Nina comes to life…

Nina pushing
Basta con questi sfondi bianchi! Sono noiosi!

The past couple of weeks have included a lot of my own “life,” which though fun and even important at times, meant I didn’t draw as much as I would have liked. I’ve been doing some experiments in traditional mixed media, but…nah. So on Saturday, just for fun I developed a quick digital sketch that I had started months ago with the same character from a previous post. This time I used the Gouache a Go Go brush.

In many ways, this drawing was a lesson in how not to work efficiently! I wanted to play around with puppet warp and adjustment layers, but I applied them too soon, so afterwards it was hard to make corrections without ruining the effect. Then the character looked too old, so I enlarged her head after the fact. All throughout I found myself coloring willy nilly over my black outline drawing. I thought I wanted outlines, but maybe not! And then, even though I think figure drawing is one of my stronger points, in this drawing everything came down to whether I could invent convincing anatomy on the spot, because I didn’t want to be too dependent on reference. I’m sure I’ll see all the mistakes tomorrow…

But I like that this drawing fits my character. I imagine this girl, whom I call Nina, as energetic and full of mischief but still empathetic, so while sometimes she might find herself in trouble out of sheer exuberance, she doesn’t mean to cause any harm. I got this pose from a stick figure, but I think that now that I’ve made it into a full drawing, it fits her.* She’s neither a doll-like little girl nor a super heroine, but a real child. She is based on many different little girls that I see in my neighborhood. Whether she’s about four like in the last drawing, or a bit older like in this one, remains to be seen.

I’m also pretty sure she has other clothes than an origami dress and day-glo green plastic rain boots, but that can wait. For now, I’m working on brushes and poses. But next I’d like to try an environment and a bit of back story. Wish me luck!

*I added a caption. Want to guess what it means? Or better yet, make up one of your own?


Brush trials

The simple original sketch

This week in illustration, I’ve been doing trials with digital brushes.

The main goal of pretty much all my art activity these days is to develop a working method/style that feels natural and can express whatever I most want to say. And since expression depends a lot on the kind of mark you make, I’m trying to get as familiar as I can with digital mark making. You might call this building a style from the ground up.

Inspired by one of Kyle Webster’s demo videos, I made a sheet of 16 copies of a character I draw a lot. (She has a name and a certain personality, but that’s a story for another day.) Duplicating is easy enough to do on Photoshop. I drew a sketch in digital pencil, copied and duplicated it, copied the two of them and duplicated, and so on until I had a full page. Then I created a mask for each figure in the same way, so I didn’t have to waste too much time cleaning up edges.

Then I got to work applying color. I wasn’t perfectionistic about either the sketch or the coloring. The whole point here was to discover the properties of a few of the hundreds (!) of digital brushes now available on Photoshop CC and figure out which ones were best suited to my working style. I wanted to concentrate particularly on dry media (charcoals, pastels) and opaque paint media (gouache, oil). And I was also interested in grainy effects. In the end, some of these brushes worked quite well for my purposes, and some obviously didn’t!

These trials that worked more or less like I expected, because they allow for a fair amount of control and also I am used to working in traditional oils.

Here are some of the things I was thinking about brushes while I worked:

  • How tilt sensitive is each brush?
  • Which brushes can handle the whole job and which will have to be supplemented with other brushes? (It turns out that some of the more porous ones really need to be used with another brush or a fill layer to render all the details legible.)
  • At what size does each brush make the nicest stroke?
  • With each brush, is it better to use different values of paint to put in highlights and shadows, or is it more effective to just vary the density and let the white of the “paper” show through?
  • Does this brush require extra layers just to keep the marks from getting muddy too fast? (The mixer brushes, such as oils, usually do require extra layers that can then be merged.)
  • The non-“mixer” brushes allow you to change the brush mode (upper left of the screen) to clear, which makes a sort of eraser with the same texture. Which brushes have the most workable “clear mode” erasers? (Remember to change the mode back to normal before continuing!)
  • How can I use the brush stroke and either a “hard” or “soft” eraser to control lost and found edges?
  • How do the brushes affect color intensity? (More than you’d think!)
  • How might changing my tablet/pen sensitivity affect the marks? (I suspect I have a light touch, but it varies with the brush.)

Some trials that were somewhat pleasantly surprising even if I didn’t develop them as far as the others.

A side benefit of all this practice was that drawing my character over and over helped me think more about how she should look, even if I didn’t take her to full finish. Some things I was thinking about while I worked:

  • Which subtle variations of features, and which brushes, are best suited to the character?
  • How much modeling is even needed?
  • How spontaneous can I be?

In search of grainy effects. Some of them I was pleased enough with that I might use them again some time. Others definitely not, but at least I found out!

This is definitely (Photo)shop talk But it does have a more organic significance. About 99% of drawing, and probably any other art, is being so familiar with your own processes that you feel confident in what you’re doing and thus comfortable improvising. Muscle memory plays a big part, of course, and for that, you just have to draw a lot. But there are plenty of other skills you can develop, from creative imagination to visual awareness to intellectual knowledge and theory to simply knowing your tools. All of them (in some form) are important to anyone who wants to be good at what they do.

Also, it helps me to see my own drawings published on my blog, because I see things more objectively that way. It’s like giving myself a mini-critique.

Which versions do you like best, or not? And why? If you don’t know why, feel free to state your opinion anyway. Sometimes intuition has some pretty good reasons of its own!

Quick illustration update

Now that the wedding is over, it’s fall, and I’ve got somewhat of a routine going, I thought I’d do a quick illustration update.

I have crammed down so much subject matter during the past, first year of self-instruction that it sometimes seems like I’ve got some serious artistic indigestion. Character design, Photoshop, studying favorite illustrators, marketing, perspective and environment, composition, textures and warp tools, endless experimentations with traditional and digital media, repeat. When I consider that this time last year I hardly knew what a Photoshop layer was, I can see progress. Still, it’s an effort not to count the years it’s likely to take to build a portfolio, compare them to the years I have left to develop a career, and suddenly feel quite sober about it. Then enthusiasm kicks back in and I get back to work.

The little painting above is sort of half-baked (that horizon line!), but I am posting it because it gives some idea where I am right now. I’m trying to keep the technique simple, and to that end I’m mostly just painting one character, in digital watercolor. The text was pure stream-of-consciousness because I wanted to consider how it should look on the page. And although I’ve got state-of-the-art digital watercolor brushes from Kyle Brush (as of this week free with a Photoshop CC subscription, but only available with a subscription), there is still an aspect of watercolor that really just begs for the serendipity of traditional media.

Where is all this going? I still don’t know. But at least it’s going.

Illustration resources

This is the post I was going to write before I got sidetracked with Thanksgiving. Though Two Years in Torino is primarily about life as an American in Italy, I think it’s only natural that as I live in Torino longer and longer (way beyond two years, it looks like), not all of my life will be consciously expat. As such, most of these illustration resources are American, but if you’re just itching for some bureaucratic irony and humor from the bel paese, I have one more Accademia Albertina update to publish soon. Also, some day, I hope that my illustration interest and my interest in things Italian will truly intersect.

But for now I have a lot of technical information about art to digest, quickly, and so this year I am taking the efficient, if somewhat lonely route of art self-study online. Online schools seem to be a pronounced trend in the US, and while I might not recommend online study for an 18-year-old getting his or her first degree, as a middle-aged expat self-study has a lot to offer: for starters, convenience of time and place, choice of specialized syllabi, and prices that allow for experimentation. (Note: the link, which actually argues that not even young people should go to art school, leads to yet more online resources.)

I’m not even sure how I first found all these schools and resources that I am about to list (I think I may have begun with Will Terry’s channel on YouTube), but I will say that once you discover a couple of these artists, they tend to lead to one another in a serendipitous rabbit trail. Most of these artists are entrepreneurial in outlook, and therefore they are open to other streams of income than book illustration. For instance, Will has branched out from children’s book illustration to Comi-cons (comics conventions), and has just published a book of his own fan art.

Another thing these artists seem to have in common is an acquaintance with animated film studios. They may not all have worked for one, but the style of modern animation has at the very least contributed to their visual vocabulary. I say this because digital animation is more of a recent discovery for me, and it wasn’t until I saw such films as Up!, Brave and Big Hero Six that I was truly convinced of the potential of digital animation, particularly the lighting. (I watch a lot of animated films during those long flights to the US.)

When I got interested in children’s book illustration again, Comic-cons and Disney films were not exactly what I had in mind, and yet I do think it’s important to understand the trends. I can take in bits of this knowledge and inform my own art.

And lastly, I appreciate that all of these artists have been willing to share some of what they have learned. They do not operate under a scarcity mentality. Instead they assume that the more knowledge is available, the more new opportunities for artists will open up. More art for everyone, more jobs for artists!

So, here’s my list of resources:

First of all, Photoshop is the industry standard software for illustrators. (Ironically, Adobe Illustrator is more for logo design and other projects that require a vector format.) I found a Photoshop offer that allowed me to get just Photoshop and Lightroom (English version) for about $10/month. I don’t know how long it will be available, but even if you are the most traditional of artists, your illustration work has to be camera ready, and Photoshop offers editing tools. How far you take your editing, and their painting tools, is up to you.

Also, although for now I work on a small Wacom Intuos tablet, I want to eventually buy a Wacom Cintiq, which allows you to draw directly on the screen. Both of these devices plug into a regular computer and use a stylus, but since the Intuos requires you to look at a screen while drawing on a separate tablet, it produces certain hand/eye coordination problems that, although they do improve with practice, never quite go away. I spent 50 years developing my drawing hand, and a Cintiq would allow me to fully preserve it in digital form. One reason for my delay in buying a Cintiq, by the way, is that I am waiting to see if an updated version of the 22″ model is released soon.

Now that I’ve listed the materials needed, there is the matter of developing the specialized skills required to use them well. Though I only discovered it somewhat recently, there is at least one excellent, free site that will walk you through the basics of digital painting in Photoshop as well as the fundamentals of drawing and painting. Let’s face it, Photoshop is an overwhelming program when you first encounter it, and you can waste hours trying to resolve seemingly minuscule problems. Matt Kohr’s Ctrl + Paint is clear, concise, and while he doesn’t always still have the practice downloads mentioned in his videos (some videos are several years old and have been moved to the site from elsewhere), you can usually take a screenshot (cmd + shift + 3 on a Mac) and make one yourself. Ctrl + Paint is a great first stop. He also offers paid content, which I haven’t tried yet. And just a note: I usually use Safari, but I find his site works better on Firefox.

My paid instruction source of the moment is SVS The classes seem to be available every so often as real time courses with instructor feedback, and thereafter are preserved for download or streaming. The main instructors are Will Terry and Jake Parker (founder of Inktober). Will and Jake give digital instruction, but never emphasize digital tricks over fundamentals. In fact, most of their courses are just as helpful for traditional media. Their specialty is children’s books, and to some degree, comics and graphic novels. They and other artists present courses on such topics as Painting Color and Light, Developing Interesting Character Designs, Perspective, How to Make Money in Illustration, and many others. I currently have a streaming subscription for $15/month that allows me to watch anything on the site and download the workbooks and other digital aids that accompany the courses. I really have learned a lot. And another nice thing about their site is that they allow you to leave and come back with no hassle (haven’t tried it yet, but that’s what it says on the site). They seem to understand that artists are struggling enough just to stay afloat, so they let you pick and choose what you need.

Branching out from SVS, I have also discovered such sites as Noah Bradley’s Art Camp and Chris Oatley’s Oatley Academy. Yet another paid online art education site is Schoolism. I haven’t joined any of those yet, but they do look like they might be promising. If anyone has experience that they would like to share, or knows other sites of similar quality, I would love to hear from you.

And what 21st century artist’s resource list would be complete without Pinterest? Artists use all the social media sites–Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr being some of the more common ones–but the lure of Pinterest is the ability to make your own collections of other artists’ work and reference material, not just your own. When you’re starting out, Pinterest can be a helpful way to organize all the different sources of inspiration you want to keep track of. My account goes through periodic growth spurts and has now exploded to over 1000 pins. Oops!

For inspiration and general knowledge about the industry, I have enjoyed not only Will’s and Jake’s YouTube channels, but also Chris Oatley’s Artcast. Now that I am home alone a lot, I often listen to You Tube or podcasts while I do housework. Some of them are art-related and some have nothing to do with art, but that’s another blog post.

And finally, I have found some rather fun animation resources on TED and even Khan Academy.


My illustration adventure has only just started, and yet I’m really itching to get to the point where I can produce something that reflects not just technical art skills, but a mature vision. I think this may be a typical problem with starting a career in midlife. When you’re young, you have tons of energy and learn easily, but little life experience. At my age, you know your own interests and you have tons of experience you want to get out on paper or screen, but need to get your skills caught up quickly. I think a combination of humble and agile mind, and yet confidence about what you are trying to do, are optimal. But most of all, this job requires practice. So that’s what I am going to do now. Hope this helps someone, and thanks for reading!