Always, always always, my pre­ferred mode for illus­tra­tion is pen­cil and paper, with ink­ing. Of course in our ultra-​​modern age, that doesn’t always work; Illustrator has taught many to expect very clean, slick graph­ics that are more or less entirely vector-​​based.

There’s noth­ing wrong with the look per se; cer­tainly I can work in that for­mat myself.

I guess what I dis­like about it is that it feels so damned ster­ile. Lines with precision-​​adjusted thick­ness, per­fectly smooth solid-​​color and gra­di­ent fills, and curves cre­ated with math­e­mat­i­cal pre­ci­sion do have a cer­tain aes­thetic value to them, but they also lose any sense of organic creation.

I’ve tried to deal with that by com­bin­ing the process of draw­ing with con­vert­ing the art to vec­tors in Illustrator. I begin with a pen­cil sketch — some­times using blue­line, other times not — that I then ink over. I scan the art into Photoshop, clean up the occa­sional bits of crud or dam­aged line, and pull the black-​​and-​​white line draw­ing into Illustrator. The art begins with this:

(I could maybe just run with that — but Photoshop’s fill tool is sim­ply teh sukc when it comes to lots of shapes, par­tic­u­larly if they’re not closed, and espe­cially at the edges. The fill always wants to anti-​​alias.)

So then I suck the art into Illustrator and use Live Trace to con­vert it to vec­tors. The out-​​of-​​the-​​box set­tings are work­able but always yield generic results. I devel­oped a cou­ple of cus­tom set­tings called Ink to Calligraphy and the imaginatively-​​named fol­lowup, Ink to Calligraphy 2, which yield dif­fer­ent results depend­ing on line thick­ness. Sometimes one pro­duces good visual results; some­times it’s the other.

Here’s the bitmap image vec­tor­ized in Live Trace using my Ink to Calligraphy set­ting. The set­tings them­selves are in the suc­ceed­ing screenshot.

This is how it looks with Ink to Calligraphy 2 applied:

…and here are the set­tings for that:

So once I’ve got my art look­ing ink­ish and more or less human-​​created, I add the col­ors. The fills I do with Live Paint, since it can do some gap detec­tion (though I almost invari­ably have to add col­or­less curves to close some of the shapes). The shad­ing and high­lights I do with the pen tool in sep­a­rate layers.

This would be pretty easy to do with mark­ers on paper. But the prob­lem I run into there is that it doesn’t scan very well. I almost always end up with under­ly­ing noise — paper tex­ture or col­ors, and of course lots of smudging.

And if I want to have things like exposed non-​​repro blue­line, or some pen­cil sketch­ing, I get into seri­ous prob­lems because if the scan is sen­si­tive enough to pick up those sub­tleties, it also gets all the smudges and streaks and vari­a­tions in the paper col­ors — things I do not want in the artwork.

Some of us are just impos­si­ble, no?

Poking around on Apple’s soft­ware down­load site a cou­ple weeks back I stum­bled across some­thing that looks promis­ing. It’s called TabletDraw, and it’s a pen­cil and marker input method for graphic tablets, but designed for them from the get-​​go rather than retro­fit­ted to them as an afterthought.

The soft­ware comes with a min­i­mal­is­tic suite of tool pre­sets: A pen­cil, mark­ers in one of three thick­nesses, and three color choices. There are two vari­a­tions on erasers as well. But what’s cool about these tools is that you can design your own, very quickly — and they can even inherit settings.

So I did a mod­i­fi­ca­tion of the pen­cil, gave it a bit more thick­ness and pres­sure, and allowed it to inherit col­ors from other tools. Now I’ve got some­thing that acts like a soft col­ored pen­cil, not a hard draft­ing pencil.

Also, the soft­ware inte­grates mar­velously with my Wacom. It rec­og­nizes the sen­si­tiv­ity, under­stands the eraser (flip the sty­lus over, and you’ve got an eraser), is pro­gram­ma­ble, etc.

TabletDraw has the abil­ity to have mul­ti­ple lay­ers, so I can add ele­ments to the art with­out hav­ing to worry about hos­ing it; and it will even export to PSD. There are infi­nite undos, too.

But what I think is prob­a­bly the sin­gle coolest thing about TabletDraw is its abil­ity to rotate the can­vas, non­de­struc­tively. This is pre­cisely what every­one in the uni­verse does when they draw on paper: Turn the sheet to draw lines or fills more easily.

TabletDraw not only per­mits this, but it doesn’t try to anti-​​alias the art, so the rota­tion actu­ally has no effect at all on the image. (You can’t do that with Photoshop, as far as I know; rotat­ing art will, over time, alter its pix­els, par­tic­u­larly at any edges.)

I’m still bonk­ing around with it but I’m already intrigued by the pos­si­bil­i­ties of being able to use nat­u­ral­is­tic pencil-​​like tools with­out hav­ing to scan any­thing in and end up with all the arti­fact­ing that always results from scans.

So far, I have to say I like it, and I have a feel­ing it’s going to end up a tool I use pretty regularly.

EDIT: To be clear I’m not bash­ing Photoshop. It’s a superb bitmap edit­ing and image mod­i­fi­ca­tion tool. What it is not, how­ever, is a pri­mary image cre­ation tool. That’s why it’s called Photoshop, not Box of Pencils, Brushes and Paper.


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