Photoshop and Me...

I received a comment on my previoius blog post from Mr./Mrs. Anonymous that went like this:

Now I know I am going to come off as a photoshop dummy, so I am warning you in advance. I love drawing cartoons and am beginning to become interested in photoshop as most of my favorite artists (you are totally one!!) use it. It is so expensive and definitly will not be an impulse buy. Would you mind giving me a very basic "This is photoshop and why I use it" tutorial?

No dummies here! I'm glad you asked. There are still a lot of artists out there who are reluctant to embrace the digital arts. Here is my rapidly-typed response with a couple of images included for illustrative purposes. I'll probably be editing and updating this for the next three years, so if you're at all interested you might want to check back on a regular basis! Ha!

This isn't part of your request, but you might be able to relate to my initial feelings about working on a computer. I clearly remember saying: "Create art on a computer? Never!"

I was a "traditional illustration" kind of guy -- acrylic, gouache, pastel, oil, watercolor -- and I was not even slightly interested in creating art on a computer. The digital art I saw was obsessed with a slickness and shininess that did not appeal to me.

But I started seeing digital drawings and paintings done by classically trained artists-- and I couldn't tell that they were digital! Well, I wanted to play, too. I sought out articles and tutorials and I slowly gained an understanding of how to use layers and how to modify the drawing tools.

In 2001 I landed my job as an illustrator/graphic artist for a newspaper. I worked with another artist who was a more advanced Photoshop user and he was interested in the new wave of digital art-- so I watched and learned and experimented. It took a while, but I became comfortable with the process, and I continue to learn new ways of working.

Today, there are YouTube tutorials a-plenty! It's easy to discover how artists are creating their digital art. With all those how-tos on YouTube I bet I could learn in a few weeks what it took me 5 years to figure out on the job. No exaggeration.

Old iMac and Wacom held together with tape.
I use a Wacom tablet to draw. My newest tablet is about 5 years old, so I can't vouch for any of Wacom's more recent products, but I've heard the bamboo pen tablet is spiffy. I've only worked with the smallest tablets; I did a demo on a mid-size tablet for a couple of hours but it seemed about the same. You can find others who feel differently, but it made no difference to me. (And smaller tablets are cheaper.)

Photoshop CS, CS2 and CS4: Dang! I just looked it up on the web and CS5 is 650 bucks! That's huge money. I qualified for an education discount when I purchased CS4 last year-- it wouldn't hurt to ask if there were discounts available.

Or you might want to try purchasing an older version of Photoshop. I mostly use the first CS-- it's on an old computer at home that is not connected to the internet (pictured), so I can't pop open a browser and fritter around on the web when I should be working. At work, I use CS2, but it seems the same as CS as far as I can tell.

If you purchase an older version of Photoshop, do a little research first and make sure it will work on your computer! The Adobe forums might be a good place to ask about that.

CS4 is totally fab, though. It does amazing stuff and is a big leap over the older Photoshops, but I'm not really comfortable with it yet.

My very first day with Painter 7!
A study of one of John Singer Sargent's portraits.
Painter! I should mention Painter as an option. I don't use it, but I wish I could!

A long time ago I bought Painter 7. It ran very slowly on my computer. I have no doubt that the limited horsepower of my lime-green iMac was to blame, but it was so slow to respond I couldn't take the frustration.

Later, I purchased a newer computer and upgraded to Painter 8... and it was still so pathetically slow I couldn't stand it. I was very disappointed because the results were amazing! Wonderful texture, and the way the colors behaved and interacted-- it was just like real-world watercolor, pastel, acrylic! Couldn't use it, though.

I installed Painter 8 on my newest computer a year and a half ago and it does the simple coloring jobs well... but the performance still lags horridly. I'm so comfortable with Photoshop that I haven't felt the urge to do more than dabble occasionally.

A lot of artists swear by it-- they probably have more powerful computers than I do; I swear AT it.

Do some research and ask around online; ask artists about it on their blogs, post a few inquiries in digital art-related forums. It's MUCH cheaper than Photoshop and, again, some folks love it.

All your art supplies are included! You never have to buy paper or paint again.
You'll never run out of cerulean blue and you won't be inhaling the fumes of your cadmium red. No paint thinner! You don't have to wash out your brushes! Etc.

Speed and elasticity!
No drying time. You don't have to mix paint. You can stop at anytime and you don't have to set up your work space all over again later. You can change colors on the fly, even after you have painted them! Your cats cannot tread in your palette; they can stomp the keyboard and wreak havoc that way, but at least they will not make a mess.

If you work with a professional printer you have total control over how it comes out! You can personally prepare the files for print yourself! (This'll take some cooperation from the printer, of course, but never before has it been so easy for the artist to become involved in that process!)

If you take advantage of the ability to work with a lot layers you can shift and change whole sections of your work without damaging other areas. Without a doubt this ability has come in very handy at my newspaper job. In many a tight pinch, I have been able to make wholesale changes under tight deadlines.

Here's a quick diagram of the art for my previous blog post. This is the basic layer structure I use for most of the art I create on the job. It's very simple and an easy way to work.

Bottom: I have my original drawing on the bottom layer. This is a drawing that has been done on paper and scanned; it just as easily could have been drawn in photoshop.

The layer is locked and I cannot directly deface it. I can only work on the layers above.

It does not suffer any damage as paint on it! I can go back to it later if I have to.

Middle: Above that is a layer of flat color-- wide, simple patches of color.

Not to get too technical, but you can set the layer to be transparent, so that the drawing shows through the color.

For most of my work at the paper, that's about where it ends. Art below, color on top. If you just want to draw cartoons and color them, that's all there is to it.

Top: If you're interested in digital painting then you can go further, like I did in this one. Here, the top layer is my rendering. I also often use a top layer for highlights and special effects. I've created a few brushes in photoshop that have more "natural" textures and look like what you see when you paint on paper/canvas, etc. If you're into painting then you'll want to learn how to do this at some point.

The brutal truth. If you have any aspirations of working commercially, you have to learn how to create art digitally; not necessarily in its initial form, but it will become digital art eventually. It is the best way to show and to share your artwork. Two minutes after you finish it, you can post it for an audience. Everybody's work goes digital and it will continue to do so.

The beautiful truth: It is fun and gives you tremendous power over your creative process. Once you get used to the technology-- not as hard as you might think-- it is a completely natural way to express your artistic vision. I'm not saying that it's the only way to create art, but it is necessary and can be completely satisfying.

Any more questions, class? I hope I sorta addressed your concern. I think I got way too chatty here. I could probably lop off about 12 paragraphs and make it less painful-- starting with this paragraph, I bet.

If you have any more questions fire away at any time-- I'm only too happy to write a novel-length response!

Geez, I get on a roll sometimes. I'm going to be late for work!

The End


  1. Thank you so much for taking the time to explain! That was exactly what I was looking for!

    You told me I could ask more questions... (you didn't know what you were getting yourself into)

    If you scan your original sketches as the bottom layer of the digital peice, what is the Wacom used for?
    Do you need it to work in photoshop?

    Ms. Anonymous

  2. Ask away! I'm in it for the long haul!

    The Wacom pen tablet takes the place of your mouse. Here's a little Wacom preview:

    I don't use a mouse at all anymore; I don't even have one attached to my work or home computers-- nasty little things! I had some serious computer-induced wrist and shoulder pain, and found that eliminating the mouse helped me rebound and become functional again. I get writer's cramp now and then, but that's easy to cope with if I just remember to stop and stretch or squeeze a rubber ball occasionally.

    The pen tablet is pressure sensitive, so you can use it just like it was a paint brush-- press down, and the tip of your drawing tool on the screen gets wider. Does that make sense?

    Your first hour or two drawing on a tablet might be awkward. We're so used to drawing on paper that, at first, it feels wrong to be drawing on the table with a pen and have your pen stroke appear on the screen. Your drawing hand is nowhere near the "canvas." Very strange at first.

    But it was very strange at first to use a mouse the same way, too. Your hand on the table moves the mouse on the screen, and that's second nature now. Your brain will adjust to that in a pretty brief period, I'll bet, since you're obviously trained in mouse-use!

    It may sound like just another expense but it's totally worth it. My first tiny Wacom cost about $300! The bamboo pen thing is $70. Super-cheap, I think.