Process Part IV: Finishing

The last post on Photoshop was an attempt to show the convoluted creative process of trial and error once you start on the computer. I’m so used to having an open-ended list of possible solutions when I hit walls in Photoshop that it’s difficult to explain exactly what is going on as I do it, so hopefully this post will add a little bit of solidness to my ramblings. This stage will deal with finishing a piece, and by finishing I mean forcing all of the variables to snap together onscreen. Believe it or not, this stage is probably the easiest if all of the foundation has been properly layed. I can sum it up in three sections.

Finishing 11. Broad highlights & shadows

I’ll backtrack a little bit to make this step really obvious. Once we have our flat colors in place we can then start rendering a few of the elements to give them a bit more depth. This means adding lighter and darker areas depending on where you want the light to be hitting. I use the Dodge and Burn tools because they make it really easy to get a shade higher or lower without de-saturating your original color, and in some circumstances they can really make the color pop. But be careful because these tools can be grossly overused causing your image to have that obvious Photoshopped feathered edge on your shading. Just turn down the exposure on the tools a bit and have fun adding some variation to your shapes (see image).

Finishing 22. Sharp edges & highlights

This is my favorite step because it really makes the shapes pop off the screen if done correctly. I make a new layer at the very top of all the other layers, and set it to Overlay in the layer option dropdown. Then I use a simple small brush and paint in little lines using white along every edge I think light would hit. When set to overlay, the white should create a much brighter version of the color beneath giving the shape a nice bright solid edge. On the same layer, I inversely use black to add a few darker edges where a hard shadow might fall as well as a few defining outlines.

Finishing 33. Broad shadows & texture

Finally, I’ll make an additional layer at the top of the layers palette, again setting it to Overlay, then do some broad shading using a bigger feathered brush using white and black. This stage allows me to really drop back some elements while bring other things forward with the lighter color. This is done by eyeing up the overall piece and making sure shadows and highlights are consistent and nothing looks too flat. Be sure to use a lower flow setting on your brush because this stage can be overdone as well. In the example image I added a few layers of texture on top of everything to give it a grittier outcome.

So, that is a basic version of my creative process. With every piece I do the process varies a bit with new challenges because I can never predict how some rust will mess up my color treatments. However, I hope this has been insightful. Any comments or recommendations of your own are encouraged.

You can check out the final piece here.

Process Part III: Photoshop

jerko.jpgThis is where my creative process gets a little strange. Everything up to this point has been fairly straightforward with conceptualizing, sketching, writing and researching. But once we leap onto the computer armed with our materials another element rears it’s head, the unanticipated happy mistake which causes a delightful outcome that you wouldn’t have previously thought of. You’ll see what I mean.

My recent run of artwork deals with loosely rendered silhouettes of men and women with skulls and a few other upper body bones put into place within the outline. This required me to get a few reference shots for the body shape (see photo) and a lot of skull shots for different angles, which brings me to an important point. Never ever ever be ashamed of looking for reference material to help you get the proper form and shape of whatever you are creating. I read a book by famous comic artist Joe Kubert who pushed this point to the very end, and sited the internet as an endless dump of reference material. If you want to draw or paint a motorcycle or polar bear, find a picture of one. Michelangelo or DaVinci never just pulled their great images out of their head, they had teams of people posing and sketching far before their brush hit the canvas. Reference is not a bad word, and don’t believe anyone who says it.

collage.jpgAfter I have my references, I arrange them in Photoshop as a very loose collage on my canvas. It might look really silly for a while (see image) but this stage is important to nail your composition and to size things correctly so you don’t start painting blind. For mine, I snapped a few shots of my pal Jerko because he had a good head to stick a skull on. When they are arranged on the canvas in a way that appeals to me, I start painting in the shapes using simply black for stuff in the background and white for things in the foreground. This gives me a rough idea of how things are working together spatially and allows me to draw attention to items that are brighter or more important.

When things are loosely painted in, this is where I start the process in selecting color. I always have a rough idea of what I want to use as a palette but that can quickly change when I see how colors are working together, or not working together. I normally start putting darker colors in the background, lighter in the foreground and work from there. To get a better idea of how color is reacting with the whole piece, I always overlay a texture on top of them to see how lighter or darker they become. The happy mistake is very prevalent at this stage because you can never predict how colors are going to shift when you start adding layers of dirt on top of them.

If you are not good at selecting a color palette as a starting point, check out Colourlovers.com for some killer categorized palettes.

Layer effects dropdownSpeaking of texture overlays, this brings me to four of the most important Photoshop tools I use. On the layers palette there is a dropdown menu at the top (see image), and in that menu you will find Multiply, Screen, Overlay, and Soft Light. I use those four things more then any other setting in Photoshop because of how vastly different they can make an image by setting a top layer of texture to any of them. Try different layer effects on everything to see how differently it molds your image, it might give you a few more ideas on how the finished product might look. Also try overlaying grayscale images on top of colored layers to give interest to your highlights and shadows.

This might be a lot to process so I will cut this post here and continue soon with how to finish a piece using similar techniques. The main point of this post is to play with your image, and don’t be restricted by what is in your head.

Also, you can see the full example image I am using in this post right here.

Signalnoise.com launch

Signalnoise.com launchI took a little bit of time to re-think how I use my personal website, and how I can improve on my past designs and applications. This has all led to this version of Signalnoise.com

I have been using Flickr for quite some time now due to it’s ease of use, unlimited uploads and connections to like-minded artists and photographers. It’s a great engine for a portfolio without the need of messing with HTML code, the bane of my existence. Flickr has quickly become my backbone and a great means of exposure.

Then the discovery of Tiltviewer happened. Tiltviewer is a Flash application developed by Airtight Interactive that pulls images from any Flickr account and displays them in a very slick 3D gallery, complete with information on the back of each image. So, I quickly purchased Tiltviewer when it was made available and you can see my streaming artwork in the Gallery section of the site, which will be updated on the fly when my Flickr account is updated. Thanks so much, Airtight.

So welcome to the new and vastly improved Signalnoise.com

Process Part II: Gathering Resources

Making texturesOnce an idea has been flushed out using keywords, sketches and thumbnails, it is now time to start thinking about actual visuals. That doesn’t mean sitting in front of Photoshop and taking stabs at styles, it means doing a bit more research into how you want to portray your idea. This is important in saving you a lot of guess-work as you start to work on the piece.

Personally, I always start looking at what has been done, namely by my favorite artists. The styles they use appeal to me on an emotional level which draws me to them for whatever reason. They either use color palettes I like, styles I admire, or clever twists that I would never have thought of on my own. I have art books, magazines, CDs, many bookmarked art sites, posters, etc that I can look at while keeping my own project in mind. How did they execute what they did? What is the conveyed idea? Why do I find the imagery appealing? Who are their influences?

I don’t restrict myself to modern art. I constantly look to the pioneers who perfected techniques and styles hundreds of years ago which still hold importance today. DaVinci, Picasso, Rothko, Kline, Mondrian, Klimt and Braques are just a few examples of important artists who did ground-breaking work in their day. Check out Mark Harden’s Artchive for a nice big dump of the classics.

After going through a bunch of art and design examples, it is time to start doing some hands-on work. I like my textures, and to properly do my piece I will need a decent library of textures and things at my fingertips. Their are wonderful royalty-free websites online that help out in this area, such as Mayang, MorgueFile, and Stock.xchng, that help out immensely when you don’t have access to a rare texture. However, I like to create as many as I can by hand or photo to keep my pieces a bit more original. Plus it gives me a bit of an edge over, say, a splatter pattern used by 100 other artists. Just take an afternoon and snap some shots around your neighborhood of dirt, cement, bark, sidewalks or clouds. You will be surprised how many cool textures you can get that are all around you.

Also, don’t forget the traditional methods of making textures. I very much enjoy sitting at my dining table making splatters and paint strokes to scan in at high-res. A nice texture library is well worth the time when the art starts.

Once all, or most, of our resources are assembled we can start messing around on the computer. Next I’ll take a look at my creative process when I dive into the computer.

Process Part I: Conceptual

PenI thought a nice way to kick off my new website would be to offer a little insight into my creative process, which will coincide with my recent string of artwork. Everyone has their own processes which are usually discovered through self-discipline, so I’ll just outline my own.

Step one is simply an idea or concept. It could stem from looking at other peoples’ artwork, watching a movie, having a conversation with a friend or any number of things to spark inspiration. It could be a striking visual style you want to explore, or an abstract idea you want to visualize through a piece or series of art. The idea is the most difficult piece of the puzzle so it needs to be well-thought out, researched and explored. Anyone who knows Photoshop and Illustrator can make images on the fly, but discovering a concept that is bigger then yourself, your skills and your values is quite challenging.

My recent artwork stemmed from the idea of creating an image and style that explored the inner human. Even though skulls and things appear in a lot of my work, I wanted something more then anatomy for this idea. I wanted something that explores the idea of moving above simply existing, yet showing the similarities between us all. I also wanted to use imagery and color that could swing easily between the beautiful and the morbid, life and mortality. I want a very strong sense of duality, a theme I have been chasing for years even when naming my website in 1999.

To make the concept a little more tangible, I always write down keywords in my sketchbook that relate to each other. They could be abstract, emotional, traits, or physical items that I want to somehow incorporate into the piece. Some will be used directly through visuals, others might be conveyed through color use or composition, and some might be tossed altogether. This step helps to get ideas flowing and very much helps mold the foundation. I’ve found thesaurus.com an invaluable resource for this step.

Keeping your keywords close by, creating very small rough thumbnails is a necessity. I don’t mean a couple, I mean filling a couple of sketchbook pages of quick doodles. This step is to start visualizing composition that will help you convey your idea or image to someone who hasn’t been with you behind the scene. I’ve created lots of these thumbnails for almost everything I do, most are scrapped, some help me along with the creative process and generate new ideas and thoughts, and a very small number end up translating almost directly to the final piece (by fluke).

Conceptual is really the meat and potatoes of the creative process. We need to solidify what the idea is long before we plop down in front of Photoshop and start noodling with brushes. This will bring me to the next post, gathering resources.

Signalnoise in development!

If you happen to come across this blog please be aware that it is under construction. I am currently building a better compatibility between my personal site and my Flickr account. I’ve come across a few wonderful Flash applications that make a seamless connection to Flickr accounts, something I’ve been searching for.

So, thanks for your interest. Please come back for something better once the foundation is built.