NFTs and digital fine art – a love match

Three artworks

Artist James Atkins launched his first crypto art collection on Valentine’s Day 2021. As at 1st September 2021, 99 digital fine art pieces had been sold to thirty different collectors around the world, and the hundredth piece, the signed complete set with unlockable content, is up for auction. How did James hit the ground running with such success in the highly competitive NFT marketplace?

The simple answer is that NFTs – Non-Fungible Tokens – solved a real problem for him. As a trained fine artist with a preference for digital media, James needed a way to define ‘the original’ for collectors and connoisseurs. Why should an original always be physical? NFTs put digital originals on the same footing at the physical for the first time. They give us a way to prove that a digital work has been created by a particular artist, to timestamp its creation, and crucially to allow ownership to pass from one person to another. (You can read more about NFTs here.) James also used his experience to ensure that the digital originals he produced formed a coherent body of artwork. This is his story.

A journey in art, design and tech

James showed a talent for art at school and followed in the footsteps of his former art teacher to study at the prestigious Camberwell College of Arts in London, one of the world’s foremost art and design institutions. “I had an equally great and terrible time,” he laughs, “and came out of there, unfortunately, never wanting to paint again. But this was the late 1980s so the digital design world was kicking off. There was a whole desktop publishing revolution, using computers for typography and typesetting, which I absolutely loved.” James started working with design agencies and freelancing for clients in London and saw first hand a paradigm shift in the industry. “I was always battling against the attitude of, ‘you’re an artist, you’re not a designer’,” he says. “And I was thinking, well, no, in the future, there’s going to be this whole thing where you’re both, and you need to know technology.”

He spent a lot of time teaching designers how to use the emerging technology, but realised design agencies were not moving fast enough. “They were stuck in the old drawing board way,” he says, “with three people doing one job. I just found it ridiculously backward.” It was time for a change, and this is where the next piece of the crypto art jigsaw slots into place.

“I worked at the Financial Futures and Options Exchange,” says James. “I wasn’t actually trading in potato futures or bond options or anything like that, but I was designing for the market. We did publications and literature and branding stuff. That’s fed into this whole crypto world. I understood it straight away from years ago. I never thought that having worked at that place would be useful in my life, but here we are.”

Designing for the World Wide Web

In 1995, as the World Wide Web opened up the internet to all, James moved to join one of the first web design companies in the UK. “There were two,” he recalls. “There was us in Cambridge, and then one in London. Any projects in London, they tended to get. Anything outside of London, we tended to get.”

The demand was huge and the tools available were minimal. “They just couldn’t find enough designers,” he says. “We were using HTML 1.0 and Times New Roman or Arial, a grey screen and blue links, and having to make a brand with that. I absolutely loved it, because it was something completely new. It was tech and design and art. And it was a whole new wave, of course. We had one advert in the back of a web magazine and the phone fell off the hook. It was BP ringing us on a Tuesday afternoon, ‘Can you do us an intranet?’, or BT asking for a global website. It was just ridiculous, but it was a really exciting time. I learned so much, so quickly.”

Websites were all very well, but James still wanted to work with branding and print, so in 1997 he set up his own business. 24 years on, this led him to the world of crypto art.

Digital fine art created by the same hand

Despite his claim that he never wanted to paint again, James kept his hand in with art. “I would draw, I would carry a watercolour kit around,” he says, “but about twelve years ago, I decided that I wanted to properly paint again. I started oil painting and making stuff. I didn’t want to question it, and it didn’t matter exactly what it was. I thought, if I just make things for a few years, then at the end a logical creative thread will emerge. Whether it’s figurative, abstract, portrait, or it’s constructing stuff in the garden, it didn’t seem to matter. I did that for a few years, buying oil paints, stretching canvases, and all the traditional stuff.”

However, after thirty years of using digital tools, paint was no longer the right medium.

“It just felt so alien,” he says. “I could still do it, but it wasn’t enough. It didn’t occupy my tech side and the creative side of my brain. There was something missing.” As a very early adopter of tech, he picked up one of the first iPads and started drawing on it. “I’d used tablets and pens,” he explains, “but with those tools you’re not touching, there’s a disconnect. Drawing directly on the screen made all the difference.”

Invited to exhibit, he printed the work. “I printed giclée on massive Epson printers with beautiful quality paper, incredibly vibrant and framed. People were looking at these prints, saying, Well, which one is the original? There isn’t one. It exists digitally, and that’s a printout. So when I first came across NFTs, I thought, that’s it. You don’t need to print them, and if you do print, the vibrancy of a screen or a retina display just gets lost. I often used to think about pictures on walls. When was the last time you actually studied a picture on the wall? You walk past it as decoration. If Leonardo was around now, he wouldn’t be messing around with paint or charcoal on paper. He’d be working at CERN and his art would be embracing technology.”

A hundred kisses

With his introduction to NFTs, everything clicked into place. “I thought I could bring something to the community that was based on a pure fine art education,” says James. One of the key elements of this is the importance of a body of work and the continuity and longevity of making art. “Art is not something that appears like magic out of thin air. There’s a big difference between making art and designing to a brief for a client. A true artist is not just somebody who makes art, but who finds a way to carry on making art. You’re only as good as your last piece. I have a need to make stuff. Whether it’s painting, whether it’s NFTs, I love the fact that the passion goes back to me from 35 years ago.”

The collection that has attracted so much attention is ‘10×10 Xs’, a series of digital kisses released in ten batches of ten. They were deliberately conceived as collectibles with a consistent element. “I wanted to have some rigour to it,” says James. “Collectibles have parameters and rules. The more I made, the more productive I became, and themes started arising. It reminded me so much of painting in that intense period of those three or four years of art school, just by learning things, just purely by creating art.” The first few Xs were picked up by friends and family, but on the back of a tweet from a collector, every piece sold. “It was incredible,” says James. “It’s a new world.”

NFTs have inspired and enabled a world of digital consumption, for the generations who don’t have walls for art but have devices to enjoy the vast range of different things that meet all our varied tastes.

The auction for the final piece in this collection is being held on Opensea and ends on Saturday 4th September.

Author’s disclaimer: Image shows 10×10 Xs #09, 60, 78 from my collection.