Photoshop is a remarkable tool that can complement the work of traditional artists. I don’t claim to be a Photoshop expert, but I use it on an almost daily basis to help me explore compositions, identify colors, and alter reference photos, and so on.
In this post, I will run through some of the ways you can take advantage of Photoshop as a traditional artist. I cover:
- What Is Photoshop and Are There Alternatives?
- How to Use Photoshop
- Grayscale to See the Values
- Creating a Notan
- Color Checker
- Cropping the Image
- Changing the Color Temperature
- Saving Images for the Web
- Other Uses of Photoshop for Traditional Artists
- Want to Learn More?
- Thanks for Reading!
What Is Photoshop and Are There Alternatives?
Photoshop is essentially photo editing software. It is popular with digital artists and photographers, but it has many uses for us traditional artists as well.
To use Photoshop you need a monthly subscription with Adobe, which I think is well worth it. You can sign up here if you are interested.
There are free alternatives, such as GIMP, but Photoshop is the gold standard.
How to Use Photoshop
Photoshop is a challenging beast and I have only started to scrape the surface of its potential. My best suggestion for using and navigating Photoshop is the “Search” function in the top right corner (highlighted below).
For example, if you search “Grayscale”, it will bring up that function.
Grayscale to See the Values
Grayscaling a painting or reference photo allows you to clearly see all the values (how light or dark everything is). It can be challenging to identify values when color is involved.
Here are some of the ways you can use this:
- You can identify the darkest dark and lightest light.
- You can identify any value groupings or patterns. For example, if you were painting a vivid sunset with all kinds of oranges, yellows, and reds in the sky, a grayscale might reveal that most of the sky is around the same value, despite all the different colors.
- You can use it to compare one value to another value. For example, are the distant mountains lighter in terms of value compared to the light trees in the foreground?
I will show you what I mean using the following reference photo from New Zealand. It is a stunning scene, with rich, Autumn yellows, vibrant greens, and distant blues. The problem is, all this color makes it difficult to narrow down on the values. I have a hard time identifying what is the darkest dark, lightest light, value groupings, and the general value hierarchy.
Below is the reference photo in grayscale. To do this in Photoshop, I used the search function for “grayscale” and followed the prompts.
The grayscale tells me the following:
- There are several points that seem to be completely lost in darkness (the trees on the left, right, and middle). There does not appear to be a single point that we can say represents the darkest dark. In the painting, it might be a good idea to pick an area as the darkest dark and then make the other areas a touch lighter. For example, you could create a strong contrast by making the darkest point in the painting the tree trunk which is holding the Autumn yellow leaves.
- Some of the lightest points in the painting are the highlights in the foreground (where dappled light is hitting the grass), the far left part of the sky, and some of the distant, white buildings.
- The value groupings are fairly scattered. I go into more detail on this in the notan section below.
- The sky is generally lighter than the mountains, which are generally lighter than the foreground.
(See the supplies page for details about what I use and recommend.)
Creating a Notan
Notan in art basically refers to the most abstract design of light and dark elements. Many artists create notan studies in preparation for more serious studio artworks.
Photoshop does a fairly good job at creating notan studies. All you need to do is (use the search function for the words in italics):
- Grayscale the image;
- Apply a gaussian blur (you want the image to appear fuzzy); and
- Posterize the image. Select either 2 or 3; this will posterize the image down to either 2 or 3 values.
Below is what I get by posterizing the reference photo with 3 values. This confirms to me some of the value groupings in the reference photo. It also shows me that the general value structure is fairly weak and scattered, so I might want to focus on color rather than value in the painting.
If I am ever unsure about a color, I can use a color checker to confirm my thoughts. It will tell me exactly where a certain color is in terms of hue, saturation, and value. Just search for the “eyedropper” tool in Photoshop.
I often use this tool after I have finished a painting to do an audit on myself in terms of how accurate my use of color was. This kind of self-reflection can be extremely valuable for calibrating and improving your judgment of color.
Cropping the Image
When I take a reference photo, I try my best to frame it in a way that is already aesthetically pleasing in terms of composition. But sometimes cropping is needed, which involves cutting out parts of the scene to change the balance of the composition.
To crop an image in Photoshop, go to the “Rectangular Marquee Tool” (the shortcut for this is “M” on your keyboard) and select the area which you want to crop down to.
Then, in the top menu, go Image > Crop.
If I were painting from the reference photo below, I would probably want to draw attention to that beautiful yellow tree around the middle. I could use cropping to get rid of some of the surrounding noise to better focus the tree.
Changing the Color Temperature
I use this task frequently for altering photos of my finished paintings. If you take a photo in RAW (a kind of digital format), you can adjust the color temperature in Photoshop afterward. This can be incredibly powerful in case you took the photo under a light which was too warm or cool.
For example, if you took the photo under a warm, yellow-ish light, the painting may appear overly warm in terms of color temperature. If you took the photo outside under the cool, blue sky, the painting may appear overly cool.
When you open a RAW image in Photoshop, it first gives you a chance to change the temperature using a slide bar on the right-hand side of the screen (highlighted yellow in the image below).
Below is a photo of one of my paintings which was taken under a warm light. The colors appear far too warm in this case.
By changing the color temperature in Photoshop, I can create a more faithful representation of the painting.
Saving Images for the Web
If you are uploading photos of your paintings to your website or forum, you should optimize them for the web. This means you compress the file so that it is not unnecessarily large. Unoptimized photos of your paintings will dramatically slow down your website speed.
To do this in Photoshop, you should first resize your image so that it is a more appropriate size for web viewing. I usually resize the image down to anywhere between 700 to 2,000 pixels width, depending on my intended use of the photo.
To do this, in the menu at the top go Image > Image Size… > Change the width to between 700 to 2,000 pixels.
Next, you need to select File > Export > Save for Web > Select an appropriate quality (I usually go with 50) > Save… > Select the file location.
The photo below went through this process. It is only a fraction of the size of the original photo, without any noticeable signs of quality loss.
Other Uses of Photoshop for Traditional Artists
Here are some other uses of photoshop for traditional artists. I do not do all these myself, so you will need to do your own research if you are interested:
- Overlaying multiple images into one.
- Altering the reference photo before you paint. You could change the colors, alter the sharpness, make it lighter or darker, etc.
- Building a composition or color study from scratch.
- Zooming-in on a reference photo to see particular details.
Want to Learn More?
You might be interested in my Painting Academy course. I’ll walk you through the time-tested fundamentals of painting. It’s perfect for absolute beginner to intermediate painters.
Thanks for Reading!
I appreciate you taking the time to read this post and I hope you found it helpful. Feel free to share it with friends.
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