Going from Photoshop to Traditional Paint (Long, but please help! :)

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  11 November 2013
Going from Photoshop to Traditional Paint (Long, but please help! :)

I'm a self-taught digital artist, meaning I don't have a traditional art school education, and I recently decided I want to learn everything I can about truly traditional art—namely creating entire pieces from start to finish using pencils, canvas and something like acrylics or gouache.

In fact, my policy for this entire quest is to avoid electricity at all, other than lighting. I want to learn to paint the way artists in bygone centuries (who did, after all, create art that still looks incredible) did it. If they didn't need things like projectors, light boxes and computers, neither should I.

I have a few burning questions, though, which reveal how much I've been spoiled by digital art:

1. How is complex composition handled by traditional painters?

Imagine creating a complex scene with multiple background layers, multiple characters, trees, clouds, etc. As a digital artist, I can spend as long as I want adjusting these elements individually. If I realize after a week of work that a cloud is awkwardly intersecting with a tree, I can shift it over and fix it immediately. If I'm drawing a crowd of people, I can make changes to their distribution incrementally over the course of days or weeks until it's perfect.

But I've also seen paintings from centuries ago as complex as anything I've ever seen a digital artist paint. Did they truly just draw it all in one go and get every object and angle interrelationship dead-on? Is the answer that "they're just that good?" Or is there some additional process I'm not familiar with? I've heard that sometimes artists would draw on separate layers of tissue-like paper and then arrange them into a single composition (sorta like pre-computer Photoshop layers), but how common was this kind of thing? Is there somewhere I can learn more about pre-computer composition techniques like this? Or is the answer to simply get so good that I can draw it all in one layer on a single canvas?

2. My strongest traditional art skill is pencil drawing - do I have to relearn all of that using paint?

I often draw on paper with pencil, scan it, then paint over it in Photoshop. But Photoshop paint is nothing like real paint. We have infinite magically separate layers, we can toggle the underlying sketch at will or lower the opacity of various elements to keep track of the outline, etc. On canvas, there's no equivalent to this. So after I've created a meticulous pencil drawing that captures every detail I want, how do I just paint "over" that? I'd end up erasing 80% of my detail in the first few minutes just laying down my basic flat fill colors.

So I'll fill a character's face with a dark skin tone, but then immediately lose the eyes, mouth, cheek bone definition that I might have spent an hour perfecting in the pencil sketch. What's the point of even drawing in the first place?

Do I have to re-learn everything about drawing, except with a brush? Because I can't figure out how to retain my pencil work (where I'm most comfortable getting details worked out) while also adding painted color. It's another case where Photoshop really spoils us, because you never lose your guide.

And how exactly do you erase when you're painting anyway? Obviously with an opaque medium like acrylics you can paint over your mistakes, but how many times can you get away with that? I sometimes draw, erase and redraw facial features COUNTLESS times to get the expression perfect—I feel like I'll end up with half inch of solid paint built-up on my canvas if I try that approach with a brush. If there were some way to keep my pencil sketch intact, I could probably get the paint right in one or two tries, but with my guide painted over entirely, I could see it taking many, many more attempts.

3. In general, where can a digital artist learn more about this stuff?

Actually enrolling in art school isn't an option right now, and so 90% of my Google searches just give me endless Photoshop painting information. Where can a spoiled, Photoshop-reliant artist like myself learn specific techniques for transferring my approach and thought process to traditional media? I'd REALLY love to learn more about this, but I feel like everything's so biased in favor of digital art these days that I'll never really get any decent answers.

  11 November 2013
1) Traditional artists back then did a ton of studies and planning. In every single artist's monograph, you'll often see accompanying sketches, life drawing studies, drapery studies, animal studies, lighting studies, color studies, skin tone studies, etc done prior to starting the painting. There are sometimes fully detailed drawings too, showing every details to be seen in the final painting in monochromatic form, to work out the values and the composition. And of course, they change their minds or make mistakes too, and would often repaint large portions of their paintings, or just completely start over. This is why you sometimes see two or three versions of the same painting by the same artist.

2) You need to understand that drawing and painting are not to separate ideas nor are they mutually exclusive. When painting, you are still drawing, because you are still dealing with shapes--that's what drawing is. And when you draw, you often shade to create values, and that's what painting is if you disregard color--it's the depicting of values (and artists do monochromatic paintings too). You can do colored drawings too, such as with colored pencils, pastels, markers, etc. So the only difference is handling of the tools. You can use very thin brushes to "draw" details if you want to. You can use very broad flat charcoals to "paint" value shapes of you want to. Stop separating them in your mind and treat them the same. Artworks are only shapes, values, colors, edges, textures, and that's it. Both drawing and painting tools can convey all of those qualities, so there shouldn't be distinctions.

And because of what I just explained, you don't try to "keep" the details of your drawings because there's no reason why you can't be drawing and painting at the same time. No law dictates you must do "line work" first and then detail the hell out of it, and the apply values/colors.

If you must do it that way, you can often glaze over your drawings with transparent acrylic washes, which will "seal" your drawings so they don't get smudged or washed off. You can also block in most of the important colors and values with transparent washes, and then just build the polish/details on top of it with thicker paint. Yes, you'll "cover" up your drawing, but at least you have a road map to map on, as opposed to a completely blank canvas with no indication marks at all. This is how pretty much all artists work--especially commercial artists.

To fix mistakes, painters often wipe or scrape off mistakes with a rag or palette knife if the paint's not dried yet. If it is, they just paint over the mistakes.

Many fine artists--especially plein air/alla prima artists, don't do the whole "drawing first and then paint" thing--they don't need to. They are skilled and enlightened enough as artists to understand that there's no separation between the two, so they basically can just draw with paint. They just put down some indication marks of roughly where the main shapes are on the canvas, and then proceed to paint with the full values/colors right away, building up the shapes and forms and edges. I highly recommend you buy at least one of Richard Schmid's painting DVD's--he's one of the most accomplished living painters alive today, and watching him paint is like a revelations, as he's the best of the best. Other alla prima artists don't even come close to his skill, knowledge, and artistic sensibility. You can also take a look at Pino Daeni, Jeremy Lipking, Morgan Weistling, Daniel Gerhartz, Huihan Liu, etc--some of them (and their peers in the fine art world) have made painting demonstration videos too, though not as impressive as the ones by Schmid. I also highly recommend Schmid's book, Alla Prima: Everything I Know About Painting (the new edition just came out and it's awesome--the best book on painting and art instruction ever written, period).

3) I kind of answered your questions already with all those recommendations. You should also study past masters--the ones that influenced the above mentioned artists, such as John Singer Sargent, Joaquin Sorolla, Anders Zorn, Nicolai Fechin, or golden age illustrators like Haddon Sundblom, Gil Elvgren, Norman Rockwell, and of course, get the books by Andrew Loomis. Two more excellent art instruction books are Harley Brown's Eternal Truths for Every Artist, and Tom Browning's Timeless Techniques for Better Oil paintings. Problem Solving for Oil Painters by Watson Guptill is good too.

If you can only get one book, get Schmid's Alla Prima. There is no better book on art instruction and painting in existence (there are ones that are provide more hand-holding, but in terms of depth, wisdom, profundity, and insights, it is in its own league).
  11 November 2013
What's your beef with technology?

Do you really think all the great artists back from the renaissance wouldn't utilize every tool we have today, if they had the chance?

Many of the best traditional painters I know use digital art in some form or another to aid their process. Some copy and print their drawings, and then paint over that. Some use 3d programs to help them with complicated arrangements. A hell of a lot use photography.

I do not think it is necessary to use technology just because it's there, but I think it's a bit short sighted to refuse to use it just because Da Vinci couldn't.

If you live in a town with any significant population of retirees, there's probably also some guy offering watercolor or oil landscape painting lessons. He might not be an amazing painter, but he can teach you the basics of the medium, and you can take it from there. Private group painting lessons like that tend to be cheap and worth it just to throw you in and get you using paint as it should be used. It'll keep you from doing stupid things like washing your acrylic brushes with canola oil or thinning your oil paints with mineral spirits. It's another option to consider, beyond books or internet or art school.
  11 November 2013
For online learning, Watts Atelier has online courses for traditional art: http://www.wattsatelier.com/online/

And don't forget, there are a ton of Youtube instruction videos for traditional artists, many demonstrating analog drawing and painting techniques, tips and tricks, etc.
  11 November 2013
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