Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Digital Coloring Advice - An Open Letter

[the following is a copy of an email I wrote in response to a question about digital coloring]

Don't feel bad if your teachers don't have a lot of technical advice on working digitally. All I did in college was paint in acrylic and oil, and it was the same for buddies of mine like Josh Cochran, Sam Weber, Jillian Tamaki, Tomer Hanuka, and James Jean. Also, I teach at a great school in Baltimore, and I don't let most of them even touch the computer.

The way I learned digital coloring was pretty straightforward: trial and error. Basically, I wanted my work to look like it was a printed comic book page. Everything else slowly evolved out of that.

Early on, I hated the "slickness" of digital coloring, having been a very textural painter in school, so that was a big part of the learning process. One option for getting a bit of texture into the image is to scan it so that you have some paper texture with the line work.

Another option you may want to try is to scan in some papers you like. I have 4 or 5 that I go back to, depending on the assignment, such as newsprint, etching paper, and watercolor paper. You can use "Multiply" to have them add texture to your artwork. It will take some fussing around with until you get it how you like it.

I also like to experiment a lot with my illustration process. Most of the time, I will make unique textures for each illustration and scan them in separately. If you have a printer, you can print out your ink work in a light color, and then try doing ink washes over it for shadows & stuff.

And for keeping your lines black, there are several ways to do it, but the "multiply" option is the easiest.

All that said, I'm going to reiterate the point that you don't need digital instruction in school. It's much more important for you to focus on design and composition. Know how to use the computer, but don't use it for making art from scratch.

If you look around the web and notice that your work fits in too much -- that is, if it looks a lot like what everyone else is doing or like what everyone else is trying to do -- it's a very bad thing for your future career. Do whatever you can to stand out. I worry about all the digital artists coming out of school these days -- not for myself, but for them, because they all look the same.

My work is going to start looking very dated in a few years, probably... which will be bad for me, but much worse for new artists who are just emerging and already look dated. So, I advise playing around and trying different media for a while. It's easier to learn watercolor or acrylics while you're in school than it is when you're trying to pay rent. Or, you could try tweaking your drawing style-- anything to make you stand out from the pack. Find out what is unique or weird about your own sensibilities.

As fashion metaphors are concerned, it's better to dress like a techno-goth weirdo, than to look like 90% of the population who just walked out of the Gap.

I checked out the link you gave me, and it seems like you know about as much as you need to know for digital coloring. There's really no magic to any of it, just play around with layer settings like multiply, color, overlay, and opacity, and see what comes of it. Work on your drawing and design skills.

Good luck,



Sascha Thau said...

All round good advice. I hope many people read it.


Manuel Dupong said...

Thanks a lot for sharing that!


Frank said...

Thanks Manuel, Sascha! I've noticed there's a lot of anxiety with students feeling that they have to know digital art today to be marketable.

Photoshop has been as revolutionary to the way we make art today as the invention of photography, in my opinion. Just as a camera can be helpful in our drawing, Photoshop can be helpful with our design... but you still have to go through the pain period of learning to do it the old fashioned way before you can really take advantage of it.


Goni said...

Couldn't agree more. I made the mistake of starting off mostly, if not all digital. Grew way too comfortable and developed no traditional media skills until much later. It's embarrassing but I could barely draw without having a computer in front of me, let alone create a full piece. Then some really good teachers came along and took the time to teach me the traditional media abc's... which took years of readjusting everything I thought I knew.

The quality of work improved as my dependence on photoshop diminished...

So... can't have a good artist without learning the basics, and you sir, are an excellent example.

jen mussari said...

Really great advice, awesome post!

I do disagree with one thing, though, and that's being different for the sake of being different.
Here's a piece of advice a mentor of mine gave me in high school for success: "Do you. Whatever it is that makes YOU more YOU, do that."
It applies so well for illustration. I believe it's important to recognize and shun trends, but if what you are doing happens to be trendy, that's ok too. As long as it's yours.

As for the clothing metaphor: It's best to dress in the way that describes your personality. Not like a "techno-goth weirdo" just for the sake of being different, and not like everyone else for the sake of being like everyone else.

If you dress/draw/act like you, you will be timeless.

Frank said...

Goni - I'm glad to hear that you spent that time working on your traditional media. By the way, I think the phrase "traditional" or "natural" media sounds really odd. I never thought of there being such a distinction.

Jen - I mostly agree with what your teacher said--however, very few people put in the time to experiment with different ideas and ways of working to ever really find out what "be yourself" is.
If being yourself means judging by your comfort level, then of course you're going to do what everyone else is doing -- because the majority of people will not be challenged or offended by "you."
Standing out and being different from the crowd is hard. If you aren't just like everything else out there, you're going to be challenged and disliked by others. But those challenges will build character than really gives you faith and true understanding of what it means to be "you."
It's alarming to see hordes of student work that all looks generic -- some of it done quite well. However, the people who stand out are the people who have their own take on things, that are individuals. In short, they have taken the time to develop their own personalities.


John W. Tomac said...

Great Advice.

Regardless of the medium, digital or otherwise, drawing skills are extremely important. You can't fake those. I'd agree with you that the best way to hone drawing skills is to do so with traditional media. It's worked for the last few hundred years.

At the end of the day, the computer is another tool to make art. It won't make your work better or more marketable or hide your deficiencies.

Celine said...

Great advice---I try to keep a mix of working in paint and working on the computer. My senior year at MICA, I realized my digital work was lifeless and generic, and Rachel gave me the green light to just do a series of personal gouache paintings. They were the best pieces I'd ever done and I learned so much about myself and my aesthetics. Now I'm back to working digitally, but I feel I have a lot of ideas about how to make it look unique to me.

A technical tip: I like making photoshop brushes out of smears of ink and paint and pencil on textured paper. It'll never give the same kind of feel as working traditionally, but it is just one more way to personalize the experience. Also Soft Light is way underrated.

rinaj said...

thank you for this post. I think you brought it to the point, where I failed to couch it for several years. :)

Anonymous said...

I can echo what some of you have said about the "pain" period. OMG! when you first start drawing you think you can draw from your imagination but then you get blasted for not knowing anatomy, you then copy the whole Bridgman or Hogarth books and then it's like DAMN! I "STILL" need reference? Did copying this shi* even help me? I think everything starts with ideas, how should you flex a muscle? How would the drapery fall, where would the drapery fall? Does my character look stiff? Is everything in proper proportion? How should I scale the picture! etc.... when we make these decisions, over time your art starts to look like "you" . You collect reference and decide what you want to show and decide what you want to leave out. Like frank said, the worst thing that can happen is to look like somebody else, because then you're easily replaceable.


Matthew Blissard said...

This is fantastic advice. I've been following your blog ever since I saw the illustration of Luke with his lightsaber you had done (I'm definitely a self-proclaimed Star Wars geek). I can't get enough. Thank you for this excellent post.

will said...

Thank you for the post, I have been following your work from some time and being an freelance illustrator in a world that celebrates being trendy and following the crowd is accepted becomes a real challenge. I agree with your comments because every time I go on sites like deviantart there are tons of artist who want to have that slick digital look and spend tons of money trying to appeal to masses but at the same time lack the personality and humane spirit that makes one true to themselves. So if I can add to what has been said be true to yourself and stop worrying what others think.


Frank said...

John - I agree with you. I think that art comes down to developing one's sensitivity, which is tough to do in front of a monitor.

Celine - Thanks for the advice on brushes. You'll have to show me how to do that. Also, from what I hear, Rachel is a great teacher. It's a shame she isn't at MICA anymore.

Rinaj - You're welcome! Thanks for commenting.

Kenneth - Yes, the "pain period!" I find that when you're doing all the right things as an artist, your work goes through cycles -- times where you are frustrated and trying to evolve into something better, times where things are starting to come together and you're happy with the results, times when you hit a groove and are making progress steadily, and times where you become dissatisfied and start thinking of ways to change things up. And the cycle repeats itself...

Matthew - You're welcome, Matthew. I hope I can continue to post helpful articles for you.

Will - That's true, you shouldn't care what others think--to an extent, of course. Illustration is also about the client's needs and wants. But it's a lot better to stand out from the crowd than it is to fade into the background as far as employability is concerned. There are still hundreds of very good, very successful illustrators who aren't making "slick" digital work. A few who come to mind are Chris Buzzeli, Sam Weber, Erik Sandberg, and Peter DeSeve. All of them are Earth-Shatteringly awesome artists.


Joe Kresoja said...

great post

Jed said...

I used to use a lot of digital color, mostly flat color, and work looked like an inferior version of a lot of the folks I admired without much of its own personality. More recently I've been working hard to improve my drawing chops and started messing with scanned watercolor and pastel textures and I feel my work has much more of its own identity, not just because of the scanned textures, but because of my approach in general. Now, even though I assemble my work on the computer, the pieces I assemble start out largely analog, and my inspirations come from more of a place of classical illustration than contemporary. I think this gives my work a more timeless look, though I'm still influenced by the contemporary work I see, and from the modernists--all of it falls into the same stew, and hopefully what comes out is more me than anything else.

And I don't think that great work can't be made on the computer alone! I have seen some terrific 100% digital work.

I will attest to the fact that the computer can be learned on your own. In school I hated the computer. Later, through tutorials and books I was able to learn photoshop and illustrator, which cursed my work for a couple of years with a horrible astro bright palette and way too many gradients, but now I've arrived at a more comfortable place. For the most part, people don't tend to suspect that my work is digital at all!

Frank said...

Thanks Jed, Joe. I agree that great work can be made anywhere, but it's tough to develop the "touch" without spending the time with yourself to make tangible artwork.


Anonymous said...

I agree with everything, except I find the irony in this post that the first time I saw your illustrations was after mistaking you for Tomer Hanuka in a magazine. Times are changing.

ajmitchell said...

Frank: Something that wasn't covered yet but I was curious about is do art directors and editors prefer that you work digitally and did that influence your decision to work digitally? I haven't experienced that with clients but I was interested in what your experience was.

Rich Pellegrino said...

Hey Frank

I'm with you on this 100%. Making art should be exciting and always interesting for you (at least the majority of the time).

Rehashing something that's already been done by someone else is never that. Confusing triumphs of technical ability in lieu of finding you own nitch is dangerous and something all students should be made aware of.

Great post dude!

Helice Wen said...

Thank you! I am glad that I read this. Now I am more confident about learning digital technique on my own.

molly shoelace said...

thanks for posting this. i always struggle with working digitally because i question the integrity of it. since i studied art in college before computers, i have a personal stigma that is difficult to overcome. i enjoy coloring in with photoshop and i like the final outcome and the ability to tweak color, etc. but in the back of my head there is a little voice saying i should be doing this all by hand for it to be honest work. i'm glad to know you are self-taught, because i often have doubts about that too--like i must be missing some integral link since i didn't actually have any training.

anyway, thanks again.

bill said...

I had forgotten how much i enjoy your blog. This is going right to my students. One of my favorite things about working digitally, the few times that I do, is the discovery factor. If I had to wade through tutorials in order to learn photoshop etc., I would go crazy. That simple, what is around the next corner?, is one of the main things that keeps me going whether I work traditionally or digitally. Thanks for this great advice and I hope you don't mind if I put a link on my site.

Frank said...

Hey guys, sorry I haven't answered any comments in a while.

Anonymous - Tomer is a huge influence, and I have the utmost respect for him. That said, I hope your mistaking my work for his is not a frequent occurrence. I've never intentionally tried to take someone else's "look."

AJMitchell - The cream of illustration can work in whatever media they want, in my humble opinion. The best guys seem to find a way to stand out. That said, you can't ignore that there is a trend of slick, digital-looking work that's been going on for quite some time. So, obviously it's a fashionable way to be working right now.

Rich - Thanks! I find that it's been helpful for me to dictate the media that my illustration 1 students are using, rather than having the chaos of 15 different people working in 15 different kinds of media. It seems to have brought everyone up to having the same conversation.

Helice - Hey Helice! That's the way to do it, I think. Find out what you want stuff to look like, and play with the media until you get it.

Molly - Hey! I've had a lot of technical training in painting, drawing, etc. But one thing you'll find is that everyone is basically self-taught, if they have any kind of style. At a certain point, you have to make it your own, and that's when you are essentially teaching yourself.
I think that digital work isn't something you need to feel bad about. It's like being afraid of "cheating" by using photography. All the great artists who have had access to photography have used it -- not because they were cheating, but because they were smart enough to realize that the only thing that really matters is the quality of your end result. That said, I enjoy working offline more enjoyable these days.

Bill - Go ahead and put a link on your site! I'm flattered. Good luck with your class!


jan said...

Thanks for this post. I'm a 3rd yr BA student in London, UK and we barely have any technical education at all. It's all ideas, and not so amazing necesarilly. So I've kind of stagnated in my usual comic book-based half analogue, half digital process. I'll try to listen to your advice here, and mix up my process, and go back to the basics as much as I can.

But I think it's important to have teachers who see you. I don't really know what to bring forth in my work to stand out more, or what to drop. Or what style to use in the first place, as I'm fairly versatile...

Eduardo Vieira said...

Amazing advices, sir. I really liked the way ou approached the importance of lines, traditional art, design and composition ver digital colors. Looks like everyone's digitally painting on these days and no one is having an identity; and sometimes, if we don't manage to remember ourselves of staying out of this fashion we can be dragged in. Thanks for remembering.

Diogo Pinto said...

I´m starting college next month, and I´ve been all summer struggling to choose between a digital course or a plastic one.This post was just a final confirmation that i´m making the right choice and going to study Drawing at the Faculty of Fine-Arts.
Thanks again for the post.