Digital abstract art has a very 21st-century ring to it, but British artist Harold Cohen began exploring the use of computers to create art in 1968. In the early 1970s, Cohen and a team of computer engineers created Aaron, a computer-programmed drawing machine designed to make large drawings on sheets of paper. Cohen then hand-colored the abstract shapes.
Digital art today is both more complex and more elusive. Whereas Cohen’s work can be found in a museum, current digital art may only exist on the computers of the artists, who share it through websites or social media. Netherlands-born artist Rik Oostenbroek is an example of this new generation of digital artists.
Oostenbroek’s digital art process
Oostenbroek has a process that’s similar to compiling a (digital) collage. He mixes photos of nature, objects, scenes, and paint strokes he’s applied to a real canvas using digital art software. Using the software, he can change and align the lighting, or magnify a small shape to look as large as a mountain. The software also lets him control the colors in the image, making them bolder than in real life or layering new colors over a photo.
“Looking at little bits, little textures, even images from others, influenced my work a lot,” Oostenbroek says.
Many of Oostenbroek’s notable pieces are corporate commissions, either for events, marketing campaigns, or special commemorations. Recently he completed a digital piece commissioned by Truist Wealth. This abstract digital art can be enjoyed both as a still image and as an animated video. At first glance the work may be mistaken for a glass sculpture, likely because a photo of glass was the first building block Oostenbroek used in the digital collage.
“I think the basic glass is always boringish. So I added the painted texture to create the color palette,” Oostenbroek says. “I painted with the Truist brand colors on a canvas. I scanned those in and tweaked the glass in a way that I thought it would look dynamic and fresh but still remain transparent.”
Part of the appeal of digital art for Oostenbroek is the opportunity to revise the work at any time. “Instead of picking up a brush and paint where you can’t undo anything, it gives me the power to actually undo things I regret later,” he explains.
Trends in digital art collection: The NFT
Oostenbroek began working in digital art mediums in 2004 and has gained recognition through commissions from global brands including Volkswagen, Nike, and Cirque du Soleil. He has also been recognized by HP and Adobe as a brand ambassador, showing the digital art capabilities of their technologies at events around the world.
Like many digital artists today, he sells some of his pieces as NFTs, or nonfungible tokens.
NFTs apply blockchain technology—the same open ledger recording system used to track Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies—to original or limited-edition art. A collector buying digital art like an NFT purchases it from the artist, a gallery, or even a traditional auction house like Christie’s. Each time the NFT is sold to a new owner, the artist receives a share of the sale price, usually 10%. Because it’s a digital exchange, the owner always has documentation of the complete provenance of the work.
“Nowadays, you actually see how digital art evolved into an art form that’s overall getting more and more accepted throughout the world,” Oostenbroek says. “Digital art is also art, in my opinion. I know not everybody is on that same page, and that’s all fine. But I try to lobby for it.”
When Truist Wealth debuted earlier this year, the organization wanted to put a new spin on an old tradition. Typically, a company might commission a work of art for its corporate lobby, or have a noted architect design a landmark building for its headquarters.
But in merging BB&T and SunTrust, Truist promised to create an experience for its clients that combined technology with a personal touch. So Truist Wealth celebrated with a unique commission from Rik Oostenbroek.
“The idea of art as something to transport us beyond the everyday, to elevate and highlight the world around us, is what drew us to partner with Rik,” explains Joe Thompson, head of Truist Wealth. “It’s experiential, it’s powerful, it’s dynamic, and it’s created with both innovative technology as well as the unique eye of a visionary artist.”
4 tips on collecting art—whether physical or digital
1. Collect artwork that you like.
This may sound obvious but the primary reason to purchase a painting, a sculpture, or even an artisan necklace is that you want to see it and enjoy it. It’s tempting but ultimately unwise to invest in trendy pieces that don’t delight or move you.
2. Know the provenance, or origin, of the work.
Documentation about the creator and precious owners is important. It will give you proof that the piece is genuine, help you learn how to care for it, and establish the piece’s value for insurance purposes or if you choose to donate it to a nonprofit such as a museum or university.
3. Don’t expect liquidity or a return on your investment.
Art and collectibles are some of the most fickle markets around. A piece of art is not like an equity investment; it has no “fundamentals,” just popularity, which can change instantly.
4. Include art and collectibles in your estate plan.
This includes spelling out your wishes for what will happen to the collection—will it stay together? Can it be divided among multiple beneficiaries? It may be necessary to pair the gift of the collection with the funds to continue to insure and take care of it. Like a vacation home, a gift of art that passes to your heirs will incur insurance and maintenance costs.