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June 2006

June 2006: Halves

Gallery

Columns

  • EMG News:
    June 2006: Halves
  • Wombat Droppings:
    After the Sketch
  • Healthy Green Artists:
    Beyond Paper
  • Behind the Art:
    Color Theory, Part 2
  • Myths and Symbols:
    Heraldry, Part 2; Color and Fur

    Features

  • When You Don't Quit Your Day Job
  • Dipping into Digital, Part 2: The Process
  • Cleaning Scans and Preparing Print Files

    Fiction

  • Poem: Half

    Reviews

  • Movie: Gubra
  • Movie: Lucky Number Slevin


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  • Dipping into Digital, Part 2: The Process
    by Liiga Smilshkalne

    The Process

    Shortcuts Aren't Real Shortcuts

    Another important part about the digital medium that is often misunderstood and abused is the whole concept of it having "shortcuts"; namely, image correction tools such as dodge(6) and burn(7), and filters(8). Shortcuts they might very well be, but where they lead to could differ a lot from where you want to go.

    The main trouble with dodge and burn tools is that you really have to know what you're doing if you want to use them and do it successfully. They both not only lighten or darken the image, but also change the color information following a pattern that might not be desirable for every kind of highlight or shadow. Also, they play with the saturation, which makes them particularly recognizable. Since they can't change the way they work according to the weather conditions or material portrayed in your painting, it is up to you to make sure that what they do is suitable for what you want them to do. Therefore, while it might not be true that one should avoid the dodge and burn at all costs, it is true that you should avoid relying on them at least until you know what you're doing particularly well.

    As for filters, a similar story applies here, except that you should be even more careful, because filters involve much less user control than dodge and burn. Artistic as they may look, many are very easily recognizable, and it won't give you any brownie points if the first thing that comes to mind upon seeing your painting is "charcoal filter". If you do use them, do it only as much as absolutely necessary, tweak them manually as much as possible and do your best to make sure that they really added value to the picture and aren't there just because they're . . . shiny.

    In short, know where you're going before you take a shortcut!

    Working Big

    Unless you're really into miniatures or pixel art(9), it is in your best interests to work large. A good print is usually 300 dpi, which means that every inch has to hold 300 dots, or pixels, as far as you're concerned. Much less than that, and the image is very likely to lose its sharpness and visible dots can start showing up. Even if you're not working with the intention to get the particular picture printed, you never know if at some point in the future you may change your mind about it. For that reason, it's also not a bad idea to stick to formats that are close to standard printing formats. For instance, an A4 sheet, which is very popular for prints, is 8.5x11 inches large, which corresponds to 2550x3300 pixels at 300 dpi. Depending on your hardware, you could be able to work much larger than that, but A4 is a very handy size.

    Now, you probably noticed that 2550x3300 will exceed most monitor resolutions (not to mention more "exotic" sizes that exceed 10,000 pixels on any or both dimensions). That is very normal, and for that reason you are most welcome to become closely acquainted with the zoom tool in whichever digital program you are using. It isn't necessary to work at 100% zoom all the time. In fact, it is much easier to block in the concept sketch or try out colors when the image is zoomed out. It lets you preview the composition as a whole, and later on as you go into more detail, you can zoom in gradually. Also, don't forget to check the image zoomed out every now and then to see if the lighting etc. is consistent throughout the image.

    Another handy thing about working in large size is that it lets you imply detail instead of painstakingly working in every pixel. With larger canvas, you can use larger brushes, utilizing their natural patterns (provided they have any) or blending to their fullest, without making it blatantly obvious. And you don't need to resort to "pixel pushing", which is when you work with extremely small brushes (around 1 pixel or so) in attempts to depict small detail. While in itself pixel pushing isn't necessarily a bad thing, it's not that great on your eyes as it makes you strain, and it often results in pixelated(10) images.

    Putting it briefly, working large will make your works printable and let you make better use of the digital brushes.

    Textures Don't Bite

    Textures are essential in making things look realistic or even likely. An important thing that determines most textures in nature is their randomness. One thing about the traditional medium that often gets taken for granted is that it naturally creates certain textures as you work. They might sometimes fall into the wrong places, they might take some skill to really get them to shine, but they are there. The digital medium, however, does not have a naturally textured surface to work on, so one has to find ways to get around that.

    At this point, there are two common errors that happen: either everything acquires that smooth, fuzzy "digital" look, or there's an overabundance of preset, evidently repetitive textures. Save for some situations where they're needed, you'll want to avoid them as much as possible.

    The super smooth fuzzy look is usually the result of constantly using large brushes with fuzzy edges. The first step in avoiding uncontrollable fuzziness happening to your image is using smaller brushes for smaller details, or just using a larger canvas. But in general, the smaller the brush the greater the control you have over it, at least until the point where it goes into something within the range of one to two pixels, which becomes unpractical in most cases and can result in pixelation.

    Another thing you should do to avoid the fuzziness plaguing your images is study the textures of various materials in real life, see how they reflect light and the colors of the surrounding environment. For instance, shiny objects such as metal or smooth hair have crisp highlights, whereas dull surfaces such as wallpaper or cotton have much smoother highlights and shadows. All in itself, fuzzy shading isn't impossible; it is just important to make sure that it isn't absolutely everywhere in the image.

    On a side note, sometimes fuzzy shading can work if you provide sufficient contrasts with strong line-art, particularly if you use varying thickness of line or preferably inked shading that defines shapes and materials sufficiently. But if you pursue this approach, definitely make sure your line art gets a lot of attention and love.

    As for the other end of the spectrum, many new users of the digital medium rely on preset textures incorporated in various tools or pattern fills. These can really either make or kill the picture. The important difference between the two outcomes is just how recognizable the pattern is. If the moment the viewer looks at the painting they can identify every other tool and pattern you used, it's time for a change in your approach (unless, of course, for some reason you really wanted to make the tools recognizable).

    What you can do about this is use tools for which the textures can overlap, blend, and be distorted as you use them, making the finished result look more like an actual texture than a pattern. Also, don't be shy to work on the textures "manually" where needed; if a pattern looks too recognizable, you can always adjust it by erasing some parts, painting over some other parts and so on.

    Also, note that textures wrap around objects. So while filling a dress with a polka dot pattern is tempting, don't forget to adjust the pattern at the edges and also at the folds, to make it follow the material's surface.

    Summed up, textures are important in boosting the quality of your work. Therefore it is essential to avoid the pitfalls of the digital medium of overly smooth or repetitive textures by studying their appearance in nature and using your tools inventively.

    Light Has Color

    This is closely related to the idea of being careful with dodge, burn, and similar tools, but also goes beyond that. All kinds of light in nature have color, and also all kinds of shadows have color. And there are also the ambient lights, which also have color. All of this is very important when working digitally (as well as with other mediums).

    The short version of the story is that you should avoid using blacks or whites as "highlights" and "shadows" in colorful drawings, because that way you are running the risk of making your shadows or highlights look muddy and flat. You will be much better off using very light off-white colors (pure gray is not a color in this sense of the term) for portraying whites, and off-black colors for portraying the blacks, and colors with low saturation that is still above 0 for portraying the grays.

    You can see the long version of the story about grays over here: http://www.arclight.net/chipmunk/articles/moregrays/section0.htm and the long version of the story about using ambient lights and working with color and lighting here: http://www.itchstudios.com/psg/art_tut.htm.

    Also note that all these things are easy to observe in nature. If you put two white sheets of paper from different packages together, chances are very high that they will both turn out to be something different than white, same with blacks.

    Another important detail is that photos can cheat in the regard of whites, blacks and grays, so be careful if you are planning to stick particularly close to your reference or pick the colors from it. The film isn't quite as sensitive as the human eye, and overexposure and underexposure are very common issues, particularly for less professional photos, so it is quite possible that the extreme values will be off. And that's another reason why drawing from life is good for you.

    An exception to this rule is in situations where you are leaving the background intentionally black/white/gray, usually because the image is to be posted or printed in some place where this is required.

    In short, white is never pure white, black is never pure black, gray is never pure gray, and light has color. And if you take this all into account, it'll give your drawings much more depth than if you didn't.

    Basics Still Apply

    This may seem as a thing of common sense to some, but occasionally a very important bit of information often gets overlooked when starting into the field of digital art: the exact same rules of anatomy, lighting, and composition apply here as they do with any other medium. That is to say, in order to succeed in the digital art, you are most likely going to have to learn the same basic principles as if you were to work with the traditional media.

    For that reason, frequently some of your best friends will still remain a pencil and a sketchbook, as drawing from life can teach you a lot about lighting and anatomy. This might seem like a moot point for those interested solely in the abstract art, however, while anatomy might not be of the main concern here, composition and color theory remain important nevertheless.

    So if you want to become good at digital art, it is worth looking at books, tutorials and lessons that are not specific to the digital medium as well, although, of course, learning to use the medium with all its perks and caprices is just as important. Just remember, it is the result that counts here, not the tool.

    In short, regardless of the medium, the same basic rules apply.

    Presentation Matters

    After you're finally done with your artwork, you are probably going to want to show it to others. While this is definitely a nice thing to do, it is very important to pay attention to the way you present the artwork. Assuming that you are going to post it online, I will not delve into the exciting world of matting and framing and hanging things on the wall, but instead address some of the bigger issues with presenting artwork online, that is, size and sloppiness.

    Size is a tricky thing. On one hand, you definitely don't want to make your artwork so large that nobody can get a good view of it. On the other hand, you'll probably have worked some detail into it, so losing that due to extreme downsizing would be a shame as well. There are several ways to get around both these problems.

    Firstly, make sure that your image doesn't need a lot of scrolling to be viewed on the monitor. The most common monitor resolution out there at this time seems to be 1024x768 pixels, 1280x1024 seems to be catching up fast as well. So a good rule of thumb would be keeping your image dimensions below 1000 pixels on the longest size, preferably around 700-800 pixels on the longest size, depending on the level of detail and proportions.

    Note that images with less detail won't need to be displayed at large sizes, however, what should you do with the really detailed ones? In this case you can be creative with the detail shots. Depending on the gallery's structure, you can either submit them as separate images, link to them in the description, or add along the edges of the main image. The latter takes more work to make sure the detail shots don't interfere with the composition and that they line up correctly, but sometimes it can have a very nice, easy to overview look. Just experiment and see what works for every image.

    That covers the size that your images should preferably not exceed, but how about the minimum suggested size? The truth is, there really isn't one, but your best bet is to keep it moderately easy to figure out and of such size that whatever watermarks you put on it do not make it impossible to figure out. Protecting your art is great, but when it becomes impossible to view and enjoy because of this protection, that kind of defeats the point, doesn't it?

    Let us move on to the second issue with presenting digital art online, sloppiness. By sloppiness I mean things like posting raw renders that could use just that little human touch to make them really shine, large blank uncropped spaces that serve no apparent purpose, and the like. Putting a minimal effort into bringing the picture up to par not only will make it easier for the audience to appreciate, but also will show that you respect them as well as your work. Turning a raw fractal render sideways, cropping off a bit of the edge and putting a neat frame and title on it is quick, easy, and effective. The way you put your signature on the work can also serve both a practical and an aesthetical purpose by completing the composition and making it identifiable. For that matter, adding some kind of description to your work can also go a long way by providing context for the image, telling about how you made it, and showing that you care.

    All in all, the presentation of your work is just as important as its contents. By simple means such as watching the image size, adding description, etc., you can make the artwork much more attractive for the audience.

    Everything Online Is Not Copyright Free

    The Internet is definitely a very vast source of information, however, even though search engines such as Google.com have made a lot of images easily accessible, it does not automatically make them public property. This notion is unfortunately overlooked by a lot of people who are new to using the digital medium, as well as more experienced individuals. Therefore it must be said: just because you found an image online, does not automatically give you permission to create derivative works from it. As tempting as it may be to decorate a fairy you found with stars and a new hairdo and call her your own, the fact that someone created her first will not disappear no matter how many modifications short of deleting the whole thing you will do. This applies to all graphics, including, but not limited to photos, drawings, paintings, fractals, 3d models, and so on.

    Now, it can't be demanded for everyone who is doing photo manipulation to take absolutely all source materials by themselves, especially if they aren't so good at photography or really don't have the necessary objects in their proximity. So to remedy that, there is such thing as stock sites. Among the more well-known ones is stock.xchng (http://www.sxc.hu), which offers stock photography completely free of charge, although certain limitations may apply to individual images. A number of other sites let you purchase stock photos or just purchase a subscription to be able to download the photos.

    This is also very important for using references. It's strongly advisable to know the difference between referencing something and copying. Referencing something is when you use an image to gain information about certain aspects of it, for instance how fingers bend, how the lighting would work in the given situation, what eyelids really look like, etc. Copying, however, is when so many elements of the original image are present in the new picture that the likeness is recognizable. In general, unless you've got the permission to copy something, you'll be much better off using references. And even then, it is a good idea to ensure that the author doesn't mind something being used as a reference in case you're going to stick very close to it.

    In all the situations with stock photography or references it is important to check the rules or limitations the author has set for its use. The fact that it's available on a stock photo site does not automatically make it a free for all. For instance, many photographers require a reference back to them or forbid the use in commercial works without special licensing.

    Summed up, take copyrights into consideration and know the difference between copying and referencing and everyone will be happy.

    Healthy Suggestions

    Too much of anything, even digital art, can create health problems. Therefore, here are a few tips for keeping yourself in a good shape even if you plan to spend a considerable amount of time drawing on the computer.

    Firstly, don't try to choke that mouse; or the tablet, or even your keyboard, for that matter. Excess working with the mouse and the keyboard is frequently associated with carpal tunnel syndrome. An easy way to decrease the likelihood of this disorder becoming your problem is by resting your hands often and avoiding clutching onto whatever tool you might be using. Learning to hold your stylus or mouse lightly can also improve your control over the tool, so while it might be a little difficult at first, eventually you will notice that holding the tools lightly will make the drawing process more comfortable and convenient.

    Secondly, make sure that you get decent lighting in the room, but at the same time that it isn't too bright. Definitely make sure that the monitor is positioned in such a way that there are no annoying reflections of other light sources on the screen that would make you strain to make out the screen's contents. At the same time, don't go into the other extreme by turning all lights off and only working by the light of the monitor; the high contrast between the surroundings and the monitor will not be fun for your eyes. It will also make the values in your drawing shift to the dark end, which sometimes makes the resulting image hard to view under normal lighting conditions.

    Lastly, make sure you take breaks often, move around, stretch, and get some fresh air. Computers are notorious for their ability to collect dust absolutely everywhere, and they produce heat, so keeping the room well ventilated is a must. And your back will thank you if you stand up every hour or so for at least a 15-minute break that would involve stretching, walking around, and perhaps checking out the weather outside.

    These tips are definitely not an exhaustive list of everything you need to know to stay in good health when working with the computer, but they are definitely among the most important ones. If you intend to be spending several hours a day working digitally, it's a good idea to look up information about what to go for and what to avoid in order to stay healthy.

    So putting it shortly, don't strain your hands, avoid extreme lighting conditions, and reflections and make sure you get enough rest from working on the computer.

    Conclusion

    With everything said, probably the main conclusion to be drawn is that just as any other medium, the digital one has its advantages as well as disadvantages. It won't do everything for you, but you can achieve some very interesting and convincing efforts with it if you really put your mind to it. Altogether it boils down to getting to know your tools, experimenting, and practice, practice, and even more practice. Good luck!

    Endnotes:

    (6) Dodge is an image correction tool that lightens the area it is used on, along with increasing the saturation. The end result of applying a lot of dodge tool to something is usually white.
    (7) Burn is an image correction tool that is roughly the opposite of dodge in that it darkens the image, while still increasing the saturation. The result of persistent application of this tool is usually black.
    (8) Filters in this sense are automated, preset effects that can be applied to the image.
    (9) Pixel art involves manually placing down the pixels (often one by one) and avoids the use of such tools as blur, smudge, dodge, transparency effects, etc.
    (10) A pixelated image is such where the individual pixels are evident to the naked eye. Generally not considered a good thing by, well, anyone.

    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.
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