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May 2006

May 2006: Space

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    Color Theory, Part 1
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  • Reaching Out: The Continuing Quest for Space
  • Dipping Into Digital, Part 1: The Tools
  • Stitching Scans

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  • Movie: Silent Hill
  • Product: The New Masters of Fantasy volume III


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  • Dipping Into Digital, Part 1: The Tools
    by Liiga Smilshkalne

    So, you want to do digital art? Welcome to the club. As your self-appointed welcome committee person, I've decided to give you a little tour around the certain corners of the digital art world that are important, hard to spot, or just plain old misunderstood. Take into account that this article is aimed at people who are new to the digital art field and will not go into great depth of explaining how to create a masterpiece in 273 easy steps. But it will address such essentials as textures, software, tablets, and some others, so if those things and more are of interest to you, read on.

    No "Draw a Picture" Buttons Here!

    First things first, a very important and often misunderstood thing about digital art that needs to be set right at every opportunity: The computer will not do the work for you. There is no such thing as "draw a picture" button in Photoshop. (And if there is, it's hidden so well that nobody has found it yet!) If you thought that digital art is going to be a way to create a masterpiece in two clicks, this would be a good time to reconsider your motivation. In fact, it can often be even more tedious and time-consuming than the traditional mediums due to reasons discussed further on.

    A special mention on this topic goes to fractal(1) programs, as well as Poser by e frontier. They are often regarded as an exception to the "computer won't do it" rule, and to some extent they are, but not equally so.

    Many fractal programs will let you generate fractals using various mathematical variables and formulae that can also be selected at random. This usually produces very colorful and generally pretty results and at its face value is easy as pie. However, the problems start when you encounter another two thousand two-click fractal images that pose the question: what precisely makes your accidental fractal more interesting, eye-catching, or just plain better than all the other accidental fractals? This is where knowledge about what you're doing comes in. I will not go into great detail here, but believe me when I say that those truly amazing fractals you sometimes see by fractal artists didn't come after 15 minutes of trying and a pinch of luck.

    As for Poser, it's a (horror) story all in itself. Poser lets you work with pre-made models, putting them into various poses. Okay, you can also make your own models, but for the sake of simplicity, let's stick to the pre-made ones. You can also purchase models and accessories made by other people on places like Renderosity and then tweak them to your heart's content. Simple? Yes. But this is pretty much where the easy part ends and the naggily difficult part begins. For one, Poser figures take a serious amount of work to make them look like something other than Poser figures. In other words, you definitely don't want the first reaction of a person who's just seen your picture to be, "Oh that's a model from Poser, how cheap." Even less than that you would want their reaction to be, "Oh that's so-n-so's model for Poser, how cheap." Add to that the possibility of "impossible" twists and angles, unconvincing flesh folds, missing shadows and inaccurate muscle tonus and you'll see why it really takes a whole lot of skill to make the results made from this seemingly "easy" program be at least somewhat decent.

    In other words, the computers will not draw for you. They're just not smart enough yet.

    Know Thy Programs

    While we've established that no computer will really draw everything for you, there are nevertheless a whole lot of different programs out there. For 2d(2), there's Adobe Photoshop, Corel Painter, Corel Paint Shop Pro (used to be Jasc's), Ulead Photoimpact, Adobe Illustrator, and many others. For 3d(3), there are Maya, 3d Studio Max, Blender, Bryce, Vue d'Esprit, Poser, and so on and so forth. And then of course there are all those other programs for fractal art and whatever else you can think of. It's very easy to get confused in this selection, especially since there is no single best program out there - which is also very important to remember. (Particularly because "which is the best program" out there gets asked all too often in art-related chat rooms and message boards, which tends to annoy their regular artistically inclined inhabitants to no end.)

    So how do you know which program is good for you? The best way to find it out is to try. And by try, I mean really get to know the program before you make up your mind about it. Most, if not all, companies provide some sort of demos for download from their Web sites; they have some kind of limitations which can be anything from image size to ability to save to watermarks, but they are sufficient to let you know whether you want to purchase the program. I would like to stress again that it is important to spend more than 5 minutes testing a program, simply because many are complex enough to lend themselves to discoveries after months (and in some cases years) of use, not to mention a few minutes. Luckily, many programs are similar in certain ways and some can be fairly intuitive, so once you start trying them, the learning curve should eventually smoothen out.

    Also, make good use of the help files provided´┐Żmany companies provide tutorials straight off their Web sites, and there are also large tutorial collections online, one of the most well-known being www.good-tutorials.com, which has a respectable amount of Photoshop tutorials. And, whatever you do, never ever waltz into a chat room or forum and say "Hi, how do I use Photoshop?" It's just not funny anymore.

    On a related topic, once you pick your favorite program or programs, don't stop experimenting. In fact, at this point you're very likely only getting the ropes of how it works. Just about every program has its special tricks that take a while and experimentation to get to know. And that is the charm of the digital medium; very seldom well you get in a situation where you've "messed it up" beyond repair. You (usually) have layers to play around with if you're unsure how this or that color will look, you can undo to your heart's pleasure (mind you, in some programs, this heart's pleasure is limited to a not very large amount of undos, so you might want to check what the setting is first), you can save back-up copies (which is very advisable in case the program decides to take a walk to the crash-land), and you can erase as much as you want without the fear of damaging the "canvas".

    On a side note, remember that not all digital art is "Photoshop". Some people are known to get irritated when the terms are used interchangeably. It can be called the digital medium, digital art, CG, computer graphics . . . but it is definitely not "Photoshop" (unless that particular program is concerned).

    Putting it shortly, play around, experiment, and get to know your tools.

    Tablets (4) Are Not Magical

    Asides from software, an important component in making digital art happen is hardware. There's RAM, there are mice and then there are . . . tablets. Oh yes, the holy tablets; many a myth surround their existence. In fact, they are indeed very useful tools, because they will let you work faster than the mice and they do feel more intuitive, however - and this is very important - using a tablet, no matter how expensive it may be, will not teach you things like lighting, anatomy, and composition, magically turning everything you touch into a masterpiece. In fact, there are professional artists out there who manage to pull off wonders using the mouse. So don't knock the little wired piece of plastic as being useless - it's not. It just wants some extra attention and love.

    More on the tablets: If you are getting one, it's a good idea to try out different sizes first. Bigger is not necessarily always better - take into account that while a 12x12 inch monster sounds very impressive, you will have to store it somewhere, and keeping it on your lap while drawing may not always be as comfortable as you thought. At the same time, tablets with miniature active areas might suit some users, but those who like to paint with sweeping strokes might find themselves running out of space very quickly. So try before you buy.

    Also, if you are like most of us mortals and have a limited budget, take into account that it isn't necessary to spend large amounts of money on your drawing tool to achieve decent results. For instance, an interactive pen display(5) might sound very cool, but the price gap between that and a regular tablet might be rather steep, if you consider that essentially you're paying for eliminating the need to learn a little hand-eye coordination that is necessary for working with a tablet while looking at the screen. Likewise, if you are just starting out and you're uncertain if you'll really be getting into the digital art seriously, a more expensive brand (such as Intuos) may not necessarily be heavily preferred over a less expensive one (such as Graphire), especially if they're by the same developer. Sometimes the difference is only noticeable to artists who will be using the tools a lot and require extra good performance and all those bells and whistles (or more importantly, those who would actually notice the bells and whistles that they paid the extra money for).

    On the other end of the spectrum, you do tend to get what you pay for when it comes to particularly cheap tablets; while they may seem about as good as any other at first, there is some gambling involved towards the longevity of the tablet. Also, sometimes a relatively small price difference on the cheap end might mean a wired pen that decreases the ease of use or, which is much worse, loss of pressure sensitivity, which in my opinion comes very close to defeating the point of owning a tablet.

    A minor thing that should be mentioned nevertheless: a tablet will not feel the same like a pen, a pencil, or a brush. It lacks the feeling of texture and generally feels awkward if you're switching from using the traditional media for a long time to digital. So expect some adjustment time no matter how familiar you feel with whatever tools you have been using, and don't lose courage if at first your lines look jagged and the pressure sensitivity seems hard to control. With some persistence, you should be able to get hang of it in no time.

    Summed up, tablets aren't magical, but they're still pretty good if you get to know them and choose the right one for you.

    Next month, the process...

    Endnotes:

    (1) A fractal is a geometric pattern that is repeated at ever smaller scales to produce irregular shapes and surfaces that cannot be represented by classical geometry. Fractals are used especially in computer modelling of irregular patterns and structures in nature. (Definition courtesy of Answers.com.)
    (2) 2d or two-dimensional art is what your regular painting or drawing would be - it involves working in two axis, width and height.
    (3) 3d or three-dimensional art is associated with modelling. It not only involves working in height and width, but depth is also simulated. As a note, sculpture is also technically 3d, but the term is normally used in reference to computer generated images.
    (4) A tablet is a tool that involves a surface with the "active area" and a digital pen, called the stylus. The drawing process is done by using the pen on the active area. The data is sent from the tablet to the computer and the results appear on the monitor. You can see a lot of examples by Googling for "Wacom".
    (5) An interactive pen display is similar to a tablet, except that instead of working on the active area and seeing the results on the monitor you get a monitor that you can work directly on with your digital pen. A well-known example of these is "Cintiq", produced by Wacom.

    Liiga Smilshkalne is a person who likes to do an intimidatingly large amount of things, preferably all at the same time, but she's been devoting enough time to drawing now to dare call herself an artist. She works mostly digitally and has designed posters, brochures, logos, CCG cards, magazine illustrations and plenty of character portraits.
    Would you like to support our contributors? As a subscriber, you could use your subscription fee to pay this author for their work, as well as receive lots of extra subscriber perks!



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