Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Emulating traditional media on the Cintiq

illustration copyright J.Pittman, 2008

I've used my Cintiq for about two and a half years now, and a few observations are in order. It's a big relief that I don't have to do oversized illustrations on 30x40 illustration board any more. Digitally, you can just start drawing on the screen and keep adding to your "canvas" as needed. The fact that the Cintiq tilts like a drawing table and swivels like an animation board makes for the nearest thing to drawing on a sheet of paper and rotating the sheet as you draw to take advantage of your optimal swing of the wrist. The pen comes with three different nibs-- hard nylon, soft felt, and spring-loaded nylon. My personal preference is the felt nib as it adds a little drag to the surface, feeling more like pencil on a vellum-surfaced paper. The only problem with the felt nib is it wears out much faster than the nylon. I'm starting to horde felt replacement nibs like I used to horde Gillott nibs, in case they decide to stop making them one day.

I use Photoshop and Painter interchangeably with the Cintiq. Painter is much nicer emulating natural media. But I'm so accustomed to years of Photoshop, some things are just easier to accomplish with it. I've created a custom "crowquill" pen brush in Photoshop that works very similarly to a traditional steel nib pen. (see sample above which emulates pen & ink with watercolor)

Mostly I use Painter to emulate what I used to do traditionally with ink, watercolor, and colored pencil. I prefer the older digital watercolor over Painter's newer watercolor layer technique as I find I have more control with the digital watercolor brushes. One thing on my wish list for Painter would be some way to tilt-control the spread of the wash. Traditionally, I would put clear water on my sheet of watercolor paper in whatever portion of the illustration I wanted to work on. Then, just as the sheen was drying on the paper, I'd touch a loaded brush to it for that feathery-edged bleed effect I wanted. Then, for added control, I'd just lift the edge of my watercolor paper and control the bleed in whatever direction I tilted the paper. With Painter, you get a nice watercolor bleed in the line, but there are no controls yet to "tilt" your paper and let it run in one direction or another. The regular watercolor layers seem to have runny wash settings in some of the brushes, but I haven't figured out how to control their run. Another thing I liked about my traditional watercolor technique was in adding more dilute paint to an already wet darker area. It would yield some nice hard-edged wash passages when it dried as the dilute medium would send the darker pigment to the edges of the wash. Painter and Photoshop both have a hard-edged brush, but they seem to make each stroke hard-edged in whatever width brush you select, rather than making an entire passage into a pool with hard-edged borders. I feel like Painter must have a workaround to accomplish this as I remember reading about controlling the "wetness" of the paper somewhere, but I haven't discovered it yet.
I recently did some traditional watercolor illustrations just to reassure myself I hadn't atrophied from working mostly digital now. I was pleasantly surprised that I'm actually better with traditional media after experimenting digitally. It kind of impacts you in a way that you can visualize what you want to accomplish better, I think, and work more freely with the medium. I also find that my digital work will be better as well, when I switch back and forth, as the traditional work inspires me to emulate the effects digitally. I will say, traditional media is more fun, and there's just something in its directness that is very satisfying. But, no doubt about it, the digital work is way easier to modify and experiment with various color schemes while you work. I'm still much faster in traditional media than with digital, as I find I do more tweaking and retouching digitally where I know the exact effect I'll get traditionally before I touch brush to paper. In that sense, I think traditional media has a spontaneity about it that makes digital media look a bit overworked. The challenge is to capture that spontaneity, and as the digital brushes and effects improve, I think the differences between the two approaches will narrow.

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