Is painting digitally different than painting traditionally?
What benefits does painting digitally offer?
What are the limits of digital painting?
What do you need to paint digitally?
The one thing you gotta have...
Detail of my Chriacus image for the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology.
In the good old days, if I wanted to create that misty fade-out around the eye, I would have used an airbrush—probably over a photographic print of the original. Time needed, barring any splashes or dribbles: 20 minutes.
Digitally, it was a simple matter of feathering a cut from the original image and pasting it as a new file. Total time needed: 30 seconds.
So I guess when I say painting with digital media is the same as painting with traditional tools, I really mean "the same, only better."
OK, here's the big secret:
Painting digitally isn't all that much different technically than painting with traditional media. (If that's the information you came for, I guess you can end right there!)
Painting with the newest generation of powerful software is 'virtually' the same as painting in oil, or water color, or quache, or whatever your favorite media is... Only it's better.
Why better? Let me sketch out a few reasons why:
- Digital painting allows you to learn without the mess, bother and expense of traditional media. (That last part—the expense—is certainly offset somewhat by the cost of the equipment. But, in my experience, the busy artist would eventually spend more in traditional materials than in digital media, but the costs for digital painting all come up front, in the form of equipment purchases, rather than a tube at a time, as in traditional media.)
- Digital painting allows you to save your work a step at a time, and most painting programs include a handy "history" feature that allows you to "undo" the last several changes you have made to your work. This allows you to experiment more, knowing that if you are unhappy with your experiment you can always go back to the point you were at before you started experimenting.
- The best new software programs very accurately reproduce the characteristics of the media and the "feel" of traditional painting. If you want a watercolor wash over a pen-and-ink layout, you can create one. Want to apply a charcoal over a paper texture? No problem. In fact, you can even create your own favorite virtual paper and brushes (a feature I use very often).
- Digital painting produces electronic files rather than flat art, and this can be a major benefit to your customers. Producing digital files removes at least two major steps in the reproduction of your work: scanning and color separation. My customers can take my digital files directly to a production house and have murals made from them without any intervening time or expense.
- Digital files are better for you, too: With a digital file, you can create prints, canvas reproductions, and just about any other form of output you want—all without the expense of scanning and color correction. (By the way, it makes keeping your web site up to date a lot easier, too!)
- Plus, there's no time wasted waiting for stuff to dry!
What are the limitations?
I guess the only misconception digital painting suffers from is that there's a "magic button" you press to make finished art appear on your screen. There's not, but sometimes I wish there was...
Digital painting is identical to traditional in that the work you see in the finished piece is created a brushstroke (or palette knife stroke, or airbrush stroke, or...) at a time. For very large murals, this means lots and lots of painting. My work on the Ancient Life Series for the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History represents about 2000 hours of painting and more than 6,000 square feet of finished murals.
Here's another example. This mural was painted for Dr. Elizabeth Gomani and Dr. Louis Jacobs of Southern Methodist University. It was painted for a final size of about 10 feet high and 25 feet wide. Here, the full image is shown at a width of 400 pixels:
Here's a detail from the image, also at 400 pixels wide:
Finally, here is a look at 400 pixels from the image at its full size (and you can see that I applied a canvas texture to the image at the request of the client). I can zoom in further if I need to "punch" an area, but this is the painting's "physical size." And remember, you are now looking at a "zoomed in" portion of a mural that is 25 feet wide!
So digital painting is odor-free, chemical-free, there's no drying, and no need to stretch canvas, but you still have to do the painting!
What do I need?
The one big difference between the work I do and that of most other artists is the finished size of my images. When you're painting to cover a museum wall, there are a lot of square feet to cover, and the files become big. (Huge. Monstrous.) As a result, I have developed some special tools to handle these big files, and I often use two or more PCs at a time.
But let's start out assuming you want to paint for yourself, and that something that will paint images 8" x 10" at 300 dpi is OK. FYI, 300 dpi is great for printing on your inkjet printer, and more than enough to display on the web—which is just 72 dpi.
Here's a system you might use:
A (Small) Basic Painting System:
- Windows 2000, XP, or Vista
- 512 - 1028 MB RAM
- 24-bit 800 x 600 color display or larger
- Lots of hard-drive space
- CD-ROM drive
- Painting tablet and stylus instead of (or in addition to) your mouse
You can see that those specs aren't beyond the reach of most PCs sold today. And Apple makes great systems, too. The software I use will work on Windows-based PCs or on Macs.
For my studio, I use PCs that are custom-made for me. They run Windows XP and have lots of RAM. I have a total of 7 machines in my studio, two or three of which I use simultaneously when working on big projects.
My Current Printing Setup:
- Numerous Epson 4- and 6-color inkjets for loose proofing
- Roland Hi-Fi Jet 52" giclee printer for final proofing and prints
- (Old reliable) HP LaserJet 5P for everything else
- Lots of canned air to remove dog and cat hair
How about software?
For software, I use and like Corel's Painter. (Disclaimer: They don't pay me to say that, but they did once pay me to do an image for them...)
Painter does a great job of reproducing the feel and characteristics of traditional media. Since I learned to paint traditionally, I guess Painter made me feel comfortable when I moved into the digital realm. My dad uses both Painter and Photoshop, from Adobe, and I know Photoshop is a fabulous tool, but it does not provide the same customization for media types.
There are probably other great software options: Find one you like. Both Adobe and Corel very frequently bundle "light" versions of their software with graphic tablets, scanners and other computer devices, so you may find that you have a version already sitting around on a CD. Don't dismiss these light versions: Corel's light version of Painter, for example, is quite satisfactory for many painting projects. And don't feel as though you need the latest and greatest version to get started: It is more important just to get started!
You gotta have...
One last note: To paint, you really need a tablet-style input device. Throw your mouse away... or at least set it aside. I happen to use and like Wacom's Graphire tablets. (Disclaimer: They don't pay me to say that, but I'd be willing to talk to them...)
I have settled on a fairly large tablet with a pen that provides pressure-sensitive input. So, for example, when I use a 'virtual' paint brush I can press a little harder to get a wider line, or press less hard for a finer line. Cool.
The larger tablets are a little more expensive than the basic tablet, but I used a "starter" tablet for several years quite successfully before I discovered that I just had to have the latest and greatest. In a pinch, or when I am on the road, I still use a little tablet that is about the size of a small paperback—maybe 4 x 5—and it works fine. That's a picture of it above.
I recently saw a pressure-sensitive tablet bundled with Adobe Photoshop LE and Corel Painter Classic (the light versions, so you can test drive them both) selling for less than $100 at CompUSA. (They don't pay me to say that, but...)
I am sure there are a lot of good books out there with ideas for digital painting, but nothing beats sitting down and painting!
If I can answer any questions or help you along that path, drop me a note.
Karen Carr Studio