Animals In Digital Illustration
The Art Of Digital Illustration
What the hey is "digital illustration" anyway? Well, let's see. Digital is the synonymous word for computer these days, and illustration is the act of clarifying, explaining, or telling. In the artistic sense, an illustration is an image that tells a story.
Digital illustration is entirely different from graphic art, photomanipulation, collages, or 3D sculpting, though all of these are types of computer art as well. The constant in digital illustration is the act of drawing, that is, the act of using any number of drawing instruments to mark a 2D medium. In the case of digital illustration, the instrument may be a mouse or a tablet, and the medium is a computer screen.
Can This Actually Be Done?
Absolutely! In the same way that you may be able to draw on a piece of paper or paint over a stretched canvas, some people are gifted with the talent of transferring their vision onto a computer. You may have expertise dabbling in oils, charcoals, watercolors, graphites, and erasers, but those who work in digital illustration are confident in the Clone, Dodge, Burn, Smudge, Liquefy, Sharpen, and Select tools! My my, that's a lot of tools. In fact I think that's more tools than what the average traditional artist uses... Interesting.
But Is Digital Art REALLY Art?
A fair question, and one that I have asked myself on countless occasions. Nobody truly has a say as to whether one thing is or is not art, but at the same time I believe that traditional art created physically with a tool touching a medium is more soulfully powerful than digital art ever will be. Is this because the blood and sweat of the digital artist is less? Certainly not. But digital art lacks what we call the original, or the hard copy. Digital art can be printed a million times over, and they will all be the same as the others. While traditional art will always have one original, one hard copy, that is revered above all other prints and fabrications. Perhaps this physical proof of an artist's existence is what makes these originals so revered, but whatever the case, digital art has never, and I doubt ever will be, treated with the same respect.
That is not to say that digital art is not art. It takes just as much work for digital artists to use programs and tools wisely so as to create believable images. Many people take digital art for granted because of the lack of said original, but I find this to be a painful miscalculation. Digital artists spend days, weeks, months, even years creating pieces - and for what? They have no hard copy to sell. A lot of times it's simply to please themselves. After all, what use is an artist that doesnt't enjoy making art? And whoever said art had to be one way or the other anyway?
An Affinity For Animals
Every artist has their specialty, something that tickles their fancy in such a way that compels them to draw and redraw the same general things. An artist can favor architecture, plants, human portraits, or cars. In my case, my self-proclaimed "specialty" would be animals - any animal, but mostly deer and dogs. I have been involved in many different kinds of subjects, but I find myself returning to animals continuously because of the generous amount of diversity within the animal kingdom, and my already obvious interest in animals in general. I'm positively coocoo for animals!
How I Draw
Drawing has always been a passion of mine. It started out on paper when I was young, but as soon as I was introduced to computers at a young age, MS Paint became my best friend. Things blossomed from there, and through the proceeding programs of Corbis, Adobe Photoshop, and most recently Paint Tool SAI, I have gained much experience and honed my skills.
While I typically only draw animals, monsters, and critters, there has been somewhat of an interest in my artwork. For some reason people want to pay me to draw art for them. I cannot for the life of me understand why they would do this as I am nowhere close to where I want to be talent-wise, but I am told that every artist is their own worst critic.
So, In an attempt to share some of my knowledge, I have decided to reveal what I do to create the many images that I do...
The creative process can be difficult to jump start at any given moment, and sometimes it's hard to force myself into it. But when I have commissioners waiting and a heavy queue I need to get to, I just can't put it off. So what helps me get out of the dreaded artist's block that threatens the inspiration of creators all across the world? Here are some things that help me:
- Spending some time looking at art. Good art. Bad art. Amazing art. Take it all in - I find that "mediocre" art especially inspires me to draw, because I feel I can do better and it goads me further.
- Listening to music. When I hear great music, I actually visualize Fantasia-like stories in my head to go along with the various songs. This can often times illicit particular colors, poses, or themes to stand out to me and inspire an illustration.
- Watching fantasy movies. Beautiful cinematography, dramatic symphony soundtracks, and, of course, talking animals, really gets me in the mood to draw for some reason.
- Spending time outside. Surrounding one's self with nature often provides surprising results.
Tools Of The Trade
Currently I use two programs when I create images. Sketching, linework, coloring, backgrounds, and shading are all performed in Paint Tool SAI, while Photoshop is reserved for atmospheric color touchups, texturing, liquifying, text, watermarking, and the rendering of random effects such as smoke.
Originally for years I had worked with Photoshop exclusively, so my familiarity with the disgusting amount of tools was well above average.The one I favored most highly above all others, and the one that remains to this day rarer than any other (to my knowledge it is only found in Photoshop 6.0), is the History brush. The History brush is difficult to explain, but it works similar to an eraser in that it erases what you have just drawn - however, instead of erasing a layer entirely wherever you move the curser, it simply reverts the layer back to the state it was in when you first opened the image. So in actuality it is not an eraser at all - but a restorer! I used it religiously, and still do when I'm doing line coloring work.
Once I discovered the ease and simplicity of SAI, I realized that Photoshop became almost obsolete - after all, I only used a small number of tools anyway. SAI is quicker than Photoshop, and it is loaded with only the simplest of tools necessary for creating digital art. The ones I particularly find to be helpful are the Pen, the Brush, and the Blur (not shown in the image). SAI comes preset with a modest number of brush textures and shapes, and an incredible sensitivity to the tablet pen that I use - whereas Photoshop 6.0 is a lot choppier. Another feature of SAI is the fact that it incorporates levels of automatic smoothing to your pen movements. Shaky hands? No problem, this thing can help compensate for that!
Gettin' Down To It
Once I have an idea of what I want in my head, I start sketching things out, sometimes on the computer, sometimes on paper. Usually I have a pose in my head and the problem is just transferring that idea perfectly onto my paper or computer, but sometimes I'll have no idea what kind of pose or feeling that I want to convey until I start drawing out characters and perspectives.
All sketches are transferred to the computer and refined until I am pleased, and an inking outline can be made. The inking outline is the final outline. I like to keep it clean and crisp.
Next is to color in the character. I fill in the blanks with blocks of desired color, which I eventually will go over with a smudge or blur tool to soften the appearance. Gradient color edges are more realistic, whereas blocky edges are cartoonistic. Both can work marvelously depending on what kind of art you want to draw - personally I prefer a little more gradient.
Then comes the shading. I classify "shading" as shadows, highlights, and fur texture (if any). With a lot of my art I don't even use shading, I just worry about nice-ifying the colors and leaving it in a Disney-esque style of simplicity.
"Special effects" or finishing touches is something I complete either just before or just after doting on the background, which are both typically the last things I worry about.
A Working Machine
Everyone's styles may vary, but I prefer to find a medium between Disney and realism in my artwork. So how do you bring these creatures, oftentimes creatures with unbelievable lives and unrealistic colors, to "life" in art? The answer is one I have heard on occasion, but never really took to heart until later in my life (trust me, listen to your art teachers): to practice the fantastic, one must first practice the living.
In short this means that in order to draw a believable unicorn, you should learn the anatomy of the deer, the lion, and the horse beforehand. How do these animals move? What are their legs, tails, ears, nose, and flanks like? How do shadows fall on them? Studying the anatomy of animals is painstaking and detail oriented - but I assure you, it will make you a better artist in the end.
A basic understanding of how real animals exist will lead you to a better understanding of how mythical animals can live, and what exactly one might be doing in an image that you are drawing. With your observations, you will eventually find that certain colors, body shapes, and behaviors, are similar when it comes to animals that fill similar purposes in life.
- Runners are lean, leggy, and lithe, while burrowers are low to the ground.
- Animals that seek to startle or draw attention to themselves as a means of warning or attraction are brilliant colored (this is particularly true with birds, reptiles, and fish), while those that wish to hide from predators and have little means of protecting themselves are drab in appearance.
- Stripes and spots are beautiful, but are actually Nature's very own design of camouflage. Mismatched patterns break up the outline of an animal, and can make it difficult for a predator, or for prey, to spot them.
- Hooved creatures are runners. Clawed creatures are predators. Webbed creatures are swimmers.
Color choice for animals is as important as basic anatomy. Unfortunately, since private commissioners often times approach me with characters of their own that they have already designed, I sometimes have no say in the process, but if given the free choice there is much that can be done to a creature's colors to make it believable, or at least pleasing.
It is important to understand gradients and variability when it comes to fur in general. Animals are very rarely a solid color, and without some sort of complimentary hue to bring out said colors, your image can quickly look boring, watered down, or blocky and uninteresting. Conversely, if an image is much too colorful, you will have the problem of viewers experiencing sensory overload due to the lack of focus and a failure to provide 'resting spots' for the eyes. Note how with the Psychedelic Deer (pictured right) I left the background dark and largely desaturated. This brought the image out, because I wanted the deer's colors to be the center of attention. A brighter, more colorful background would have drawn from the deer and stolen some of the image's pop.
The term composition in art refers to the general setup of everything in the image. It is the visual placement of lines, negative space, motion, pose (if any), texture, etc. It is an extremely important element of art, and without awareness of it, your drawings could possibly turn out looking boring.
Personally I struggle with composition because I am a lazy sloth with no eye for interesting arrangements. But occasionally I will create things that I feel are compositionally sound, or at least more sound than normal, so I will share with you a few:
- In the Gray Wolf Grin image (pictured right), elements of color, perspective, and balance come together. The drops of blue in the grass match the same color of blue as the wolf's eye, and they lead a wide circle around the whole subject, meeting in the sky. As simple as these splashes of color may be, they taunt the eye to follow them. Coupled with an interesting pose and perspective, this piece works much better than a standard, standing, staring wolf illustration might.
- The Hanging Deer (pictured right) utilizes quite a few compositional principles of organization, including negative space, color, contrast, and even the physical shape of the image itself. The tallness of the image emphasizes the act of a vertically hanging corpse, and brings focus to the drop of blood near the bottom.
- Placement of character is key. In The Fighting Dogs (pictured below) you will notice how both of the characters are on the left side of the image, with relatively empty space taking up approximately 1/3 of the image on the right. The composition of this piece follows the "rule of thirds", which is a concept that allows the focus of any one image to be weighed away from the center. Our eyes are used to focusing in the middle of the picture, which grants us no surprise, but when an image shifts its focus far left or far right by allowing the subject at hand to be at the edge of the image, it provides a more interesting picture.
Imitating Other Styles
Despite whatever personal style you may have developed over the years, it may be beneficial for you to easily adapt to other styles. In the professional field, artists are often expected to imitate the styles of other artists in order to provide additional animation cells, references, or concept art.
In a more practical sense, private commissioners may occasionally ask you to draw their own characters in the styles of famous movies or animated TV shows. In addition to this, it's just good practice to experience other ways of drawing that are unfamiliar to you. It stretches those drawing muscles, and can teach you a thing or two. Furthermore, it's just fun!
Never feel that drawing in a style other than your own is in any way a "betrayal" of who you are. You are you, you will never be anyone else, and whatever you draw will also be a part of you, despite what it does or does not look like.
Learning From Mistakes
Anyone who draws at all will have experienced frustration in one's own abilities. This is perfectly normal and should not be something any of us dwell on. It is often said that all artists hate their own work and are quickest to nitpick at the flaws in all of their pieces, regardless of quality.
Almost weekly I scrutinize my latest work and feel like the biggest failure in all of history. I have such high expectations, and I feel I will never reach them... But this is actually a healthy outlook, if not overdone. Some may call you a "perfectionist" but I say, why be lazy? Drive yourself on if you are unhappy with your work! Challenge yourself to be better. Improve! It absolutely is possible with regular practice to be the caliber of artist you want to be.
It's okay to look back on your old artwork and realize what it is about certain images that you can't stand. Is the anatomy wonky? Is the background a mess? Are the colors off-hue? Realizing your mistakes is the first step to correcting them the next time. I think it's beneficial to have other artists critique your work as well, as they will see things that you yourself did not realize (the key word here being artists, most people with no knack for visual creativity have terrible critiques).
Be aware of your weaker skills, practice to improve them, and move on! All artists great and small are constantly improving and constantly learning. You will never be 100% satisfied with any picture that you draw at all times, even if the pictures you draw are adored by friends and family. So if you see things in your work that you find displeasing, do not despair!
Tips For Artists:
- Never be afraid to sketch fast and sloppy. Speed painting trains your hands, eyes, and mind, to work quickly and collectively.
- Be aware of all colors, shapes, themes, or feelings that attract you or inspire you to draw. Utilize them when needed.
- Draw what you like and how you like, but accept help and try new things; be humble, be adventurous.
- Use visual references for anatomy, lighting, or inspiration.
- Practice what you are poor at.
- Draw every day! Draw draw DRAW!
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