Returning To Graphite
Interview of James McPartlin
News for June
Technique Walk-throughWombat Droppings
by Ursula Vernon
So lately I've been fooling around with this new mixed media technique -- a kind of traditional/digital hybrid -- and multiple people including my mother have asked me for specific details of how it works.
I figured rather than keep doing e-mails, I'd go through it step-by-step here, for anybody who wants to give it a try.
The trick to this technique is to start digitally and finish traditionally. This is really kind of ideal for me, because I draw much better digitally, and I can even lay down the smooth colors that come so easily digitally and which require oil paints and solvents and grief in physical media. At the same time, I don't have to sacrifice all the gorgeous textures you can get with colored pencils (colored pencil and acrylic ink is my favorite combination of media) and I can even play with the wonderful textural qualities of 3-D paint, with stucco and heavily textured gels, which is of course physically impossible on a computer monitor.
And while I can't swear that there's no way to duplicate gold leaf digitally, I've yet to see it done. Gold leaf and I, as you may recall from past columns, have a love-hate relationship, but I keep crawling back to it.
The end result, if you're lucky, is an original that combines the ease and fluidity of the digital piece, used as a kind of underpainting, with all the great textures that can be coaxed out of real media.
First off, media. I am doing all this with Painter 7 and an Intuos Tablet. My printer is an Epson Photo Stylus r1900. (The model, and more importantly, the variety of ink, is important.)
Other important bits are Liquitex Matte Super Heavy Gel and masonite board (I like the Da Vinci pre-cut panels, with the keyhole slot in the back for hanging, but this also works on clayboard, gessoboard, standard masonite, or those faux canvas-texture panels you can get at the art supply store.)
I originally started out printing sketches very lightly to work over, because it saves a certain amount of meaningless grunt-work -- transferring sketches has always been my bane, and no matter whether you use light boxes or opaque projectors or transfer paper or whatever, it's tedious, and sometimes it seems like the transfer loses some essential vibrancy to the sketch, to the detriment of the final product. So I spent a few long days figuring out the heaviest weight of board I could feed through my printer.
I eventually settled on a Strathmore Bristol vellum, 3 or 4 ply. (There's a couple others that will also work, but honestly I can't remember which are which most of the time. It's easiest, if you figure out what works, to just bring in a little piece to the store and compare thickness.) For small quick little pieces, that are mostly a single wash of ink and a lot of colored pencil, I often use the little 100lb straight-off-the-pad Bristol sheets. I do the sketch digitally, figure out the print sizes* and print the sketch at like 5% opacity, giving me a very very light outline to work with, and start painting over the top.
This, by itself, is a fantastic method, I know a lot of artists who do variations thereof, and if you fool with it, you may find it very useful. The one concern is that you need a reasonably water-resistant ink. If you're using the same printer I am, the ink is fortunately waterproof and acid-free, but if not, you may find your ink turning into a muddy rainbow wash as soon as you touch liquid to it.
The easiest solution to this is to buy another printer. The more practical suggestion, from another artist, was to apply several light coats of workable spray fixative, then do a light coat of matte gel. She said this seemed to fix the lines and prevent the bleeding -- I haven't tried it, but it's definitely worth a shot.
The other problem is that age old one of the weight of the paper -- if it's thin enough to go through the printer, it'll probably start buckling as soon as you get it wet. However, for this there's a very easy solution, which is to get your chunk 'o board, slather the surface down with a gel medium, and stick your printed paper down to it.
For this, I highly recommend the Liquitex super heavy gel, or at least one of the various heavy gels. I get absolutely no buckling with this stuff. You can use regular gel, but I've had reports of some buckling and bubbling with it. With the heavy gels, I can soak the board, and it by god stays stuck.
(You can do one of two things here -- either get the paper cut exactly to size, or more likely, make it slightly larger than the board, get everything set and centered, and then take an X-acto knife and cut off the overhanging edges of the paper. If you're using the panels with the keyhole cut in the back for hanging, be SURE you double check that the print is going right-side up with relation to the hanging bit.)
Once I'd been doing this for a bit, and enjoying the results, I moved on to the next stage. Rather than just transferring a sketch, I did a color painting of a figure on a flat background and printed that out. There's a lot of smoothness you can get digitally that doesn't happen with real media without endless grief, and I'm anyway more comfortable with digital painting, since I've been working on a computer for probably twice as long as I've been fooling with real media, and it's still my first love.
Now, the thing here is that you have to find a happy medium. What you see on the screen isn't going to transfer the way you might think. The Bristol doesn't take the color half so well as a sheet of inkjet paper, and the inkjet paper's no good for working on top of, so what I find myself doing is akin to an underpainting -- I get the basic colors and the lights and darks and then I print that, but the really good subtle color work is all done with traditional media over the top of this digital underpainting.
For example, the last piece I did features a vaguely humanoid figure, which I described as "sort of like a jackalope fetus saint." The upper part was pale flesh colored, shading down to a dark burgundy around the legs. The digital painting part was therefore flesh-tone and dark burgundy.
However, as most artists know, nothing is ever JUST one color, and it's this subtlety that gets lost in the printing. So out come the colored pencils, and here's where the colors get the depth and richness and the texture that I really want. I wind up using periwinkle (I use an astonishing amount of periwinkle…) and mineral orange and salmon pink and indigo and tuscan red (indigo and tuscan red are possibly the greatest colored pencil combination for doing shadows ever, and if you haven't played with it…)
I also do the highlights in real media -- white acrylic ink, white fluid acrylic, titan buff fluid acrylic, all the usuals. There's a reflective quality to a highlight in paint that is again impossible for the printer to achieve.
At the end of the day, I usually wind up spending as long on the traditional part as I do on the digital part, if not more, but the results are completely worth it. It's a complicated process, but if you've got the time and the equipment to pull it off, it's a great thing to experiment with.
*This single phrase contains a world of grief. You almost have to use the "user defined" settings on the printer to get a non-standard sheet through, and there's a whole lot of fooling around and tweaking and swearing, but it's all so printer specific I can't do much to help.
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