Lazy Nezumi Pro

I’d like to plug a Photoshop plug-in that I discovered a couple months ago and I think it’s absolutely wonderful. Lazy Nezumi Pro. What it primarily does is smooth your strokes for you, which eliminates the regrettable stair-step pixelated lines you sometimes get if you’re zoomed out too far when you draw or when your processor is being stupid. And it smooths out your wobbly curves. It lets you specify how much you want it to average out your strokes, so it’s totally adjustable for your preferences.

Another totally useful things it does is that it has a ton of different types of on-screen rulers to help you draw lines, curves, shapes in perspective, spirals, etc. The great thing about these rulers is that you can adjust the precision. So, when you want to draw almost-perfect shapes or lines, but not so perfect that it doesn’t look hand-drawn, this does that beautifully.

There are a bunch of other cool features as well that you absolutely should play with.

I bought it because my wonderful wacom cintiq had ANOTHER 3-in-1 cord fail on me. Seriously, wacom? Seriously?!? And it took TWO MONTHS for them to send me a replacement because they were out of stock. (If you have one of these, do yourself a favor and buy a spare cord to keep around, because they break ALL THE TIME and wacom can’t seem to keep them in stock. Especially if you’re out of the warranty period.)

So, my cintiq was out of commission for the entire second half of my recent Genie Loophole project. Luckily, I still had my old wacom intuos pro. It is a graphics tablet, but not a screen tablet like the cintiq. It takes a little longer to get the lines the way I like them on the intuos than on the cintiq. The two main problems are getting strokes to fall exactly where I want them and avoiding the stair-step thing on my lines.

Lazy Nezumi saved my skin. After some practice, I was able to use that in combination with my intuos and get results as good as, and almost as fast as, with my cintiq.

Anyway, go buy the thing. It’s worth the money. You will thank me for it.

Facial Proportions

I’d like to talk to you all a little about facial proportions.  I’ve seen a lot of tutorials telling you that these are the proper proportions for drawing a face.

You basically divide the whole head in half, then the bottom half in half again, and that newest bottom half in half one more time.  Easy.  Instant guidelines.  And it looks pretty good.  It actually does work fairly well if you’re drawing in a cartoon style with eyes that are over-sized, like anime.  You actually need the middle of the face to be a bit distorted to fit those big eyes.

But it’s not a realistic proportion.  Just look what happens when I overlay those guides over my own face.

avatarThe nose is way higher than the nose line shows and the lips are a bit high.  And it’s not just that I have a freakishly proportioned face.  Look at these random old pictures of relatives.

If you use these proportions to try to create a realistic image you come up with something much too long-nosed.  I think in hindsight that’s what I used to come up with the proportions for this self-portrait I made in high school (back in ’96).

It doesn’t look bad, exactly, but it doesn’t look right.  People have told me that it looks like me (or at least me at that age) except that my nose isn’t that long.

So, what are the proper proportions for drawing a REALISTIC face?  Try this:
avatar 2
Six equal segments.  Easiest to divide the face in half, then divide the top and bottom into thirds.  The lines correspond roughly to the top of the head, hairline, eyes, bottom of the nose, bottom of the lower lip, and bottom of the chin.  If you divide that segment just over the eye-line in half, that’s about where the brows go.  And remember that individual faces vary.  Don’t get too reliant on formula.  It should be used as a guide, not a rule.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt works for babies too, but with an exception.  Centerline down is correct.  Centerline up is about another third higher to the top of the head than for an adult.  Kids have huge foreheads.

Now, the original half-half-half method is actually probably correct for cartoons and things with over-sized eyes that don’t need to be precisely realistic.  But you need to remember that it IS imprecise.  Otherwise when you DO tackle something realistic, you won’t understand why all your people look kind of horse-faced.

Tutorial: Better Way to Remove White (Without A Filter!)

Okay, as an illustrator, I frequently find myself needing to remove all white from a layer in Photoshop.  I’ve been doing this with a filter called Kill White which I talked about here.  But I always thought this was such an obvious need, why doesn’t Photoshop come with a tool that does this already?  Something in their filters or maybe in Image->Adjust?  But I’d never found it.

Now, of course, had I taken any formal Photoshop classes I might have learned the trick from a professor.  But as it is I learned Photoshop on-the-job, on my own, and from the occasional online tutorial.  So, although I’m well-versed in the day-to-day operation of Photoshop (and even many obscure things that it can do) I do have the odd hole in my skill set.

Well, a few weeks ago I filled one of these holes.  I found how you properly remove white from a layer.  Without any add-on filters.  I’m sorry I can’t cite my source.  I think I saw the explanation on tumblr.  But I’m really not sure where.  But whoever the mysterious educator was, you have my gratitude.

Anyhow, here’s what you do.  (And it’s stupid easy, btw.)  You know that CHANNELS tab you probably never use and have no idea what it does besides change your image funny colors when you hide one channel or another?  Well, it uses that.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go to the Window menu and go down to Channels.  Click that.

Now you see it?  Okay, good.  Remember where it is, but go over to layers tab for the moment.  Choose the layer you want to remove white from.  Make sure it isn’t the background layer.  If it is, copy or convert it to a regular layer.  Select that layer.

Now go back to channels.  All four channels are selected.  Leave that as it is.  Look at the bottom of the channel window.  There’s a line of symbols.  A dotted circle (Load channel as selection), square with a circle in the middle of it (Save selection as channel), rectangle with the corner folded over that means new (Create new channel), and the trash can (Delete selected channel).  So, that first symbol is the one that matters.  The load channel as selection.  With all four channels selected (as they were when you got there) click that dotted circle.

That automatically selects all the white in the layer.  Not just all the white, but if the pixel is 20% white and the rest some color, it is selecting that 20% white but not the 80% color.  Don’t ask me how it does that, just accept it.  So, now, while all the white in your image is selected, press your delete key.

Now click Select->Deselect.

And you’re done.  Your white is gone leaving only your lines.

Can’t see it?  Add a new layer under the one you were working with and fill it with white.  See it now?  Good.  🙂

One more fun thing.  If you wanted to tint or monochrome all the lines, this is a really good time.  Or if the lines seem too light to you after removing the white.  So, go reselect all the transparent stuff that used to be white before you deleted it.  Do this by clicking Select->Reselect.  Then click Select->Inverse.

Now all the stuff that is not white is selected.  And selected so that the 20% transparency on the pixel (previously 20% white) is not selected, only the colored 80% of that pixel.  So, if you want, just paint over that layer with a big brush of whatever darkish color you want.

Now, Select->Deselect.

There you go.

I guess I really should take the time to learn what else the Channels tool actually does, huh?

There is No “Create Art” Button in Photoshop!

A mother at my daughter’s school, after learning that I was an illustrator, commented something to the effect that she knows it’s so much easier for someone to make art now that there are programs like Photoshop out there to do it for you.  I informed her that, even with Photoshop, it still took work to create decent art and that there was no automatic “Create Art” button in Photoshop.  She reluctantly conceded that, but responded that she thought that it was only a matter of time until there really was.  I tried to explain why that wasn’t practical and wouldn’t happen, but she didn’t believe me.  Her faith in the possibilities of tomorrow’s technology was fierce, if simplistic.  It was a very strange conversation and I came away from it feeling vaguely insulted.

So, in case there is any doubt by anyone out there, I would like to say:

Digital art takes just as much talent as any other genre of art.  A digital painting is usually created by an artist using a stylus on a graphics tablet.  It’s very similar to using a pen and paper or a brush and canvas.  It’s just another medium, with its own techniques and challenges.  Although Photoshop does have some very cool, arty filters, there is no automatic feature to create art.  Good artwork, digital or not, takes work.  It always will.

Photoshop Tip: Text Along a Curved Line

Did you know that you can run your text along a curved line in Photoshop?  Just create a path (I’m not going into how to do that) and then switch to the text tool.  Move the curser over the line and it will change the way it looks.  Click and type and you’ll be typing along the line.  Neat, huh?

I learned about it here.

Tutorial: A Trick with Kill White

Here’s a trick you can do with the free Photoshop filter Mike and Kael’s Kill White (which is an awesome filter for several reasons).

So I have a picture of a flower.  Nothing special.  There’s not a whole lot of contrast and it’s just kind of blah.  I tried playing with the contrast and the colors and I just wasn’t happy with it.  So, I went back to the beginning and did a trick with Kill White instead.

Here’s the original:

I copied the layer.

And converted it to black and white.  That’s Image->Adjustments->Black & White.  I played with the filters until I came up with one that made mostly the leaves darker, but the petals stayed bright.  This time it was the High Contrast Red Filter, but if none of the pre-sets look quite right, you can manually adjust the filter.

Now you have two layers.  A black and white and a color.  Here’s where I use the handy-dandy kill white filter on the black and white layer.  That transformed all the white in the layer to transparent and you get this:

Almost there, but just a bit too dark.  So I adjust the vibrance of the bottom layer.  That’s Image->Adjustments->Vibrance.  In this case I upped the vibrance and the saturation by 10.  Then I upped the brightness by 40 under Image->Adjustments->Brightness/Contrast.  Then I adjusted the transparency of the top layer to 80%.  And came up with this:

Okay, so maybe not an award-winning photo, but it’s a heck of a lot better than the original.

See what I mean?

Cropping helps.

The reason this works is with the transparent and black overlay, I can up the brightness and saturation of the colors I want without losing the nice dark shadows of the parts I want in shadow.  It’s a very targeted way to up the contrast on a photo.

Tutorial: Digitally coloring a hand-drawn line drawing in Photoshop

Ever since I bought my Wacom tablet, I’ve been working pretty exclusively in a digital environment.  It really makes a lot of things easier for me.  But back before my tablet, I would hand-draw the lines for an image and only add the colors on the computer.  I know lots of artists prefer to work that way and I’d like to share a couple of tricks I know to get better results from that process.

First off, you need to scan the drawing to get it into digital format.  I always scan this sort of image in greyscale at 300 resolution.  If you’re going to print the image, 300 dpi is the very minimum you want to work with.  It doesn’t hurt to make it even higher.

Let’s start with a challenge.  Let’s say that the image is too large to fit on your scanner’s bed.  As long as you have Photoshop, that’s not a problem.  You can use the photomerge feature.  I’m on Photoshop CS5, but Photoshop Elements also has it.

Scan in the two halves (or four corners) of the image so that they overlap at least some at the edges.  Save all the files somewhere you can get to and open them in Photoshop.

Then go to File->Automate->Photomerge.  Since they’re already opened, just click the button for Add Open Files.  Alternatively, you could also select the image files from your folders.  Choose the Auto radio button, if it’s not already selected.  Click OK.

Once it’s finished, merge all layers and you can close the original files.

Save this merged image file before continuing.

Make sure the image mode is RGB color, then clean up your lines.  Adjust the levels so that the lines are pure black and the page is pure white.  Or, that’s assuming you want your blacks to be pure black.  If it’s more of a pencil sketch, you might want them to be 50% or 75% black.  Whatever.  Regardless, the white needs to be 100% white.  Don’t go overboard adjusting the levels, though.  You don’t want to make the edges of the lines too pixelated.  You want to preserve those smooth shades of grey on the edges of the lines.

Erase any smudges, stray lines, etc. that you don’t want in the final picture.  You won’t be able to easily adjust the contrast later, so make sure to get the lines as you want them now

As always, remember to save often.

Now it’s time to use the most useful free plug-in there is for an illustrator working with line drawings: Mike and Yael’s Kill White.  First off, make sure that you’re not working on the background layer.  If you’re not sure, double-click on the layer to convert it to a regular layer rather than a background layer. Open up the Kill White filter and run it.

Edit:  This is a pretty old post.

I’ve since learned a better way to remove all the white from a layer using the Channels tool.  It works just as well, but without having to open PixelBender and run an add-on filter.  I talk about that here.  But the Kill White filter will also work. There are other techniques that work also. 

I also now know that you can make the white invisible by just changing the blend mode to “Darken”.  (“Multiply”, “Color Burn”, and “Linear Burn” have similar effects that will also make white invisible and which you might find useful.) Changing the blend mode is probably the easiest thing to do.  However, there are sometimes reasons you might want the white actually removed rather than merely invisible.  I usually pull the white completely out, even if I don’t strictly need to. I figure, why keep it if you don’t need it?  Occasionally it can interfere with filters or the selection tool or something.  So, I just get rid of it if I don’t need it.

Now you have a layer with all the white converted to a transparency.

Notice that it converted it cleanly?  There are no white edges around the lines.  The filter will actually convert a 50% grey pixel to a pure black pixel that’s 50% transparent.  Same thing with colors.  That means no ugly white edges.  I’ve blown the image up to 300% below to show that.

Now you have your line layer.  Create a new layer, fill it with white and position it underneath your line layer.  Think of this as your paper layer.  Create another layer and position it between your line layer and your paper layer.  This is your color layer.  Paint your colors here and they’ll be underneath the lines, but on top of the paper.  For further flexibility, you can create a new color layer for each individual color you use.  That way you can easily isolate each color and adjust it separately as necessary as you work.

Here’s another close-up.  See?  No White edges.

And there you go.  That’s how I color a line drawing with Photoshop.  I hope this makes someone’s life easier.

Post Edited Nov. 4, 2012:  Minor text changes and images added for Illustration Friday’s reblog.  

Converting Artwork to Digital Format

I’ve been creating some artwork that I’ve needed to convert into digital format.  Naturally, I was scanning the work with my flatbed scanner.  This worked fine for pen and ink and even colored pencil.  I’d take larger works over to Kinkos and have them scan it with a large scanner capable of scanning artwork.  This worked fine for awhile, but lately I’ve noticed that the scans are picking up glare from the scanner’s light and making the image look funny.  I’ve particularly noticed it in areas on my watercolor paintings where the paint is particularly thick and a bit shiny.

So, I need another way to convert my artwork into digital format.  After some research, I believe I’ve found the solution.  I haven’t tried it, yet, though.  So, I hope it’s going to work.

The solution is to photograph your artwork with a digital camera instead.  There are some tricks, of course.

You need to avoid glare, so lighting is important.  You can do it outside on a bright but overcast day or indoors with diffused light coming in from the sides.  For really shiny work, or work under glass, you need to take more extreme precautions.  You can set up a white box to surround the image with lighting from the sides and your camera centered at the top.

You need to hold the camera very still.  A tripod solves this.  Also using a delay setting on the shutter button, to prevent the movement of pushing the button from jarring the camera.

You need to set the camera to the very highest resolution it will go.

You need to get the camera centered directly in front of the artwork to get it square in the photo.  If you don’t quite get it square, you can use Photoshop’s distort feature to stretch it into a proper square.  It’s best if you get it as close as possible in the first place, though.

Anyway, that’s how I’m going to try it.  I’ll post when I figure out if it works or not.  Let me know if you have your own tips for doing this.

Working With Watercolors: watercolor paint, pencils, and stretching watercolor paper

Watercolor Paint and Pencils

I’ve never spent much time with painting. Mostly because it always seemed fussier than working with pencils, colored pencils, or ink.

Not that I haven’t painted before. I have a lovely painting of dragons circling around a night sky in acrylics and a watercolor of a stained-glass-like anise swallowtail butterfly. I’ve done a few still-lifes and a few landscapes.

Overall, I’ve found that painting requires more prep-work and planning for me. I usually need a place to set up where the painting can stay for awhile. I have to think about the floor and whether I can clean up any spills or if I need a drop-cloth. Once I start, I have to think about how the paint will or will not blend in with different pigments and how dry the different colors adjoining it are.

For me, I also have to consider how child-proof the area is. I don’t like having to clean up paint spills after a curious 2-year-old decides to investigate my paints and brushes.

So, I’ve never spent much time with painting. I prefer to focus on drawing media like pencils, colored pencil, and ink. With these I can sit anywhere and work. So long as nobody bumps my hand or drawing board, I don’t have to worry about any child-induced mistakes.

However, I recently discovered something called watercolor pencils which have made me reconsider the whole medium of paint again. These work like colored pencils at first. Then you get them wet and they turn them into watercolor paint. This gives me the control of a colored pencil with the look of a watercolor. I think these are wonderful!

For some reason, I particularly love the color purple in watercolor pencils. When I apply the water, it just seems to bloom into this rich, intense purple that gives me a irrational surge of joy. I don’t know why, but wetting purple watercolor pencil just makes me unaccountably happy.

Since working with watercolor pencils, I’ve also found a new appreciation of regular watercolor paint.  I think the reason I may have had so much trouble with watercolor paint before was the brush I was using.  I’d typically use the brush that comes with the paint.  Since then, I’ve found that a set of chisel brushes in various sizes along with one fine brush for details work much better and give me much better control than I used to get.  Also, natural sponges work extremely well for painting leaves in the distance in landscapes.

Watercolor Paper

I’ve also had to learn about watercolor paper. In my limited experience with watercolors, I always ended up with slightly wrinkled pages. I knew there was a way to keep your paper from wrinkling, however I’d never bothered to learn how. I just figured it was a matter of my not using thick enough paper.

What I have found out is that thicker paper will generally reduce wrinkles. However, it has to be really thick.

Since thicker paper is also more expensive, I investigated and found another method to prevent wrinkles. It turns out that if you’re not using very thick watercolor paper, you need to stretch it. There are a couple of ways to stretch it. I’ll describe the two methods I’ve heard of.  I tried both.

Stretching with Tape

You’ll need to buy gummed linen tape (sometimes called hinged linen tape). This can be hard to find, but you can get it online if your local craft store doesn’t have it.  You also need a drawing board, watercolor paper, a pair of scissors, some paper towels, and a bathtub (or I suppose a shower or large sink would work).

For your drawing board, I recommend a square of smooth, thick plywood.  Go overboard on the thickness.  You want something that will not warp at all.  Wrap duct tape around the edge to keep from getting splinters.

Fill the bottom of your bathtub with an inch or so of cold water. Place your watercolor paper into the water and let it soak both sides for a few minutes.

In the meantime, cut strips of your linen tape for each of the 4 sides of your paper. Make the strips about 6 inches longer than the length of each side of your paper.

Use a rag to wet your board where the paper will be attached.  This will keep the board from wicking the water away too fast and drying the paper before you have a chance to get all the tape on.

When your paper is thoroughly soaked, take it out and lay it flat on your drawing board on a level surface. Use a paper towel or sponge to smooth it out.

Moisten a strip of the tape with a sopping wet paper towel to activate the glue and position it on one edge of your paper so that 2/3 of the tape is on your board and 1/3 is on your paper. Smooth the tape down with your wet paper towel, being sure not to smear the wet towel over your paper. If you do, it might get glue on your watercolor paper, which would interfere with how the paint behaves later. Do the same thing for all four sides of the paper.

Set the board with attached paper aside where it won’t be disturbed while it dries. Make sure it’s left on a level surface so the water won’t pool on one side or another.

Once it’s dry, you may paint. Do not remove the paper from the board until your painting is finished and dried. Then trim the painting off the board with an exacto knife. You’ll find that the tape seems pretty permanently attached to your board. Don’t worry, it will come off. Take the board back into the bathroom and soak the linen tape until it loosens and can be pulled loose. Wash the remaining adhesive off and you’re all ready to stretch another sheet for your next painting.

Stretching with Staples (Best Method)

A better method is to use staples instead of  linen tape.  Soak your paper the same way and attach it to the same board with staples all around the edge.  The staples need to be very close together to keep it stretched evenly. You end up with holes in your paper this way, but it’s easier.

Why it Works

The reason that soaking and taping (or stapling) works to stretch the paper is that the paper actually expands when it’s soaked. When it dries, it will shrink. So, if you adhere the edges of the paper to a board when it’s wet, the paper will stretch when it tries to shrink while drying.

Wrinkles are caused by the water in the paint soaking into the paper and making it expand more in one spot than another. It won’t wrinkle after it’s stretched because the water in your paint won’t cause the paper to expand more than the amount it already expanded when you attached it to the board.

Pre-Stretched Watercolor Paper

You can also buy blocks of pre-stretched watercolor paper.  These are pads of watercolor paper glued all the way around.  The whole pad is stretched and mounted to a cardboard back.  Just paint on the top page, let it dry, and peel it off.  Then paint on the next down and so forth.  These work pretty good, but I have found that they still will wrinkle a bit.  Just a little.  Stretching it yourself on a board still works better.