Ask any traditional artist what their first impressions are upon being introduced to creating digital art, and they will all tell you the same exact thing: “It feels like there is something standing between me and the art that I am creating.” They will go on to describe how it feels as though they can’t “touch” their art anymore when using a digital drawing tablet, and how they feel “distant” to their drawing even though the lines appear exactly where their pen is creating digital strokes on the screen. The tactile nature of pencil to paper is gone. The screen of the digital drawing tablet becomes a transparent “wall” between the artist and his work. In short, the intimacy of the act of drawing feels artificial, inauthentic, and maybe even hijacked. I am one of these artists.
Now, I don’t mean to say that digital art and technology is bad by any means. There is certainly a place for it in our modern world and it can be such an incredible tool for telling stories and describing ideas quickly in a fast-paced society, but the change in method — from traditional to digital — feels so stark and foreign to the one trying to communicate visually.
What then is the experience of the child who is introduced to technology? I remember having a profound moment of self-awareness around age 5 or 6. While watching a family movie together, I thought to look back at the real world for a moment and watch my family on the sofa as they continued to watch the TV screen. I was astonished to see rapidly changing colors from the television flashing all kinds of colors onto their faces every second or two as the scenes in the film changed quickly. I found myself wondering, “How are they not overwhelmed by the fast-changing colors and lights on the screen? It feels so…unnatural and disconnected.” I have never forgotten that moment.
Years later, I found myself in a babysitting gig over the summer with two very challenging girls aged 4 and 6. They were the most difficult children for whom I have cared, with unruly behavior and a serious inability to listen and communicate, mostly due to a lack of learning healthy communication. It was one of the longest summers on record, but I had one secret weapon up my sleeve: zero screen time. By zero, I mean absolutely no screen time whatsoever, five days a week from the minute they woke up to the time they went to bed, for the entirety of the summer. I know many would consider this an impossibility, especially with difficult children, but having achieved this successfully, I can say with confidence that it was the best decision I could have made.
One of the greatest discoveries I made with this summer-long “experiment” was how the children’s communication and attention span improved. If they had been restless and hyperactive after having been exposed to the TV screen all weekend, their demeanor calmed as they detoxed from the screen, redirecting their attention to physical, tangible things like books, dolls, and crayons. They became significantly more imaginative and could actually hold a conversation with me. That’s when I realized that they were indeed capable of human connection and imagination, and that there was never any real need for a screen. In fact, within the first two weeks of the summer, the girls didn’t even ask for the TV to be turned on anymore. They actually enjoyed the tangible, physical world of truth and beauty with their own bodies without having a screen between them and reality.
This brings me back to the experience of the traditional artist learning digital techniques. While digital technology has its own merits and use, there is something special about the tangibility of traditional techniques and the wordless communication that occurs between the artist’s hand and the paper. Everything is immediate, real, and raw. It is an experience of truth and consequence of action. Longtime digital artists will describe returning to traditional art in this way. Is this “old-school” approach uncomfortable and challenging at times? Absolutely! But the opportunity it provides to engage with reality by producing beauty through the body is something that digital technology can never replace.
In a similar way, if you find yourself or other family members saturated in technology, I encourage you to challenge yourself to unplug and reconnect with the physical, tangible world. I admit, it’s not always easy, but much like the digital artist returning to basic pencil and paper, it offers an encounter with truth and beauty that can only be experienced through the BODY.