Get a boost in creativity by using these 5 Photoshop tools
Digital artists are creating masterpieces using strictly digital tools. Can artists using traditional media benefit from these tools? Absolutely, and I will show you how. We will look at the tools that are most helpful in the conception, design and development phase of the painting process. To make this simpler, we will use Adobe Photoshop but the tools described below are practically the same on free alternatives like Gimp or Pixlr Editor. Time to get a creative boost!
# 1 – Proportions
As an art teacher, the first and often most damaging error that I see students do is to have an image with different proportions than the support (canvas, panel, sheet of paper). When students arrive with a half-finished painting that is elongated one way, it is heartbreaking to tell them they may have to start over. This happens usually because they used either a grid method or something similar for the initial drawing on a support that had different proportions than the reference image.
A simple rule of three can avoid this error.
Let say your image is a 6×10 photo and your canvas is 12×16, you multiply the width of your photo by the height of your canvas and you divide the result by the width of your canvas. It will give you the height where you need to crop the reference photo. In this case, 6×16=96÷12=8. So the photo has to be cropped into a 6×8 to match the canvas.
Photoshop crop tool can make it much easier. Just enter the proportions of your support and use the crop tool to crop your reference image to the same proportions. Make sure you select fixed ratio (besides the dimensions boxes in the image above). You can also do the reverse, check the proportion of your reference image and find a support that matches.
# 2 – Sketches and Studies
Sketches and studies like those by Guy Zinger below help to work out problems and create compositions that are stronger and more balanced.
When I realized that my best paintings were those that I worked on the most before even committing anything to the canvas, I knew this step could not be skipped no matter how pressed I was to attack my big canvas. This is probably where Photoshop what been the most useful in speeding up my preliminary work.
Here are some ways you can speed up your studies with Photoshop using your reference image.
- Adjust tone, contrasts, and colors: Image—>Adjustment
- Posterize the image to only see a fixed number of values: Image —>Adjustment—>Posterize
- Remove the colors with: Image—>Mode—>Grayscale (to see if the value foundation is strong enough)
- Copy your subject multiple times like below and try a different color combination or intensity: Image —>Adjustment—>Color Balance or Hue/Saturation
- Apply different filters to test textures: Filter—>Pixelate or Stylize
# 3 – Cut, Copy, Mix and Move
I couldn’t ask my daughter to kneel in front of a real live walrus… The cityscape, the ship, my daughter and the walrus were all from different pictures that I had taken. They were all digitally cut out and brought together as layers in Photoshop. Since they were all on different layers, it was easy to move them around until I had the composition that I wanted.
Photoshop lasso tools work well to cut out elements from an image to move or copy into another composition. Using the polygonal lasso tool or, in some cases, the magnetic lasso tool will take some time to get a clean cut, so patience is required here. I often prefer to use my Apple Pencil in combination with one of many apps on my iPad that can do this faster. However, for the sake of simplicity, I am going to stick with Photoshop in this article. There is a great tutorial for learning layers.
Many classical artists did in fact move elements in their painting either during the underpainting phase or even after the painting was completed. We can clearly see these in X-ray of old masters painting. Moving elements in Photoshop is WAY easier!
# 4 – Light and Colors
Glazing and scumbling can do wonders for correcting colors, adding depth and light to a painting. They are effective techniques to use for achieving great effects for painters who work layers by layers or start from a monochrome underpainting. Since I try to paint mostly Alla prima, I use them differently, mostly to correct a color/value that I was not able to get on the first pass.
I often realized my errors when I was photographing my painting that I considered finished. By adjusting the contrast and the color saturation, the photo looked so much better than the painting. I had to get back to my brushes and apply these changes to my painting.
Now, I make sure to take photos all along the process and check them in Photoshop. Often I can see that some general or local modification in tone or color would work better. When a correction is needed, it is usually easily fixed. A little scumbling will easily push the light in some area. A glaze will darken a background or adjust colors.
In Photoshop: Image—>Adjustment—>Brightness
Then adjust these, locally by selecting a layer or generally by selecting all layers
- Color Balance
# 5 – Textures and brush strokes
Some artists have naturally expressive brush strokes, other prefer a smooth texture. I personally like the paint to show its body. Being a perfectionist, however, I invariably tend to get closer and closer to what is in front of me. I often end up getting to a near photographic copy of my reference image. If that was my intention, this would not be a problem but I prefer more expressive brush strokes. It is never tempting to redo a painting to make it looser! How to avoid this?
Photoshop has filters that will break up your perfect image so that if you copy it, you end up copying more of what you intended your final painting to look like. Also, the image, liberated from its perfection, is more conducive to expressive brush strokes.
In Photoshop: Filter—>Filter Gallery
Then try some of these filters, generally by selecting some or all layers.
- Brush strokes
Photoshop is a mastodon of a program that can do much more than these functions. For artists who are not inclined to spend weeks or months learning this software, these few functions can greatly help you develop your concept, test your composition and ideas, make corrections on the fly and work out textures that you want to include in your final painting.
If you want to know more about how to make the jump to digital painting, SweetMonia had an informative blog post on the subject.
I learned drawing and oil painting the academic way with the meticulous process of breaking up the forms in large shapes, of visually measuring proportions, etc. This very controlled method gave me a good understanding of form, of the effects of light and the ability to transpose nature (or people) on a two-dimensional support.
Given enough practice, the academic method eventually allowed me to “copy” nature with a high degree of accuracy. A good likeness in a portrait or a near photographic reproduction of a landscape was never truly satisfying, however. I wanted to infuse my work with more creativity. For me as for many artists, a big part of that creative effort takes place in the planning and sketching phase. Photoshop has been a great creative tool in these phases to explore ideas, to get away from my academic training and toward more expressive paintings.
What about you? Are you using digital tools to help you with your creativity?