Digital Painting Lecture

On March 28th, 2015, I gave a lecture on Digital Painting at the Barbara Hicks Geslock Women’s Forum. I’ve put the technical information relevant to the lecture into a three part tutorial, which describes my painting process from start to finish. Click on the thumbnails, and then View Full Size to download the tutorial for reading. Some browsers may open the image in a new tab, and require a page refresh to display the full size image.

You can download my presentation slides here.

Below is the transcript of the lecture.

Hello! My name is Elanor Hope Kindred. Some of you may know me by my author name E. H. Kindred. I am an independent author and illustrator, and a graphic designer for the Central Rappahannock Regional Library. If you go to the library, you’ve probably seen a lot of the posters and things in the display cases– I’m the person who does a lot of that. Today I’m going to be talking about how to use Photoshop to create digital paintings. We’re not going to be talking about photo retouching or photo manipulation, just to be clear. We’re going to talk about painting in Photoshop just like you’d paint on a canvas. Some of the things I’m going to cover might be relevant to photo retouching, but that’s definitely not the focus. So, you won’t hurt my feelings if you want to slip out for something that sounds more interesting.

Still here? Excellent! Before I jump in too far, it would be good for you to know what I work with. I paint in Photoshop CS 5, and I do so with a Wacom Intuos 4 tablet, which is this thing. How many people have seen something like this? Not many of you. Ok, well, it works basically like a fancy mouse. It plugs into a USB port on your computer, and like a mouse, it tracks your hand movement. Instead of a mouse, I have this pen, and when I move it around on this surface, it takes my stroke, pen pressure, and angle, and puts that directly into the computer, through Photoshop. It can also right and left click just like a mouse, and I can alternate between the brush and eraser tools by flipping it around just like a real pencil. Pretty cool stuff, huh? Once you get used to looking at the screen instead of the pen, it’s not terribly different from drawing on paper. It might look kind of daunting, but our brains are amazing, and often adapt quickly to things like this. You might be surprised how fast you pick it up. If you can use a mouse, you can probably use this, and this makes it a lot easier to draw digitally than trying to do it all with a mouse.

How many people have dabbled in digital art before? Ok, how many of you make traditional art– painting, pencil, pastel, etc.? Good, that’s how I started too. I didn’t start drawing digitally until 2005. Up until then, I was primarily a graphite and color pencil artist. Granted, this was still when I was a kid, so it wasn’t very good. These are some of my old drawings. See, this is the character I’m still working with. He and I go back a long way.

Working with traditional art is a great starting point for getting into digital art. A lot of the principles of light and color, and things like that are the same, and for a while, I was overlapping media. I would hand draw something, scan it in, and then color it digitally, or do whatever else I was going to do. That worked for a while, but I’ve gotten to the point where it’s actually easier for me to all my sketching and drawing directly in Photoshop, and cut out the middleman, as it were.

So, what is digital art? Does anybody already have an idea of what it is? I would probably define it as painting, drawing, or 3D rendering through a digital medium. Basically, it’s art produced by digital means. The computer does not produce the art for you; it’s just a different set of tools. Some people will get snobby and try to argue that digital art is easier than traditional pen and paper art, but that’s not true. Those people probably don’t understand the process one has to go through to create art in a digital medium. Some people assume I can somehow tell the computer what kind of picture I want and it magically produces a wonderful finished image.

As awesome as that would be, it’s so not true. Digital art takes as much time and effort to get good at as traditional art. In some aspects, it might even be a little harder, and it will take just as long to get a clue about what you’re doing. Case and point… These are some of my earliest attempts at painting in Photoshop. They suck pretty bad, don’t they? At the time my fifteen-year-old self was super proud of these. Now they’re just kind of hilarious. You wouldn’t want this on a book cover. You probably wouldn’t even want this on your refrigerator. I learned how to use digital tools for art with no formal instruction, and if I can learn to do it, you can too.

Today, I’m mostly going to be talking about the principles of creating art in Photoshop. There’s a lot of buttons, settings, and technical stuff that goes into it, but since I’ve only got limited time and I don’t want to bore you to death, I’m going to skip over a lot of the technical things. However, you’re going to need to know about that stuff to make Photoshop work for you, so I’ve packed all of that, and what I’m talking about today, into a three part tutorial, which you can find on my website. I’ve made flyers with the address on it, so when you have questions about how to use some of the tools I’m talking about today, you can look up my tutorials later, and hopefully those will answer your questions. I’m also going to put today’s slides and a transcript of my talk on my website as well. You’ll also see on the flyers several places you can contact me if you ever need help, or just want to say hello. I don’t bite (often), and I love interacting with people online, so feel free to reach out to me anytime. So, with no more ado, let’s dive on in.

I decided the easiest way to show you how to approach creating art in photoshop would be just to do a piece to record my steps for demonstration. So, this is the image I did to show you. It’s an illustration from the novel I’m currently writing, called The Rose of Avigdell. The character’s name is Alastair (if you’re at all familiar with my work, you might also know him as Lask), and in this particular scene he’s consulting the magic Library– what can I say, I’m a fan of libraries. There might be just a little bias there. There were a lot of steps to get to this finished piece, and we’re going to walk through those one at a time.

The first thing I need to do is set up my canvas. You want to work pretty big, so you can print your finished work later and not have it come out all grainy and pixellated. This canvas is 3000×2000 pixels, which is about 40 inches by 28. That’s pretty big, and definitely big enough to make a good sized poster or other print, and in fact I have, since this is one of the pieces in the art show I’m having at England Run Library next month. Digital art can print very well if you take the time to set up your canvas properly. This is an example of one of my printed pieces and this particular image was recently printed at about twice this size for my art show, and it still looks just as crisp as this one, because I made the original image really big, and I picked a good printer. I get most of my art printed through online companies like Snapfish or UPrinting, which have some of the best quality that I’ve come across. There are some local printers in town that do decent quality, but usually they run a little more expensive than online printers.

Anyway, after I have my blank canvas, I’m going to create a new transparent layer. That just means there’s nothing on that layer yet. Transparency is exactly what it sounds like– it’s how see-through (or not) something is– and we’ll work with more aspects of transparency later. Layers are amazing things, and you’ll probably end up with a lot of them. The image I’m using for the walk-through today ended up with fifty-three. I think the most I’ve ever ended up with was somewhere in the range of 120 layers. This is what 100+ layers looks like— stained glass is the devil. It always sounds like such a good idea, and then I hate myself for being such a glutton for punishment. I mean, the end result looks great, but… many hours, many hand cramps. Layers, in all their glory, allow you to do a lot more with the tools available in photoshop than if you were to just do everything on the default background, and it makes it easier to fix things when you do make a mistake.

Now I’m going to take my brush tool, which I use on its default settings for this stage, in basic black, and start doing my rough sketch. At this point, I’m just trying to get the idea of the image. I put down everything I think I might want to include, draw over other pieces, experiment with elements of the costume and pose, and just generally make a big mess. Once I have the basic idea down, I create another layer, and sketch over it, deciding what I’m going to keep, and solidifying the idea. It’s still pretty messy, and I erase and redraw a lot at this stage.

As a side note, you want to be sure to save your work early on, and save often. I usually try to save every 5-10 minutes or so. Photoshop doesn’t have an autosave option, so you have to remember to save, otherwise, if your computer crashes– you’re out of luck. You can save under the file menu, or with a quick Control+S on your keyboard, so be sure to do that as often as you can in order to prevent losing your work and having to say some very unladylike words.

After that, I create yet another layer to do my final sketch on. This one is going to be nice and neat, and more detailed. At this point, I want to try to get everything about the character, and the objects he’s directly interacting with, sorted. Once I start coloring, it’s harder to go back and fix something like wonky anatomy or proportions, so try to get those things taken care of now. I don’t usually do much or any sketching for the background unless I know it’s going to be super detailed. This image’s background is going to be pretty simple, so I haven’t bothered to do any sketching for it at all.

Once I’m happy with my sketch, it’s time to start coloring. Before I put any colors on the character though, I create a gradient layer under my sketch. A gradient is just two colors (sometimes more) transitioning between one another. The gradient is really important. It sets the overall mood and light source of the piece, and helps me choose the rest of the colors that go into the image. You can see some of my other illustrations and their starting gradients here, so getting that gradient under everything first is very important. The gradient can help you get a bright, autumn morning feeling, or it can make you feel like you’re in the middle of winter. I’m very careful picking these colors because it’s from this that the rest of the image is built. This is probably the most important step of my painting process, because this gradient really does set the stage for everything that comes after.

With the gradient set, I can start picking colors for my character. Usually, I will create a new layer for each element of the piece— so, I’ll have a layer for skin, a layer for the coat, the cape, the feathers, the ornaments, etc. Some artists like to paint everything on one layer, and if you feel that confident, go for it. Me, I find it’s easier when I go to do shading if everything’s neatly separated. If everything is separate, there’s less pressure to be precise when shading, which for me, makes things go a lot faster. Since you can name your layers, it’s easy to label everything and not get lost.

When I pick my base colors, I pick them based on how they look against the gradient. This character actually has snow white skin, but it would look weird if I painted him pure white here. So, that’s actually kind of a pale gold/grey color, but it will look fine once it’s shaded and in the context of the rest of the piece. Always pick your colors based on how they look against the gradient you set, not necessarily on what you intellectually think the color looks like. Often times, if you try to use the “true” color, it will look stark or wildly out of place. The gradient helps you make sure your colors all blend nicely, and stay consistent with the lighting.

Once I have all my base colors down, I go back and lock the transparent pixels on that layer. That means I won’t be able to draw on any part of that layer, except the part I’ve already painted. This is very handy when you’re ready to start shading, because you can be as messy with your strokes as you like, and not mess up the rest of your work.

When I start my shading, I typically start with the shadows first. Just personal preference, really. I’ll begin by making some broad strokes, to get the idea of where the shadows are going to fall and to put down some generalized shading. Then, I’ll make the brush smaller and do some finer details. This is where opacity comes into play. Opacity just means how transparent something is. When I mentioned transparency earlier, I said we’d do more with it later. This is what I was talking about. When I turn down the opacity on my brush, it gives me greater control over the darkness of the shadows. I can make more strokes to get them darker, or only do one or two strokes if I want to keep it subtle. You can get some really nice blending effects by tinkering with the opacity settings.

When you’re picking colors to shade with, never do your shadows in pure black or grey. That’s a good way to make everything look dull and flat. We don’t want dull and flat– we want vibrant, rich, living colors. So, choose your shadows based on the lighting and the base colors. For this red, I actually used some purple in the shadows, and some darker red. In the gold, I used dark orange and brown. This keeps your image much livelier and engaging to look at, and it’s more true to life. It’s pretty rare you’ll ever find a shadow that’s actually black. Instead, different kinds of light produce all kinds of colors when they hit an object. If you ever hold your hand up to a light, you can see those shadows aren’t black– they’re red and brown, and even some purple depending on the light. And clouds in the sky– they’re not white! They’re pale blue, grey, pink, lavender, it all depends on the time of day and the weather. So don’t be afraid to use crazy colors. Most of the time, I’d rather have too much color than have everything be dingy and dull. Anyway, my point there was be brave with your color choices, and make your shadows lively too.

Typically, I do all the shadows for my various layers, then all the highlights. I’m generally a very methodical artist. Certain things– like skin and hair– I find it’s easier to do the shadows and highlights at the same time, but really it’s all about what’s easiest for you. If you like to bounce around and work on different things in different orders, go for it. When the shadows are done, I’ll do the highlights. The brush settings for highlights are pretty much all the same as what I used for the shadows. I do broad strokes first, just like before, but this time, I do those in a more saturated version of the base color. Saturation is another one of those fancy digital art words, but it basically means how bright, vibrant, and retina searing a certain color is. You can see here these were very bright colors I was working with, but when they’re painted on a lower opacity, it’s just right. For the finer strokes, I use a color similar to my overall lighting. Here, that’s a pale gold. I’ll go through and do all my highlights, then we’re ready do some details.

This might look like a big jump, but the process is really the same thing we’ve been doing all along. For this background, I just painted some shapes of the arches and windows, and then shaded and highlighted them. Since the background isn’t the focus of the image, it’s ok for it to be a little messy and not quite as crisp as the character. In the majority of my work, the character, creature, or object is the most important part, so typically I have a very lackadaisical attitude towards backgrounds, and often less is more anyway. You don’t want your background to be so busy people get distracted from the main focal point. The only time I really put a lot of effort into a background is when I want to convey a sense of opulence or scale– scenes where the character would be feeling dwarfed or humbled by whatever it is surrounding him.

I also decided at this point, I wanted to make the costume a little fancier. Usually I try to get all the details worked out in the sketch, but adding little embellishments like this later on isn’t too hard. I just painted them on and shaded them like everything else I’d done up to this point. I’m a sucker for fancy costumes and pretty clothes, so I tend to go a little overboard with the details on clothing and accessories. That’s fun for me, so consequently, most of my characters have very elaborate wardrobes. They don’t seem to mind.

Now that my character’s complete, I can start meshing him with the environment a little more. This image is going to have a very strong light source, so I’m going to make some light rays. I made these with the line tool– which is just a tool that lets you draw straight lines, then blurred them. Photoshop has lots of things called Filters, which can do everything from add textures to blur sections of an image, and lots of other stuff. The blur that I used here, and use most often, is called a Gaussian Blur. I detail that a bit more in the technical tutorials I’ve posted online. For right now, I won’t bore you with the settings for it. Once I did the blur, I turned down the opacity of the whole layer, then did some erasing to make the light rays look a little more realistic. When I’m happy with the way they look, I duplicate that layer (which is a simple right click on the layer, and an option in the menu), and move it to be up above the others. Photoshop has lots of different modes you can set layers on, which determines how they affect the layers below them. I set the duplicated light layer on a mode called Screen, and that lightens everything under those light beams. I adjusted the opacity a bit, and did a little more erasing, until I was happy with the way it looked. Many of the things I do over the course of a painting are trial and error. I tinker with things until I like the look of it. I think most artists are probably like that when they’re working something.

Then, I make a new layer on top, and paint on some rough highlights for where the light is hitting the character. They look kind of crappy right now, but then I apply a blur to them, turn down the opacity, and they look fine. At this point, the main elements of my image are done, and it’s time to do the fine tuning. This is where digital art really branches off from traditional art, because if this were a real canvas, you’d probably be done at this stage.

With digital art, you can be really picky about your colors and contrast, and fiddle with things until you’re totally satisfied with how it looks. This is where adjustment layers come in. Like the name suggests, adjustment layers let you alter the colors, the intensity of the light, darkness of the shadows, and myriad other things. Photoshop has a lot of options for this, but there are really only three or four adjustment layers I use regularly.

The first is Levels. This lets you adjust the brightness and contrast for the shadows, midtones, and highlights in your images. If you’re not familiar with it, contrast just means how stark your shadows and highlights look. It’s a great way to quickly punch up your shadows and highlights if is seems like you were too timid with your shading, which is something I’m prone to. The next adjustment I use is called Color Balance, and the name probably gives away what that’s for. It lets you adjust your colors by moving these sliders around until you’re satisfied with how things look. Here, I’ve added more yellow and red, to give things a nice, rich, warm look. Sometimes Color Balance can make your colors a little too saturated or overpowering, so you can add an adjustment called Vibrance, which lets you make your colors more saturated or more muted.

When I’m happy with how things look, I’ll copy the whole image into a new document, mostly to prevent accidentally resizing or merging all my layers into one. Before I save something, I like to apply a Sharpen filter, and to do that, all the layers need to be merged together. If I do that, though, I won’t be able to work on them anymore, so it’s safer to copy everything into a new document, that way your working file with all your layers remains intact if you want to go back and fix anything later. In the new document, I’ll apply the sharpen, which makes everything a little more crisp, then save the image as a .png PNG is just another file extension– like a jpeg or gif– but it’s the best one for digital art, because it gives you the highest quality image for using online, or having it printed. After you save, you can post it online, and send it to all your friends and followers for them to ooh and ahh over.

As a little more on Adjustments, I tend to use them subtly, but it’s possible to completely change the look of your piece with them if you make the settings extreme enough. For example, I can take my original image and make it look like this without picking up my brush at all, just by fiddling with various adjustments. Heck, I kind of like him in blue. I could be on board with that. I would need to go back and fine-tune things if I wanted to keep this version– like fixing his eye color– but occasionally I’ve been known to go back and make drastic changes like this after the fact, because I didn’t get the idea to do it until after I’d already done all that work. Rather than having to redo everything, I can just play around with the adjustments to get the colors and look I want. Sometimes it’s worth farting around with adjustments just because you might find something you like even better than your original idea. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

That’s part of the beauty of digital art. The computer doesn’t make the art for you, it just gives you a more diverse range of tools to apply your own creativity. Don’t be afraid of it. Get in there and click on things, pull the sliders all the way to one end and see what happens. And if you don’t like it– there’s always the undo button! You never know what you might find, or what you might learn how to do. I learned how to do this with no training. I learned purely by trial and error, reading tutorials, and listening to other artists. And with just that, I went from being an amateur scribbler to a professional who gets paid to do work like this. It’s definitely an art form, and I think in a lot of ways, it represents a bold new future for art and artists. It integrates a lot of the traditional principles of art, and meshes them with our modern technological world, and with the way things are going, we’re probably going to need that more and more.

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