My Reply to a Comment on the Previous Post About Using Photoshop + Mongolia Trip Photo of the Week

I started to write a reply to the (partially quoted) comment below and realized that the topic was worthy of its own post since, as you will see, I have strong opinions about the subject (Who, me?).

“I found your process very interesting…especially because I tend to ‘jump right in ass-first’ and not do any studies to figure out composition etc. I have no idea why I hate doing that…perhaps I am just impatient to get to the fun. of course this does cause problems!!…..Does Photoshop help you a lot in planning paintings? I have never once used it, I must admit…..You can re-position items in your photo using Photoshop? Man, Maybe I need to get a Photoshop For Dummies book!”

My response, which is intended to address the general issue, and not in any way the individual commenter who I quote above, is as follows:

I never use Photoshop for planning paintings in the way you describe. IMHO, it’s a pernicious trend that’s been used by way too many artists as an excuse to avoid the hard work of actually learning to DRAW.

It’s also very obvious a lot of the time when that’s how a picture has been put together. It looks like a bunch of bits with no cohesion. Animals that look pasted onto the background. Animals the wrong scale. Animals in a position that is impossible given the perspective of the setting. Light sources that don’t match. Uncorrected distortion from shooting the subject with a wide angle lens in which you end up with a back end view of something like an elk with a tiny butt that has an overly large head sticking out of it. Slavish adherence to the reference. Lack of variety of edges,with  every edge same from front to back. No emotional punch or a point of view that’s unique. No exercise of the craft of painting. Just tedious rendering of Every Single Thing In The Photograph.

I’ve been in workshops watching artists beaver away at moving an animal around in a landscape on their computer and then transferring it directly to their canvas. Kind of pathetic, really. There’s a power and a mastery that comes from entering your subject directly into your brain by drawing it over and over. It’s how you learn what something looks like.  Photoshopping short-circuits that. Look at who the top wildlife artists are and have been. They can all draw like crazy. Some stay with highly detailed work, like Carl Brenders, or push the limit of looseness, like Julie Chapman, but being able to draw lets them make the choice.

Copying a Photoshopped composition without having solid drawing skills cheats the artist out of all that is most important in the creative process, i.e. the creativity.

A painting is really just a series of judgments and choices. The better an artist gets at those, the better the paintings. Photoshopping images into a montage short-circuits this part of the painting process, too.

I realize that the struggle is a drag, but there isn’t any easy way to do good work that I’m aware of. The best work comes out of the struggle. I long ago lost count of the times I hit the wall on a painting, slid down to the floor, picked myself up and soldiered on until I broke through. It doesn’t happen as often now, but I know it could happen at any time.

What I do is go through a lot of paper. What you see in my posts are just a small sample. Since one of the reasons I’m an artist to begin with is that I always loved to draw from the time I was a little kid, it would defeat a main purpose of the exercise for me to eliminate that step. I also use a mirror to check my drawing for accuracy. It’s almost magical how errors jump out at you. Can’t use Photoshopped photographs for that.

I’ll just flatly say it- If you want to be any good, much less excel, as a painter of animals (or any other representational subject, for that matter), learn to draw. And draw live animals whenever possible. Period. No excuses.

Mongolia Photo of the Week

Start of national Naadam ceremony at Sukhbaatar Square, Ulaanbaatar; the band
Start of national Naadam ceremony at Sukhbaatar Square, Ulaanbaatar; The band

Best Band Uniforms Ever.

4 thoughts on “My Reply to a Comment on the Previous Post About Using Photoshop + Mongolia Trip Photo of the Week

  1. First, I’ll give Susan humble thanks for the very nice implied compliment, and second, I’ll second what she’s written. To extend the discussion a bit, there was an artist who attended a recent summer workshop who didn’t want to mess around with drawing and values – it “took too long”, the person just wanted to dive into the painting. And it showed in the work – a lack of planning and organization of values, edges, composition…and a lack of drawing skill. This artist wanted a “shortcut” to the painting. I stressed that drawing and values ARE the shortcut; this artist has a full-time job and hasn’t much spare time to spend on a painting, but the lack of planning meant each painting took the artist months, as sections were re-worked and re-hashed and re-painted. I’d much rather do MANY paintings, throwing most away and learning as I go, than waste weeks on the same one struggling to get it right – when it wasn’t right in the sketch stage.


  2. I am in full agreement with Susan and Julie. As a kid, I drew all the time – horses mostly when younger, then progressed to sketching whatever I saw. I always do a value study of my final composition. I have never used Photoshop – never learned how to use it. When I started painting – there were no personal computers (and only B&W TV – Mercy! I’m OLD! But thankfully, I was born AFTER the chisel & stone era.)

    Now that I have a PC and a digital camera, my thing is to sketch my final composition onto velum paper (LIGHTLY), take a picture of it, then look at it BACKWARDS on the computer (while wading through the pile of crumpled, discarded sketches wadded up on the floor). I find it easier to see it on the computer, instead of in my little mirror. If I see something I don’t like – it’s back to the DRAWING board – not the PC! This goes on until I’m waist-high in discarded sketches and I finally like the composition. (BTW – the pile of paper on the floor is recycled.) During the painting process, I also use my mirror to check things out.


  3. Geez, Marti, you sound like me as a kid – all I did was draw horses!

    Ah, sketches…they’re so much fun! in fact, I finished my most recent sketchbook yesterday and had to run out to get a new one so I could continue on with ideas. That said, though, I use Lightroom as one more tool to help me prepare a painting – particularly the cropping tool, as it can free my thinking on creating unusual compositions. But after that it’s off to the sketchbook and tracing paper to move things around.


  4. I use the Apple product Aperture the same way as you do, Julie. And I drew horses all the time, too, as a kid, partly because allergies keep me from being around them for real.

    Where Aperture really comes in handy for me, though, is the ability to zoom in on animals, like the argali, that were 800 to 1000 meters away. Love those 10MB files.

    I’ve schooled myself to remember that photographs flatten a subject and always keep in mind that I need to draw from the monitor as if I was seeing the animal in real life. I’ll draw contour lines if necessary to create the illusion of a three dimensional animal on a two dimensional surface.

    I guess that’s another thing I see in Photoshopped paintings. The animals look flat because they were copied, not drawn. I just started a painting of an argali facing forward and remembered what you said in your workshop about “unpacking” the animal to give the body the correct feeling of moving back in space.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s