New adventures in digital painting: artists who are transforming brushworked art

Over the years, painting packages such as ArtRage and Corel Painter have developed into powerful tools and attracted a dedicated following
  • Alice Ross (Digital Arts Magazine)
  • 30 September, 2010 13:29

If you thought digital painting was purely the preserve of dodgy fantasy art involving clichéd depictions of elves and dragons, think again. A wave of artists is harnessing technological improvements and frankly ridiculous levels of talent to transform the medium, creating works that combine the richness and human feel of painting with a slickness that could only be digital.

It’s easy to see the appeal: “I like the flexibility,” explains Sam Gilbey. “I can decide in a moment if I want to try a different technique, and if it works, great, but if it doesn’t, I can go back to where I was without having to redo my artwork from scratch.” He adds that digital painting is mess-free.

However, digital painting has long been a niche technique. The fact that Photoshop – the key package of most creatives – had only basic tools meant that many simply never got around to experimenting with it, while the clumsy efforts that crowd many fantasy art sites did nothing to aid digital painting’s reputation.

All that is set to change. Over the years, painting packages such as ArtRage and Corel Painter have developed into powerful tools and attracted a dedicated following.

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Painter in particular offers incredibly sophisticated naturalistic painting tools and features such as pressure sensitivity, which allows creatives to use the styli of graphics tablets as though they were paintbrushes. Many traditional painters have crossed the fence to digital, lured by the increasing responsiveness of graphics tools.

Now, the new Photoshop CS5 boasts vastly improved painting capabilities, while the iPad is touted as a portable, tactile canvas, with a raft of high-end painting apps available. Prepare yourself for an explosion of work in the next couple of years as more digital artists start experimenting.

Digital painting is uniquely demanding, requiring advanced drawing, composition and colouring – essentially fine-art skills – as well as the technical savvy to get the effects right. Get it wrong and it can be really dire; get it right and it’s totally sublime. We spoke to five artists who lead the field today – with not an elf or a dragon in sight.

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Tom Bagshaw –Canvas to pixels

“I never touched a computer until about ten years ago,” says Bath-based artist Tom Bagshaw. “Up until that point I was still very much a traditional artist – set in my ways with acrylic, pen, pencil and airbrush.”

Then he encountered Painter and Wacom tablets. “That change my whole outlook on using computers in your workflow,” he says. “It allowed me to create work in a familiar way while cutting out the mess, shortening the time-span and easing delivery to clients.”

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The graphics tablet is key, he says: “You can kind of get away with not using one for some types of work but for painting it’s such an intuitive way of working that if it didn’t exist, I just wouldn’t be working digitally.”

Tom divides his work into two categories: ‘pure’ digital paintings, created almost entirely in Painter and others with painted elements but more graphic elements. However, he’ll also dip into ArtRage, Illustrator and 3D software “when the need arises”.

In his pure digital paintings, the Gothic colour schemes and solemn poses of his exquisite, sensual portraits are undercut with wit. Flashes of colour and extremely contemporary character design sometimes make it seem as though toys have escaped from a Japanese toyshop and are hiding out in a collection of Victorian photographs.

“My favourite tool in Painter is the oil brushes,” says Tom. “Painter’s brushes are quite amazing and I have a lot of custom brushes that I employ, but I do come back to a small selection of oil brushes which I’ve saved with quite minimal custom settings and use them for pretty much everything I do.”

His mastery of digital brushes is indisputable, but he’s currently contemplating experimenting with older forms again. “I hadn’t even touched a paintbrush since I started working digitally,” he says, “but I created a traditional painting for my solo show recently and I’m looking at getting back into it again.”

mostlywanted.com

Step by step: how Tom Bagshaw composes a painting

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Working from a base sketch, Tom blocked out the basic face in ArtRage and worked up the fine details using the oil brushes in Painter. Then he painstakingly painted in the hair using layer masks and brush strokes in Photoshop, before layering gossamer-fine textures and brush strokes, set within more layer masks, for the clothing, all still in Photoshop.

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The Red Dress – Beyond retro

For inspiration, husband-and-wife team The Red Dress – Ollie Bland and Olivia Chancellor – plunder the past: “We find inspiration in annuals, pin-ups, trashy pulp-fiction covers and illustrated film posters,” explains Olivia.

The artists who created these vintage images laboured in oils and acrylics, and Ollie and Olivia share a background in traditional painting – they met studying art at Central St Martins. However, they find digital painting has major advantages – especially for client work. “Being able to choose if paint is wet or dry is as great an asset as is rubbing out or undoing – especially for client changes,” says Olivia. “Working on separate layers is a bonus too – as you can add extra elements, take them out or change its colour in an instant.”

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Working digitally allows them to overlay paper textures and distressed elements for a truly vintage feel. The results are vibrant, wittily kitsch oil paintings that have won them a portfolio of editorial and commercial commissions from a variety of clients.

Digital painting does pose challenges: “You have to try hard to make it look like real paint. It can be tricky to find the right brush effects and you don’t get the ‘happy accidents’ with paint texture that you get with the real deal,” explains Olivia. They make heavy use of the Bristle brushes in Photoshop CS5 – and Painter X’s oil brushes and Blenders. For schlocky retro lettering, they turn to Illustrator. Olivia says that experimentation is the key, and the way they use their tools is “constantly evolving.”

At the moment, a favourite technique uses Preserve Transparency on individual elements of images. “First block in the shape with a solid colour, then turn on Preserve Transparency in the layer. This allows you to quickly and easily fill in colours and tones without worrying about going over the edge,” explains Olivia. thereddress.co.uk

Step by step: how The Red Dress compose a painting

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1. Ollie and Olivia Chancellor were commissioned to create a poster for the Standon Calling festival. “Firstly we researched images of the era and took model photos. From this we produced the first drawing,” says Olivia.

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2. Next they blocked in colour, tone and background, working on a layer underneath the original line drawing.

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3. On a layer above the line drawing, they refined details. “We experimented with the crop. At this point, the client requested a more modern look for the girl,” explains Olivia.

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4. They took the crop off the bottom and added steam, then blended and refined the image, and returned to the previous girl. “Finally we overlaid a scan of some paper on a layer set to Multiply,” concludes Olivia.

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Rory Kurtz – The Digital Frontiersman

Rory Kurtz’s images combine the delicacy of watercolour with rich hues that are closer to oils or acrylics, scuffed-up finishes and a precision that is purely digital.

“I painted a bit with watercolour – I loved how watercolour and ink washes let the lines of the drawing show through,” says Rory. “However, watercolour doesn’t allow for much reworking once it’s dried, and it can’t effectively be painted over either. Painting digitally allows me to endlessly make adjustments.”

Rory recreates the feel of traditional painting alongside using effects that are hard to achieve by classical means. “There’s a patina and texture to traditional paint that I bring into the work to keep it from looking too processed and soulless,” he explains.

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“At the same time, working digitally allows adjustments that you just can’t get with paint. Depth of field, tonal shifts and layer masks are techniques that would be laborious with physical paint, and yield spotty results, [but] are a blast to experiment with digitally.”

Basic artistry is key. “I still labour more than anything over the drawings that come before the paint. It’s pretty difficult to badly paint a well thought- out drawing, but nearly impossible to save a terrible drawing with digital paints.”

Working from these sketches, he uses Photoshop for colouring. “Along with the tools Photoshop offers for ‘painting’, its photographic tools offer solutions that give the art a mixed-media feel,” he explains. “I’ve tried Corel Painter, but the results look... too generically digital. But that’s just my knowledge of it.”

Rory’s trademark precision is the result of painstaking attention to detail: “You don’t paint digitally by inches, but by pixels.”

He says that digital painting is still in its infancy: “Right now, it’s such a new medium with unlimited possibilities.”

Looking at Rory’s work, that’s an exciting prospect.

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Step by step: how Rory Kurtz composes a painting

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1. Rory says of sketching: “I’m sparse with the lines, allowing for the colour to give it tones and dimension.” He redraws images dozens of times to get the perspective and proportions right.

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2. “I’ve got the drawing sitting on the very top of the Layers list in Multiply mode,” explains Rory. “From this point on, all the digital paint will be done as a clipping mask to the isolated layers.”

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3. He created an underpainting using contrasting colours, staying deliberately loose to “see what happy accidents” crop up. He also decided on custom brushes for the finer detailing.

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4. Rory’s pencil drawing is still on the top layer, which is set to Multiply, while each element is still in its own masked layer, which allowed him to tweak them individually.

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Marta Dahlig – Drama queen

Lush, playful and exaggeratedly detailed, Marta Dahlig’s images are in a category of their own. “I think of my characters as real people, and therefore I never strive for perfect looks. I like my women to have bigger noses or stronger jawlines and so on,” she says. This realism is enhanced by minutely detailed, almost photorealistic digital painting skills.

A self-taught artist, Marta has painted since early childhood. She discovered digital painting at 15: “Soon after, I got my first tablet. It didn’t take long for me to get truly sucked in.”

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These days all her work is digital; she loves the freedom it gives her to experiment. “I have quite a messy workflow,” she admits. “In traditional painting, experimenting can be very pricey – if you put a brushstroke wrong or use the wrong colour, it takes a lot of effort to make up for your mistakes. Digital painting is extremely forgiving.”

Like many digital painters, Marta cherrypicks from Painter and Photoshop, appreciating Painter’s traditional media feel and Photoshop’s custom brushes. Her key tool is her Wacom Intuos4: “There are no substitutes for a tablet: a mouse does not offer pen-pressure sensitivity and a lack of any natural control. It’s a necessity.”

Marta admits digital painting isn’t perfect: “It makes you hardware- dependent,” she says, pointing to the cost of equipment. The other drawback is less tangible: “Digital art is less romantic than traditional art. Looking at the monitor simply does not offer you the same feeling as using real paints on a rough canvas.”

But she flourishes in the medium, creating art for computer games and book covers; her work has even been featured in the Corel X bundle. She says the key to success is refusing to be pigeonholed. “Staying within your comfort zone will block your artistic development. It’s important to always be aware of the box you are classified under and broaden your limits with new elements.”

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Step by step: how Marta Dahlig composes a painting

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Meisan Mui – Manga with a twist

A degree in architecture isn’t the most obvious qualification for a manga artist to have on her CV, but that’s what Thai-Chinese artist Meisan Mui has. Actually, ‘manga artist’ isn’t a fair description of Meisan’s enigmatic works: as she puts it: “My style is watercolour-based illustrations, combining Japanese manga-like characters with motifs inspired by traditional Thai art.”

It’s an intriguing blend: wide-eyed, triangular-faced characters are surrounded by semi-abstract curlicues and striking, arabesque-shaped clouds, all rendered in jewel-bright colours straight from Thai art, or noisy candy shades sampled from manga. She often works by layering washes of watercolour for a splotchy, tactile backdrop, and then painting over the top.

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“I was already using watercolours and markers as an architecture student, but I was looking at a lot of manga online, and saw that they used a Wacom to create their work,” she says. This inspired her to try her hand at digital painting, which soon lured her away from architecture completely.

Now an established digital painter, Meisan can see both pros and cons to the medium: she points out that it makes it easy to knock off works that are samey – either to other pieces of your own art or, more dangerously, other people’s: “I see a lot of artists getting trapped by style – including me sometimes,” she cautions. “With some artists’ work, you can tell who or what was inspiring them at that point, so the artist lacks a unique style of their own.”

For her, the key is endless exploration: “I get bored easily and experiment a lot,” she says. Her advice? Stay true to yourself: “Draw what you want to draw,” she recommends. “Don’t try to satisfy everybody in the world – because you can’t.”

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Step by step: how Meisan Mui composes a painting

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1. Meisan started by roughly sketching the character in black and white on her computer, with a basic brush.

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2. Filling in more details as she went, Meisan also added layers of scanned-in watercolour blotches, setting each one to an Overlay bleeding mode.

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3. Meisan adjusted the colour until she was happy with the tone and painted in some highlights, such as the belt buckles.

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4. Meisan then flatened the layers and painted over the top, adding everything from creases on the shirt to details in the background.