Traditional Techniques used in a Digital Environment


Old sketchbook drawing that was color rendered using Rebelle on a Surface Studio

Recently, I've had some people ask about which applications and computers I use to produce artwork these days. When answering the question I try to focus more on technique because that is more important than platform or chosen software. The true talent doesn't reside in the computer, resides within the individual. Yes, we all have our preferences but Android could have been used to produce the image above or even the old Amiga systems from the 80s and 90s. Of course the results wouldn't be quite the same but the knowledge to complete the project goes beyond the platform. For example, you can't walk ten feet within a corporate complex without seeing at least 5 different offices that swear by MacOS and Adobe products. But it's a very ignorant assumption even on a corporate level that Mac based systems and Abode creative suite are the only tools capable of producing excellent work. "Industry standard" isn't always the best choice. Sometimes, it's the choice that people chose because they were told to, because they simply don't know any better.


I try to stress to younger artists to build a good foundation of traditional skills and then apply the traditional techniques learned to the digital environment. Relying solely on filters, processing trickery and digital short cuts is limiting for those who the computer is their only talent. We live in a digital age, true but there should be some traditional knowledge at work somewhere within that mix. Take the computer away and what do they have otherwise? No different than a person that calls themselves a musician but only knows how to sample, reconstructing other people's music and passing it off as "original." Ask them to actually play something, anything and they can't.


Created digitally from rough sketch to finished render using Rebelle on a Surface Studio.

I've seen younger artists cave to the pressure of producing better results faster to compete with other artists. The desperation to do this leads some to bypass traditional learning which takes time in some cases, in favor of image processing to get more photo realistic results much faster. The irony of this is, producing those desired results traditionally even within a digital environment isn't as hard as they believe. The first lesson is to learn how to see. It's easy to be overwhelmed when looking at a subject when the young artist hasn't learned how to truly see yet. The details can overwhelm and confuse. But with patience, any artist can learn to see the simple components of a scene that make it seem complicated and rebuild it using any visual language they choose. Take the image below as an example...


Flutterby - created using ArtRage 5 on a SurfaceBook/Surface Studio

This image was digitally sketched and digitally painted. There were no filters used, no image processing used in its creation. I took a trip to Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences Butterfly Room and captured a series of photos as references. I sketched one of the photos chosen due to the challenge of the amount of detail involved. The sketch was very quick and really rough because the painting would do the heavy lifting of presenting final details.


The only way I could tackle the project without going nuts was to patiently paint a section at a time using a visual language that would represent the details presented without the need to paint exactly what was there. This work method has been a standard practice in painting for centuries. The mid ground was painted first which would be the leaves in focus. The background was painted second which would be the leaves in the background that are out of focus. That affect was achieved by using various blending brushes to blur the leaves after they were painted. By contrast with the blurred leaves, the mid ground leaves really stand out. The butterfly was painted last. To created this traditionally, I would paint the background first, the mids second, the butterfly last. But working digitally has clear benefits.



Close up of some of the details of the Flutterby project. Abstract shapes painted using a specific palette, when placed within the context of the overall project, looks more like flowers and leaves. It's almost impossible to paint every single detail. So the question becomes, how best to imply it? I went with using a variety of blending brushes.

It took between 70 to 80 hours to complete. It would have taken 30 seconds to complete if I simply used a filter but the results would not have been as good and there would have been no knowledge gained. The process to complete this piece required a lot of focus over hours at a time which is why I don't use it often. It can be draining because actually seeing the details and then finding the best way under the circumstances to represent them can be intense. Also, ArtRage's oil paints react very similar to real oils even though they're digital. Blending is not a straight forward process. Some experimentation was needed as oil painting even traditionally was never my biggest strength, watercolors and acrylics are. But this is also the reason why I chose ArtRage over Rebelle for this project. Learning more of how oils worked compared to watercolors and acrylics even in a digital environment is invaluable.


For comparison, a project created using a similar process but in Rebelle with acrylics...


Sleeping 01 cropped SFW (Safer for Work) version. This is a project a friend posed for that started as a drawing that was later painted using Rebelle. The challenge here was the lighting which took many hours to get right as well as the details in the mattress which aren't shown. The full image can be view on my Patreon, https://www.patreon.com/ArtDepot

The project above was completed using a Surface Studio so the work progressed as if I were working on an easel due to how the Surface Studio functions. It was a great creative experience that made the challenge of getting this right all the more important.


Brandon - Brandon Lee in The Crow. Speed painting created using a faster, looser technique in ArtRage 5 on a SurfaceBook.

This was another experiment in using oils in ArtRage 5. The demonstration video can be seen here.


Side Note - This also goes back to the earlier point of industry standards. Any of these projects could have been completed using an Android tablet, a Mac and Photoshop as examples. But the experience would not have been the same and neither would the results.


1) Macs currently do not support touch screens or digital pens so there's no comparison to the Surface Studio there.


2) Android and iOS don't support hardware powerful enough to run Rebelle which the developer, Escape Motions told me directly. Of course this may change in the future but as of right now, mobile tablets can't handle the application and there is no equivalent available on Android or iOS that matches Rebelle. ArtRage Mobile simply isn't as good as the full desktop version.


3) Although Photoshop is capable of great results, Photoshop was never designed to be a natural medium creative application. It's a photo processing application that was shoehorned with natural medium functions. As such, it's not as good as Rebelle or ArtRage, two of the best natural medium creative applications available on the market today. Adobe knows this which is why they are in the process of creating such an application, right now, as you read this.


Understand, the results are only one part of the equation. It's HOW you get those results that is equally if not more important. In Rebelle, watercolors will run, bleed and blend very similar to real world watercolors. Meaning, real watercolor techniques actually apply even though it's a digital platform. Acrylics react very similar to their real world counterpart as well. A dry canvas versus a wet canvas actually matters in Rebelle. A dirty brush versus a clean brush actually matters. A flat canvas version a tilted canvas matters as does the choice in textured paper, brush type and canvas type. ArtRage is similar and is capable of producing results that look, feel and react like real oils. Something that Photoshop imitates but doesn't surpass ArtRage in terms of function. ArtRage's airbrush tools, chalks, pencils and palette knife are all top notch. Watercolors are where ArtRage falls short because its watercolors doesn't offer the same level of depth and realistic function as Rebelle. But as far as Adobe goes, they know Photoshop is lacking in this area as well which is why it's being addressed with the creation of a new application.


At the end of the day, it's up to the individual to decide how best to proceed with mastering their craft. There are a large variety of options available but it's the knowledge and skill of the individual that matters most. That talent should shine through the technology. The technology shouldn't be the only talent.


Crystal - portrait of a former co worker created using 4H - HB pencils on smooth paper.

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