Digital pastels

I recently finished this illustration for a feature in Illinois State magazine. The topic is the University mock trial team, so I thought it would be fitting to open the first spread with a courtroom illustration of the students in action. Actually, I had wanted to take on this illustration for a previous court-related feature but circumstances led it in a different direction, so I had been itching to produce something in the guise of a courtroom sketch artist.

I had additional photography needs for the feature so the plan was to shoot reference for this piece which I would later transition to a traditional, hand-drawn sketch. Being somewhat out of practice, I purchased two different types of pastels (regular and oil), a set of color pencils, and some of that ugly brown paper that courtroom artists use. Having graduated with a B.F.A. in art, an education consisting of numerous drawing classes, I expected to at least create something passable, but no miracles. Instead I spent an entire day at home throwing away brown paper, constantly disappointed with the drawings I was producing.

After simmering on the problem for a few days I sat down at the office and finished the above image in a hour almost entirely on the computer. I started with a rough sketch, then refined it with a fine tip Sharpie, scanned the drawing, and colored the whole thing using Photoshop (Typically, Photoshop wouldn’t be my first choice for drawing on the computer, but I figured it would be the best way to get the “blended pastel” look).

I’m happy with the finished illustration—it has the exact look I was going for—but surprisingly, regardless of my fine arts background, it was easier and more satisfying turning to a computer to create something that appears to be drawn traditionally. This project was a good lesson on how the lines between traditional art and computer generated art have become blurred thanks to the Apple computer and Adobe products. Drawing ability and fine arts training may no longer be a necessity in the graphic design profession, but regardless of the road I took to completing this “drawing” my background definitely aided in getting here. It’s somewhat sad that the traditional method was frustrating during this exercise, and enlightening the realistic capabilities that digital illustration has to offer.

Design software increasingly has the capability to mimic the use of physical media through brushes and effects, with many styled to represent acrylics, charcoal, oils, color pencils, pen, watercolors, and, in this case, pastels. Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop even offer the option for user-created brushes to mimic styles, allowing for digitally-created art that appears to have been created traditionally.

But there are also drawbacks. Some argue that the artist will always possess more control with a physical art-making object, but this obviously isn’t always the case. As I found, a mark made with a pastel stick in-hand is permanent, but one made with a pastel brush on screen can be undone with a simple Command + Z (it never happened). In addition, Photoshop layers make it possible to lay out each color on a separate level and allow for easier correction of mistakes, post-painting color changes, and complete obliteration that isn’t possible with traditional methods.

Obviously this method works well for magazine illustration, but isn’t yet passable for a real work of art. Digital painting has come a long way since the release of MacPaint, and I have every intention of going the digital route for future illustrative needs. In the least, my computer will save me from a few extra trips to empty the trashcan.

Additional links:
54 mind-blowing digital paintings
Traditional painting vs digital painting


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