The Arty Blogness of Ansate Jones

Digital Portraiture, or How I Painted Neko Case Pt. 1
Neko Case, Austin City Limits 2014, reference provided by Scott Newton.

Neko Case, Austin City Limits 2014, reference provided by Scott Newton.

So it’s twice now my digital drawing has been referred to as ‘like magic’ by onlookers. Recently I uploaded this video

to Youtube showing a timelapse of me digital painting Neko Case and got a few good questions about it (plus one of the aforementioned ‘magic’ comments!). It kind of reminded me that a lot of people probably don’t really know what ‘digital portraiture’ really is. While drawing skills take time to develop, and portrait drawing can be a special subset of that which requires even more practice, I thought I’d at least try to demystify some of the process by sharing how I do what I do. This ended up being pretty long so I’m dividing it into parts. This first part is a general overview of digital painting and equipment used.

Traditional vs. Digital

Traditional drawing and painting has long been seen as ‘better’ than digital tablet drawing. While I can understand that, I think it’s a little unfair. It’s true that with digital drawing you don’t have to tussle with the medium itself; I have a hard time wrangling actual paint and brushes, but Photoshop’s brushes always act the same because I’ve programmed them, and I can select exactly the color, hue, shade, tone, etc. that I want to use. If I make a mistake, I can just erase what I did by using the Undo and History options, or even just literally remove the line I made, without a trace, with the Eraser. So at first blush it would seem like digital art is super simple in comparison to traditional mediums.

Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye in Thor. Reference provided by Marvel.

Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye in Thor. Reference provided by Marvel.

But it’s not so simple. Tablet drawing is a whole new medium in its own right and at first it can stump a lot of traditional artists. When you draw or paint something, typically you are looking at the subject and not at what you’re drawing– this is the ideal method, but not everyone follows this. You can’t look down at what you’re drawing with a tablet; there is nothing there. They’re coming out with new screens you can directly draw on which circumvent this, although I don’t know how well they work yet.

Even if you are used to looking at the subject while drawing, there is still a disconnect between what you are drawing and what’s on the screen and it takes a little bit of time to get your hand and eye re-coordinated. In essence tablets add an extra ‘surface’ or plane of view to the equation: rather than just having the subject and the drawing, you have the subject, the drawing surface, and the drawing that appears on your screen. This is one of the hardest things I faced when beginning to use my tablet.

Joshua Jackson as Peter Bishop in Fringe. Reference provided by FOX.

Joshua Jackson as Peter Bishop in Fringe. Reference provided by FOX.

Digital brushes also can give artists a bit of trouble, which is why I’ve taken the time to go over what settings I generally use. Photoshop comes with some very nice traditional wet media brushes, and artists are always suggesting and creating new brushes. There are many more options than just the default ‘airbrush’ rounds, and you can find some to start with by opening up the brush window and looking at the various presets. Then you can fine tune each brush with more settings, which I’ll get into in a bit.

Finally, about 90% of what I do is utilize traditional techniques, with just some tweaking to compensate for the digital medium. When you’re tablet painting or drawing, you are in essence still painting or drawing; the only thing that really changes is what equipment and materials you are using. Most of the rules about perspective, proportion, composition, and color theory still apply.

Created with GIMP

Thom Yorke, Glastonbury 2011. Reference photographer unknown.

A Word About Equipment

It’s worth noting that depending on your tablet model, you can do different things. Later when I talk about the brush settings, for example, I mention ‘pen tilt’. Tilt sensitivity is a thing not all tablets feature. The size of the tablet drawing surface can also vary dramatically. I am currently using a Wacom Intuos 5 Touch size large, which gives me a drawing area around that of a legal-sized piece of paper.

There are a bunch of drawing programs out there, some of which are free like GIMP. Nowadays I use Photoshop to do my portraiture and the settings I mention may vary or not be available in other drawing programs.

Tori Amos, American Doll Posse Tour. Reference photographer unknown.

Tori Amos, American Doll Posse Tour. Reference photographer unknown.

Freehand– Not Tracing

Finally, I just want to make it clear that I draw freehand using photos as a reference only. I know there are some digital artists who merely draw over top of a photograph in Photoshop, or apply filters to make their photographs appear ‘painterly’. That is not what I do.

That’s the overview of digital portraiture. Stay tuned for part 2 where I talk about picking a suitable reference photo as well as the settings I use on my tablet, document, and brush!

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