Saturday, July 18, 2015

There and Back Again: Digital vs. Traditional

Here is a recently completed illustration hot off the easel:

If you saw my earlier post on this piece, a few things might surprise you. For one, the colors have changed dramatically and secondly, this is no longer a digital painting...sort of.

Lets look at the progression...

Above is the illustration as far as I took it digitally. I went through a couple different color schemes emphasizing the color blue, which was the theme color for the competition I submitted it to. As I was getting into detailed rendering, I ran into some challenges because of the file size. My computer wasn't handling the pixel load well, so I used a tiny brush and proceeded to render in a cross-hatch fashion. It went pretty well, but started to get laborious, especially since I was going in with a mixer brush afterwards to smooth out rough areas. I had enough and decided to render everything in pencil instead...

I printed out a lighter version of my digital painting and traced the outlines onto a piece of matt board. Along the way, I made some slight changes and added highlights with white gouache. I used 4b mechanical pencil lead, which worked incredibly well since I didn't have to continuously sharpen my pencil. However, a 6b or 8b pencil lead would be ideal to get some higher contrast. If anyone knows where to find 6b mechanical pencil lead at 0.5 mm....

The first image in this second set of progress shots is the raw scan. The second is touch-ups and  contrast adjustments using levels. The third is the final illustration with color added on a gradient map for the base colors. I added color mode layers on top of that for specific areas. I went with a more naturalistic approach to the colors, which helps with readability.

Digital vs Traditional

I've been there and back again when it comes to mediums. After working primarily digitally for the past 2 years (before then was mostly traditional), I made some new observations with this re-visitation. In the end, I still enjoy both digital and traditional mediums, but they have their strengths and weaknesses that for me makes each better for different purposes.


The beauty of digital tools is the ability to make quick manipulations and zoom out to view the "big picture", or the composition in its entirety. I can scale parts of the my composition, cut and paste, and mirror my image for a fresh take more quickly than with a traditional sketch. After I'm happy with my composition, I can work directly on top of the sketch with the final drawing so that I can retain the same visual flow and freshness of the initial composition.


In Photoshop, accurate values are just a dropper away. With a traditional painting or drawing, it's a matter of eye-balling to check that your values are consistent if, for example, you have the same object in another part of the composition with the same lighting. In Photoshop, I can use the dropper to pick the exact value from one area and replicate it to another. Other challenges with traditional mediums include achieving a studio space that gives you adequate lighting while working and getting a good photograph or scan of your artwork. Both can effect your value contrast.


 Drawing the details can be fun. It can also be painful. Lately, my challenge has been to find an ergonomically-sound digital set-up. Surprisingly, my drawing arm doesn't run into problems with tension. However, I can say after going back and drawing the same illustration over again that I have much more control with rendering details traditionally. Here is a comparison of my finished quasi-traditional illustration with a relatively finished area of my digital painting:

I personally like the look of the traditional version, which is more uniform in texture and detail. It's not significantly more detailed, but I like the idea that you can zoom in even further to see the grain of the pencil instead of pixelation. There's something about the control I get with traditional drawing that even my misplaced lines look more graceful and subtle than if I made the same mistake digitally.

Now, the real culprit for my digital hurdles is a combination of my "hotkeys" hand and the limitations of my current digital tools. I use two keys to toggle the brush size, which I operate with two fingers. This is a pretty rapid and persistent movement, which ends in crazy shoulder pain after a few hours. To prevent having to put my arm in a sling (it has happened), I used this hatching method with a tiny brush combined with a mixer brush for smoothing. This freed me from having to change brush size and prevented the delay in each brush stroke that I had with a larger brush that was a result of the large file size. Even with those changes, traditional drawing was more painless. I can say with great satisfaction that my hotkeys hand played no major role in the final illustration.


Color is tricky regardless of medium. I usually approach it by experimenting until I find something that looks good. It's not the most reliable approach, I will admit. For now, I like the control I have with a separate greyscale illustration and color layer. In the future, I think I will branch out and find methods to apply color directly to my traditional illustrations.

More mixed-medium illustrations to come in the future!

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