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Illustrations with Photoshop

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This entry in O’Reilly’s “A Designer Notebook” series focuses on the use of Adobe Photoshop to create “world-class commercial illustrations.” Translated from the original French by William Rodamor, and featuring the work of illustrators such as Bengal (a graphic novel designer and artist), Nicolas Bouvier (a video game artist and art director), Benjamin Carre (a book illustrator and game designer), and Judith Darmont ( a painter), it is a rich, lush, visual tapestry interwoven with each work’s history of creation.

As with the other entries in this series, this is no basic primer on Photoshop; it is instead a step-by-step guide to the creation of nine specific works of art ranging from advertising to children’s book illustration, from sci fi graphic novels to illustrations for role playing games. It offers not so much the fundamentals of how the program works but rather concrete, real-world examples of how the program can be used. None of it is simple and all of it reflects the time-consuming process of artistic expression, with each painstaking stage recorded by the artist. In general, the book also reveals that very few of the artists use Photoshop exclusively; most of them begin with a basic sketch or image from an outside source and manipulate it into the final product in Photoshop.

Some might consider resorting to outside materials something of a cheat in the context of a book “on” Photoshop, but of course what we’re really talking about is how to make quality graphic images and that’s not going to be quite as simple as pulling a picture off the web and applying a few Photoshop filters to it. What you find in “Illustrations with Photoshop” is the backdrop to nine radically diverse images and artistic methods, and it offers encouragement and inspiration to those interested in pushing their artistic talents to the limit.

The book’s “studio” opens with Bengal’s “Robot Lady.” It’s a demurely muted image illustrating the interaction between a young girl and a robotic presence in some sort of futuristic setting. Bengal regards most of his images as beginning as “tiny universes,” and says that this image was birthed the moment the line, “The robot, which had been alone for so long, didn’t know that its welcoming gift wasn’t suitable for the young lady . . .” He began by sketching the image in pencil, then scanning it. As he worked with it to eliminate imperfections in the images (such as those created by the pencil, by dust, or the texture of the paper), he notes that such marks might be left to give the image a slight sense of surface texture, but he prefers to add texture later in the process; “texture shouldn’t be laid down right away. It’s more of a distraction at the beginning than a true graphic element.” He inks it in “just a few seconds” using the cutout filter, and proceeds to layer in color, lighting, background, and texture. The final product is a a wonderful pseudo-magna piece of sci-fi futurism.

Nicholas Bouvier’s “Confrontation” is another sci-fi piece, this an aptly titled combat image featuring two groups at the edge of battle in some sort of futuristic military/industrial installation. Intriguingly, Bouvier says he created the image without an initial sketch, prefering instead to begin with Photoshop’s airbrush tool. “Thanks to the many effects that layers afford, an artist can skip a prepatory sketch, and try any number of things.” While he notes that it wasn’t easy to use learn how to use Photoshop from the outset of his designs, at this point he prefers doing so because it affords him instant gratification. What is so intriguing about this is that he demonstrates how he does it (in part through the use of a Wacom tablet) by simply creating a rough sketch of the preliminary shapes with the airbrush tool. As he adds additional layers, he still manages to create something of a watercolor or pastel effect. I found it fascinating to see in detail how he managed to create an effective composition largely through the addition of layers of subsequent detail, essentially treating the computer screen like a canvas and simply adding “paint” to achieve the look he desired.

Benjamin Carre’s “Blanche” was a composition created for a volume of a graphic novel series called Vampire. Carre essentially took a base snapshot image of a real world location and converted it into an atmospheric, moody, futuristic world (I”m beginning to note a theme with the works here, but that’s not bad: digital illustration frequently involves science fiction and fantasy, and the images here are all exceptionally well-rendered). Using a digital camera, he took a picture of an intriguing building in an industrial setting and then combining it with a number of collaged images culled from other photographs and some new elements as well to create the final product.

Judith Darmont’s “Let’s Laugh” is an impressionistic collage playing off the contrast between the title and the enigmatic Mona Lisa-like subject. Like Carre, she sketches the initial image on the computer using a graphic tablet. She starts with the Brush tol and a white background (Carre likewise uses a white background, but opts for the airbrush tool as a preliminary device, which results in a quite different final product). I liked her suggestion for adding light to an image:

When building an image, one moment I love is adding light. For this I use a trick. I create a new layer in Normal mode, which I put above all the others. This layer is black, with an opacity set to 80%, so my image almost completely disappears (though I can still make out the painting). Using the Eraser with the Airbrush setting, I gradually uncover the image, erasing the black layer little by little.

This is really the magical stage in creating a picture. The character suddenly takes on a great deal of intensity and light. I brighten the interesting parts of the painting until I feel it’s time to stop.

Nicholas Fruttus’ work, “The High Terrace,” is a fantasy piece devoted to a mythical city. The section of the city illustrated by this work – “a rich and colorful environment where Laelith’s leading citizens are found” – is masterfully created through Fructus’ use of Photoshop to colorize his base sketch. He believes in scanning sketches, and advises, “When creating a series of illustrations it’s a good idea to do all the sketches at the same time, then lay them on the floor and look at them as a group, scrutinizing the unity of the work. A computer’s screen is too small; just imagine opening nine images onscreen at once.” Intriguingly, once he scans the image, he chooses to convert the image to sepia for its “inking” stage; he believes this allows the paint colors to blend more easily with the lines (as opposed to say, blue or green, or perhaps even black).

Hippolyte’s “London Pub” begins with a scratchboard art sketch which is scanned into Photoshop and illustrated in color. The image is largely about patterns and color, from the sketch through the final result. Here, I think that we learn something by what happens when Hippolyte flattens the image into the final – “And here, I get a surprise: my picture has become very dull!” Even at the very last moment, it is possible to discover that colors and hues aren’t working quite as one expects. The only proper response? “I work on the various color layers to get the result I want.”

Joel Legars “Back to School” is an illustration for a series of picture books for small children. It’s a playful piece that combines cartoon-like animals and a somewhat realistic street scene, using techniques that incorporate both painting and photography. In essence, Legars used an “initial setting” (i.e., an actual picture of a street scene) and sketches of his characters to combine in what could be considered the “base” image, then proceded to use Photoshop layers to translate those components into the final product.

In “Voyage to Porto,” Antoine Quaresma demonstrates various techniques in a piece designed for an illustrated book about the historical background of the city of Porto. Quaresma used photographs as source material for initial sketches which were then scanned into Photoshop. Base colors (“sky” and “ground”) were used to prepare general divisions between the two major components of the image, and additional layers were slowly added. A piece of advice: “For a natural landscape, background colors must be based on a pale, faded blue. Washing out the background relative to the middle ground and foreground makes the image and accentuates the effect of perspective.” The painstaking process of slowly adding layers of color to buildings, streets, and bridges is amazing, but the final result is undoubtedly worth the effort.

The final work is Marguerite Sauvage’s “By the Swimming Pool,” an image that conjures up a retro, somewhat Art Deco feel; bright, sunny, and oh-so-tropical. Sauvage went through a series of rough sketches before finally settling on the final base composition. Here again, we see an artist developing a personal technique rather than following some sort of standardized format:

I always draw my roughs in blue, using the kind of Col-Erase pencil often used by animators. It’s a habit I picked up when I was drawing comic books and working on video games, and I kept it because I like the surface texture it produces.

All in all, Illustrations with Photoshop is exactly what it promises: a Designer’s Notebook, filled with tips, tricks, and techniques but perhaps even more importantly with inspiration. The compelling images designed by the artists collected in this book not only demonstrate the time-consuming process associated with any artistic creation, whether designed in part on a computer or not; they also reflect the fact that with effort and patience people can indeed utilize Photoshop to make compelling artwork on their own.

Also: read Yensid’s review of this title.

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