January 22, 2017

Digital Art Marries Traditional Media


Learn how to integrate graphite drawing, watercolor painting and use of Photoshop to create a cohesive, textural painting.

Often what we appreciate in an illustration, and what draws us to it, is how it makes us feel. We have a visceral response to it. I find that I respond best to images with texture, particularly when I can’t figure out ‘how’ it was made. Texture creates depth and mood. It is a way to make your art stand out amongst the rest.

Denise Cassano illustration

“Don’t Let Him Get Away!”, mixed media, by Denise M. Cassano

In this demonstration, I’ll show how you can add depth to your images by adding texture with the help traditional paint and a little Photoshop manipulation. (For this tutorial I am using Photoshop CS6, but older versions should be the same.)

Personally, I find making art traditionally, with oil or water color, the most satisfying. Maybe it’s the way the brush feels in my hand or the smell of linseed oil in my studio. Either way, I enjoy it more.   (Until I smell linseed oil wafting from my Wacom tablet, it will probably stay this way.) However, I do recognize that there are things that I can do better and faster on my computer. So that’s where an artist has to make decisions- which is better? I say, use both.  Only you know what you want the illustration to look like, and you need to decide on what medium is best suited for it.

Plan how the illustration will look overall

We never want to kill spontaneity in art making, but a little planning goes a long way.  Think about what parts of the image you want to make traditionally (in paint, graphite, marker, etc.) and what would be better using Photoshop. For example, I know I can add a highlight quickly on my computer versus it taking me 30 minutes to paint, so I will save that detail for Photoshop.

Step 1: make the ‘traditional’ art.

Graphite drawings…

With my image, I decided to make images drawn in graphite separately and scan them in to my computer. I did this so they would be on different layers in PS and I would have more control over how I colored treated them.  Be sure to draw the illustration larger than actual final size so you are able to see details and rich texture. You can always make it smaller, but if you try to make it bigger it will get blurry.

Denise Cassano

Graphite drawing, colored in Photoshop


Texture is a great way to create a mood in an image, and there are an infinite amount of ways to create texture with traditional materials.

For the texture in this demonstration, the overall premise is how gesso and water color react to each other. Both are water based, but gesso is permanent when dry and water color paint is not. You can get beautiful, random textures by playing with it. And the best part, it’s fast! Gesso dries quickly so you can play with many ideas and tell if you like it or not without wasting a lot of time. This is the time to play with the paint and see what happens. Save your textures- you may not like them for this project, but they may very well come in handy for your next illustration.

Denise Cassano

Texture made with gesso and water color

How I made it:

I used 300lb cold press (rough) water color paper, and brushed on gesso in a random pattern with a fat, flat brush. I was careful to not cover all of the water color paper so the brush strokes remained. Once dry, I painted a wash of black (keep in mind you can use any color). The water color saturated the raw paper, while resisting the areas that were covered in gesso. Depending on how you apply the gesso and what colors you use, this simple technique can yield hundreds of textures. (Keep in mind, you may quickly change the color in ‘color balance’ in Photoshop, so there is no need to paint a whole new texture just to change the color.) One sheet of painted paper may yield scores of textures on your computer.

This texture was made in oil, with many layers using an oil medium to thin the paint.

Denise Cassano

Texture painted in gesso and oil with many layers-Denise Cassano


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Step 2: scan your work into Photoshop

My scanner is an Epson Perfection 4990 Photo and it works well. The big issue with scanners is that the scanning area is usually small. Therefore you have to scan the image in pieces and ‘stitch’ it together on the computer. (I’ll explain how to do that in a bit.)

Scanning tips: Look at the scanner settings. Keep the resolution at minimum of 300 dpi (dots per inch). This is crucial. If you scan it in at a lower resolution, later on when you try to make it larger and print it, it will be blurry. Trust me, I know from experience- check this before doing anything. There are other settings to play with, but in my opinion this is the most important.

You will probably have to scan the image in pieces due to your art being larger than the scanner. Make sure with each new scan of the same image, at least 30% of the image is overlapped. If not, Photoshop will not be able to piece it together.

Stitching images into Photoshop into one piece

Once the image is scanned in and saved on your computer, open Photoshop and click File/Automate/Photomerge. Choose the images you want to merge and click OK. It will automatically stitch the image together into one seamless image. Do this for all the drawings and textures you need to scan in.

Once images are in and opened in Photoshop, you can color digitally. First compress the layers so there is only one. Then duplicate that layer and lock the original. Locking the original layer saves it from any alteration. In this way, no matter what I do, I can always go back to the original with no fear of ‘losing’ the image.

There are many ways to color images in Photoshop. You can simply paint color on a separate layer using a variety of brushes. (Many can be downloaded for free). Some artists use layer masks for more control. I use layer masks with texture, because I only want to apply it in a certain area, not the whole page. (Explaining layer masks is a little outside of this post topic, but Mike Curato has a good explanation on his site. See link below.)

For example, I added a plaid texture to the building overhang by making a layer mask and filling it in with a plaid texture. You can then manipulate the layer mask by changing the opacity. Another way to change the way it looks is by setting the layer to overlay or multiply in order to visually ‘blend’ them together. It makes it look like the two are unified, rather than one image pasted over another.

Putting the illustration together

Because all of the parts of the illustration are on separate layers, I can color, crop and resize them quickly.  I can move them, manipulate them and see how they appear without destroying any of the original image. Color adjustments are another quick way of changing the overall look of the image. This is something that would take hours traditionally. If I don’t like the way something looks I can get rid of it in seconds. Again, it’s about quick editing and control over the image.

Denise Cassano

graphite and water color, digitally enhanced with color and pattern in Photoshop

Illustrator Tip: Keep computer files organized

After a few times of making art this way, you will have many large files on your computer. Often, they will be pieces of images, scans, and seemingly random textures. Keep organized! Don’t lose time by searching for scans. Make folders and label them clearly. When you scan something, make sure you know what file it is going into.  Backup your work online or with an external hard drive (after losing a terabyte of images on my external hard drive when it crashed last year, I now use Carbonite so I don’t even think about it anymore.)

In the end,  I think the illustration is a marriage of both traditional art and digital art.  I like seeing the brush strokes and texture of paint, but I also like having the flexibility and speed of the computer.  Layers, masks, opacities, brushes, dpi resolution, hard drives, etc. may sound daunting to someone who is not familiar with using the computer to make art. There is a learning curve- but with some time and experimentation, you’ll see that it is a tool that can improve your work and give you more control over your images.

Further reading…

Here is a great post from Writing and Illustrating on Julie Downing and how she integrates traditional and digital media.

Mike Curato wrote a post where he explains how he uses layer masks to change the look of his images.

Carla Sonheim is an artist who makes wonderful (traditional) textures with drawing and painting materials.  One of her books “Drawing and Painting Imaginary Animals” has a number of helpful hints and tricks to enhance your art.

Feel free to ask me any questions below! I’m happy to help!


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