A six hour flight is murder when you can’t sleep through it. Absolute terror when all you have is a laptop and all you want to do is paint. I flat refuse to watch this week’s best shitty movie and did I mention I wanted to paint? Remember what I said about painting along with painting videos? Trapped on a flight with just a laptop is the perfect time to do just that, but I had to go digital. In the end I learned quite a bit about digital painting and simplified the process of painting along with a video.
First I should cover some of the reasons why you might want to do digital painting vs. real painting. I think digital painting can be a great tool to teach beginners, but frankly I think it’s probably harder than real paint. The tools just really aren’t there, but if this interests you then here’s my assessment of it as a painting medium.
I much prefer real paint to digital. Painting is a break from my computer and the visceral physical action of using my hands is meditative and fun. With paint I can just hang out for hours painting massive or small canvases and it’s nothing like work. On a computer, everything just feels like work. I feel part of the problem with digital painting is that I don’t know it very well, but also partly because of the tools.
The tools are alright, but they try very hard to be like paint and just don’t get it quite right. Most of the painting programs are in that weird uncanny valley where they’re close, but so irritatingly far that they feel awkward and weird. Most of them have a focus on trying to make the strokes of color look and feel like painting medium (oil, acrylic, pastel, watercolor, etc.) but then are totally oblivious to real painting process. This then makes them simply awkward to work with and in some ways just plain dumb.
The best example of this is in mixing color. With paint I can paint an entire convincing image with just a tube of yellow, red, black, and white each. I can literally paint anything I want with just those, and I don’t need a huge palette of colors. Maybe I’ll use blue instead of black to be more flexible and realistic. If I want to have fun and explore color I can then expand that to maybe 6, 10, or 13 tubes of paint, but ultimately I just need three tubes. The act of mixing a color is then fairly straight forward. Take some of one color, alter it with the other two, get it to the right value with white, and see if it works. With just three primaries my job of getting colors is simple.
In most painting software mixing colors is a massive pain in the ass. You’re presented with interfaces like this one from ArtRage 4:
Which end up being infinite four dimensional color selection and storing systems. Presented with every single color I’m forced to scrub around until I find what I think is close then slowly modify it, or just grab at random. Random ends up working better if I swipe a test on, and if it works, store it in a sample. Don’t get me wrong, ArtRage 4 is so far the easiest and most clear digital painting tool I’ve used yet, but mixing could be way better.
Corel Painter is also very fun to use, but also totally brain dead on color mixing. It also shows the same “infinite color picker” problem, and then tries to solve it with a mixing palette like this:
Thinking they might have got it right, I ended up just not using it either. In both cases the key thing these programs misunderstand is the word MIXING. They seem to think “mixing” means choosing a color from all the possible colors. That’s not how a painter works. I make new colors by combining colors from two piles of paint. I don’t sit down and select the exact color I want from some massive grid of pre-mixed colors in every possible variation. I also don’t have access to the millions of colors that a computer has available. My gamut is actually fairly small, which actually makes mixing paint color easier because I can narrow my palette of primary colors down.
I’m telling you this because most of the tools and things I’ll show you in this article are trivial. Putting down strokes of color is not the difficult part. It’s getting the color right that’s hard, and nearly every painter program I tried just sucked wad at that. ArtRage worked well only because it was so simple that the problem of color selection was my only problem. Corel Painter is great so far, but it’s damn powerful so was a bit too hard to use for this exercise.
This is the main disadvantage of digital painting. Mixing colors is damn hard because they don’t get “mixing”, only picking color. It’s also not like this is too hard given how mixing color is simple chemistry and one of the easiest physical things to do. I end up mixing colors by creating a spot to the right of my painting where I put color down and then scrub between them, but it’s a poor proxy for the real deal.
The only other disadvantage of digital painting is that you can’t realistically do anything larger than your computer screen. That’s not a big problem on a plane though so I won’t get into that here, but if you want to paint big things or weird things then digital is dumb.
Digital painting is ultra portable, especially if you use a computer all day like I do anyway. All you need is the laptop you already carry around and a graphic tablet. No solvents, water, paint, paper, canvases, brushes, tubes of paint, paper towels, or any of the crap. Hell, it just takes all the fun out of getting into painting anyway. No more toys to buy. I should put this in the disadvantages column actually now that I think about it.
Cost is also lower, assuming you already have a computer. You can get a pretty good graphic tablet for $50 from Monoprice and then you buy some software for about $50 more. After that you never have to buy another thing again. Just keep doing paintings all day long, day and night, until your laptop dies and need to replace it.
It’s also much easier to post your paintings online. No more taking photos of them and then fixing them in Lightroom because you can never find the right lighting. Just paint it and post it.
Lastly, it’s a hell of a lot safer. Painting is mostly safe today, but if you do oil paint then it’s still a bit dangerous because of solvents. Acrylic also has some bad stuff in it, and let’s not forget the pigments. If you’re still painting with cadmium you’re an idiot. Digital painting is totally safe for you, even if your laptop is an environmental nightmare.
Ever since I started painting I tinkered with digital painting, but last night on my flight was the first time I really put in about 6 hours to it. What I did was load up a bunch of Richard Robinson painting lessons on my laptop and followed along. However there is a very specific way I did them that matches how I tell beginners how to code.
First thing is I wanted to train my visual memory, so I made the ArtRage window and the video window full screen. What?! That’s right, I spent the whole time switching back and forth between them so that I’d have to remember what I saw and try to paint it. This is similar to how you’d actually work out in the field anyway, but also this helps me work on perceiving something I want to paint, holding it memory and then painting it.
I tell people who want to learn to code to do the same thing with their code and my books. Don’t put them side-by-side as that doesn’t exercise your ability to remember blocks of code. You’ll learn faster if you have to cover what you’re typing in while you type it, so make both your text editor and your source material full screen and switch. I’m doing that right now while learning F# and it works way better and faster.
To facilitate this I setup a button on my graphic tablet that does nothing but switch windows. That way I don’t have to do much other than push a button, look at what I have to do next in the video, and then push another button to paint it. Easy.
Next up is the tablet I used. I was on a plane so I couldn’t use the nice Cintiq I have. That’s next and I’m excited to use that because it has tilt and pressure controls which should make it much easier. The tablet I did use is a Monoprice 8.5” Graphic Tablet that is $43USD and works great given the price. If you’re just starting out I wouldn’t bother with anything more than this. While I use it I just put it on my laptop’s keyboard where it fits perfectly and paint right there.
For this exercise I used ArtRage 4 and will do the exercise again with Corel Painter to compare how they work. ArtRage is less expensive and has a great feel to it. It’s simple but still powerful enough to do most digital art you could want. Corel Painter is crazy powerful and could replace Photoshop and Illustrator for many design tasks. I’m finding that ArtRage seems to produce more “digital art” looking pieces and Painter produces more “classical art” pieces. That could just be how I’m using them though, but that’s the feel they give me.
The first painting I did was following along with a video painting a river in his first set of workshop videos. The one I followed along with was titled “Glowing Light” and my result is this:
This actually took me about 2 hours, and involves lots of pausing, painting, and adjusting to follow along. I also end up copying Richard’s mistakes and then learning how to fix them, which is really helpful. I like that he includes his mistakes and I think that’s a huge benefit of following along with videos like this.
That painting got my training wheels off, and helped me figure out how to use ArtRage more efficiently. It’s all about grabbing colors and saving them in the Samples window. I also found that I had to hide most of the little windows on the screen, but ArtRage does a good job of moving things out of my way when I get near them.
I then wanted to see how using a fixed pre-mixed palette would work rather than mixing as I go. I actually tend to pre-mix my colors, but don’t use “color strings” from a gamut. Richard has a good video of him painting the grand canyon where he uses a gamut of colors and pre-mixed color strings, so I picked a simple one and then did this:
I kept this one simple so that I could work with the colors, but for the most part pre-mixing colors worked really well. I think that’s mostly how I’ll do it in the future. Either way, it is definitely all about finding a color and then storing it in the Samples window so that you can call it up and modify it later.
I had about an hour left, so I decided to attempt a more ambitious abstract painting from one last video. Richard does a really pretty painting of a Pōhutukawa tree at Waipu Cove, New Zealand and I got through just the blockin of color and shapes before I landed:
Then I took a break from working on my book to finish it and produced this:
I think total time on it was about 2.5 hours, and it wasn’t too difficult. I’ll definitely continue following along with painting this way and try to switch between ArtRage and Corel Painter in the near future.
Process So Far
I’ve found that the best process is fairly similar to how I’d paint normally:
1. Draw out a format on the full screen canvas with some neutral color using the pencil or pen tool.
2. Do a basic drawing with the color on this layer to get big shapes oriented.
3. Make a new layer and set the opacity of this under layer so that it’s vary faint.
4. Select (since you can’t really mix) most of the colors for each shape, in a few values.
5. Paint in the big shapes kind of sloppy.
6. Refine them with more subtle colors and correcting them as you go.
I also find that with ArtRage I really like laying down color with the brush, then altering it with the palette knife tool, or going over it with the watercolor brush to add reflected light. That seems to be a good combo. I’m not a huge fan of the airbrush tool but I may try doing a painting with only that to see what it makes.
Next up, I’ll try out Corel Painter and see what I can produce with it. I’m thinking I’ll just keep doing the Richard Robinson videos so that there’s some similarity in the art that I make with it and do a fair comparison between Painter and ArtRage. If you have a favorite painting software you like, or books and videos, drop me a comment. I’d like to hear about it. If you’re making one, let me know because I definitely have words on how you’ll screw it up.