather than waiting to get their thoughts down on paper. My students can write their original music in GarageBand in an instant, or record themselves creating music/poetry in an instant. I think it's a tool for kids to use when they find inspiration.”

Christine Miller is reminded that, throughout history, early adopters to a new tool or technology (think photography) weren’t always readily accepted: “There are always those who protest art produced by ‘that technology’ as not being ‘authentic’ or ‘valuable’ or ‘respected’ works of art.”


All the teachers interviewed agreed that art made with the body using sensory, physical materials, is beyond valuable to understanding the artistic process, and should never be replaced (one Broadway dancer who teaches children’s dance emphasized, “Hands-on first, technology later.”). But all the same teachers also saw value in using the digital to enhance and even alter the act of creation. Where will iPad art take us? And what will we leave behind? Only the young artists will know for sure.

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