A colleague recently asked for my opinion on this, and after struggling to find a good answer all I could come up with was “it depends”. I contemplated it for a long time afterwards, and still landed on the same response. It depends what you are trying to achieve.
Comparing digital and traditional art is like comparing oil painting with pencil drawing. They are just different. It may be a bit easier to pick up a pencil and paper because you probably have them lying around and you don’t need to worry about making a mess, but it’s also very easy to pick up a paintbrush and canvas. It’s just as easy to pick up a stylus and paint on a computer, if you have the right equipment. For all these tools and any other, you still need to have skill and inspiration to create art with whatever you have available. One could make art out of dead grass with the right inspiration. The tools are just a way to deliver ideas.
There are a lot of convenient shortcuts in computer painting that you don’t get to use in traditional art, such as sampling colours directly from an image, or the glorious, but limited, “undo” button. Layers make it possible to add drastic changes and then later change your mind and take them away. Yes, those things definitely make digital painting faster, more flexible, and more convenient, but there are also some things that are easier with conventional painting. I don’t have to worry about monitor settings distorting the colours in my canvas painting, and it’s a lot easier to do certain things like make dry brush or splatter effects and have them look natural with real paint brushes. There is something about physically putting the brush on the canvas and manually mixing the paints that makes physical painting a little bit more intuitive to work with than digital.
With digital, there is a lot of technical stuff that can get in the way and interrupt your creative process. Light tends to cause a very frustrating glare on the screen. I basically have to sit in the dark to paint comfortably on the computer. Sometimes the Cintiq stops detecting my pen and I have to reboot the whole system in order to continue. Sometimes I feel like I want to create a particular effect but don’t know how to do it and end up doing something differently. There is also a steep learning curve with digital painting programs and they can often feel limiting and intimidating, despite their impressive capabilities. In a way, that massive sea of possibilities makes it almost more difficult to be creative.
For all their differences though, I still use a very similar process when I paint regardless of the medium, and while my workspace is quite a lot less messy, it is actually pretty similar.
Here is a photo of my digital workspace for anyone who is unfamiliar with how digital painting works:
As with conventional painting, I have reference photos all around my workspace, and I have created a palette with a bunch of colours to choose from for my painting. On the left is the stylus which I hold like a pencil and draw directly on the screen. I still work from the bottom up, and do not copy and paste any photo elements into my paintings, everything is done by hand, so just like in conventional painting I need to choose the correct colours and use the correct brush strokes to get the effect I’m looking for.
All forms of art require practice, skill, and intuition. Whether one medium is easier than another depends entirely on the person using them, their level of experience, and what they want to accomplish.