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No paint or canvass needed: Torgersen takes high-tech tools, creates award-winning art

Mitchell High School senior receives honorable mention for digital artwork at Northern State University exhibition

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Sofia Torgersen, a senior at Mitchell High School, received a Gold Key Award recently at the 2023 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards for South Dakota.
Submitted Photo
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MITCHELL — When inspiration strikes artist Sofia Torgersen, she doesn’t reach for a paintbrush and canvas or a chisel and a block of marble.

She fires up her computer.

Torgersen, a senior at Mitchell High School, is an artist who works in the digital medium, creating art not out of pigments or stone but out of ones and zeroes, bringing an image from her imagination to life on a computer screen using modern digital painting software.

And she’s good at it. One of her pieces recently received an honorable mention notation last month at the Northern State University High School Art Invitational Exhibition in Aberdeen, where her work was judged among the entries of 257 students from around South Dakota.

“I wasn’t expecting to get anything,” Torgersen laughed. “I submitted art last year and didn’t get anything, so I thought no, I won’t. It’s quite a large pool of kids. My friends were all like, ‘You definitely got something,’ and I’m like, no.”

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But she did get something. Her submitted piece to the exhibition, titled “Your Fault,” depicts a man with long flowing hair, a shadow of a beard and a glint in his eye. The character, drawn mostly in blue, is set against a background of geometric shapes.

The idea for the piece spawned from an idea she and a friend came up with before a creative burst struck her.

“Back in March my friend and I were having some conversations about this one idea for a character that we had, and I just had it sitting around in my brain for a while. And then in the middle of June, I just got struck by — you have to draw him in blue! You have to draw him in blue! Right now,” Torgersen said. “So I started doing that.”

She also took inspiration from artwork from the Critical Role series Exandria Unlimited, a web-based series with a Dungeons & Dragons game theme. Some of the character portraits for the series were done in what she called a “stained-glass window style,” which led her to add the background shapes to the piece.

Alexis Doerr, an instructor of art at Northern State University, said judges at the exhibition were likely taken by her “skill in digital painting and rendering the human figure with accuracy.”

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"Your Fault," a piece of digital art created by Mitchell High School senior Sofia Torgersen, received an honorable mention notation at the Northern State University High School Art Invitational Exhibition in November in Aberdeen.
Submitted Art

They also appreciated her use of color in the piece.

“The application of color is striking and creative,” Doerr said.

Receiving the award was a nice acknowledgement of the work Torgersen has put into her craft, something she picked up when she was young and spending time with her mother at home. Her mother introduced her to watercolors, and she dabbled in art from then on. When she was about 12, she learned about creating art digitally.

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“I started when I was, like, 2. But to be actually serious about art, I was probably 10 to 12 when I finally realized, oh, I want to do this. It’s what I’m good at,” Torgersen said. “ When I started getting serious about it, I noticed digital art was a thing, and we had a tablet at home, and I really wanted to do that. So I taught myself how to use that old art program, MS Paint.”

She eventually switched over to a more versatile program, FireAlpaca, and again taught herself how to get the most out of it. She currently uses a screenless tablet, which she places on the desk in front of her and draws on it while watching the output on the screen.

Despite becoming more popular as technology advances, the medium also is still somewhat in its infancy compared to more traditional art styles, she said. And it comes with its own challenges. Color, for example, works and blends differently when it appears on a computer screen than liquid paint does on paper.

“You experience colors completely differently in digital art than you do in more traditional forms of painting. It’s not red, yellow, blue, it’s its own thing. You have to eyeball it,” Torgersen said.

Digital art may be a young format, but it’s becoming more accepted and respected in modern times, Doerr said.

“The interest in digital art has grown tremendously with the variety of programs available to create digital work. There is also an abundance of digital artists sharing their process online, creating an online community of learning and sharing of this digital medium,” Doerr said.

Many adopters of digital art begin in a more classic style and then graduate to a computer, but for Torgersen it was the other way around. She has since dabbled more in painting and found it enjoyable, if not a little odd compared to what she’s used to.

“I got used to digital before the traditional. Taking painting classes was strange. I dabble in acrylic painting, but doing it is so weird,” Torgersen said.

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Marica Shannon, who teaches an introduction to art class as well as sculpture, among other classes, at Mitchell High School, leans more toward photography, pottery and crafts when it comes to expressing herself. But the world of digital art is opening a path to creativity for students like Torgersen.

That’s definitely a good thing, she said, and having judges at Northern State give a nod to Torgersen’s work was an affirmation to her talent and the hours put in learning her craft.

It is amazing — the different types that are created, the variety of the subject matter, the quality of the work. It’s exciting for me to be on this journey with a student like Sofia.
Marica Shannon, Mitchell High School art teacher

“It is amazing — the different types that are created, the variety of the subject matter, the quality of the work. It’s exciting for me to be on this journey with a student like Sofia,” Shannon said. “I was excited for her. To see that expression on her face of, ‘Wow, me?’ That’s some of the joy of teaching the arts. You get to see kids find their success in a variety of ways, and for her to be recognized at that level was a fun day.”

Torgersen has put in the time to hone her skills, but she also has a passion for creating, Shannon said. That drive has helped her bring her imagination to life.

“It’s exciting when students take a medium and teach themselves. That’s the goal of any educator,” Shannon said. “You see these students who find excitement and learn things on their own and self-motivate through that process. It’s exciting.”

Now in her last year of high school, Torgersen is looking beyond graduation to a possible career in art. She would like to pursue work in 2D animation and cartoons, and she’s looking around at schools but hasn’t made a decision yet.

There are many career choices for students of digital art, Doerr said.

“There are multiple avenues for digital artists and artists depending on their focus and area of interest: a professional studio practice, education, artist-in-residency, graphic design, art administration, gallery director, animation, website design, social media content creator and more,” Doerr said.

Shannon said parents can feed their child’s creativity by taking a cue from Torgersen’s experience. Put materials in front of them early and see what develops. Let them learn at their own speed. They don’t have to be a Rembrandt right off the bat, they just have access to something that could turn out to be something they enjoy doing.

Art is an expressive, vivid portrayal of an artist’s perception of the world, Doerr said. Giving young students that window to view society is an important aspect of understanding not only the world, but themselves.

Improving their artistic skills and having fun at the same time is just part of the idea behind the Art Wars competition for high school students.

Torgersen agreed. She found she had a gift at a young age starting with watercolors, and moved on from there. She learned to find inspiration in herself and in things she likes, such as the Critical Role series that added inspiration to “Your Fault.”

Create what you like, find inspiration from yourself and sources you admire, and good things may happen, she said.

“You just gotta try it. Get weirdly obsessed with some piece of media. Make a bunch of fan art. Then you’ll get better,” Torgersen said.

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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