Artist goes bonkers with digital tricks

... it's all wizardry -- digital wizardry

by Don Norris

This is an article for artists, particularly for those who like to sketch with pencils. The subject deals with the difficulty of reproducing those pencil sketches -- especially by photographing them with a digital camera.

My sketch is one that I did while sitting on the couch one recent evening. There was nothing good on the TV, and I had bought, earlier that day, a nice, new sketch book with creamy 80-pound paper -- it has been a long time since I have painted, almost twenty years.

Since they were on hand, I used a handful of "extra soft" Ticonderoga pencils, which aren't made for artists but do fairly well. And I sketched by the yellowish light of my table lamp -- only to find out that, even though it is fluorescent, the bulb's light is heavy on the orange side. When photographing my work, everything came out like I was using orange paper. Oy.

Simple lesson for me. One, set the camera's light source to "fluorescent" and the camera's computer will compensate. Not so. This curley-cue bulb definitely produced orange light. Lesson two: Use the natural lighting of the picture window, and avoid all the artificial flavors.

No good. The camera is so sensitive that it magnifies the differential between the window-side and the dark -- although I really had to study the sheet to see that there was a difference. When I put the picture on the monitor, that minute difference was grossly significant.

Another problem was the fact that pencil lead is soft and sticky -- and it clings to your drawing hand. It gets spread around the sheet, although it's hard to notice until you put your work on the computer screen. No good. Blotches all over the place. Finger and palm prints that I never noticed before.

It becomes clear that the camera exaggerates. I know it enhances color. Now I know that it also changes the spread of light to dark -- and in effect, it changes the entire tone of your drawing. I have also discovered, in recording my oil paintings for posterity, that they come out much more brilliantly on the monitor.

So I took my pencil sketch, the next morning, out to the patio. Since it was a heavily overcast day, I assumed I'd get a neutral, evenly-spread flat light. And it worked. Sort of. The camera again exaggerated the black, widening the tonal spread so that my darkest gray became black, and my ivory paper, now reflecting the gray of the sky, came out light gray. Oooph da.

Back inside, I figured a good way to get some nice warm, even lighting was to shoot flash, bouncing the light off the ceiling and warm ivory walls. Well, we're getting closer all the time, for the light on the paper is even, but the camera with its magic TTL (through the lens) metering, still broadened the range of the blacks and white. And the paper took on the color of the warm walls.

Of course I could shoot in black and white, or in gray tones. But that hasn't helped yet. I still get a photo that is something quite different than what I put on paper.

This is tough. And there's more to the tilt.

The photos I take with my digital cameras are generally 36 inches wide by about 30 deep -- at 100 percent. And when they are that big, the texture and coloring of the paper becomes quite visible. I now see, at this large size, blotches of creamy yellow and vague pea green. And I can also see the pattern of the paper -- affecting my pencil sketch.

At this size -- 100 percent, which is about four times larger than the original sketch -- one can see where grays are really thin blacks, touching only the high points of the textured paper.

The picture you see at the top of this article is roughly 700 pixels wide, which is maybe 33 percent of the original electronic file. Don't confuse that with the original sheet of paper, which is 9x12 inches. The size on your screen, of course, depends on the size of your monitor.

Confusing? You bet. If we were talking about film, my negative would be 36 inches wide. Instead of blowing up your picture in the darkroom, my digital camera produces images that have to be drastically reduced -- unless you are in the advertising business.

What really burns me, however -- and don't tell a soul about this -- is that I can take a digital picture of my worst oil painting, put it on my monitor, and with a simple photo-editing program, I can make a zillion changes almost instantly in everything -- color, tonal range, values, composition, just everything. And after spending a little time on my digital copy, I can then repaint my work to match that which comes out of my computer. We Sunday Painters suddenly become pros. Well, maybe not pros, but our work certainly takes an upward curve.

All except my pencil sketches. Frankly, those magic digital cameras ruin my work. But I love it, and pretty soon, I am going to start painting digitally -- how, I don't know. But it'll happen.

March 3, 2006

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