Slap Happy Larry

picturebooks, apps, eBooks, short stories

Tag: art

Art History Highlights

Insofar as art history is useful to picturebook lovers, here is a useful infographic from Indulgy:

Slapping On Filters

The Horn Book has published a balanced and interesting article about digital and traditional artwork found in modern picturebooks, in which case some reviewers and enthusiasts are keen to know exactly how a piece of art has been created. The article wisely advises in its title: Just Enjoy The Pictures.

However, something from the following paragraph pulls me up short:

While many people embrace the notion that the computer is merely another tool in an artist’s toolbox, there also exists a disdain for art that tries to be something it isn’t, such as digitally created artwork that attempts to look like it was rendered in oils. Why go through the trouble to fake it when you can do the real thing? Why slap a filter on it to make it look like oils instead of taking the messy risk of working with actual paint?

I can’t work out from the article whether the writer realises that no (published) digital artist is simply ‘slapping on filters’.

So I’d like to make it clear here: Filters are about as useful as tits on a bull. There’s no ‘slapping one on’ to achieve any artwork with soul. Indeed, I don’t even know why Photoshop ships with filters. I haven’t yet noticed a picturebook artist who has found a use for a single one.

However, some artists may be making judicious use of filters. Judiciously. Maybe. With lots of mods.

Which leads me to my next point, a response to the clip from a new (niche) documentary called Making It, in which illustrators talk about their work. I haven’t seen the film. There’s a clip on video in which an illustrator called Anthony Francis Moorman talks about various things illustration related — how he enjoys drawing boobs and skulls and not buildings — then he goes on to  say that he takes great pride in the fact that his drawings are done by hand. He says that because of all the art software out there now, a lot of young illustrators are doing their work entirely on computer, and ‘it has no soul’.

As usual, I tend to question cause and effect.

1. ‘Soul’ and ‘spirit’ etc. are religious terms, which are trying to describe something else. ‘Soul’ is such a nebulous term that I wonder what it really refers to in relation to art. Does it mean, perhaps, that the slightly shaky lines, imperfectly coloured, are more attractive than the dead-straight lines which have been auto-filled in a program such as Adobe Illustrator? Does the ability to make perfect perspective with the guides in the latest versions of Adobe Photoshop take something away from the slightly skewed, morphed, unnatural perspective achieved by hand-illustrators?

2. Assuming that this is what is meant by ‘no soul’, is there no soul because the drawings have been done on a computer, or are the drawings soulless because they are being done by people who’ve had no real training in the art of perspective, shading and colour theory? In this case, the computer is not the problem; rather, computers may be standing in the way of a broad art education.

3. ‘By hand’ is an interesting term to those of us who paint digitally using a Wacom tablet. Because when I’m drawing on paper I’m using a pen-like tool. Similarly, when I’m drawing via computer, I’m using a pen-like tool. The degree to which I am able to replicate the experience of drawing on paper is determined by the amount of practice I’ve had: It takes several years to become really comfortable working with a Wacom pen, looking at the screen while drawing onto the desk. But I am still using my ‘hand’.

Moorman’s excerpt is interesting because his thoughts are representative of many attitudes towards the inferiority of digital art and the superiority of non-computer based art. It will be interesting to see if and how these attitudes evolve as illustrators move even further into an era in which it’s impossible to make a living without involving computers at some stage of the development process.

The Power Of The Polka Dot

Even if someone is only making a polka dot, it is visibly theirs and no one else’s. How we hold a pencil is uniquely our own. No one can make a polka dot the same way.

–  Maya Gonzalez

Interview With Elizabeth Dulemba

Episode 68 of the podcast Escape From Illustration Island is an interview with Elizabeth Dulema, who has illustrated many books as well as Lula’s Brew, which was one of the first storybook apps on the iTunes store. Interviews with storyapp developers are pretty rare, so here are some of the most interesting points:

  • When going freelance after working for a company, it was necessary to discover her own ‘visual voice’.
  • Dulemba spends half her day marketing. “You have to.” She does postcards, but recently pulled out of contributing to other people’s portfolio websites because her own website was getting more hits than theirs.
  • Her coloring pages have been a really successful marketing project: Coloring Page Tuesday.
  • Constantly look at the work of other artists, in the same way you looked at other people’s handwriting when you were learning to write. You’ll end up with your own style.
  • Typical process: mostly digital now, Photoshop. Used to use Painter. Still draws by hand with pencil on most things, due to lack of that freedom you get with a computer but last book was done completely on the computer.
  • Dulemba tries to work out where the lighting is coming from, greying out an entire layer then creating a wedge, to work out where the light is coming from. Most artists have a default light source, for example top left, but one good way of adding something special to your work is to experiment with different sources of lighting. Perhaps the light is coming out of an open book, or from another unexpected place. (I do this too, but I usually choose a colour other than grey, and put a blend mode on it. It often stays there in the final product, with the colour unifying the entire picture. It makes a big difference.)
  • Next she lays in flat colour, these days making use of some excellent large spongy brushes in Photoshop.
  • It’s good to experiment with texture because this is harder to convey in digital media.
  • The perfect amount of time in which to illustrate a picturebook is six months. Any shorter and it’ll be too tight. Any longer and you might find your style evolves to the point where you have to go back and do the start of the book again. (I can definitely relate to this, having just spent one and a half years on Midnight Feast.)
  • Claim a name for yourself in one thing.
  • Differences between illustrating your own work versus illustrating for other writers: When you illustrate your own work you get full control. When working with others you have to bend a little bit.
  • Differences between a print book and a storyapp: In an app, large shapes work better. The  typography has to be better. With the backlit screen the colours are more vibrant. Lula’s Brew actually started as a dummy for a children’s book, and before turning it into an app, had to zoom in on some of the pictures. Had to get rid of some extraneous details and leave more space on things. Big brushes in PS was great because she was able to apply colour really fast. Working in the small format actually sped her up.
  • The same issues are there with regular books: It’s much harder to get found. We’re all trying to get found.
  • She calls herself a ‘storyteller’ rather than a writer/picturebook illustrator. Apps are just another way of telling a story.
  • It’s a really easy time to become an expert right now, because everything is new and you can be one of the first. It’s really easy to come up with something no one else has done right now. That’s an opportunity.
  • Colour and drawing are two completely different skills. Just because you can do one thing doesn’t mean you can do the other. Some people are good at one and not the other.
  • Picturebooks are more sculptural more than anything else. They’re not finished until someone’s flipping through the pages.
  • In a children’s book there’s a rhythm, there’s something that builds, and you don’t have to explain the whole story in one image. Likewise, pictures in a picturebook are not at all like an editorial illustration, in which you take a big idea and squish it down.
  • The aim of a picturebook is to draw the reader in and make them want to be in the picture.
  • Stay on top of what’s out there so you can come out with something new and different.
  • Dulemba usually has about six stories going on at any one time. (Wow – I’m not sure how I’d go with that. So far I’m a one-project-at-a-time person, but this gives me confidence to try two at a time.) I’m reminded of this advice:Have more than one idea on the go at any one time. If it’s a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It’s only if I have an idea for two books that I choose one rather than the other. I always have to feel that I’m bunking off from something.

    GEOFF DYER

  • On the difference between picturebooks and MG work: She doesn’t feel like she’s doing the same thing at all. It’s a little bit of a switch. She reads upper MG, and therefore writes it too.
  • She has a separate blog which is more ‘cerebral’, whereas her picturebook website is about engaging younger readers with colouring pages and so on. (Is there a case for separate blogs for separate tones and audiences? I guess so.)

 

 

I had to draw this.

floor plan of Midnight Feast

floor plan of Midnight Feast

I wonder if it’s common for picturebook illustrators to draw a floor plan when illustrations are set largely inside a house. It really helped me out a lot, to spend half an hour visualising the entirety of Roya’s world within the story, down to the wallpaper. Once I’d done this, illustrations progressed at a faster pace. I didn’t have to consider the interior decor, of her non-imaginary world, at least. I’ve heard art advice to the effect that you need to understand the entirety of a subject even if you’re only going to be depicting a single facet. I was imagining a banana when I heard that advice, but it certainly applies to houses and floorplans. Otherwise you’re liable to draw a house without any doors.

(By the way, the toilet and bathroom are communal, downstairs.)

This particular piece of paper also has the honour of helping a super poisonous Australian spider into a glass for deposition at CSIRO, so it’s come in handy indeed.

The View From Bed

Not interesting.

Slightly more interesting.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen from your bed?

For me it would have to be the spider I woke up to one morning. It was dangling at the end of a thread, right in front of my nose. It wasn’t exactly a Huntsman, but still not pleasant!

Unlikely Influences

This week we started watching Season Three of The Wire. I was struck by how much my transition page for Midnight Feast resembled the housing depicted in that series. Then I realised that I drew this just after watching seasons one and two, and that I’d no doubt been influenced by the rather depressing backdrop of The Wire as I drew.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how everything you do/see/read/watch/hear during a long-term creative project has an influence, subconscious or not, on your final product. It’s important to keep surrounding yourself with good art, good books and, in my case, good TV. Um, okay!

A Scene From Midnight Feast: Roya’s Scary Bedroom

wireframing

Since I am intimidated by a white page, the first thing I do is fill the page with a midtone colour. Later, after the page is no longer blank, I’ll delete that layer of brown.

Next, using the default pencil in Artrage, I sketch the bedroom. These lines are actually as straight as I could get them without making use of the ruler stencil, but the wobbliness is the look I’m going for. In other words, if I aim for straight, I get pleasantly wobbly. If I’m too careful, the picture will end up looking like an off-kilter photograph rather than an illustration. Besides, this pencil sketch will only serve as a guide and, like the ugly brown layer, the lines will be deleted after I no longer need them. On second thoughts, I never delete these ‘wireframe’ sketches — I just hide them. Who knows when I’m going to need them again later, perhaps for a different page. Although this whole book has been storyboarded, and I know I probably won’t need them… you just never never know.

As you can see, this room is sketched in one point perspective, looking down onto the beds. I’ll need the viewer to be able to see Roya tossing and turning later, because she won’t be able to sleep.

By the way, the outlines for the beds are each on their own layers. By keeping objects in their own layers I can easily change the size and positioning of one thing without affecting the other things. I’m not yet sure about the positioning of those two mattresses, because they’re meant to look lower than the bed. These things will become more clear as the painting progresses, I hope.

 

laying down colour

Above is a screenshot of Artrage.

Since I’m working on the large canvas (iPad size = 2048 x 1536), which won’t be scaled down this time (to make use of Apple’s beautiful new retina screen), it can take ages to fill in large areas such as walls with the felt pen tool, so even though the felt pen strokes are what I’m after, first I use the roller to cover area fairly quickly. I’ve already sketched a different view of this room, so I’m keeping my eye on that as I look at the basic shadows. As you can see, I’ve imported a screenshot of that into Artrage to use as a reference. I am holding the Wacom pen in one hand. My other hand is hovering near the keyboard, pressing Alt to pick colours from that reference photo to use in this one.

walls filled in

Now the walls have been covered with a roller.

The room has to look the same from one page to the other. This poses a dilemma — not from an art point of view but from a storytelling point of view. For this story, each page has two versions: the version that happens in the real world of the main character (Roya), and the world which happens inside her head. For the majority of this story, Roya’s imagination has transformed her shabby, drab apartment into a luscious, brightly coloured interior. Yet she hasn’t quite gone there yet. Instead, she’s still using her imagination but not to good effect. The reader needs to realise that she is still in her bedroom, too, and it’s early in the story, so I’m caught between deciding whether to make use of the drab colour palette or the new one. I’m going to have to experiment with that. At this stage I’m thinking I’ll probably export the final background into GIMP and fiddle with the levels of blue. Then again, I may have to do something inside Artrage itself. As you can see, for the meantime I’m painting exactly the same room as before.

the concrete floor

I have put the floor on a layer of its own because I wanted to use a concrete overlay. This is just a photo of some concrete, which I imported as a tracing image, converted to paint (in a layer above my gray flooring), then adjusted the blend mode to overlay. This is exactly the look I was going for. The good thing about skirting boards (in life as in paintings) is that they exist to cover up messy edges. So I don’t need to bother cleaning those up too much.

 

curtains

In the story, Roya has trouble sleeping partly because it’s too light outside. For this reason the curtains will have to be substandard. I’ll make them a bit raggedy at the bottom. This will come in handy because Roya will imagine monsters coming under these curtains. I’ve heard a few people say they had this fear as children. I’m yet to find out (via user testing!) whether this is TOO scary for a middle grade audience, but I’ve found that worrying too much about the end experience is counterproductive, so I’ll stick to illustrating the story as I would enjoy it.

I have chosen blue for the curtains from the bright colour palette reserved for the b-version of pages, even though I know this is going to be too bright for the otherwise drab room. I’ll desaturate it later. I’m doing the curtains in two layers – first, the opaque layer, where the curtains overlap the wall. No light can shine through here.

opaque curtains

I continued to fill in the rest of the curtains in the same colour (and at 100%) opacity on a new layer, then dropped the opacity of the diaphanous layer (the part of the curtains which cover the window itself) to 75%. I can rarely guess the right transparency of a layer. I started by guessing 50%, but that was too much, so next tried 70. I couldn’t decide whether 70 or 80 percent opacity looked the better but life is too short to spend too much time worrying about such things, so 75 it is!

I then merged the layers and blended around the joins with the ‘instant blur’ tool in Artrage. Next, the spotty overlay, which I had in my library of overlays. I was really pleased at how the whiteness of this overlay meant that the world outside is also bright white. I haven’t yet painted the outside scene, so I don’t really want to show any of it! I’ve also added to the opacity by using the eraser at very high softness and about 20% pressure. Also, I desaturated the blue by -44, which looks better to me.

Sure enough, I had to move both beds over a smidge, so I was glad I put them on their own layers. I have also put a texture over the bedroom wall, but I’m not sure whether I’ll keep it yet, as the entire picture might look too ‘digital’ and not ‘handdrawn’ enough. Textures, like anything, need to be used sparingly. I have also put a poster on the wall above Roya’s bed. This serves two purposes: it tells the reader (at a subliminal level, I’m sure) that this is Roya, in the bed beside the window, and that there are four people in her family. I coloured the mattresses with grey and white, and I chose a grey portion of the yellow range so that when the white and grey mix together, I get a nice yellow colour. I’ve learnt it pays to be mindful of which grey I choose, for that very reason. Even in digital painting, blacks and greys are slightly complicated. There’s more to these colours than meet the eye!

After a few months’ break, I came back to the story and decided that Roya was older than about seven — as a foodie she can be about 12 or 13. This meant that the poster above her bed seemed too juvenile, unless it was something she’d done years ago, in which case she probably would’ve taken it down by now anyway.

Since Roya is a true foodie, it made sense for her to paint a roasted chicken. In my mind her full name is ‘Roya Gourmand’, though this won’t come up in the story. Room 13 sounds appropriately ominous since 13 is an unlucky number in some cultures. It’s fitting that Roya has an interest in painting because she has an excellent imagination. It’s likely she’d want to express herself somehow, with paints or whatever.

I had to desaturate the painting somewhat from the one above because in dim light, everything tends towards black and white.

For several reasons, I decided the little sister should have a poster above her bed, too. First, it’s likely that she’d look up to her older sister, who is a good few years older, and emulate what she does. Second, I’ve been wrestling with whether to give her a name. There are several reasons not to: it emphasises the familial relationship (even though it’s probably clear enough that these two are sisters), and makes the character more universal.

So I decided in the end to keep referring to her as ‘Little Sister’. In many languages, this is perfectly normal, but I’ve noticed from critiques in writing groups that some English speakers consider failure to give a character a name of their own is almost disrespectful. So if anyone feels like this and really wants to know what the little sister’s name is, here it is: I called her Afya, which in Arabic means ‘shadows’. Afya has only a supporting role in this story, so in a sense she’s in the shadows.

I considered getting the resident four-year-old to do me an authentic juvenile portrait but unfortunately she’s going through a pink phase, where every single thing she draws has to be pink. She also likes playing with all the different Artrage tools, like airbrushes, sticker sprays and gloop pens, whereas I wanted this to look as if it’d been done by hand with splatters of actual paint. So yes, I did that myself, taking cues from typical four-year-old paintings that I’ve admired of late.

 

This is pretty much the final version of this page, though I’m experimenting with a drop shadow on the text. I’m not a fan of drop shadows because I think they’re overdone, but when I minimised the picture on my computer monitor to 25% I got a vague idea of what it will look like on the iPod and iPhone screens. I couldn’t easily read the text without drop shadows. But the PC monitor isn’t a great gauge of readability because Apple mobile devices have screens a lot better than my cheapo computer monitors.

Also, when the four-year-old woke up screaming because of a hand moving in the shadows across her bedroom wall I strengthened my resolve to keep the ‘scary on-or-off’ functionality. I’m pretty sure it was this picture which gave her nightmares. Not recommended for under middle-graders, though I noticed that Monster House has a scene in it where a hand comes in through the window, so I’m confident enough that older children can cope with it! Monster House, too, is for middle-graders.

Dan is having problems with memory, because the precursor to this page already has so many assets, so I’ve been advised to err on the side of minimalism. For that reason, I decided not to have Roya tossing and turning in her bed, and I also decided not to have Little Sister’s blanket moving gently up and down with her breathing.

I’m not sure yet, until Dan tries to cut the code, whether we’ll be able to leave both hands coming in towards Roya, because each animation has about 30 frames. I look forward to seeing how the animations look. I’m not at all experienced with animation, so even basic animations such as these are plain old guesswork. I never know how it’s going to look until I see it in action.

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