Know your­self, know your tools

Thomas Sc­holes on stay­ing mo­ti­vated and cre­ative.

ImagineFX: Sci-fi & Fantasy Art magazine - - Issue 130 | January 2016 - Thomas Sc­holes

As I’m sure ev­ery stu­dent and pro­fes­sional will agree, it’s rare to spend time ex­plor­ing your own in­ter­ests. The truth is that work of­ten de­mands im­me­di­ate re­sults and there’s no time for mis­takes.

The shame here is that mis­takes of­ten con­tain the keys to con­tin­ued suc­cess. If we can’t af­ford to make mis­takes, we can’t progress. The ide­al­ist in me could nearly com­mit fully to artis­tic re­search and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, but the prag­ma­tist in me takes the les­son as this: fail more, fail faster but fail at the low­est cost pos­si­ble. In May 2015, I set out to com­plete and pub­lish an im­age a day. My goal wasn’t to pro­duce a large quan­tity of work in a short time, but to cre­ate work I was happy with each day. The daily quota kept me from un­re­al­is­ti­cally over-in­vest­ing in any­thing, but also pre­vented me fall­ing vic­tim to my in­se­cu­ri­ties and hold­ing off un­til I deemed a piece com­pletely wor­thy to dis­play. Some im­ages were done in the time avail­able each day, oth­ers were it­er­ated upon and im­proved slowly over the days and weeks of the month, and a few con­tained ideas and el­e­ments that had been left unresolved and shelved at some point over the past sev­eral years.

This work­shop fea­tures a sam­ple of my art from that month, the Pho­to­shop tools I em­ployed and the pro­cesses I used and dis­cov­ered. I’m hop­ing that in shar­ing this in­for­ma­tion I’ll en­cour­age you not to be more like me as an artist, but to be more like your­self as an artist. Please feel free to use th­ese tools in your own way and put your own twists on th­ese ideas, and then share them will­ingly. You’ll learn as much from the di­ver­sity of oth­ers as you will from your own na­ture.

1 Waste not, want not

The cat­a­lysts for this im­age are just three sim­ple re­cy­cled parts reused mul­ti­ple times to craft the idea and struc­ture of an in­te­rior. Once the space was re­solved I sal­vaged a door­way from an­other dead-end sketch that was also built from mod­u­lar parts. The skills in­volved in a mod­u­lar process are fa­mil­iar to any­one who has played with toy blocks or LEGO, in that your op­tions are few and re­stric­tions many, but this lim­ited pal­ette has its own charm and cre­ative ad­van­tage: sim­ple shapes and sim­ple places are the per­fect primer to help spark sim­ple sto­ries.

2 or­gan­ise your mod­u­lar ap­proach

Tak­ing the mod­u­lar con­cept a step fur­ther, it’s a great idea to have your build­ing blocks and el­e­ments sep­a­rated, or­gan­ised and ready to use when you need them. It’s okay to group them hap­haz­ardly, as you won’t al­ways – and, if cre­atively minded, shouldn’t al­ways – know what you’re look­ing for. The idea here is sim­ply to save time and have your tools on hand so you don’t in­ter­rupt your mo­men­tum. Even a mo­ment’s fum­bling is enough to ruin the flow.

3 know the Clone Source panel

The Clone Stamp has long been a favourite tool in my process. Now’s not the time to go into the de­tails of how I use it, but take note of the Clone Source panel, which un­locks some of its best and – even though it was in­tro­duced back in Pho­to­shop CS3 – of­ten over­looked fea­tures. Most use­fully, it grants you dy­namic and im­me­di­ate con­trol over the mag­ni­fi­ca­tion of your cloned source, from 0 to 400 per cent, as well as hor­i­zon­tal and ver­ti­cal mir­ror­ing and ro­ta­tion. With the mag­ni­fi­ca­tion set in the range of be­tween 300 and 400 per cent, I pre­fer paint­ing with this tool rather than the paint­brush, be­cause it can eas­ily in­tro­duce much more tex­ture and va­ri­ety to your strokes and still re­main a man­age­able work­horse.

4 Bridge me­chan­ics

I keep just one bulk folder for the vast ma­jor­ity of my per­sonal work and stud­ies. This means that when I browse the con­tents with Adobe Bridge, it’s easy to find some­thing that piques my in­ter­est or strikes me as use­ful. Over time I’ve found it works best to take that ini­tial en­ergy you bring to a ses­sion and use it on the hard­est work you can tol­er­ate, which for me is usu­ally the fin­ish and pol­ish stages, where there’s lit­tle left to solve but still mileage to go be­fore the job is done. Once this en­ergy has been used up I tend to switch to work that’s still in the mid­dle stages and has larger is­sues to be re­solved. As I be­gin to work at so­lu­tions for th­ese is­sues it seems my mo­ti­va­tion to paint floods back. Fi­nally, once I’ve ex­pended that ad­di­tional en­ergy, the paint­ing is usu­ally near com­ple­tion, ready to be pol­ished an­other day, and I’m ea­ger to start some­thing new, know­ing I can keep paint­ing with the en­ergy gained from brand new ideas, dis­cov­er­ies and prob­lems to be solved.

5 Ex­plore, then re-ex­plore

Work that feels like work is never my goal, but if work starts to feel like play then I know I’m on the right track. What greater gift can we give to our­selves than to dis­cover as we cre­ate? Why not fol­low an im­age’s nat­u­ral po­ten­tial rather than what we ex­pect of it? When expectations are in­volved, it creates the im­me­di­ate pos­si­bil­ity of a wrong an­swer, and there’s so much more to learn if we’re just open to see­ing it. No­tice some­thing in­ter­est­ing or ex­cit­ing in your im­age? Fol­low it. Have an idea that’s in­trigu­ing but a de­par­ture? Copy your im­age into a new doc­u­ment and fol­low it! You won’t have to worry about mess­ing up and you might like the re­sults more, or at the very least have some­thing fresh you can bring back to the orig­i­nal im­age.

You won’t al­ways have the time to ex­plore, but it’s of­ten the best thing to do when you’re stuck, dead­line or not. Of­ten my own ex­plo­rations can only be taken up to a point, and the best get saved out for an­other try, for an­other day or to use as a cat­a­lyst. The trick is to try and try again. But don’t pol­ish dirt: keep dig­ging and sift­ing un­til you find gold.

6 To the border

Some­times the only way to truly understand an el­e­ment or prin­ci­ple is to see how far you can take it. Ex­plore it right up to the border of your un­der­stand­ing – and hope­fully a lit­tle bit fur­ther still – and then come back to civil­i­sa­tion to store your find­ings. In this im­age I wanted to see just how much of an ex­ist­ing as­set could I re­cy­cle and just how lit­tle I could paint but still enjoy the process and the re­sults.

With that in mind I’ve bor­rowed the fore­ground struc­ture from a paint­ing done in 2011 (the small inset im­age), fully ex­pect­ing a healthy chal­lenge in­volved in craft­ing the ex­ist­ing per­spec­tive, light­ing and pal­ette to­wards a new idea. Why not try this for an hour? What have I got to lose? I have hun­dreds of dead-end sketches, what’s one more? Doesn’t a tree ben­e­fit from each branch, no mat­ter how many or how few leaves it con­tains?

If work feels like play, I’m on the right track. Ex­plore your im­age, not what you ex­pect of it

7 Value check

I’m sure you’ve heard it from a dozen dif­fer­ent artists: value is king, check your val­ues! Let’s use the im­age from tip 5 (op­po­site) to talk about value and how to check it ac­cu­rately in Pho­to­shop. The most com­mon meth­ods I see use de­sat­u­ra­tion to trans­late a colour’s value, but un­for­tu­nately this ig­nores the in­her­ent value dif­fer­ences be­tween the hues, and will give you poor re­sults.

A greyscale version of the im­age is what we really need, but in­stead of the cum­ber­some process of con­vert­ing it to greyscale there’s an el­e­gant method of achiev­ing a more ac­cu­rate value anal­y­sis with Pho­to­shop’s Proof Colors func­tion (Ctrl+Y). If you’ve tried it, chances are that your im­age just shifted into the de­fault CMYK colour space – and if you’re like me, you may have ac­ci­den­tally ac­ti­vated this short­cut in the past in­stead of Ctrl+T (Trans­form) and un­der­stand­ably been an­noyed at the re­sult. But you can turn what was an an­noy­ing slip into a new, if pos­si­bly un­ex­pected, ally: go to View>Proof Setup>Cus­tom, set De­vice to Sim­u­late to Work­ing Gray and click OK. The key­board short­cut Ctrl+Y will now give you a use­ful, more ac­cu­rate Value Check pre­view.

8 Light­ing round

Some sketches may have just one or two el­e­ments worth ex­plor­ing, and aren’t worth the in­vest­ment to take to fi­nal. Yet rather than toss th­ese away I try to ex­tract the in­ter­est­ing el­e­ments when­ever pos­si­ble and com­bine them with pre­vi­ous and more stable re­sults.

In this ex­am­ple I’ve in­tro­duced a more suc­cess­ful fi­nal paint­ing on a Lighten layer over my sketch and have Color Bal­anced the orig­i­nal paint­ing to suit the mood of the con­cept. Not all ex­plo­rations like this pay off and in­vari­ably it takes a good mix­ture of ed­u­cated guesses and a bit of luck, but at this point the time in­vested is min­i­mal and it’s no great loss if it fails, but it’s a near in­stant gain if there’s any suc­cess.

I was pleased that I was able to get back and ex­plore the idea and con­cept through this process, but wasn’t en­tirely happy with the static com­po­si­tion. Rather than write this off as an­other dead end, I was curious to how I could solve this is­sue with the low­est cost and wanted to see what I could still do to in­tro­duce some dy­namism by way of sim­ple graphic light­ing. With the use of a few gra­di­ents, layer modes and some pol­ish, I do feel that the com­po­si­tion was made a bit more suc­cess­ful.

9 Pig­ment to pixel

Al­though I love the Clone Stamp, there are plenty of tasks that only a paint­brush can per­form. I rec­om­mend us­ing Color Dy­nam­ics to in­tro­duce a healthy va­ri­ety to brush strokes by util­is­ing the Hue, Sat­u­ra­tion and Bright­ness Jit­ter slid­ers. Go eas­i­est on the Bright­ness set­ting: too much and it’ll be im­pos­si­ble to con­trol. Keep in mind we want just enough va­ri­ety to cre­ate in­ter­est, not dis­trac­tions! Most of all, make sure you untick the Ap­ply Per Tip box at the top so that each Brush Stroke rather than each Brush Tip is al­tered.

10 In all things, va­ri­ety!

Let’s use one of my favourite Pho­to­shop tools, Thresh­old, to take a closer look at what my sim­ple light­ing changes did for the im­age in tip 8 (left). This tool en­ables you to re­duce an im­age to black and white, and ad­just the po­si­tion of the mid­point. Im­age A be­low is far too chaotic and tex­tured; it’s hard to direct the au­di­ence with so much un­ordered va­ri­ety. The light­ing pass in Im­age B has cam­ou­flaged some of the noise and di­rected our at­ten­tion through the use of value and shape con­trast to­wards the char­ac­ter’s face.

This leg­i­bil­ity of light and dark is as im­por­tant to an im­age as it is to hu­man vi­sion. Our eyes are much more con­cerned with the quan­tity of light they re­ceive (value) rather than the dom­i­nant wave­length of the vis­i­ble spec­trum (hue) and pu­rity thereof (sat­u­ra­tion). This pref­er­ence to­wards value, I pre­sume, ex­ists be­cause it pro­vides the great­est amount of in­for­ma­tion to iden­tify and dis­cern ob­jects and their spa­tial re­la­tion­ships, and thus en­ables us to nav­i­gate and in­ter­act with our world. Make this light and shadow pat­tern leg­i­ble and the shapes in­ter­est­ing, and you al­most can’t fail to make an in­ter­est­ing im­age.

11 Chang­ing hats

The props in this scene could have been recre­ated and re-ren­dered from scratch, but hav­ing them on hand means I can work dif­fer­ently, think dif­fer­ently and find dif­fer­ent so­lu­tions. I can be­come a set dresser or scene dec­o­ra­tor and let the paint­brush rest. What’s more, in reusing props I’m of­ten able to pick them back up where I left off and enjoy the op­por­tu­nity to take them ei­ther fur­ther or in a new di­rec­tion. Even those I’ve left un­touched this time give me the ben­e­fit of ad­di­tional time and en­ergy to spend else­where in the im­age.

12 Get messy

Even the most out-of-con­trol mess may have po­ten­tial if you spend some time with it. This im­age is lay­er­ing at least half a dozen im­ages se­lected at near ran­dom and was done as pure ex­plo­ration; if an el­e­ment helped cre­ate vis­ual in­ter­est, ab­stract or oth­er­wise, it stayed. Once there was enough ab­stract po­ten­tial built up, I aimed to­wards craft­ing a more tan­gi­ble space. Some quick ed­its and light­ing cre­ated a scene that, al­though I’ve not yet used it alone, has been a cru­cial cat­a­lyst for many paint­ings, both per­sonal and pro­fes­sional, one of which you saw in tip 5. Don’t be afraid to re­lax, con­trol less and play more.

Some sketches may have just one or two el­e­ments worth ex­plor­ing, but don’t dis­card them – ex­tract them and you can use them else­where

The crudely de­sat­u­rated im­age

The more ac­cu­rate greyscale proof

Open the Cus­tom­ize Proof Con­di­tion win­dow...

Switch De­vice to Sim­u­late to Work­ing Gray

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