Do Americans really frown with their mouths?

I saw this widely shared on Twitter and wondered if this frown analysis were an oversimplification of reality:

On the other hand, it may be true. It would explain why (American-made) frowny emoticons have no eyebrows to speak of. This explains why the frowny emoticons have never looked satisfying to me. They just look mildly disappointed with the world.

Expand to GIFs and it’s easy to confirm the hypothesis.

American actor:

Apparently this kid is American but we don’t know for sure:

British actor:


Vulture (American) describes that (British) Fleabag scene above as a ‘laugh pout’. It’s definitely a conspiratorial, theatrical frown to me.

But then, Britney Spears is American and here we clearly see her using her eyebrows. I have no idea what emotion she is expressing here because GIFs are without context. But Americans clearly use their eyebrows to express a range of emotions. She looks incredulous and slightly disgusted to me, as if she can’t believe the interviewer just said that.

I’m neither American nor British. But I wondered how I, as an Australasian, would depict frowning in art, because this has implications for illustrators, right? This involves going back into art I’ve done in the past. Facial expressions are more subtle in the sombre works, more exaggerated in cartoony works.

from Midnight Feast
I had labeled this ‘cranky librarian face’
I had labeled this ‘Fluffikins looking right annoyed’

Without looking too far, I realised I make use of both eyebrows and mouth downturn to depict frowning, at least when it comes to cartoons. When it comes to depicting a serious, sombre mood, I do very little with the face.

Just the other day I posed a 3D model frowning and came up with this:

The character is meant to be feeling annoyed and is also concentrating. I was using software which lets me control the eyes separately from the mouth, which is important information for this nonetheless rubbish experiment.

But I have lived part of my life in New Zealand, about half my adult life in Australia. So my own examples prove nothing either way about Americans vs Brits.

What if I compare British picture books to American picture books? Might we then see a difference?

First I need to find some characters with eyebrows and a human-esque mouth. (Pigeon from the Mo Willems series won’t do here — pigeon has a beak, dammit.)

I’m immediately hampered with a deeper issue. Is this even what Americans would describe as a ‘frown’? Does a frown denote sadness? That’s just a sad face, right? I mean, it’s right there in the title:

Or does a frown denote something else, like contemplation of hard things?

American illustrators definitely make use of the eyes (eye shape in lieu of eyebrows) when the frown indicates anger. But is this a frown? (The mouth is open and therefore useless to us here.)

from Z is for Moose illustrated by American Paul O. Zelinsky

Let’s go briefly to the UK. I’m searching for Shirley Hughes because she draws a lot of people, and people have proper mouths.

The mother is frowning, right? She looks concerned and she’s mostly using her eyebrows.

Look at Mog, though, by Judith Kerr. Cats have naturally downturned mouths, to the point where I believed all cats were always sad when I was little because if you look at them from the front this is what you see. But if you look at them side on, they’re enjoying a perpetual joke. Mog’s eyes have been reshaped to look mournful rather than frowny. Is this a frown to you? I don’t even know anymore.

The character below is by British illustrator Chris Riddell. Eyebrows feature heavily. The mouth is narrow rather than downturned. I’m definitely getting ‘frown’ here. To me, this is the archetypal frown. All of the characters to the right are frowning.

Here’s what I think’s going on. The concept of a facial expression is different from the reality of a facial expression. Actors, emoticon designers and illustrators are all working with the concept of frowning rather than with the reality of it. Britney Spears appears to be mid-interview above, whereas Steve Carell is acting. The same facial expressions, even if there were no difference at all, may well be labelled differently on each side of the Atlantic.

If you’d asked me to describe Steve Carrell’s face above, I wouldn’t have come up with ‘frown’. That’s not what I could call a frown, even if Giphy calls it a frown, even if the underlying emotion is frowny. I might have used words like sad, contemplative, thoughtful. His expression is clearly negative — he’s not thinking of something great, but that’s not a plain ole frown to me.

Illustrators, as you were. I reckon any difference between England and America is a labelling difference.

We may find something quite different if we went to Asia or into Maori culture, where eyebrow language is DEFINITELY a thing. I had to learn it myself as a young adult, moving from the South Island to the North Island of New Zealand.


Tom Barling Illustrations?

A while back I blogged about Thirteen O’Clock by Enid Blyton, illustrated by Tom Barling. There is remarkably little on the Internet about Tom Barling considering how much work he produced.

Perhaps you are knowledgeable about this English illustrator and can tell us whether the following illustrations are indeed by him? We have good reason to believe that they are.

But it would be great to have that confirmed and to know which project they were for. Please get in touch if you know anything about them, or would like to hazard a guess!

In any case, they’re beautifully rendered and deserve to be on the Internet. They remind me a little of Maurice Sendak’s work.

The eyes on this girl are quite unusual.

I think I might get nightmares tonight. She reminds me of a Black Eyed Kid of the urban legend:

Black-eyed children (or black-eyed kids) are an urban legend of supposed paranormal creatures that resemble children between the ages of 6 and 16, with pale skin and black eyes, who are reportedly seen hitchhiking or panhandling, or are encountered on doorsteps of residential homes. Tales of black-eyed children have appeared in pop culture since the late 1990s.

Apparently the paranormal stories started around 1996, but these illustrations look a bit older than that to me. What do you think?

But that smile… That pasted on smile…

Is the horse stylised based on cave drawings? I notice the girl’s eyes are drawn differently here.

Is this a piece of jewellery, or a ninja weapon that you throw at enemies? What better image to put on a shuriken than a black eyed kid and her pasted on smile?

Digital Art Software I Have Tried

Earlier this week I compared two similar digital art programs, Artrage 5 and Rebelle 3. Rebelle 3 has just been released. Those are my top picks for illustrators who don’t want to fork out the big (ongoing) bucks for Adobe products or for Corel Paint (which I didn’t like anyway, last time I used it).

Here are my thoughts on some other art software.


Glue chin to neck

If you have an iPad with an Apple pencil (so, an iPad pro or the latest one), Procreate is the way to go. My old iPad can’t support it, but apparently their latest update was amazing. Procreate has excellent gesture support. They’re setting the industry standard on that. There are illustrators who use Procreate and only Procreate to create professional work. There’s a lively and active Procreate community and plenty of brush specialists creating awesome resources for sale. You can even ‘go native’ on an iPad pro and get rid of your desktop if you want.

UPDATE: I have since started mucking around with Procreate on my new iPad and an Apple pencil. The interface is very nice, though I kept accidentally touching the sidebar. Shifting it over to the other side fixed that problem. (You get to choose set up for ‘left handed’ or ‘right handed’ — I’m actually right-handed but choose the left-handed set up.)

The big problem some Procreate users have right now: There’s no CMYK in the page set-up. That stops professional artists from using it, unless they’re creating solely for screen. I know professional artists are really wanting to go native with an iPad Pro and Procreate, so if this Tasmanian company is smart, they’ll sort that out very soon. Instead, they are telling users to just switch to CMYK from RGB in Photoshop or similar. This never works well.

I have a smaller iPad, so at this point I prefer to use Procreate to do rough and free sketches rather than tight careful work, but you certainly can use it for that! (I’m trying to loosen up.)

Not quite there yet but amazingly impressive:  PaintStorm Studio. Like Artrage, this is one man’s passion. That man happens to be Russian. He has not released an instruction manual (in any language, from what I can gather) and GOOD LUCK learning how the brush engine works through boneheaded experimentation, because his set-up is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Basically, every functionality has been rolled into the brush engine. Hard to explain until you see it in action. Fortunately, there are YouTubers who’ve published excellent reviews of PaintStorm Studio and your best bet for learning how that software works is to watch one of those. Paintstorm is officially in beta mode. It’s been in beta mode for ages. It’s amazing what the Paintstorm guy has done (mostly? entirely?)  on his own, and he has made some really excellent decisions, taking the best of many different programs and pulling them into a new passion project of his own. The ability to pick up paint from lower layers is really awesome. He’s also taken Krita’s seamless pattern functionality (Krita calls it Wraparound) and for me, it was worth buying Paintstorm just for that. And also because I’d like to see that guy financially supported.


Speaking of Krita, your free, open source alternative, I deleted that from my computer after discovering PaintStorm because I only used it for the wraparound functionality, and Krita is — at present — lacking naturalistic paint mixing capability. It does not work well on my old Mac.

In 2013 I bought Mischief on the Apple store. I was interested in its very unusual ability to create a never-ending canvas, and the ability to zoom in and in and in until you have a mise en abyme image. Look at one of their promo videos to see how cool that is. Thing is, I’ve hardly used it. I thought I’d use it for character design sheets and whatnot, where there is no real need to choose a certain size of paper, because you’re in total creative mode and you can hypothetically keep going every which way. I find the lack of margins strangely disconcerting. Turns out I’m old-school when it comes to margins. I like my paper to end. I am someone who gets lost at the mall. So if I need to drop pins to get back to where I was, I’m going to get hopelessly lost. Without even leaving my own desk! More to the point, the user interface never appealed to me. I didn’t stick with Mischief long enough to memorise the shortcut keys and now it’s just irritating. Mischief have not done anything obvious with their software since I first tried it, and though a professional artist can use any software and create excellent stuff with it, without naturalistic paint mixing, Mischief is not a contender for me. I would recommend Mischief to people (especially students) who love to make their own hand drawn mindmaps, because the one thing that pisses me off about mindmaps is, you always end up wishing you’d started somewhere else on the page. You won’t run into that problem with a never-ending canvas.


Here’s another interesting but underdeveloped passion project: Verve, described as ‘experimental fluid dynamics fluid software. It’s completely free, but available only on PC. Verve has a band of loyal supporters on the forum, but the UI is very odd. If you keep playing, you’ll work out how to make certain effects on purpose (rather than by complete happy accident). If you’re into dragging needles over dye in water (I forget what that is called) then you’ll be impressed by Verve. My programmer husband contacted the developer about five years ago and asked if he wanted to collaborate on an iPad app aimed at the preschool set. We saw amazing potential for this gooey, squishy, sandboxy physics engine, which Taron says he stumbled on by accident. Taron wasn’t interested in a collaboration — fair enough — no one wants to give up their code that easily, especially since software physics belongs to the dark arts, and happy discoveries happen once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky. Taron replied that he has big plans for Verve, and plans to develop the UI himself. Five years later, nothing’s changed. We contacted him again a few months ago, but Taron says he still has big plans to develop the UI and is still not interested in a collaboration. He’s probably got a number of such emails over the last few years, and he’s probably been developing it quite a lot without making a release. However, I suspect Taron has missed the boat. Five years ago, the physics engine of Verve made your eyes pop. It felt really exciting. Through sheer hard graft and a whole heap of startup funds, other, bigger companies have discovered these physics engine secrets, knowing they were there to be discovered.


Affinity Designer and Affinity Photo are genuine competitors to Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop. If you’re migrating over, the thing that will disappoint you is that you can’t migrate all of your Adobe resources over. All of us have years worth of carefully curated brushes which are as individual to the artist as style itself. I understand why Adobe have gone subscription model, but they’re disproportionately expensive for most indie illustrators, whose paychecks have been decreasing, not increasing over time. If Adobe worked like some of the 3D software developers and charge subscriptions based on the size and income of the company, that would be fair. Also, everyone who pays for a creative cloud subscription seems to have a love/hate relationship with the products — ‘too bloated’ is a criticism you’ll hear time and again. Like Microsoft Word and iTunes, Photoshop needs rebuilding from the ground up. Affinity products do not suffer from that problem. They’re lightning quick, schmick and slick. Also a little buggy. Just in the last few months, I’ve been having more and more issues with Designer. I have no idea if it’s my computer or them. I suspect a bit of both.

There’s one issue with the eraser which renders Affinity Designer almost unusable for me at the moment, and now it’s doing something funky with pixels on the edge of a page. (I’ve got a workaround for the weird pixel thing — I turn every page into an Art Canvas.) Go to the forums and you’ll see regular  users with laundry lists of bugs, all of which seem individual to each user, and which may eventually get squashed as new ones arise. I made a suggestion about the sticky settings for new documents and they appreciated the feedback. In their response they said they’re in the process of sorting sticky settings out. Not a lot of thought went into them. So that gives you some idea of where they’re at. They’re responsive on the forums, but like the other smaller players, they’re overwhelmed by their to-do list.

They’re also working on an alternative to Adobe InDesign, which I will buy, and be frustrated with. They’re already behind their original schedule (by about a year), saying they’d rather put out a stable program than a crashy one. If their previous track record is an indication, their next product will be fast and stable, but full of niggly little annoying things, at least for a while.

As for the user experience, Affinity Designer do a really interesting thing by separating their vector functionality from their bitmap functionality. It’s excellent for working with fonts. I love that you get live previews of blend modes as you hover over the selection before selecting it, which will improve your blend mode learning curve no end. (This knowledge transfers nicely to every other bit of art software.)


This bit of software isn’t cheap but it’s fun if you’re into that kind of thing. I treat it as a game. You build a house, put up wallpaper, furnish it with items from the library and then you can ‘walk through’ it, and even make a video if you like. You can view your house in dollhouse view, as a cross section, in watercolour, as vector lines, or with photorealistic textures. Bear in mind, you need a good graphics card for it to work properly, otherwise you won’t be able to toggle shadows and reflections at the same time.

What’s the point of going to all this effort? Well, if you’re illustrating a children’s book (or series) set largely in a single house (e.g. something like Dogger or our own Midnight Feast), then you’ll be wanting the house to feel like a real house. There’s a huge benefit when you’re able to look down into a room or up at the ceiling from any angle. You can play much better with viewpoint when you’re taking screenshots of your model house. This is way more fun (for me) than mucking around with perspective rulers.

Home Designer is used by professional architects, though they’d use the more expensive version. I use the middle one, which does everything except fancy windows and unlimited storeys. There are much cheaper options available as apps. I started off playing around with a few of the apps that are out there and got addicted to building digital houses that way. I started to get frustrated that the apps weren’t as customisable as I wanted them to be.

As you’ve probably guessed, there’s a bit of a learning curve with Home Designer, but no more than your average game. I do find I have to relearn a few things if I haven’t been in for a while.

bathroom screenshot
Screenshot from the upstairs bathroom in my entirely digital fantasy house
bathroom illustration
(A washed-out flashback) illustration created quickly using screenshot as a tracing image


Speaking of 3D, art teachers will advise you to make a structure out of boxes, set up a lamp and learn how shadows work. The modern equivalent of that is downloading (the totally free) Sketchup Viewer, jumping onto Trimble 3D Warehouse and downloading some (totally free) objects that other people have uploaded and manipulating the objects in Sketchup. You can rotate most objects to any angle, and adjust shadows for time of day. Even if you can’t find exactly what you want to draw, it’s amazingly handy.

Below is an illustration I did utilising objects I found on Sketchup: The TV and the tea trolley are from Trimble 3D Warehouse. In Sketchup Viewer I angled them as needed. The deep fryer on the TV screen is from the 3D warehouse. I even modelled the food on the tea trolley on some 3D digital food. I still have to draw the character from my head, but that’s okay. I do find if I use real life examples — even models of real life examples — I get a level of detail in illustration which is absent if I’m relying only on images inside my head.

illustration created from 3D models


If you’re into 3D models, there’s Poser from Smith Micro (creators of Rebelle). The free alternative is DAZ Studio, and some artists prefer DAZ Studio. DAZ is on my computer, but I find it intimidating. It makes me log onto my DAZ account every time I open it, and this has been giving me grief. I need to get over my reluctance to make use of an actual 3D software, given how partial I am to using 3D digital objects as reference. I wish I knew how to use DAZ properly.

Alternatively, I’m more and more interested in Clip Studio Paint, which in earlier iterations was called Manga Studio. (It’s a Japanese company.) Clip Studio is tailored to comics and cartoon creators, and is therefore excellent for graphic novels, but is also very good for creating a picture book. No matter the length of the project you’re working on, the program only loads one bit of the project at a time (the bit you’re working on), so you don’t get endless spinny wheel, which is what I’m dealing with in Apple Pages as I create a 200 page hybrid novel on my Mac

I’ve been doing my homework and now I’m waiting for one of their regular sales:

  • There’s a focus on line art. There are two different kinds of line correction, which you may like if you’re not someone who wants complete control over your lines.
  • It’s also set up for easy filling. You set up a line layer as the fill layer and then draw rough outlines around objects. It automatically fills, with good gap detection. This makes filling a lot quicker than colouring objects in by hand. Colours can run under lines, which can be a cool feature if your lines are semitransparent. (Think Peppa Pig, where the outline colours are related to the fill colours, but darker.)
  • The brush engine is very powerful — more so than Photoshop. You tag your brushes with search terms, which is an example of how this software expects you to create a whole heap of brushes (and can handle it). As an example you can do ‘tape drawing’ (also a feature of Affinity Designer) — drag out a brush to create a bunch of images that looks like decorative craft tape.
  • It is stable. It doesn’t glitch or freeze — compared to other digital art software, and considering how intensive it is on your CPU. (Photoshop crashes more often.)
  • ‘Transparency painting’
  • Correction layers to fine tune colour, like Photoshop.
  • File objects — create an object, put it on the canvas, but edit it separately — which edits them all, even though they’re already on the canvas.
  • Sophisticated perspective rulers, as well as multi-point symmetry. Most programs have this. But Clip Studio also has a curve ruler, where you draw a curve then the pen follows it exactly. There’s also a parallel line ruler. Define a direction and everything else you draw on the canvas will run parallel to this guide. Think speed lines. Parallel curve tool is basically the same but allows you to draw a few curves that follow each other perfectly. Focus line is when you draw a curve, then everything you draw duplicates that line. The concentric circle is great for sketching a character’s head, if you are drawing that kind of art. You can draw any size circle you want, in any perspective (squashy, long etc.) If you know how to draw using six point perspective, you can.
  • To transform an object, you don’t have to group those layers and then transform the group, as you would in, say, Artrage. You draw marching ants around the part you want to change, then tick the layers that will apply to the transformation.
  • Massively, there is also a 3D library within the software and it looks very fun. It reminds me of Sims, the way you create a character and dress them and whatnot. You could technically use a Sims character as your character reference, but you’d be pretty limited by comparison, and the Sims body language is too specific to that game. In Clip Studio you create characters and pose them to look how you need them to look.
  • Some of these things need to be paid for but there’s a lot available for free. (You do have to sign up for an account even for the free stuff.) The language and descriptions are in Japanese. There’s a translation tool in the library but Japanese doesn’t auto translate very well to English. (I knew there was a reason for that 10 years I spent learning Japanese. Finally, I may have found it.)
  • Like Affinity Designer, this software allows for both raster and vector drawing (and erasing). While Affinity Designer focuses more on vector, Clip Studio focuses more on raster.
  • It creates frames, which at first glance looks like a simple box, but the box is a layer mask. So basically, this software takes everything you need from InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop, tailored to comic artists. You could also use these frames to make thumbnails for a picture book. The divide frame tool cuts an entire page into nice segments. You can resize these panels by dragging a control point and the other boxes resize automatically. (It works well most of the time.) Using this tool it’s impossible to draw in the wrong panel — it won’t let you. You can also hand draw boxes, as long as you do it in a single stroke.
  • Automatically generated comic book movement conventions like streamlines and sunbursts. You can also use this tool to create rain. Screen tones are another big one. (Dots) You can edit these effects on the fly. You can create gradients and greyscale with these screen tones. You can turn these dots into lines/lozenges or any image at all.
  • As you’ve probably guessed by now, the text tool in Clip Studio is awesome. The software automatically links the text to the bubble. It can also group different text bubbles together, realising they belong to the same ‘conversation’. Overlap them and they’ll join together. The software can link between bubbles automatically. The tail tool creates the call out. What you can’t do is layer effects applied to vector text. All you can do is change the size and stretch it a bit. In order to freely manipulate the look of text you do have to rasterise the layer.
  • You can create your own groups of fonts, which is kind of like having RightFont within the software. You can sort your fonts into ‘dialogue fonts’, ‘effect fonts’ or project fonts.

There’s Paint Ex (full feature version) and Paint Pro (fewer features). The company has already switched over to subscription model for their iPad (pro) version of the software, in which it’s about $9 a month after a six month free trial, so I expect that’s where they’re going with their desktop software, too.


I recently heard some advice for SCBWI members uploading their portfolios for consideration: Don’t make your influences too obvious. Apparently, art directors see far too many portfolios where the influence is obviously Disney and/or manga. A lot of artists who come to Clip Studio are there because of a love for manga and anime, which is cool, but it’s worth pointing out — something formerly called ‘Manga Studio’ doesn’t have to be used to create manga-looking art. As software makes it easier and easier to create art using 3D libraries, with perfectly symmetrical faces, it’s probably even more important now, to develop your own personal style, recognisable as only yours.

Artrage 5 or Rebelle 3? Software Review

make a massive mess

Artrage by Ambient Design, and Rebelle, by Escape Motions, are similar. They are both excellent, lower-priced digital art software which replicate real-world media and painting techniques. With both, you can pick up your pen and start drawing right away. If you have to choose, which should you buy? In my case, would I get much use out of Rebelle when I’ve been an Artrage fan since 2011?

The short answer: nothing matches Rebelle 3 for digital watercolour simulation. But if watercolour is not your thing, Artrage has a lot more functionality and slightly better layer management.

The reason I could never fully utilise Rebelle 3 as my main digital art software is its very limited layer management. I have read the manual cover to cover and now I’m sure of it — though I found it unbelievable — you can’t group layers. Basically, the developers don’t MEAN users to make heavy use of layers. I need to retain many layers because apps require isolated pngs layered on top of each other at the development end. So anything I do in Rebelle is going to be the odd asset here and there. Otherwise I’m sticking to Artrage.

UPDATE: Artrage 6 was released 10 July 2019. Dave and Andy finally gave us brush shaped erasers. Update several days later: This is the most unstable version yet and I’m starting to worry about bloat. I have lost several hours’ worth of work just from crashing. Lack of autosave is a now my biggest gripe, especially when the devs know they have released a buggy build.


  • Rebelle is quicker to learn because there is less to know.
  • If you already know one of these programs you’ll easily learn the other, because they are similar. The Rebelle team seem to have made careful study of what’s out there. They utilise the best  UI features from Artrage, Paintstorm Studio and Adobe products. But this is no copycat mashup — Rebelle still does its own thing.
  • Artrage features lighting effects which allows for metallic textures and glitter, and Artrage 6 offers more control over lighting direction than Artrage 5. I find kids love these features but few professional illustrators make use of them, partly because of printing limitations, partly because of wanting to avoid… kitsch?
  • Rebelle paint interacts with the paper. There is a genuine, physics based interaction between paper and media.
  • Rebelle is therefore better for watercolour, a medium which is heavily influenced by the thickness, wetness and tooth of the paper. You could do any watercolour course and apply the realworld techniques digitally, without spending a fortune on paints and papers. I’m pretty confident the skills you learn in Rebelle would transfer back into the real world, where you’re painting on real watercolour paper. That’s how good it is.
  • There are therefore things you can do in Rebelle that you simply cannot do in Artrage. The main one being: the hand blowing technique of painting as described here. (Pushing paint around with a straw/hair dryer etc.)
  • Colour selection and mixing  is more complex and ‘true’in Rebelle. In Artrage, I so often come out with a green colour when mixing two non-green colours. I have actually learned to go with this and my style has incorporated it as a result. But I still have no idea why I so often get green, or if other users have found the same! Also, this may only be because I know Artrage better and am familiar with its quirks, but if you smooth around the edges of a locked transparency layer, the edges incorporate the colour of the canvas (white by default) and you get that colour dotted around the perimeter. I have reported this as a bug and learned it’s not a ‘bug’, but some unavoidable quirk. So the only way around this is to go in and change the canvas colour (even if the canvas is set to transparent!) to the colour I WANT dotted around the edges).
  • If your computer is more than a few years old it won’t cope with Rebelle 3, in which case go with Artrage (which will run slowly, but it does run). (Mac users complain that the Artrage devs have ignored them, and I have stopped using Artrage on my Mac altogether. It doesn’t work. Now and then they put out a specifically Mac targeted update as proof they do love Mac users.)
  • Although Rebelle shines in realistic watercolour, take one look at their forum and you’ll see Rebelle used to create all sorts of different types of art — from washy and bleedy to hyperrealistic.
  • If you want a whole lot of image based brushes which you create yourself from scratch, I think Artrage is for you. But I haven’t tried out Rebelle’s brush engine yet. It does look pretty powerful. On the other hand, the power of the brush engine is out of whack with the underwhelming layer management options. You can import Photoshop brushes into Artrage but the more sophisticated ones won’t work as you want them to.


First up, Artrage also has watercolour functionality. For a while they were probably leading in this field. Artrage Andy has said in a Reddit AMA that he does know how to make brilliant and naturalistic watercolour, but he’s waiting for everyone’s computer processor to catch up. (I’ll believe him, thousands wouldn’t, haha.) Artrage has a foot in the mobile computing camp, so they’re probably held back by the need to support that, at the moment. Rebelle, on the other hand, is avoiding the mobile market for now, in favour of producing powerful desktop software which will work best with — wait for it — 16GB of RAM(Is it just me, or does that make you feel like you’re living in the distant future?)

Rebelle Minimum: Intel i5 or equivalent AMD, 4GB RAM, 200MB harddisk space, Open GL graphics card with 1GB RAM, Windows 7 (64-bit or 32-bit) or Mac OS X 10.11. Recommended: Intel i7 or equivalent AMD, 16GB RAM,1GB harddisk space, Open GL graphics card with 4GB RAM, 64-bit system Windows 8, 10 or Mac OS X 10.12 and newer, Wacom or Surface compatible tablet.

In contrast, here’s what Artrage says about compatibility: You can install ArtRage 5 on any desktop, laptop, or touchscreen device that runs a supported operating system. Please try the demo before purchasing if you have any concerns about performance or compatibility.

We all have our own idiosyncratic favourites, partly based on what we’re used to. Artrage was one of the first art programs to offer naturalistic squidgy paint blending, which is what made me settle on Artrage as my main software. Apart from that, Artrage has a simple, intuitive interface which lets you get straight to art without a huge software learning curve a la Photoshop. Advanced settings are behind the scenes, which means you might not ever find them, to be honest. Artrage was ahead of its time for a while. At $79, Artrage has always punched above its weight. I won’t hear a bad word about it.

Now for a bad word about it. Andy, who codes it (a Kiwi compatriot), has an idiosyncratic, creative approach to programming which I recognise as a ‘number 8 wire’ attitude. Self-taught, passionate and able to solve very complex problems, I have a heap of respect for that guy. However. That same attitude comes with: ‘I don’t look at what other developers are doing, here’s what I’m doing”.

To give an example, if you know how to make your own brushes in Adobe, you’ll have a brand new learning curve in Artrage because custom brushes are crated quite differently. They’re not even called brushes in Artrage. They’re called stickers. There’s no masking in the traditional (digital) sense, just weird-ass workarounds which involve selecting paint on a layer and making a ‘stencil’ with it (which actually looks like the stencils I used in the eighties — but do kids still use those?). With the aim of hewing as closely as possible to real-world media, Andy and his small team say nah to a bunch of REALLY USEFUL things which aren’t really all that difficult to grasp, conceptually.

As a result, each time Andy issues a big new update I wonder if he’s FINALLY going to give us a few ‘industry standard’ digital art basics. When Artrage 5 came out and he  still didn’t give us eraser functionality on every kind of brush, I shouldn’t have been surprised. But you know what? Andy’s individuality is starting to look a lot like plain ole contrarianism. Can you buy erasers shaped like any kind of brush in an art supplies shop? NUP. Therefore we ain’t making any. Okay, he hasn’t actually said that exact thing, but that’s the general philosophy if you’ve been hanging about on the Artrage forums.

Artrage 5 did come with some cool updates, which made the paid upgrade worth it. Mostly it felt like performance improvements, which actually makes upgrading mandatory, even if you have no interest in the new custom brush, which is like stickers… but with blending. Which is awesome. The huge downside of the Artrage stickers was always the inability to blend them. Now, it’s possible to make some truly awesome brushes in Artrage. I have noticed in general that some artists are into that kind of thing — brush-making as an art in its own right — while others are more interested in using software as a means to an end. I’m in the latter camp, so I haven’t spent a solid week mucking around with custom brushes. You could. Oh, you could.

The forums are pretty quiet these days. I do wish more people used (and paid for) Artrage, because then more stuff might get done more quickly. It’s a very powerful piece of software. Artrage 5 doesn’t come with a PDF user manual, probably because I’m one of the five people who likes to read those things from cover to cover. (I asked for one and they said it’s coming.) For now there’s an increasing amount of documentation on their website, designed to be read on a need-to-know basis. The documentation is written in very good, plain English. I was impressed by that. In one solid weekend you can get a good handle on what’s under the Artrage hood.

  • Artrage ships with a greater selection of readymade options for each tool, with more difference between each one, though this advantage diminishes as you create your own collection of brushes with the brush engines.
  • A weird tool specific to Artrage is the gloop pen. Other artists have said on the Artrage forum that they never use such a thing and it should be taken off the main tool panel and added to the custom brush panel, but I do use it. I use it because it is so specific to Artrage, and creates an effect most digital artists don’t have access to.
  • Bump blend modes. The bumpiness of layers can be added to each other to create quite a high level of bumpiness, as if you’ve glued a whole heap of glitter to the page or used very thick oil. (For even thicker oil, check out Verve, where it can look like someone dropped a lump of putty onto the page.)
  • Speaking of oil, Artrage shines (literally) in its oil painting. (Which could just as easily be called ‘acrylic’.) Rebelle calls their textured brushes acrylic, and that’s pretty good too. Rebelle lets you set ‘impasto depth’ on an acrylic brush. At this stage, if I wanted to create something that looks like oil, I’d go with Artrage. Artrage has a more obvious lighting effect, which you can fiddle around with to create glazed oil versus matte.
  • Related to that, Artrage has a metallic setting which can be applied to any painting/drawing tool. This is affected by the canvas lighting. Metallic media have a ‘crackly’ texture which is really kind of cool. Though it’s a little like the gloop pen — professional artist types don’t seem to use this much. A bit gimmicky, perhaps? My kid loves turning the metallicity up to max, which gives you an idea of who uses it. (Crayolas come with metallic crayons, but professional sets don’t.) She also covers the Artrage canvas in ready-made stickers and ends up with this crappy looking rubbish — I end up kicking her off Artrage and giving her the Crayolas, and this is a kid who’s really quite an accomplished drawer. These extra features of Artrage can be cool, but in practice, will you use them? Kids enjoy Artrage, and I’m guessing they’d tell you they prefer it. But is it better for learning how to paint? That’s a different question.
  • Artrage has a text tool. It’s pretty basic, though. It actually cuts part of the text off if I’m using many of my fancy fonts. I end up doing text in Affinity Designer.
  • To create ultra realistic paintings, your best bet in Artrage is the blending felt pen tool. The marker is not what I’d use in Rebelle — my guess is that you’d be making use of the airbrush for that. I do really enjoy using the felt pen tool, going in afterwards with a blender. The felt pen is my go-to tool in Artrage, so it’ll be interesting to see what I settle on in Rebelle.
  • Artrage is not great with colour palettes. You can’t use an imported palette, so I make my own workaround by creating a png swatch in ColorSchemer and importing as reference image. Also with Rebelle’s colour palette, you can choose to show the names of the colours. This is especially useful if you’re working with an analogous palette. You can also create a colour set from a text file, which looks like a minor pain in the neck, but good to have that option.
  • The pastels in Artrage don’t blend very well. I’ve never warmed to them. (This isn’t an issue if you use a pastel brush in the custom brush functionality of Artrage 5.)
  • Artrage features some layer effects you’ll recognise from Photoshop, like shadows and glow.
  • In Artrage there are so many tools that you can keep your favourites in a ‘tool box’. This tool box resets when you reopen the application, so make sure to export it if you’re working on a big project with more than one document.
  • The workspace can look quite busy, especially since the palettes aren’t dockable in the Adobe sense, so you can hit a key and enter work mode, which gets rid of everything except the canvas and your current tool.
  • I really love the navigation of Artrage. I set my upper Wacom pen button to ‘right click’ so I can hold that and move the canvas. (I don’t like flipping my pen to erase, so my bottom button is set to erase, although my erase button has not clicked off eraser mode in Artrage for a long time, and I’ve been unable to successfully troubleshoot, even with their help.)
  • There’s no navigation panel, but I’ve never found it a problem to zoom in and out. Flipping to check on your perspective skills is really easy — just hit H. The canvas flips right back as soon as you take your finger off the keyboard. This ease of flipping encourages a good habit.


For watercolour artists, the latest release of Rebelle  by Escape Motions is hands down the most impressive (and mesmerising) thing I’ve seen on a screen.

Others have made videos so I don’t have to. Aaron Rutten made a comprehensive video focusing on its new features. Rebelle is totally new to me, but this is a good intro nonetheless:


You’ll also need an excellent graphics card. Thanks, bitcoiners, for pushing the price up on those damn things. Basically, Rebelle 3 requires a gaming computer. Discussions I’ve had in forums with other digital artists indicate a swing away from Apple (favoured by designers) back to PCs, for graphics card reasons. (My five-year-old desktop Mac runs silently, but has a mobile graphics card in it. Which can’t be upgraded. A moment of silence, please.) But! Now that I have a brand new gaming PC, I plan to get the most out of my RAM and my schmick new graphics card. Rebelle 3 is officially the most hardware intensive software I plan to install. (For now.)


This is based on my trial version of Rebelle, so this will be an incomplete list.

  • As everyone mentions, super realistic watercolour. I could leave this list at that, but more specifically, the canvas texture of Rebelle 3 means something. It’s not there for aesthetics. Okay, so the canvas texture does mean something in Artrage too. The pencils and pastels adjust their appearance based on the size of the tooth, but it’s done differently. I’m not a coder so I couldn’t be more specific about that. In Rebelle, watercolour paint is heavily influenced by the toothiness of the paper, and this becomes especially evident in drip mode. If you’re a watercolour artist this is huge. You can also randomise the position of the grain relative to the brush mark, which is partly what makes it look more realistic.
  • Part of this is to do with settings like degree of edge darkening. Artrage has been mucking around with this, utilising it in the gloop pen tool, but not in the watercolour toolset, as yet.
  • Ah yes, the amazing drip mode, dependent on the ‘tilt‘ mode. Artrage does not have anything like that. I believe if you’re working on an iPad Pro using Astropad (a subscription service which allows you to mirror your desktop software onto an iPad), Rebelle 3 makes use of the accelerometer, so physically tipping your iPad will mean the drips flow in that direction according to actual gravity. I don’t have an iPad Pro with Astropad myself, so I can’t comment on its compatibility. I’m not sure the extent to which the Rebelle team worked with the Astropad team to get that up and running. You can also blend with your fingers in Rebelle if you’re using a touchpad. So that’s pretty cool. (My art teacher never let us smudge with our fingers. He said it’s for amateurs who fix problems the wrong way. But he never said anything about BLENDERS.)
  • Rebelle features a blow tool, also part of what they call the DropEngine. It blows wet paint. On dry areas it creates dripping effects.
  • Amazing blending. Artrage also has excellent blending (which was truly amazing before even simple apps started offering it, which changed just recently). But in Artrage, as soon as your Wacom pen lifts from the tablet, the paint stays where you have put it. This can be good. It can be just what you want, and you can work like this in Rebelle, too, by turning off the drip mode and setting the paper up to not influence the paint as much. But watercolour artists on the Artrage forum have long complained that watercolour does not work realistically in Artrage. (Their gripes were a little unfair, because computers had yet to keep up.) Basically, if you are a watercolour artist, Rebelle is for you. Hands down.
  • Rebelle has this ‘blue’ mode where you can wet the canvas. In Artrage you can choose to paint (well, blend) using only water, but there’s no option to wet the canvas beforehand. Adding water is something you do after you’ve painted. So you’re really limited in your wet effects in Artrage. Some artists make a background with real media then finish off in Artrage, but with Rebelle they wouldn’t have to do that.
  • Instadry means you don’t have to put paint on separate layers to avoid smooshing them together. I’m so used to making new layers I’ll probably keep doing that out of habit. However, the instadry functionality is essential because of the DropEngine. You want some control over when the droplets stop dripping and dribbling.
  • Rebelle lets you choose either cut and deckled edges on your canvas, which you can turn off and on again, because the deckled edge functions like a mask.
  • In general, the language used within the software hews more closely to the language of watercolour artists. Rebelle talks about hot/cold pressed paper, for instance.
  • Rebelle’s UI is a bit more similar to Adobe’s. There’s the obvious dark colour scheme, but Adobe has other advantages too, like a more intuitive way of making your own brushes. You’ll soon pick up how to change the settings. By comparison, the little circle and grid system of Artrage, with its negative and positive values, feels very specific to Artrage. Learn the ins and outs of that and your skill set won’t transfer. (And you’ll wonder how an entire week went by… .and six months later when you go to make some more brushes, you’ve forgotten…)
  • The filters on Rebelle seem a bit more powerful. It’s mostly there in Artrage too, but I do finish off colour correction in Affinity Photo rather than in Artrage. I’m yet to see if I’ll need that final step after creating in Rebelle.
  • In general, Rebelle is more ‘drag and drop’ than Artrage. Artrage does have a bit of drag and drop functionality but feels all menus, clicking and typing compared to the most modern programs. For instance, you can expand (or shrink) a Rebelle canvas by dragging the corner. In Artrage you have to go into the menu to do that. In Rebelle you can even drag and drop an image into the colour set panel and Rebelle creates a palette from that image. Genius. I am so impressed by that small thing.
  • Speaking of colours, Rebelle’s colour picker is pretty sophisticated. When you hit the eye dropper tool you’ll see not just a single colour but a dual-coloured ring pop up. It allows you to mix colours — the current colour and a new one. It allows you to precisely select how much of the previous colour you want in proportion to the new. This is a decision you’re constantly making in real world media, so it’s interesting what Rebelle has done to emulate colour mixing with a brush and artist palette. I’ve never seen this in other software. I’ve yet to muck around with it and learn how it properly works.
  • Rebelle also lets you pick colour from your screen (on Windows)
  • Rebelle uses Adobe’s concept of primary and secondary colour. Artrage doesn’t use that concept. In Artrage, your colour is your colour and that’s it. This concept is important for reasons explained above, though colour behaves more simply in Artrage, which may be what you’re after.
  • I haven’t tried out the transform tools because the trial version won’t let you, so I’m yet to comment on how well it transforms. Does it lose any quality? Artrage has not been great in this area. You want to avoid transformations in Artrage because each time you move something it gets more pixellated. Artrage 5 improved heavily on that, but it’s still not great.
  • Both Artrage and Rebelle have their own way of masking. You’d think Artrage would have utilised the real world medium of masking fluid, but strangely — given Andy’s philosophy — he went the digital route with ‘lock transparency’, selection tools and ‘select all paint on a layer’. Rebelle has those tools as well, but includes a masking technique which mimics the real world application of masking fluid. That said, masking fluid in Rebelle doesn’t work exactly as it would in real life — in real painting an area of paper is either fully masked by fluid or it’s not. But in Rebelle you can set the opacity of your masking fluid to create subtle and unusual effects.
  • If you’re familiar with Adobe/Affinity, this is important:. In Rebelle white is concealing and black is revealing. That’s the inverse to how Adobe and Affinity products work. Honestly, it makes more sense to me. I’ve always felt intuitively that Adobe have black and white the wrong way around. Probably because I grew up using white out fluid, and subpar erasers which rip a hole in your paper (metaphorically creating a black hole). Let’s not get too existential about that. In any case, this decision should be easy to get used to. Artrage avoids this kind of masking altogether. Artrage also has some weird behaviours which I have brought up on the forum, and which can’t easily be fixed. For instance, when you lock transparency for a layer and paint over an object, the edges of that object end up the colour of the canvas (which is white, unless you change it.) This is actually a real problem if your mode of working is to slap down paint, then lock the transparency to put in the detail. Which is how I learned how to paint digitally, avoiding the main problems which come with using a tablet like an Intuos, which is not great for freehand drawing no matter how adept you become at manipulating the pen.
  • Rebelle 3 has some amazing perspective rulers. I haven’t made use of them yet. They’re built for people who have studied perspective drawing — they won’t be useful unless you’ve done that. Even the simple ruler has an inventive functionality. The ruler in Artrage works like a real world ruler, which you can drag and pin onto the page. This one doesn’t look like a school ruler but a digital equivalent, and it snaps horizontally and vertically without you having to hit control on the keyboard. It takes a few minutes to get used to, but then you understand its usefulness.
  • There’s a navigator panel. (Similar to that in PaintStorm Studio)
  • You can save custom UI layouts, though it looks like you have to import that setting.  Are your previous settings sticky when you open a new document? With the trial version I can’t tell.
  • Artrage refuses to tell us how big the canvas can get, because they don’t want people trying it out and proving them wrong! Rebelle is similar. We’re told the maximum canvas size depends on the power of our computers.
  • The problem with all these digital tools is, you can easily slip over into creating something which looks digital. In the name of skeuomorphism, you can deliberately make wobbly but straightish lines by turning on ‘freehand mode’. This is especially useful for those of us using something like the Wacom Intuos, which is much better for painting strokes than for drawing line art, because you’re drawing down here while looking up there. I’ll definitely be making use of that.
  • Rebelle 3 does have its own PDF instruction manual which comes free with the software, if you’re into that kind of thing. You can check it out before you buy. I read it and it’s easy to understand. It’s a lot shorter than any of Artrage’s earlier PDF manuals, which speaks not only to the extra tools in Artrage but also to the (unnecessary, imo) complexity of Artrage, especially concerning the making of brushes. Sorry, stickers.
  • I’m not sure how easy it is to rotate the canvas in Rebelle because I haven’t found that shortcut yet. There is a rotate button in the navigator panel, but if you often rotate, this is a bit of a pain. The Rebelle navigation is really nice, except that one thing. However, I do have an Intuos touch, so I’ve decided to turn that on and use one of those gloves. Rebelle works really well with the touch functionality of my tablet. I can rotate and zoom by pinch and expand method. Finally I’m getting some good use out of my tablet’s touch functionality. Apparently you can rotate by holding R and left-clicking, but since my Wacom pen is set to right-click, this is a pain. I’d be changing that in preferences.
  • Rebelle’s stencil functionality is very similar to that of Artrage, but with the added benefit of extending a stencil out to prevent accidental painting over the edges.
  • You can also tile the stencil. Now this is pretty cool. It allows you to make patterns (though not seamless patterns — for that I recommend PaintStorm Studio). There’s a reason why you wouldn’t necessarily want to use Rebelle to create seamless patterns — the huge advantage of the tiled stencil is that you can create a wallpaper in which each separate object has a slightly different (or vastly different) watercolour fill.  Artrage also has a pattern fill option attached to its paint bucket, but it’s not useful. All it does is repeat an object, which you could previously achieve by importing a tracing image and selecting a tile fill. I do think both Artrage and Rebelle could benefit from a wraparound function like that in (open source) Krita and PaintStorm Studio. I acknowledge that seamless patterns are not the main point of this stencil tiling option — use it to make a wallpaper when you already know what dimensions you need. Then you can create something amazing, with individuated objects.
  • Rebelle is great for artists who do line work on white paper then scan it in. Rebelle can remove white. At present, I use Affinity Photo to do this step. Being able to do it within Rebelle is convenient.
  • Rebelle saves in the background. This is huge. I can’t tell you. On my Mac, Artrage is extremely slow to do a save. I work with many layers, and when I get over 10 or so layers it can take over a minute. I think it’s worse if you make use of blend and bump modes. It really takes you out of the flow. I hope Artrage Andy does something about that soon.
  • Artrage does do iterative saves, and Rebelle offers this too. (Not sure if it’s by default.) This is something Artrage implemented just recently. (I’ve been burned badly several times — when Artrage crashes, it sometimes saves only your bottom layer, and sometimes saves nothing at all, whith otherwise REPLACES your previous save.) I highly recommend iterative saves. Developers offer it for a good reason… They’ve seen what can happen!
  • Related to crashing and whatnot, Rebelle allows you the option to choose how much of your computer’s memory it uses. I know that for developers, that choice between functionality and memory is a fine balance and a constant frustration.
  • Rebelle are experimenting with a GPU brush engine. I’m looking forward to finding out what that even is. I do know that the latest version of PaintStorm implemented this, and it was a game changer. Online I’ve seen reviewers get super excited about it.
  • I don’t know if you can group layers in Rebelle. I can’t find that option anywhere in the instruction manual. Rebelle is set up so that you’ll require fewer layers in the first place, with its masking layer influencing the one underneath and so on, but I use lots of layers, so that’s important to me. Artrage lets you group, though it’s a bit fiddly taking a layer back out of a group if you’re rearranging layers. (An ungroup layer option in the dropdown menu is on my wishlist.)




Great Gifts For Young Artists

I have a nine-year-old daughter who loves stationery. As a kid I loved stationery too, and now I am an illustrator. These days, if I’m buying for a young artist I give great gifts. (A #lessersuperpower?) I love buying art supplies almost as much as I love using them.

Reason for this post: Stationery is never-ending in variation and as a consumable nothing lasts forever, yet I have been asked for suggestions on what to buy my stationery loving kid as a gift. It’s a fair question: Young artists living in rich countries with robust gift-giving cultures probably have an oversupply of pencils and markers.

Here are some gift ideas for young artists which are slightly off the beaten track. You won’t find these in big box stores, but you can find them easily online. I won’t add vendor links though. (Most readers of this blog don’t live where I live.)

1. Skin Tone Pencils

Most young artists have a proliferation of pencils already, because pencils don’t wear down as fast as pencils are gifted. But! They may not have a curated selection of dedicated skin tone pencils.

I like a box set because they encourage White kids to consider a wider spectrum of skin colour and incorporate diversity into their drawings. This is a long way from earlier childhoods, where the ‘flesh colour’ was peach. (Crayola have since changed the name.)

Derwent skin tone pencils

From a colour theory point of view, this set of pencils from Derwent is also good for encouraging young artists to think about all the different tones underlying skin. Who would naturally think that blue is a skin colour? Yet professional artists make use of blue to build up colour. Most coloured pencil manufacturers release a skin tone set — it doesn’t have to be Derwent.

2. Graphite Pencils

Continue reading “Great Gifts For Young Artists”

Synoptic Narrative In Picture Books

A synoptic narrative depicts a single scene in which a character or characters are portrayed multiple times within a frame to convey that multiple actions are taking place.

The sequence of events is unclear.

Synoptic narratives typically provide visual cues that convey the sequence, but still might be difficult to decipher for those unfamiliar with the story.

There are 7 main categories of Narrative art. Narrative art is art which tells a story.

  1. Monoscenic — represents a single scene with no repetition of characters and only one action taking place
  2. Sequential — very much like a continuous narrative with one major difference. The artist makes use of frames. Each frame is a particular scene during a particular moment.
  3. Continuous — Continuous narrative art gives clues, provided by the layout itself, about a sequence. Sequential narrative without the frames.
  4. Synoptic — offers the synopsis of a bigger story. You must already know a story before you can make sense of synoptic narrative.
  5. Simultaneous — has very little visually discernible organisation unless the viewer is acquainted with its purpose. There’s an emphasis on repeatable patterns.
  6. Panoptic — depicts multiple scenes and actions without the repetition of characters. Think of the word ‘panorama’. ‘All-seeing’ (pan + optic)
  7. Progressive — a single scene in which characters do not repeat. However, multiple actions are taking place in order to convey a passing of time in the narrative. A progressive narrative is not to be interpreted as a group of simultaneous events but rather a sequence that is dependent on its location. Actions displayed by characters in the narratives compact present and future action into a single image.

Synoptic is the adjectival form of ‘synopsis’, which should give us a clue about what’s going on. Synoptic art = the synopsis of a bigger story.

You can find examples of synoptic art in ancient murals. The viewers of these murals knew the plots of these stories. The art simply triggered their memories of a familiar story. Everyone of the era understood the basic plot of the myths, fables, stories and wars depicted.

This is Mughal painting -- a style from South Asia.
This is Mughal painting — a style from South Asia.

Continue reading “Synoptic Narrative In Picture Books”

What Colour Is Your Sun?

Different cultures view the sun differently. Ask a Western child to draw the sun and they will draw it yellow. Ask a Japanese child to draw the sun and they will draw it red.

Our closest star is ‘actually’ white. I grew up in New Zealand and I drew it yellow. But when I lived as an exchange student in Japan, I noticed the sky really ‘is’ red. It’s fully red. American children also colour the sun yellow.

However, it doesn’t always look bright red in Japan, and it doesn’t always look bright yellow in my Western home countries, either. In photos it appears most often as white. Part of our understanding of ‘an object’s actual colour’ is acculturation. We grow up learning that the sun is a certain colour.

Part of learning to illustrate is learning to really see. Wherever you come from in the world, suns, skies, road surfaces, and of course human skins, come in all different colours.

A Sound Of Taiyoo Organ
A Sound Of Taiyoo Organ by Ryojii Arai

Taiyou Organ

The sun in A Sound of Taiyoo Organ is very similar to the sun as depicted in this Russian picture book. Continue reading “What Colour Is Your Sun?”

Aerial Perspective In Picture Books

When looking at an image, how does the viewer get a sense of depth? The artist can add depth to an image using various tricks.

It starts with simple overlapping.

The chase for deep space begins by occluding one form with another.  With overlapping shapes we easily decide which is in front and which is in back.  From here we go on to explore other methods, color recession, linear and atmospheric perspective,  texture gradient shifts, amalgamating textures, diminishing edge acuity, diminishing ratios of contrast and on and on.

David Dunlop

But there’s more to depicting space than simple occlusion: The ratio of contrast between light and dark diminishes over distance. This visual effect is known as aerial or atmospheric perspective.

Claude Lorrain introduced the glowing obscuring effects of atmospheric perspective in the 1600s.  From the 1628 to 1668 we can trace Claude’s further development of atmospheric effects.

— for examples see David Dunlop’s post.

In an earlier post, Dunlop explains the Chinese history of this technique:

Long before Claude Lorraine introduced atmospheric perspective effects in the 1600s Chinese artists of the Song Dynasty had already developed these effects in their landscape painting in the 10th century 600 years earlier. Among their basic tenets was the principle of substance vs. absence. This meant that a misty amorphous air would lie in the space between receding forms, between mountains for example.

Atmosphere From China to Italy

Today there are various ways artists depict aerial perspective.

Change The Hue To Blue

Background scenery such as distant mountains tend to look more blue. (That’s especially true here in Australia, for anyone living within cooee of the Blue Mountains.)

Love le renard by Frederic Brremaud & Federico Bertolucci

Perhaps inspired by landscapes, even buildings can be blued out, even if the building is obviously not that far away! This lets the detail of the foreground stand out.

blue aerial perspective
In this image the general real life rule of ‘blue for distance’ is exaggerated.

People can also be blued out:

Or a blue outline may suffice.

The Wheel On The School

Whereas aerial perspective is more noticeable across vistas covering large distances, artists can also use it to create depth in very intimate settings, for instance when foreshortening:

by Claire Elan


At sunset, or in the (polluted) city, the blue is often swapped out for orange hues:

aerial perspective orange

Warms in the background, blues in the foreground definitely convey the feeling of a place cooling down after a hot day.

by Jamey Christoph

But not always. I feel the image below aims to convey atmosphere rather than time of day.

by Chuck Groenink

The general rule of cools in the background, warms in the foreground can also be inverted for a surreal, pop-art kind of look.

by Guy Shield

In a utopian setting where you don’t want any desaturation, you can change the palette. Often it will be cool colours for the background palette, warm for the foreground, but the cools are as bright as the warms.

aerial perspective change palette

Lower Opacity/Fade

The further away, the less vivid the colours. Or even if there are no colours at all, the background will seem more see-through. In digital illustration, this can be achieved by lowering the opacity of the background images.

aerial perspective in black and white, by Jon Klassen
aerial perspective in black and white, by Jon Klassen

Fantasy illustrators tend to make heavy use of this technique as it creates a highly atmospheric image — often dystopian.

fantasy aerial perspective
In a Near Future by Francesco Lorenzetti

The inevitable result: These atmospheres look foggy. I often think there’s a helluva lot of fog in fantasy imaginations. Sfmato refers to the technique of allowing tones and colours to shade gradually into one another, producing softened outlines or hazy forms. It is not a modern invention:

500 years before DaVinci introduced sfumato’s smoky edges and misty landscape backgrounds for his portraits Sung Dynasty Chinese artists had already discovered the value of obscuring mist as a segue between mountains and a method for creating a feeling of mysterious space within a landscape. Claude Lorrain perfected the sensation of obscuring atmosphere for European landscape painters. 200 years later his atmospherics would be admired and imitated by J.M.W. Turner.

By the mid 19th century photographers and painters were both employing the mysterious benefits of fog.  James Whistler worked on the reverse side of his canvases to exploit the neutral pebbly surface he found there which supported his soft edged misty evening landscapes.

David Dunlop


Background scenery might be more blurry if you want to draw attention to your foreground image. This is a natural consequence of taking a photograph using an SLR camera and can also be applied to art. (It’s also a natural consequence of being short-sighted…)

by Elly MacKay

aerial perspective blur

Or, you might blur out the foreground and leave the background layer in focus.

by Mike Bear

Frame With Very Dark Foreground

In this image of Beauty and the Beast’s castle, artist Petur Antonsson has used four distinct perspective layers, starting with almost black in the foreground, brightest for the focal point (the house), an ochre layer of trees and a misty, blue castle behind.

aerial perspective foreground silhouette

Darken foreground lines

thick lines
Here’s a rather extreme example of line thickening in the foreground.

Change the amount of detail


Use white lines as background scenery

Heidi aerial perspective
white lines forming a gesture of mountains in the background
The Snow Queen
thin white lines for the background building, thicker lines for the trees in the middle ground, full colour for the children in the foreground

Use unfilled objects (with dark lines) as background scenery

In Drahos Zac’s illustrations for The Pied Piper, there may be ominous reasons for avoiding the sepia fill on background buildings: The inhabitants of those particular buildings may have already died. This theory holds up when you consider some of the foreground characters are also left unfilled. This feels reminiscent of ghosts.

Pied Piper Drahos Zak drahos zak2

aerial perspective lines

Silhouettes As Background Objects

by Erwin Madrid

Or the silhouette might have a bit of detail. You can be as silhouette-y as you like.

Rootabaga Stories

Silhouettes don’t have to be relegated to the background, as proven by this photograph:

Winterwonderland by Sabine Thöle