Know yourself, know your tools
Thomas Scholes on staying motivated and creative.
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