4 – Traditional v Digital


Hey all! It’s been a while. Apologies on my part for that. As it seems to be the case with a new blog, you’re full of ideas and things to say at the start, but you quickly manage to get it all out of your system and you’re left wondering what to write about next (without it feeling forced).

A few weeks later, I’m back with a sudden idea that I just couldn’t get out of my head: Traditional or Digital? One of the burning questions for modern illustrators.

In this blog (which is no longer weekly) I will attempt to break down the pros and cons of both formats of working, as well as provide examples of some artists and illustrators who I think do it very well.

For many, including myself, wondering about whether you should stick to traditional ways of working or embrace new ones is something that will eat at you for a long time. I hope to alleviate some of that distress here.

I will try to be as general as I can, but these are my opinions and if you disagree, that’s fine!

The Rise of Digital Media

I was born in 1999. Too soon to grow up with iPads and social media, too late to remember what dial-up was like. More caught up in the middle. I was in my early teens when iPhones exploded in popularity and even had my own iPad, though I didn’t use it for drawing.

What might be considered the first digital drawing device was actually The Rand, produced in 1963. A more well known brand, Apple, created their own Graphics Tablet in 1979. In 1998, the Wacom Intuos came to the market. In 2005, the first tablet with a screen of its own, the Wacom Cintiq was created. 2010 marked the year the first iPad came out, followed by the iPad pro in 2015 – a real beast for digital art.

It actually surprised me a little when I looked this up, because in reality many modern digital drawing devices have existed for as long as I have. That being said, it wasn’t until late 2014 that I first dipped my toes into that world.

A Quick History on My Part

At the time, Amazon ran a competition where you’d create a specific Wishlist filled with things that you would spend £500 on, and the winner would get that £500. Well, guess who won.

With the money, I bought my first low-mid range Wacom Cintiq. I created a lot of (admittedly poor) digital art in Photoshop. I was better at drawing in a sketchbook, but I was fascinated by the work of digital artists that I came across, with their extremely detailed fantasy illustrations and intricate landscapes.

Throughout my entire undergraduate degree, I saw a lot of great work from my peers which used fineliners, watercolours, printmaking and other traditional mediums. My interest in digital art waned as I experimented elsewhere.

But once I left university, I bought some great tools from True Grit Texture Supply and realised that I might be able to emulate a more retro aesthetic while maintaining the ease of creating things digitally.

Throughout my Masters, I considered my practice to be a balance of traditional and digital work, though I eventually caved in and picked up an iPad Pro. A year on, I honestly don’t regret it. It’s by far made drawing much simpler for me.

And yet, I see ink drawings, risograph, and lino that I made over the years or bought at fairs, and I wonder if I might still be able to get stuck in with the methods of making that I constantly overlooked.

Traditional – For & Against

What might be considered “traditional”? Really, it’s anything that’s not digital. More specifically, it’s pencils, watercolours, acrylic, gouache, printmaking, oil pastels, risograph and so on.


It’s more authentic. There is some sense of satisfaction from putting pencil to paper. You know that, despite its imperfections, you have that feeling of holding a physical tool, and putting that onto a real, textured surface. Printmaking takes this further as you put your arms to work on a screenprinting machine, or chip away at some linoleum.

There are more choices of medium to use. Really, the versatility for tradition comes in all the years its had to develop. Paint, for example, has Acrylics, Gouache, and Watercolour at the very least, offering you three vastly different ways to work. You could be an urban sketcher, using an array of pencils, fineliners and marker pens. Or maybe you like printmaking, and use anything from wood to stone to make an impression.

It provides a stronger foundation. When looking to understand perspective, anatomy, lighting and whatnot, what better way is there to do so than in a sketchbook? It offers you a better sense of rhythm between your hand and the surface, without input lag. Even if you do work digitally, it’s likely that you started like this. You are also without the option to undo your mistakes, which is pivotal when you want to improve on the fundamentals – which in turn will affect everything else you do. Trust me on this, you want to at least start out with pencil and paper. It’s simpler, its easier, its quicker.


It is difficult to get into if you are used to working digitally. Lately I’ve been wanting to try painting again. I dabbled in it before but I never really took it far. But my confidence is lower with trying new mediums because I’m already so used to the ease of switching between them on my iPad. But maybe that’s just common sense.

It requires always having the right tools on hand. The greatest problem, in all honesty, is having to carry a bunch of tools with you wherever you go, or have them all in stock at home. The worst you can do digitally is run out of charge. Well, I suppose your iPad could break. I’m not much of a hoarder personally so I don’t like to accumulate stuff for the sake of it. Many people who work traditionally don’t mind having pens upon pencils upon paints stuffed around the place.

Digital – For & Against

What might be considered “digital”? Anything computer-aided. There’s your hardware e.g. the iPads, Surface Pros, Wacom/Bamboo tablets (with or without a screen) and so on. Then there’s the software, such as Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, Procreate, Clip Studio Paint, ZBrush, etc.


Creating work becomes much simpler. There is always a learning curve, but if you are fairly adept with modern technology and artistic fundamentals then you will pick it up in no time. From there, however your style develops, you should find that creating finished artwork is actually much simpler with computer-aided software. Who’d’ve thunk!

It can emulate some traditional tools quite well. Procreate in of itself has some pretty good pencil tools, but you can take this further by purchasing brush and texture packs which really help to elevate your work. True Grit Texture Supply is awesome for replicating those vintage comic aesthetics.

It avoids the middle man. Created an amazing piece of work for an art director, but it’s A2 and you realise you need to put it into your little A4 scanner and stitch it back together? Maybe you’re wanting to go do some sketching in the city, but you don’t want to take ALL your tools with you. Or you did some line art but you aren’t confident in your colouring, so you do it in photoshop. It all feels just a bit too complicated.


There are many learning curves. People don’t learn Illustrator overnight. Even though a lot of illustrators can effortlessly work digitally, it took them time to get there. If you are looking to get into this realm then be prepared to look at some tutorials.

It can never replace the authenticity of traditional mediums. Like I said before, it’s never really the same. It’s hard to explain, but there are certain ways of working that just… feel better traditionally. Sketching is something that I hate doing on my iPad because it feels less natural. And it’s great to be able to flick through your old sketchbooks and see how you’ve developed.

Perfectionism. There’s this sense that everything needs to be proper when I’m using my fancy tablet. With the ability to edit, undo, erase, and keep things on different layers with different masks, it’s easy to avoid mistakes. But then you realise – how will you learn if you don’t make them? The entire process of development slows down when you focus on making goregous work with only slight experimental changes to them. Sure, you could make MORE work, but that’s a slow and painful process sure to burn you out. Sometimes when you make a mistake with a painting or linocut, you can just roll with it and it becomes an integral part of your work.

Some Great Artists

On a positive note, here are some people from both sides who are smashing it. Let them be your inspiration!

Grace Helmer – Oil paints – It’s not often you see oil animations.

Krzysztof Nowak – Photoshop/Illustrator – Simple but powerful comics and such.

Dave Bain – Digital & Murals – Inspired by screenprinting & riso techniques, he does it all!

Haley Tippmann – Procreate – Emulates pencils, inks and acrylics.

And for many more examples, check out Creative Boom (this is how I find a lot of inspiration nowadays)

A Happy Medium

There isn’t really any one that’s greater than the other. My personal preference is to create my illustrations digitally, but keep ideas and concepts to the sketchbooks. What works for you, and to what degrees you use them, will depend on who you are.

My goal is to create digital work that emulates the look and feel of traditional mediums, using certain brushes and textures. (Luis Mendo does this amazingly). However, I’d also like to create more work using print methods. People have told me that linocut suits my work because it takes away the element of perfectionism. The one thing holding me back… ideas!

I think that you can get away with whatever you choose. I’ve barely even touched upon collage, which can be done in both ways. The key is always experimentation and making mistakes, even if that’s maybe cliche. It yields results!

And on that note… I want to go outside and do some sketching.

Recommended Reading

Not as much to share this time. Here are some articles that I think may be of interest…

My source for the history of graphics tablets

Five must-try tips for slaying your creative demons

Three exercises to help you overcome procrasti-struggle

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