You’re in Tuscany and it’s the 16th century. You’re a talented painter and you’ve been given a grant by the Medici family to paint a model of your choosing. She’s a beautiful woman, but translating that beauty onto the canvas in front of you is no easy task. Luckily, you’ve trained years for this. You know how to create perspective, you understand the subtleties of shading, you know how to convey the texture of her skin and the ripples in the clothes she’s wearing.

But now it’s the year 1994. In front of you, on a computer screen, there’s a 3D image of Buzz Lightyear, walking around in a way that looks entirely natural, as if driven by the character’s own thought process. Underneath the hood, however, Buzz is nothing but a series of geometric shapes you created, guided forward because of your inputs into a program that’s a complex interface of buttons and numbers ultimately translated into zeros and ones.

“I’ve got a visual on the person who tells me I don’t really exist.”

Now it’s the year 2019. You’re surrounded by darkness. With a few flicks of your wrist, you choose a thin brush and select the color blue. You sketch the rough, three-dimensional outline of a bird, walking around your drawing in the process. Next, you choose a thicker brush and start painting in the bird, switching colors as you go along. It’s strikingly intuitive. Never before has creating a digital image felt so real. After an hour, your digital bird has been drawn and painted. You take off your Oculus Quest.

Creating Art in Virtual Reality

There’s no denying that virtual reality has made creativity more accessible. VR apps such as Tilt Brush, Quill, and A-Painter are intuitive and fun. You needn’t be a trained artist to create something unique anymore; you needn’t be a Photoshop wizard to create digital imagery anymore. Art is creativity visualized and VR is the biggest enabler of it.

Already, many artists use VR to create their artwork. Google’s Tilt Brush team even have their own artists in residence, tasked with exploring the potential of the app and the medium. Many of these artists consider VR as a transformative, new way to create art. As the visual artist Android Jones says: “Artists have always used the most advanced technology of their day. So, I want to move art forward – and VR is the total creative platform.”

A painting created entirely with Tilt Brush (by Tristan Eaton)

VR doesn’t just make it easier for people to express their creativity. Because it’s multidimensional, it also enhances the experience of art. Most art is still displayed on a flat surface. Paintings, photographs, nearly all movies, and digital renders are all displayed on a flat surface, only multidimensional in their appearance because of their clever use of perspective.

Virtual reality, however, allows you to be inside a work of art, to be surrounded by art. It’s why most art from VR artists are displayed as videos on their websites, not still images. They’re environments intended for people to explore, to look at from multiple angles instead of a single, unchanging angle.

Museums’ Relationship With Virtual Reality

Museums have realized the potential of VR to change art, too. The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia has invested heavily in VR. They consistently have exhibitions that use VR. At the time of writing, there’s an Apollo 11 VR exhibition that takes visitors to the moon on a VR motion bench. They also have a VR demonstration space where visitors can encounter a blue whale, go inside the human body, tour the solar system, and peek into a brain with the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive.

VR in the Franklin Institute

Having fun in the VR demonstration space

Of course, the Franklin Institute isn’t the only museum experimenting with art. From the British Museum to Tate Modern to the MoMa, many high-profile museums are now using VR to create unique experiences that involve art. Companies such as TimeLeapVR specialize in recreating classical works of art in VR for museums, so visitors can don their VR headset and walk around in the epic landscapes painted centuries ago.

While VR can enhance the experience of people visiting a museum, it can also make museums more accessible for people who are limited or disabled and can’t visit the museum in person. It also gives museums the possibility to display the works of art that are stored in their archives for lack of physical space. 

Some people are fearful that VR will discourage people from visiting museums, as they can visit the museum from the comfort of their homes. But such fears are unfounded. After all, the same fears came up when museums started showing their works of art online. That didn’t stop people from visiting museums, and neither will VR.

Instead, VR will renew interest in museums. It makes them more engaging and appealing to a younger audience, bored with simply walking around a museum and looking at static art. VR museums, along with VR artists, will change the relationship that we have with art. With the help of VR, art will become a visceral experience.