Early this morning the sun was casting the most amazing light through the leaves of a very old stand of trees. Some leaves were glossy with shimmering silver undersides that appeared to dance in the play of light and shadows. Others were lush and broad. The rays shone through them, creating translucence. I was overcome by the most indescribable feeling and was reminded of one of my favorite paintings by Michael Sowa, entitled Kohler’s Pig (Autumn), where the leaves of the trees are being blown by an autumn wind, reflecting silver light on the upturned leaves. I have a framed print of this above my stove. Each time I look at it, I discover some new detail that I somehow missed before. The painting epitomizes the perfect interplay of light and shadows in art.
Painting by Michael Sowa entitled Kohler’s Pig (Autumn)
This morning when I saw before me such a similar scene, I felt my stomach muscles constrict with intense emotion. I wanted to stop what I was doing and sit right down to compose some digital art. But I was on my way to school, and had no choice but to forego the moment.
I intend to go there again with my digital camera to try to recapture that scene. It will likely prove elusive, because it was a particular combination of light and summer breeze, and morning mist still present on the leaves. The intensity of that scene confirmed a recent revelation. I’ve come to realize that the single most important factor in creating digital art is the placement of light and shadows. Together they create a duality, a yin and yang of contrast, tension, and excitement. They simultaneously oppose yet compliment one another. Without them, color remains flat and lifeless.
A Photoshop Secret Revealed
The secret to creating a simulation of light and shadows in Photoshop is to combine Blending Modes along with the use of Dodge and Burn Tools. Use sparingly. Lightly dab the image rather than using strokes. Pixels quickly become degraded unless the tool is used very lightly. The tool’s effects vary, depending whether highlights, mid-tones, or shadows are chosen in the Options Palette. Most often I choose highlights when using the Dodge tool, and midtones for the Burn tool. The effect can make a scene appear to take on a three-dimensional quality and the colors leap off the page.
This is one I made of Danielle, Martine’s daughter
For two solid months, since school started, I’ve not had a moment to delve into Photoshop. This is the first morning that I allowed myself the luxury, despite the fact that class assignments are piled high on the table beside me, screaming for my attention. It feels so good to immerse myself after such a long absence. From morning to night I cram technical data into my brain. My brain cells are undergoing a major transformation. I sometimes wonder if in the shuffle my creativity is beginning to atrophy. Today it was much more difficult to sink into that deep state of concentration, that inner place where everything around me becomes still and free of all troubles. I have to somehow find a balance between the need to learn and absorb all this technical data versus the need to maintain a creative focus. Not as easy as it might seem …
The image is of Valentijn, a little boy who modelled for the children’s book that I recently completed a series of digital art images for a company based in California. The little girl is his sister. They live in Holland.
Such a small world it has become since the advent of internet. I met these children through my friend Martine, who I also met online on a photography site. She saw my work and asked me if I would make a digital art piece of her daughter, Danielle. I love Martine’s photography and Danielle’s face has such a ‘timeless’ quality, which inspires me. So I agreed. That was the beginning of a great friendship.
When I had started the book series, I was having trouble finding the right ‘face’ and personality that suited the little pixie boy character in the book. I hadn’t heard from Martine for several months, but suddenly out of the blue, she emailed me several high resolution, very detailed images of owls and hawks, which she told me to feel free to use within my digital art pieces. When I saw the images, it seemed like complete serendipity!! The birds were perfect for the forest scenes. I emailed her and mentioned I was having trouble finding the right little boy to model for the scenes. I needed one with a mischievous face and tossled hair. She immediately sent me a photo of Valentijn and asked me if he would be suitable. He was completely perfect!
The image above is not part of the book. I made it to say thank you to Valentijn. I combined several different images. You’ll notice that the faces and foot have been changed from the source image below, and the background has been made with at least 20 separate images. Portions of it have been painted directly in Photoshop.
This is the original source image
I made this one using a digital photo I took of my daughter
Students Were Dismayed
At school, an instructor had marked last week’s exam and handed them back to students. To our dismay, marks had been severely reduced for questions based on images that were entirely subjective and arbitrary. Although the class was about Color Correction, the course did not include computer monitor calibration, so each student’s monitor had its own color cast. Mine was casting a muddy hue, the student’s next to mine appeared mauve. Despite this serious handicap, students were expected to color correct images using steps that would afterwards be repeated on the Instructor’s monitor (which I suspect was also uncalibrated). And if that weren’t enough, the classroom’s overhead lights were harsh and depending where a student was sitting, they were casting glaring light and shadows across the desks. In addition, context regarding each image’s output purpose had not been provided, so students understandably interpreted to their best judgement.
When the test results were received, lively discussion ensued, a mini mutiny. Students defended their answers. Each argument sounded logical. Yet the instructor persisted on a specific series of steps. Blunt steps with blunt explanations. No consideration for an image’s mood or intent. Just an assembly line of steps. I felt as though I had tumbled down the proverbial rabbit hole where logic and good sense are turned upside down. The situation would have been comical had not each of us been playing for real marks that impact our real future.
I felt sad to see Photoshop used this way
For a moment I began to doubt my own judgement. I wondered whether I will come through this course with my creative spirit intact. I have always approached Photoshop with joy and a measure of reverence. I pick up the tools the way a painter might pick up their faithful paint brushes. They respond to a gentle touch, subtle nuances, loving strokes. Blunt commands result in inferior results.
When I got home, although it was late at night, I couldn’t go to bed without first opening Photoshop, taking time to reaffirm an old and faithful friendship. I took a few images and began playing with light, shadows, hues. Colors once again became spectacular, dynamic, and stimulating, instead of numeric values on a histogram. Color casts reclaimed their welcome role as purveyors of mood and ambience, instead of enemies to be irradicated. After some time had passed, the loud and regimented din began to fade from inside my head. The claustrophobic sensation of being squeezed down a rabbit hole receded, restoring a small measure of peace to my weary brain.
Transform A Poor Quality Image Into An Amazing Show Piece In Three Easy Steps:
View Animated Sequence of Steps
- The photo had very harsh lighting, exposing facial flaws, frown lines and dark lipstick color. In addition, it was taken from a low angle, accentuating the jaw line. This made the model appear masculine, although in reality she is a beautiful woman with a lovely heart-shaped face. You’d never guess it from this photo or from the makeup applied to her face for this shot. Despite these photographic errors, the image was taken at high resolution with a lot of detail. The photographer was about to delete the image, but it occurred to me that it would be a wonderful challenge to see if it could be ressurected using Photoshop.
The Original Image:
- Duplicate the image and use the Healing Brush to remove the wrinkle between the eyes and to mute the harsh makeup lines. Soften the lines under the eyes and remove the messy the hair from the left side of the model’s face by painting over it with white. Brighten the lip color by making a selection around the lips and use Hue And Saturation to give a more pleasing hue. Then make a copy of this new phase and set the new layer to Screen Blending Mode which will lighten the overall skin tone. Mask out areas that should remain dark and intense, such as the eyes, hair, eyebrows, and lips.
- Then comes the painstaking task of restoring the jaw line to a more feminine heart-shaped contour, that the bad camera angle has exaggerated. Select Edit, Transform, Distort to mold the jaw into a more pleasing line. If you compare this stage with the last stage of the image, you will see a noticable difference on the jaw line. Then use the Clone Stamp to add hair on the right side of the model’s neck to correct the gap created by distorting the image.
- Add some graphic flourishes for a final touch by opening an image of a rose, dragging it into the open file and masking away unwanted portions of the rose image. Once the masking is complete set this layer’s blending mode to Lighten to create a semi-transparent effect. This result is not intense enough so duplicate the layer and set the blending mode to Soft Light. Voila!
- Afterwards, just for fun, you might want to experiment with other variations to elicit even more dramatic flare:
View Animated Sequence of Steps