Avoiding the Digital Look

You can make a pleasing drawing or painting out of almost anything. Yes, I’ve spent countless hours and gallons of gas driving around in search of picturesque subjects, but I often settle for something like this – a parking lot at a strip mall. I painted it from my car (my customary m. o.) using Procreate software on an iPad.

I had recently seen an online demo by a fantastic digital painter who begins her facial portraits with big, blurry, soft-edged marks and uses harder and harder edges as she progresses to ever-finer details. I thought that if I did that too I would get a more painterly, less digital look. (Digital drawings and paintings are great, but they often sport tell-tale artifacts like seas of bright, flat color and freakishly hard edges.) I started with the airbrush tools in Procreate but was frustrated by the inaccuracy of my soft blobs, so I decided to go back a step and lay in the digital equivalent of a pencil underdrawing first. I could have put it on a separate layer, but I chose not to. (Layers are an indispensable tool in the kit, but I often avoid them when seeking a less digital look because using a single layer allows me to easily harden, soften and smear edges like I can with traditional media.)

Ultimately I left the underdrawing visible rather than covering it completely with “paint,” but the soft-edged shapes, even though they were unnaturally monotonic, looked much more painterly than my customary hard-edged shapes ever had. Just that one change made me feel more like I was painting instead of drawing.

I made sure to draw a few of the parking lot’s boundary lines at angles consistent with those of the central vehicle. Those lines, along with a cast shadow also drawn in perspective, help to convincingly bind the vehicle to the ground rather than making it look like it is floating in a limbo of paper.

I left some of the cars surrounding the “hero” SUV in a surprisingly minimal state. This not only worked pretty well in giving the picture a visual hierarchy, but it also took less time!

This last lesson is probably the most important of all. A lot of painting really is about what you leave out. The background here is pretty perfunctory, but that helps it highlight the foreground, as it should. And it also makes a nice setting for one of my favorite parts of this piece, those four dark diagonals off the top left of the SUV. They started as tree branches, but they ended up looking more like conventional cartoon signals of surprise. Whatever they are, their placement helps spotlight the central subject and also adds energy.

So go out there and leave stuff out. It enables your viewers to be partners in the completion of your pictures.

Posted in digital painting, drawing, Painting | 1 Comment

Procreate Painting

Digital painting of Bixby Park, Long Beach

I painted this at Bixby Park in Long Beach, California, on my iPad Pro, with an Apple Pencil and the Procreate digital painting app. Before I started I took inspiration from the illustration by Kam Tang for the single “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley. The drawing of the suit in that illustration has thick scratchy lines that put me in mind of the work of Ronald Searle. I also like the super-saturated colors and ample white space.

I drew the trees first (this is the second time I’ve drawn this particular group). At some point three children came up and gamboled around the trees, but I only managed to capture one. At first I was resisting small marks and hatching, but after I drew this boy very quickly and included lots of squiggly lines in the effort, I relented and started hatching up the trees.

As to matching my intention, I think I succeeded with the saturation of the greens, the blue-greens and the red of the boy’s shirt, but the browns and purples are pretty high-key and unsaturated compared to the “Crazy” picture, and I didn’t leave much white space. However, I did put in the extra-thick outlines that I had intended and went way more colorful than on my usual efforts. All in all I’m pleased that I willfully explored beyond my go-to moves and picked up some great ideas in the process.

If you don’t usually draw with intention, I encourage you to try it, but don’t be surprised if you end up somewhere other than the destination you were aiming for. You will still be on a new path. Also, don’t make too much of comparing your efforts to any specific inspiration you might have. Any discrepancies are actually a relief and are part of your ever-evolving style.

Posted in color, digital painting, drawing, illustration, Long Beach, Painting, plein air, urban sketch | Leave a comment

Phone Drawing of Big Tree

drawing of big tree

Most days I go out in the late afternoon to draw or paint something from my car. As often happens, I picked this view after driving around longer than I wanted to, rejecting a series of subjects that I deemed unpromising while fretting over the waning daylight. Also, as so often happens these days, I drew this while talking on the phone with a friend, a practice I referred to as “phone drawing” in the name of this post. If you’ve never tried this, I suggest you give it a go. Most of us are familiar with doodling while on the phone, and you may find, like I do, that carrying on a phone conversation while drawing will put you in a similar mindset in which you lose any “performance anxiety” you may have about creating a masterpiece and make marks more freely.

I had wanted to draw this particular tree for awhile but had previously had difficulty finding a suitable parking spot. This time I found one, although I was not that happy about facing into the sun as it was setting. Backlighting doesn’t yield a lot of subtle shading and modeling to your subjects, although you can see here that it provided me with some pretty dramatic shadows coming toward me from the main tree. I was lucky that some people passed through the scene. The small figure on the right was actually a woman, but you wouldn’t know that from my drawing. I could have convincingly sold her femininity by nipping her in at the waist a bit and narrowing her shoulders. One of my favorite parts is the car on the left that looks like a submarine surfacing from a sea of grass.

I put in the lines with a permanent ink brush pen, added some watercolor washes, and then worked back and forth between the two media. Color-wise this picture is mostly subdued, although the little red accents and areas of yellow-green liven it up. I feel that the darker value of the foreground tree helps distinguish it from the background of a very busy composition. Notice how I tried to vary the size and character of marks throughout.

When you draw from life, remain alert to opportunities, like the people here. The man sitting within the tree stayed for a decent amount of time, although he did alternate between this pose and a more forward-leaning one. The woman on the right had paused to talk on her cel phone while walking her dog. The dog wasn’t all that visible, so I edited it out, along with its leash. This brings up the point that you are master of your drawing, so do not be afraid to edit out unworkable things, add things in, or change spatial relationships. It’s YOUR drawing, baby!

Posted in brush pen, color, drawing, plein air, urban sketch, watercolor | Leave a comment

Gouache painting of red plants

gouache painting of red plants

I don’t have a lot of experience with gouache (opaque watercolor), but I’ve certainly come a long way since my first efforts. With every painting I learn something fundamental.

I began with a pencil underdrawing of large blobs to indicate plants and structures, followed by an overall brown wash. When using opaque paint that doesn’t rely on the white of underlying paper for lighter values (like gouache’s transparent cousin, watercolor), I, like many others, prefer to cover the paper completely with a thin wash so that no glaring white inadvertently shows through any unpainted areas. Here I chose a brown color that can still be seen to the left along the top edge. Ultimately I had to go back over the sky with a very light blue, and I think in hindsight that I could have more profitably put down a separate blue foundational wash for the sky or left it completely unpainted. (The human eye can see a far wider range of values in the world at large than on a sheet of paper, so its hard to beat unpainted paper for depicting the sky’s luminosity.)

I finished some areas of this painting with small marks whereas some parts I left with just initial large forms. For example, in the green bush in the bottom right corner, I put in some fine brushwork to indicate individual leaves. By contrast, check out the very rough palm tree that is cropped off the left edge. It’s comprised largely of bold, thick strokes. I used shading selectively. Some of the plants are shaded with darker colors near the bottom, the walls have some shading on their top lips, and the background building has some shading that wasn’t actually there! (I put down a stroke that was darker than I expected, decided that I liked the three-dimensional solidity it conveyed and then put down a couple of more “shade” strokes underneath it.) I could have indicated some cast shadows of the plants onto the walls, but the painting looked so busy to me, I decided to leave them out. As to color, I think that there’s a nice tension in this painting between the complementary colors red and green. The two grooves in the sidewalk were really important to helping me communicate the perspective of this piece.

In the upper right corner, to the left of a palm tree, are some sketchy yellow-green blobs leaping up flamelike, and they comprise one of my favorite parts of the painting. They make a nice contrast to more detailed areas, but I also feel like they are analogous to an actor who contrasts so strongly with the rest of his cast that he seems like he’s “in another movie.” I think an entirely different work could be crafted from shapes like this, and I hope to give that a go soon.

Like most of my painting “rides,” this one took me to places I hadn’t predicted. I encourage you to jump on your own ride. It may be bumpy or end in failure, but I assure you that you will learn a lot along the way, and it may be exhilarating!

Posted in color, gouache, Painting, Uncategorized, urban sketch | Leave a comment


fish cartoon
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Drawing of a jacaranda tree

A friend of mine suggested that I draw the beautiful jacaranda tree blossoms in our area before they went away, so I found this tree just blocks from my home and captured it as usual from the comfort of my car.

This picture is a perfect example of how limitations nurture creative endeavors. I had meant to draw this with my permanent ink brush pen and then add watercolor on top without fear of smearing my lines, but the brush pen was nowhere to be found. I was unwilling to settle for my permanent ink fineliner pens because they don’t afford me the variation in line thickness that I crave. I’d reluctantly settled on a dip pen, but the nib turned out to be damaged. Hmmm. Okay, I thought, time to change course and pull out the disposable fountain pens that I’ve used so many times before, although this was a much different proposition because these pens contain water-soluble ink that smears under watercolor. All right. I could get a wash effect by running a brush filled with plain water over my ink lines.

I started drawing the tree, since that was the main focus, and worked outward. The blossoms on it were a beautiful violet that I didn’t even try to match. I had pink and purple pens, so I alternated those two colors and even threw in a bit of red pen here and there. The tree’s trunk and branches were a beautiful warm brown. At first I tried to evoke this with one of my garish pink pens, which was nice in its way, but the result was jarringly bright and was in danger of stealing some of the blossoms’ thunder if used too liberally, so I sparingly applied a light brown colored pencil for some real wood color.

I wasn’t sure at first how much the car was going to figure into the proceedings, but it turned out to be pretty important. After counseling someone to start every car drawing with a bounding box to indicate fundamental perspective and proportion, I just started inking the car from left to right with no preliminary underdrawing. Isn’t that always the way. Turns out there are no hard and fast rules. This method yielded a nice interplay between detailed and blank areas on the car. Notice how only one tire is filled in with black, only one headlight has “pupils,” and so forth. Even the Mercedes hood ornament is only partly outlined. In general, a big part of this drawing’s charm came from leaving things out. The front left turn signal light was actually orange, but I opted not to use an orange colored pencil and went with the hardworking pink pen. This made a nice little echo for the blossoms.

I exaggerated the arc of the tree on the left and decided not to fill in any details of the house to the left of it to help emphasize other parts of the picture (and also save myself a lot of work). I used a cyan pen to help make the grass more of a three-dimensional volume and to add a bit of color variety to the shrubs, and I used a violet colored pencil only in the very lower left to depict some little perspective shape in the sidewalk. Such details aren’t always consciously picked up by your audience, but I think they lend a variety and richness that a viewer’s eye appreciates. Evoking repetitive details with a few representative marks so as not to go insane, I only drew bricks on part of the chimney and clapboards on one wall. As I made all the fussy leaves of the shrubbery behind the tree, I sensed a general lack of contrast in the drawing, so I added in some purple and black. You can see some lines in the middle of the curb that look like texturing but are actually perspective lines gone wrong. Sometimes you have to erase, but not nearly as often as you might think. And when you’re employing some kind of “line and wash” method, whether you’re using permanent or soluble ink, I suggest that you don’t get too hung up on the order in which you’re applying media. When I do it, there’s a lot of back and forth.

So, this picture evokes rather than records. The combination of purple and pink shapes, some filled with wash, some not, give a suggestion of the ravishing beauty of the blossoms. Some squiggles and polygons stand in for the bewildering profusion of botanical and architectural detail that taunted me to depict it. Drawing, like writing, has a lot to do with editing and tightening things up, and you can even “rewrite,” like I did with the curb, but you have to do a lot of editing on the fly when you’re making a plein air ink drawing. So, exercise those editing skills, and don’t be afraid to be lazy and leave something out and then say, “Ah, yes, that omission was a brave and conscious choice.” (Wink, wink.)

Posted in color, colored pencils, drawing, fineliner pen, fountain pen, plein air, watercolor | 2 Comments

Close-up Drawing of a Plant

drawing of jade plant

I usually scale my drawings to the boundaries of my car’s windshield, so I’ve been enjoying working with a smaller field of view for a couple of pictures. For the digital painting in my last post, I got up close to some juniper and fern leaves, and for this pen drawing I focused in even closer on a jade plant, a beautiful succulent with thick, shiny leaves. I used red, pink, green, cyan, purple, and black disposable fountain pens that I discussed in more detail in a previous post. (I would have used blue, too, but my pens in that color had run out of ink.)

I started drawing the leaves in the lower left and proceeded roughly clockwise from there. I filled in those first leaves with strokes going in a lot of different directions, and I don’t think this was very successful. In general, when you’re hatching it is better to make sure that the hatching directions help convey something about the structures of the objects they depict. By the time I got to the leaf cluster at upper left I was better, and when I got to the cluster at upper right, I had figured out how to do it to my satisfaction. I then had that familiar feeling of really liking a portion of my painting and wishing that I was as satisfied with the rest of it (and also wishing that I could retroactively apply what I’d learned to less successful sections.) I eventually went back to the leaves in the lower left and completely filled in some areas of them with scribbling to obscure the earlier offending marks. Most of the lines on the leaves in the upper right flow along the long axes of their respective leaves, emphasizing the perspective of the leaves and connoting outward growth.

I had the same experience with the two flanking branches. From my experience with the leaves, you’d think that I would be more satisfied with the branch on the right with its hatching flowing in the direction of the branch’s growth, but I actually preferred my treatment of the branch on the left. I think that transverse arcs describe the underlying form much better. Similarly to how I tried to fix the leaves that I was less pleased with, I went over the rightmost branch with some closely spaced scribbling to fill it in more solidly. I think this would have worked better if that branch hadn’t contained that garish red stripe that is so different in value from the rest of its coloring.

As with that red stripe, so much of the color here is patently unrealistic. I new that going in, since I was using a small number of ink colors. First, let me tell you that I’ve tried before to use these colors like an impressionist would, placing many small multi-colored marks together to allow the eye to blend colors from a distance, but I have come to think that that works better with lighter colors, and most of these pens put down a pretty dark value. When I put a color directly on top of another, results tend to be muddy, dark, and skewed toward the color with the darker value. At any rate, I followed a plan, and once again I think it was most effective on the cluster in the upper right. I used green to represent the actual local green color of the leaves, I used purple for shadows, I used cyan for cool reflections (mostly reflections of the sky), and pink for warm reflections. The pink was the least successful because it was most different from the actual perceived color it was representing (a greenish yellow). Nevertheless, you can see that if you stay somewhat faithful to value contrasts and are consistent, you can communicate convincing three-dimensional solidity with pretty fanciful color.

As you can tell from my self-critical language, this was not my favorite drawing, but there are some parts of it that I like quite a bit, and I learned a lot from it. Always remember that not every drawing is meant to be a masterpiece or even a finished work. There is great value and satisfaction to be had in wrestling with technical problems in repetitive and awkward sketches that you need never show anyone else if you don’t want to. In fact, I think I should be devoting a greater proportion of my time to such work myself. Don’t fret about whatever shortcomings you perceive in your present work, but instead direct your energies to applying what you’ve learned to the next one. And remember that the audience will see your efforts quite differently from the way you do. The shameful area that you think mars a picture may turn out to be someone else’s favorite part!

Posted in color, drawing, fountain pen, plein air | Leave a comment

Motivator Mike

Motivator Mike cartoon

Lest there be any confusion, this is a joke, and not real advice.

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Digital painting

digital painting of juniper berries

It had been awhile since I’d done any plein air digital painting, so I used the Procreate app on my iPad Pro to depict a clump of juniper foliage and unkempt ferns on my front porch. I started with the “hero” trio of juniper berries slightly above center and worked out from there. For those familiar with Procreate, I used two brushes, the 6B Pencil from the Sketching category and the topmost brush in the Painting category menu. (It is unhelpfully titled “Untitled Brush” in my menu. Perhaps it was always so, or maybe I inadvertently renamed it while poking around.) I also made liberal use of the smudge tool.

Invoking the smudge tool provides a natural introduction to the pleasures and pitfalls of digital painting in general. (This particular piece is as much a drawing as it is a painting.) I use this particular tool because it yields contrast between sharp and soft edges (one of the great pictorial glories of painting) and also lets me blend adjacent colors to alleviate that sterile digital look of vast swaths of homogenous color. When painting digitally, the main problem is striking a balance between putting in enough detail and variety to avoid digital simplicity on the one hand and modulating the gee-whiz algorithmic variations and flourishes in the software that are flashy but can look repetitive and robotic if not properly controlled. (An example of the latter is the many digital brushes that yield an organic look by allowing you to paint with a specific shape that can become too apparent with carelessness.) The other main drawback to digital painting is a certain lack of tactile feedback when applying a stylus to a smooth surface. The benefits of digital painting are many: layers (this can quickly become a liability, though, if it impedes your flow and saps your courage), undo (ditto), not having to mix colors, not running out of colors, and the biggie – no cleanup.

This view presented a typical plein air challenge – a profusion of detail in a bewildering variety of colors. One way or another, you have to simplify, lest you go mad. I started drawing all the juniper branches and leaves, and at some point I started leaving things out and not being so faithful to placement. (At some point in a painting, I usually realize that two adjacent areas don’t match up properly when compared to my actual view, and I just have to shrug and keep going.) The ferns were confusing on a whole new level. There were so many minute and wispy fern leaves all over the place that I felt like I was looking through a window screen. I just left most of them out and evoked them with a bunch of short little hatch marks. Ditto for the riot of living and dead fern stems snaking up the juniper trunk on the left. Notice that I also simplified by leaving many leaves just floating without attachment to stems of any kind. As you can see, on the berries I tried to get beyond simplistic “redness” and use a good range of colors. If you want to do this yourself, study your subject intently until you start to see warm and cool colors within it. Paint warm where you see warm and cool where you see cool without worrying too much about strict chromatic fidelity.

The beige background blob near the top is actually a car, but I decided the picture would look too busy if I put details on that. I laid in the sidewalk with a dull blue color, but it looked too saturated, so I paired it with a neutral gray. Check out the super-saturated color accents in various places. These lend variety and focus and keep the viewer’s eye moving around. (Examples are the two bright leaves near the top and the patently unrealistic purple in the lawn at lower left.)

Drawing and painting as usually practiced are fundamentally additive, so that forces you to simplify from the outset. You keep adding detail until you feel you’re done (not always an easy feeling to sense). It seems that as artists mature, they increasingly acquire an ability to simplify and leave things out altogether. It’s outrageous, but such a workflow yields better results with less work. Keep at it, and you will learn such glorious methods for yourself!

Posted in color, digital painting, drawing, Painting, plein air | 2 Comments

Brush Pen with Watercolor

drawing of Long Beach street

Today, I decided to draw a different view off my porch with a black brush pen, but this time I added watercolor and some accents with colored fountain pens. I didn’t draw any thumbnails or preliminary sketches, but I probably should have, because this was my second attempt. On the first drawing I started with the cars, and they weren’t looking so good (some ugly perspective and harsh thick lines). For this drawing I started with the background car, and I made a preliminary box with my brush pen that is still visible. Blocking in basic initial shapes for both cars yielded a distinct improvement of perspective. I worked in general from left to right, but not completely, and so I made some minor smudges. This is not a big deal, but it is important to keep in mind that even permanent ink takes time to dry.

I put in a few details in the grass and the tree foliage with the brush pen before the watercolor washes. (The tree foliage is an explosion of shoots coming out of the trunk that I’d better trim back soon!) After the watercolor washes, I put in some accents with colored fountain pens.

I decided not to fill in details on the wheels or the roadway. Such blank areas emphasize attractive shapes and give the eye places to rest. (And something like that one yellow stroke on the roadway stands out all the more when contrasted with blank paper.) Note the lattice wall topping in the background whose regular black dots are unlike any pattern anywhere else in the picture. Also, look at the bushes in the background. There really were flowers on all of them, and I tried to distinguish each flower collection by color and shape.

The colors I used for reflections on the cars were not particularly faithful to what I was seeing, but I tried to use appropriately warm and cool colors to make them more convincing. Toward the end, I added a lot of black accents and squiggles to the tree foliage with the brush pen to help sell it as a foreground object. (Detailed texture is usually most noticeable in nearer elements).

Right as I thought I was finished I noticed that the tan background wall behind the foreground car was sloping too steeply toward the lower right corner and thereby undercutting the perspective of that car and detracting from the overall perspective cohesion of the picture. I just went in with the brush pen and gave the wall a new top. (I didn’t dare make that new line too far from the old line. I struck a balance.) Such ploys are blatantly unrealistic, but every line counts in a drawing, and I think that line helps the picture read better.

With every drawing I feel a struggle to make it the best I can without overworking it. Sometimes you just want to start over (this was my second drawing of the subject, after all), but more often than not I recommend wrestling with drawings and trying to save them, even when they seem irredeemable. You learn a lot that way!

Posted in brush pen, drawing, fountain pen, Painting, Uncategorized, watercolor | Leave a comment