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Going Digital

When I talk with other artists, one thing people seem interested in is my experience transitioning from being a traditional artist to working digitally, and any tips I might have for other who also want to make the switch.  The most important thing to remember for artists who want to go digital is that you are switching your medium, and just like if you were to decide to transition from watercolor to sculpted clay, there is going to be a learning curve.  This post covers the basics that traditional artists who are considering transitioning to a digital medium should know.

Why Go Digital?

Attracting new clients.  There are some clients who specifically want artwork layered.  This is only possible in digital programs.

Evolving your style.  As with any new medium, going digital opens up the opportunity to use new techniques and tools to create a new style and take your artwork in a new direction.

Changing your work process.  When I painted with watercolors, it was important that colors be applied in a certain way at a certain time, and so I needed a large block of time in which to work.  When I became a working mother with a baby, I hardly ever had a few hours straight to paint.  Going digital allowed me to work in smaller blocks of time – 10 minutes, 30 minutes….whatever the baby would give me.  I could work, save the file, and then come back to the piece at the next available opportunity.  There is also something to be said for not having to use up valuable time stretching paper or color-correcting scanned artwork.

The Tools

TabletsPick your pen & paper.  While it is possible to illustrate with a mouse or trackball, the majority of digital artists prefer to use a tablet and stylus.  There are two general varieties.   Tablets like the Wacom Intuos are like a mousepad that sits in your lap.  As you move the stylus across the pressure-sensitive pad, the cursor will draw corresponding marks on your main monitor.  This is an affordable option for those who want to try their hand at digital art to see if the medium is a good fit for their art.  These types of tablets are also nice for artist who may want to work primarily traditionally, but want to make edits/touch ups to their artwork digitally before sending to a client.  There are also tablets that allow the artist to draw directly  on the monitor/screen.  Ipads and similar tablets can be used in this way, but the most elite option for this type of tablet is the Wacom Cintiq.  This tablet, though expensive, is a highly pressure-sensitive monitor that sits in your lap or on the desk, allowing the artist to paint directly onto the screen in a very natural manner.  For those who want a more mobile option, Wacom released it’s Companion model last year, which is a combination Cintiq-laptop.

Pick your program.  There are lots of programs out there to use for digital art, but the most popular are Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, and Corel Painter.  Illustrator specializes in creating vecctor artwork, which is typically flat or gradated color, very graphic looking, and capable of being up or down dramatically without affecting image clarity.  Painter is a tool for those who want to create realistic painterly illustrations that mimic oil paints, chalk, pastels and other traditional media.  Photoshop allows for painting with a variety of brushes for different effects as well as image/photo editing capabilities.

Time to Learn

Traditional artists, particularly those not accustomed to scanning their own artwork, may find that they need to brush up on some technical knowledge.   For example, digital artists must know what file format the final images should be delivered in.  It is common for clients to want CMYK (color profile) 300 DPI (resolution) Tiff (file format) files.  However, some clients may have other preferences, and the digital artist should know how to set up their image to reflect these preferences before they start painting.  Digital artists also know that the colors on their monitor may not be trustworthy for print-correct-colors.  It is helpful to preview your artwork on a variety of monitors to look for any colors or values that are not reading correctly, or to compare the colors on your monitor to a Pantone color swatch book.  The digital artist must also understand file size, and be able to store and deliver large files in a way that is not inconvenient to the client.  It is not uncommon for a layered working Photoshop file to be over 300 MB in size.  Most email inbox can only take up to 100 MB total, so email is not a good way to deliver many 300 MB files to a client.  Luckily, there are lots of online file sharing services, such as Dropbox, that can help the digital artist get his/her artwork to the client.  Some of these services are free, and some are not.  Other artists have personal FTP sites related to their personal websites to deliver files to a client. Before promising digital art to a client, it is important to understand file formats and specifications, and to have a reliable method for artwork delivery.

Time to Explore

As with any new medium, an artist cannot master it overnight.  Some techniques that worked for the artist traditionally will carry over to the computer environment easily, and some will not.  And just like every oil painter works differently to create the style that he/she wants, the same is true for digital artist.  Every digital art program has brushes and settings that can be used to achieve different looks, and it will take time for the new digital artist to find the tools and techniques that are right for his/her own artistic method.  After talking to a variety of artists who made the switch, you can expect about 6 months of practice and exploration before finding your digital style and being proficient enough at it to execute an illustration project on a deadline.  Youtube has lots of great videos of artists working digitally and sharing their work method.  These resources can be great sources of inspiration for those who need a little help learning the many techniques available for constructing  digital art.

Time to Change?

While many new digital artists try to identify techniques and tools that will allow them to duplicate their traditional style on the computer screen, it can be an unexpected pleasure to find that changing mediums can also change and evolve your illustration style.   For me  experimentation has been the best part of working digitally. With watercolor, I was always playing it safe, particularly with colors, because one wrong brush stroke could ruin hours of work. However, in Photoshop, I am able to try out colors, lighting and textures on separate layers without risking losing hours of work. By having the freedom to explore, I have been able to diversify my colors, create more engaging compositions, and add scanned textures and patterns.  I also found myself eventually gravitating towards more textured brushes, giving some areas of my artwork the look of chalk pastels rather than paint.  This enabled me to achieve color layering and depth that I was unable to achieve through traditional means.  Once I let go and stopped trying to get my new medium to behave like watercolor, I became open to using new color application techniques that eventually took my artwork to a more satisfying place.  The image below shows one of my last watercolor images, my first successful digital illustration, and my current digital style.

DigitalArtProgressionI hope all artists who are thinking about making the switch to digital enjoy the process of learning a new medium and seeing where it takes their artwork!  Happy illustrating!

About the author

  • Jennifer ZivoinJENNIFER ZIVOINContributor

    Jennifer Zivoin has always loved art and storytelling, so becoming a children's book illustrator was a natural career path. Most of her illustrations are painted digitally, though she draws inspiration from traditional media. In addition to artwork, Jennifer enjoys reading, cooking, and ballroom dancing - especially tango! She lives in Indiana with her husband and daughter.