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From IRL to Virtual: how historical art movements translate to digital design trends

Title from art to design, next to it two pictures framed.

So much of what influences digital design today has its underpinnings in the tactile art movements of the past. Last week, in celebration of World Art Day, our band of artists took a moment to explore some of their favorite digital design trends and the art movements that influenced them.

Read on as we take a look at some of these fine art approaches and the impact that we can see even now — out in the wild — on contemporary visual media styles.

two framed art pieces, one art nouveau styled, the other, folk botanical art

Art Nouveau > Folk Botanical

Made popular at the turn of the last century, Art Nouveau gains its inspiration from the wayward aspects of the natural world and was a major influence on both art and architecture throughout the period, found in applied arts, graphic work, and illustrations. Serpentine lines and “whiplash” curves were inspired, in part, by botanical studies and illustrations of deep-sea organisms.

Characteristics of this style include:

  • Asymmetrical shapes

  • Extensive use of arches and curved forms

  • Curving, plant-like embellishments

  • Mosaics

  • Stained glass

In modern design, you will find it has influenced a number of modern illustrators, artists and printers across the US, including a revival period during the post-war 60s hippie movement as well as the postmodernism stylings of the last 20 years.

Even today, Art Nouveau still has an undeniable influence on everything from wallpaper to tattoos and can be seen throughout the visual arts industry — like the painting of Marilyn Monroe for “Visages De Renom” by New York illustrator Les Katz or the works of Milton Glaser and his Push-Pin studio.

This has become realized in the digital style of Folk Botanical, where nature provides the tiles for a mosaic of patterns — mixing of leaves, fruits, vines — to create compositions “as lively as a forest.” In this format, artists in this style reinterpret familiar themes of nature into whimsical visuals.

framed abstract expressionism art and abstract 3D art

Abstract Expressionism > Abstract 3D

Made popular by artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning in the 1940s and ‘50s, Abstract Expressionism is characterized by large and sometimes erratic uses of color. Artists in this genre broke away from accepted conventions in both technique and subject matter to construct monumentally scaled works that reflected their individual psyches — art delivered by the unconscious mind.

This style is known for its valuing of spontaneity and improvisation as well as its incorporation into the creative process.

Today it can be found in all manner of media, from emojis to mass-produced wall hangings and throughout contemporary digital design — playing an enormous role in web aesthetics as well. You’ll see the rich, organic aspect of the style can be seen in the graphics of bitmap programs like Adobe Photoshop. While the geometric minimalism that also defined the style is often expressed in vector programs such as Adobe Illustrator.

And now, through Abstract 3D new experimental vectors can be unleashed. This trend reimagines sculptures and other physical installations in digital form. You can expect to see designers use these elements to develop designs that are eye-catching and engaging in models, animations, or virtual reality.

two works of art framed, one pop art, the other a risoprint

Pop Art & Silk Printing > Risoprint

Pop Art did not boast a specific style or attitude but rather was defined as a diverse response to the post-WWII era’s commodity-driven values. Most artists in this genre leaned on commercial items or pop culture objects as inspiration.

This representational art form was characterized by the use of hard edges and distinct forms after the painterly looseness of abstract expressionism.

One of the first artists to legitimize screen printing as a fine art form, Andy Warhol used his own drawings for stencils — later, he primarily ventured into photo-silkscreen, using a template of a photograph as the stencil.

Fast forward 20 years to the introduction of risograph printing, what some describe as a “cross between screen printing and photocopying.” Risoprint made a splash in the 1980s but is experiencing a comeback. Its unique aesthetic is becoming a staple in the graphic design world, with rough, organic textures and vibrant colors that add a touch of individuality and character to designs.

The approach uses soy-based inks to create a unique, organic look. The organic nature of the printing process also means that each print is unique, adding to the charm and character of these creations.

Although distinctly print in practice, this art form is a huge presence on digital platforms like Instagram, where fans of tactile art forms share their creations with the virtual public.

two works of art framed, one surrealism, the other airbrush surrealism
left: The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí, right: Partial States by...

Surrealism > Airbrush Surrealism

According to poet and critic André Breton — considered by many the spokesman of the movement — Surrealism reunited conscious and unconscious realms of experience so completely that the world of dream and fantasy would be joined to the everyday rational world in “an absolute reality, a surreality.”

You could say the brain, especially those untapped corners of it, was the stage where these dreamscapes acted out fantastical explorations of what constituted reality itself. Drawing heavily from the theories of Sigmund Freud, the unconscious was seen as the wellspring of imagination — accessing an “untapped realm …which could be attained by poets and painters alike.”

Techniques devised by the Surrealists were meant to evoke psychic responses — frottage (rubbing with graphite over wood or other grained substances) and grattage (scraping the canvas) — to produce partial images to be completed in the mind of the viewer. Other methods include automatic drawing, a spontaneous, uncensored recording of chaotic images from the mind.

While the works of these surrealist artists like Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, and Max Ernst helped drive the popularity of this approach, known for its “novelty and endlessly inventive weirdness,” in the present day, we’re seeing an unexpected revival paired with 80s airbrush techniques producing soft layers overlaid onto strange, chimeric imagery.

Airbrush Surrealism results is a “gauzy effect that subdues the usual disorientation surrealism invokes, blanketing the graphic in a uniform haze.” The effect of these blurring colors creates a soft glow and echoes images from a half-remembered dream.

two art pieces framed, one a less-is-more Bauhaus-style, the other a More is More

Bauhaus > More is More

Founded in 1919 in the city of Weimar by German architect Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus core objective was to merge all artistic mediums into one unified approach — combining an individual’s artistry with mass production and function.

It focused on bestowing practical skills such as architecture, textiles, woodwork, and interior design with the same status as fine art. The results were often abstract, angular, and geometric, with little ornamentation.

This vision for art and design included a utopian craft guild combining architecture, sculpture, and painting into a single creative expression. Artisans and designers who completed the curriculum would leave capable of fabricating useful and aesthetic objects that “reimagine the material world to reflect the unity of all the arts.”

You might not initially see it, but this unifying principle is now being explored in a new light through the More is More movement. While many brands have leaned hard toward a more minimalist aesthetic over the last few years (less is more, flat design, etc.), the winds are changing. We’re seeing a turn toward an approach in which “all of design history is up for grabs.”

While it moves away from the uniformity many associated with Bauhaus, the More is More approach is quite aligned in the undercurrents by chasing self-expression through the exploration and integration of the many.

As visual designers, our work is to be well-versed in numerous art styles and effectively tap into that curio cabinet of culture to build beautified landscapes that elevate each piece into something more than a simple ad or logo or website.

two Ai-generated art pieces framed captions: "An abstract 3D poster for a botanical garden event, 80s airbrush style." the other, "Risoprint of of The Persistence of Time by Salvador Dalí"

And new trends are emerging relentlessly. Knowing these trends and willingly exploring them to the conclusion of what unfolds is at the heart of More is More, and it’s exciting to see what will blossom from this approach.

So, what did you think of our list? Agree? Not so much? Share your comments with us, and tell us what you think!


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