Monday, February 26, 2007

Expediency vs. Handcrafting, pt.2

When considering how artists save time by cutting out manual labor in places, further levels of “digital interference” in the painting process can be easily predicted from the prior post. Using digital tools, a piece can be started using Photoshop or Painter. That piece can be taken to whatever level the artist pleases, and now it can be printed out…in full color.

An entire underpainting can be printed out, the surface coated, and then paint applied on top of it in whatever degree necessary to complete the image. In the case where, say, a general digital “wash” of yellow ochre is applied and then painted on, it can still be the case that what you are looking at ends up being nearly entirely real paint (the ochre only subtly affecting the overlaying colors). This would be no different than simply toning your canvas before beginning, or painting on toned paper (an ages-old technique and one I employ often). However, given the propensity of illustrators to save time, you can easily see what will inevitably start to happen: paintings with large portions—maybe even most of the image—not painted by hand. A little paint is added to the print out and the thing varnished and considered original art. I won’t even get into what permanency issues may be involved, although many modern printers advertise “archival” inks.

For the purposes of illustration, none of this matters: as I’ve mentioned before, it’s all reduced to 4-color printing in the end, and the methods used to generate the image are rarely an issue. But does it matter to you, if you are about to fork over hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars, for what you think is original art? Could you tell?

Maybe you could because, held at an angle, the paint has a sheen which the printed portion does not. However, if the entire piece is heavily varnished, you would lose that ability. At what percentage of hand-painting would you cease to accept the title of “original art” and consider a piece a tinted or retouched print? Back when I worked for Kinkade’s company, we called this “highlighting,” but at least in those days the pieces were honestly marketed as retouched canvas lithographs. Could it be that this practice is spreading, only now with information a little less forthcoming?

Would it be an acceptable statement for an artist to do a piece almost 100% digitally, if not 100% digitally, then sell it as “original art” on the basis that it is a one-of-a-kind—they will not do another full-sized print like it? Again, would you know the difference?

Perhaps these things don’t bother you—don’t misunderstand, I’m not suggesting that they should—because if an image was hand-done digitally then the artist’s skill is still in evidence if the digital parts are printed out and continued in traditional media. There’s certainly some rationale there. However, it is also very simple to cobble together an image using photos gathered from personal snapshots or Google Images, and using digital tools, to make them fade in the background of an image, or to apply filters to give them a sketched look, with a hand-drawn main character, say. The whole thing is printed out and major elements—never actually drawn by the artist, are lightly tinted like tinting an old photo. This could have been done in earlier times as well, since a photocopy could be made that pieced together drawn elements with photos, this being the basis of over-painting. Again, shouldn’t you know, and could you tell?

Frankly, I don’t begrudge artists trying to make hundreds of bucks off their digital creations. Losing the ability to have and market true one-of-a-kind original art can be a significant trade-off, from an income point of view, and I understand why they might want to retain some of that through various means I’ve explained. As well, I don’t begrudge a collector who is happy to pay the artist for the work, even if only 1% of the so-called painting actually has paint on it.

Here’s the thing: I want you to know what you are paying for—shouldn’t every artist? If you would not pay good money for certain levels of this stuff, then you shouldn’t be misled into doing so. As an artist who can see many of these things being done because of my knowledge of the media, I know I would not pay full-price for some of what passes as original art, when I know other artists are still applying their craft faithfully. The only solution is, if you have an issue with some of the practices I’ve outlined, for you to simply ask the artist if you are in doubt. Ask them what parts are digital print-outs and what parts have actual paint on them. Ask if certain elements were hand-drawn or were they printed out from reference scans and tinted like tinting a photograph. If you are still unsure, ask for more specific information. It seems to me that is only fair. You would not spend hundreds or thousands of dollars for other things without knowing what you are purchasing. An artist who is not trying to be deceptive will be happy to outline his techniques clearly and, if the image is still worthy of your money, deserves the sale.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Expediency vs. Handcrafting pt.1

Illustrators are primary movers in bringing technology in for the purpose of saving time when producing original art. With stiff deadlines, and your competitors finding time-saving methods, it’s an almost never-ending escalation of time-shavers.

I mentioned elsewhere one very common type of hybrid that you will encounter these days: printed underdrawing with paint over it. Back in the old days (as in, a decade ago or so), it was still normal for me and for many illustrators to do a final full-sized drawing directly on the painting surface sometimes. The advantage: your true drawing is there to paint over, with all its accuracy. Drawback: you will paint over your drawing and it will be gone forever, the graphite or charcoal probably binding to the paint over time.

This was the first problem that artists tried to solve. Even back in Michelangelo’s day you had “pouncing,” a method of preserving your drawing apart from the final work. He would create a life-sized drawing, perhaps back in his studio and bring it to a wall to be frescoed. By perforating the drawing (you can do it by poking small holes along the outlines of a figure, for instance, or using a tool like a pizza cutter that pokes small holes as you roll it, at regular intervals) and then rubbing some sort of dry pigment through it or retracing the line with a soft chalk, the chalk goes through the holes, onto the wall the drawing is affixed to. When you remove the drawing, voila, you have a fairly accurate, if generalized copy of your drawing made of lots of little dots.

Other common and less time-consuming methods included the one that Normal Rockwell favored: He’d do gorgeous full-sized charcoal drawings for each canvas. This most typical of transfer techniques involves rubbing graphite or charcoal on the back of the paper, affixing the paper to your painting surface, then retracing the lines you need. Removing the paper leaves behind a carbon copy. This is the exact method that carbon paper made cleaner, since now the backs of your drawings could stay clean.

Another method came with the introduction of the lightbox. Called the “camera obscura” way back when, it allowed you to redirect an image onto a plate that you could draw, or trace on. In modern times the overhead projector and other such devices have been popularly used. I used to use one even in high school to blow up drawings. Do your drawing small (to save time), and blow it up using a machine like this.

All the above methods suffer from the same drawback of resulting in a traced-looking image that lacks the vitality of a finished drawing. Inaccuracies crop up in delicate areas, like eyes, that need to be corrected again. You keep your drawing, but you have to fight your tracing a bit in the paint. Correcting or fighting those differences takes precious time, as does the tracing process.

So eventually the good ol’ copy machine was brought into the fray. Entirely mechanical reproduction was finally possible cheaply and quickly. The benefits were obvious: you could scale your art up or down (within paper limitations) and get most of the vitality from your original drawings too. In modern times, this is done with even greater accuracy by scanning a drawing and printing it on a home printer. The final printed drawing is so close to the original that all the prior-methods’ drawbacks can now be done away with, especially on smaller works.

However, it was the first time that mechanization entered original artwork: yes, the artist had done the work of creating a drawing, but the thing he was going to paint on was not put there by him anymore. This was a small but significant turning point. Granted, by the time the piece is done, you’re likely looking at only paint—the drawing is probably completely obscured, resulting in a pure painting, and so you have a completely hand-made final image. However, for techniques that allow the pencils to show through, you’re already getting into this weird grey zone where what you are actually looking at amounts to a tinted photocopy. Huh. It may be sold as “original art” but the actual drawing resides elsewhere, and in this example, the “drawing” you’re seeing is actually a print with some thin paint on it. Does this negate any of the value of this type of original art? Would you know what you were looking at? These days, the answer is: not easily. Given the great quality of home printers, a drawing can be reproduced on good drawing paper, in colors that mimic graphite. Short of being able to smudge the lines to test, I don’t know how people could tell the difference. I wouldn’t be able to, in many cases.

With my own works, I easily admit that I scan my drawings and then print them out for painting. I don’t worry about it because I completely obliterate the printed drawing so that in the end, you’re looking at 100% paint. Perhaps that’s why it’s easy to admit….

Monday, February 12, 2007


3 years on from beginning to use digital in earnest, I’m moving the other way again. I’ll forever use my computer and tablet in the prep-stage—since getting these tools my digital prep has gotten more involved than ever—but I think I’m going to increase the proportion of painted pieces again. I just like paint that much. I’ve also found some ways of cutting down the physical preparation time needed to paint, which helps.

I haven’t done a digital final now since last summer (another D&D piece, incidentally). I’m working on D&D again now, but all the pieces I’m doing are paint. I’m not saying that I mastered digital and so I’m back to paint or anything, rather I just miss painting when I’m pushing pixels. It saved me some time, sure, and the endless tweaking you can do is interesting. A few painted pieces have had substantial digital tweaks done to them, so there are hybrid pieces that will appear in print too. It’s all so confusing.

I suppose eventually I’ll come to be known as a Luddite or something. That would be inaccurate. I’m already using so many time-saving tools, including digital, in the service of creating paintings that my forebears of old could already call me a sell-out.

“You store your paints in tin tubes? Sell-out.”

All these digital-traditional hybrids are very much changing the world of art: printers you can use at home already have greater resolution than traditional 4-color process. When you’re looking at an “original painting,” can you know what you’re actually looking at? How much of an image needs to be produced in physical paint for the whole to be considered a painting? These are troubling questions both for artists and collectors.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Pixels (and pencils!)

Late in 2004, around the time I started this blog, I picked up a Wacom tablet and Painter IX. I was some 6 months away from leaving Silicon Valley for an indeterminate period of time, would be living who-knew-where, and would have to stay productive. I knew I’d be hauling my mini-studio with me, but I also planned on increasing the amount of digital work I was doing.

Prior to that point, digital was done in Photoshop, with a mouse, in the prep-stage. I figured I should be more comfortable with a quickly popularizing new medium lest I suffer by being inflexible.

One thing that I knew I didn’t want was to look digital. I’d seen a lot of digital art, including by people who once painted (many of whom have abandoned the brush entirely in their professional work). Some did a great job of emulating their painted styles, others—mainly those for whom digital was their main or first medium—had an unapologetic or by-default digital look to them. The latter category tended to not succeed as much as the former, from what I’d seen.

Regardless, I set out to find ways to make my digital work look like my painted stuff. I’m not particularly interested in digital-specific looks: stuff that relies heavily on a sort of “collage” approach of layering scans of textures, bits of photos, and some digital painting and filters to make it look cohesive. Primarily, I was using digital for spot illustrations, though a piece here and there has been done in other venues. I was looking for a faster way to achieve similar results as the real deal.

The other day I was at a bookstore, and was scanning the fantasy section to see what was new. A copy of the Dungeons & Dragons sourcebook “Complete Scoundrel” was there, and it is the newest release that features my work at this time. I hadn’t seen it yet since I hadn’t received my contributor’s copies. One piece in particular, in print, would have fooled me if I hadn’t done it:

I think it looks more digital on the screen than in-print

If me from 5 years ago time-warped and saw that piece in print, I would’ve assumed I’d painted it. Mission accomplished, at least on this one piece. I started it in pencils, as I usually do even for digital. Pencil tools in Painter are pretty decent, however it takes just as long to do a pencil digital drawing, and doesn’t have quite the control…or at least, I haven’t been able to control it the same as real pencil. Plus, if no time is saved, I might as well have the real drawing at the end of it.

Ah, pencil. My first love