Monday, December 16, 2013

A (Digital) Painter's Approach

Painting and drawing... painting and drawing... what's the difference exactly?  And what do we mean by "painting" anyway (especially when there is no actual paint involved)?  For me painting and drawing are two completely different ways of picture making, and yet, they can coexist quite comfortably in a single picture. Some artists start a picture with a pretty tight drawing. Even if the drawing doesn't have a lot of detail, it accurately represents exactly where the big shapes are going to fall. I used to work this way:

But now I like to keep things really fluid, letting the magic happen as I go, and keeping the process spontaneous from beginning to end.  I like to work with painted shapes, that is, filled in shapes, not lines.  In fact, it was while painting that picture that I started working that way.  It was a transitional piece for me.

I use drawing to explore different compositional and lighting approaches.  The pencil is a convenient tool for quick studies, and by keeping these really small (the below is all on one 4" x 6" page, that's about 100mm x 150mm for my friends across the sea) I can quickly fill in the shapes to get a sense of the core value structure.

Here I made a little a matrix of four possible ways I might relate the two main figures (the big salamander creature and the boy), and how the side light would fall across them, what shadow shapes would be created, in each permutation.

I'm using the pencil to make simple shapes and value areas, not to make lines, nor to show form, or detail. The closeups of the boy's head in the upper right show this very well - I'm just trying to see what kinds of shapes I'm going to get depending on how the light strikes the head, and which way it turns. At this point I'm also not looking for specific shapes, just a general sense of which approach is to have the most potential for a strong and interesting composition, and compelling depiction of the forms. This is the beginnings of what I call a "painting" approach, because mark-making with paint (digital or otherwise) is, generally speaking, not about making lines, but shapes. (Of course, in drawing we make shapes using lines, but you get the point).  This is like fitting together pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.  The downside is this can kill the flow of a piece (that's where drawing really shines), so you need to watch for that.

More doodles, trying to fill my head with the simple shapes and forms of the various creatures that MIGHT inhabit this scene. This is me assembling reference, of a sort.  Keep your eye on that snake to the right of the creature, below.

Rather than do another lengthy step by step, I'm just going to focus on one simple element - the snake on the right of the picture - because this shows really clearly the "painter's" approach to laying in an element and bringing it up to full finished detail.  Many of you "drawers" out there may be afraid to paint without a pretty tight line drawing to rely on, but with digital media the painter's approach is easier than ever!  And don't get me wrong - I'm a drawer too!! (ok, I guess the proper term is "draftsman"... or if you want to get old school, "draughtsman", but anyway), those of you who always draw first and paint later might want to try this, because it can really change the way you see your work, and with digital tools, particularly the ability to work on layers and to make value and color adjustments AFTER adding detail, this approach may be refreshing and liberating.

First I lay in a simple flat shape, representing the silhouette of the snake.  Edge detection is one of the most important aspects of our vision - we need to be able to tell where the snake stops and the tree begins. We need to be able to separate individual elements from the background, in real life and in looking at pictures.  But in realistic picture making, unlike real life, we are concerned with shape for TWO reasons: to represent a thing, in this case a snake, convincingly, and also to create a composition, made up of many shapes. Remember this kids - no matter how detailed or realistic the picture, it's still just a collection of flat (2d) shapes.  An outline or line drawing does not represent this as effectively as a filled in shape does.  Laying in an element in this manner is similar to what some painters call "massing."  There is basically no attempt to show form here.

Now the first indications of form, just barely.  Really this is more about integrating the shape into the picture by making it non-flat, vaguely matching the existing lighting conditions, without really getting into how it twists and turns. Also at this point I'm not worried that much about the colors, because with digital I know I can adjust them later.  It's often about reducing the variables, picking your battles..

Now I am refining the shape, and also showing the form. I refine the shape by moving its edges, so to speak, using an eraser tool and a painting tool.  This is where digital really shines, because it's essentially impossible to do this over a partially painted background in traditional media.  With traditional media I would do this in the rough painting stage, with lots of wetness, adding paint with a brush and removing it with a rag.  With digital I can have my cake and eat it too - I can refine the shape as much as I want, while also seeing it as a "filled in" shape, vs. just a line, AND not messing up what is "behind" it, so I can see right away how it relates to the rest of the picture.  Look at the thumbnail then click on it to get a larger view and see how little information and detail is really there.  Yet, right away I can see exactly how this is going to fit (or not) in the painting.

Finally paint in the little details... it's child's play at this point, because with a solid foundation nothing can go wrong now!!!

And, lastly, some small color and value adjustments to fully integrate the little fellow into the painting (he was popping just a bit too much).  Geez I love working digitally.

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