Saturday, August 9, 2008

More Photoshop Frustration!

In addition to the problems I'd been having with the computer itself, I was also encountering a snag with Photoshop. As I mentioned in a recent post on how I'm hoping to learn some digital painting skills, I can't see it being very successful using only the default set of brushes. Unfortunately, I don't think that Adobe has ever really come to terms with the fact that much of their clientelle includes illustrators, not just photographers, and have really not created brushes that behave like natural sable or bristle brushes in order to satisfy our requirements. However, they have now opened things up a bit by allowing for artists to create "custom brushes", either by adjusting the settings of existing brushes, or creating something from scratch.

Not long ago, I had read on the forums of the National Caricaturist Network, a tutorial by the brilliant Court Jones (sample art shown at left), showing how to construct custom brushes in Photoshop that would behave similar to real brushes. I followed his directions to create one and, not long after starting to use it, Photoshop just crashed, disappearing and leaving the message, "Photoshop has unexpectedly quit". Several attempts later and it was causing Photoshop to crash every time. Many phone calls to Adobe did not help to resolve the problem, and they were convinced it couldn't be their program, that it must be my computer. I might have believed that, were it not for the fact that the same thing has happened on the iMac that was having the power problem (as detailed in last post), the new iMac Apple gave me in exchange, and also the 24" model that I insisted on upgrading to. Therefore, the glitch is in Photoshop itself, or at least something that is incompatible with the iMac.

My Google search into the matter turned up some interesting discussions on various creative forums, though. Seems that many graphic artists who have experienced the same problem have come to the conclusion that the trouble lies with the setting of "Direction" under the "Shape Dynamics" function. This setting is essential for enabling the virtual "hairs" of the brush to follow in the direction that you move the stylus. Seems that this is problematic on a lot of computers, causing some conflict between software and hardware, resulting in a crash at some point. I find it very frustrating, and it also reinforces my personal belief that virtual media is still no match for real brushes and paint! Fact is, I haven't yet been able to totally control making even a simple, smooth line using Photoshop. Yet it is a simple matter for me to create a line with real brush and ink that is a thing of great beauty. Why should I have to fight with percentages of opacity, flow, brush size and pen pressure settings in order to do what I can so easily accomplish through intuitive pressure and angling of a well crafted Winsor & Newton sable brush?

However, one good thing that has come out of all of my exploration was finding a tutorial on how to make a custom brush that feels pretty much like a nice soft pencil for sketching with. I found this great little tip on the blog of concept artist/designer, Paul Lasaine. All it involves is taking one of the default brushes and tweaking the settings a bit to make something more practical for the artist. I've tried using Sketchbook Pro on a friend's computer, and this custom brush created on Photoshop feels much the same as the Sketchbook ones, as I recall.

These are a couple of Photoshop doodles I just did to play with this virtual pencil. There is a nice freedom to using this modified brush and I can see myself getting some good use out it. These two samples started out as sketches directly using the new brush, then adding a layer on top, selecting the "Multiply" feature, then adding colour just using the soft round brushes full strength and going back to blend some areas with some gentle airbrushing. They look similar to the results I would achieve if using coloured markers on a photocopied pencil sketch. Great for visual concepts, if nothing else, although I don't want to rule out this approach even for a fresh looking piece of final art.


Jim said...

Hey Pete,

I know what you mean about Photoshop not being able to simulate real-world art brushes. You really need to check out a program called ArtRage. It's free to try, $25 to buy. The interface is simple and clean. There's a very small learning curve, you'll be painting in no time.

Here's a link:

Have you ever tried Corel Painter? The brushes in ArtRage are similar. However, ArtRage is much easier to use in my opinon, and it's a hell of a lot cheaper.

It doesn't have all of the in-depth editing tools that Photoshop has, but that's ok because you can always take your finished piece into Photoshop for further editing when you're done.

Pete Emslie said...

Hi Jim,

I took your recommendation and downloaded the free sample version of ArtRage. The paintbrush and palette knife are really fascinating in regard to the technology - it does look like real oil paint being applied to the board. Aside from the technology, though, the results are less than satisfying in my opinion. There's still a feeling of not having total control over what I'm doing. The brush has to be constantly resized and I see no way of easily handling it to define a shape perfectly. Are oils the only paint option? I'm admittedly not an oil painter myself, and would want something that handles more like gouache or acrylic.

I've been playing with Corel Painter Essentials too, which came with the new Bamboo Wacom tablet I purchased a few weeks back. It's not bad, but it also has its limitations. For instance, why does the acrylic "Captured Bristle" brush work fine on the background layer, yet pushes an outer aura of lighter pixels around when used on a new transparent layer on top? Does this also happen in the full Painter program?

I know I must sound like a real complainer here, but truthfully I'm just not easily impressed with the flaws I see in all of these digital painting programs. Again, I have to state that I find it far more satisfying to work with real paint on real board. Instinctively I know what effect I will achieve through what pressure and angle I place on the brush, as well as how much or how little I dilute the paint. Additionally, I feel that I have complete control over creating even just a simple, smooth, curved line - something that has eluded me with every silly software program I've played with thus far!

Christina Dee said...

Computers can be really annoying, eh Pete? I've made the switch from a really old PC to a laptop, and while the laptop runs faster, the LCD monitor is taking a bit of getting used to, especially with painting in photoshop.

Great characters by the way :D

In regards to your photoshop frustration, it is hard to get a natural looking brush in photoshop, but it can be done, or at least get really close. I'm assuming you've already loaded the natural brushes, what might help is experimenting with textures, they can add a more natural look to your work. I'm by no means a photoshop expert, in fact i've been trying to teach myself more aspects of the program as well as experiment with different brushes this summer... what has helped me is looking at digital art online as well as reading magazines like ImagineFX..they're a little pricey, $20 at Chapters...but its worth it! They have a bunch of different Photoshop magazines there with tutorials and stuff. They usually also come with CD- roms full of goodies!

Good luck Pete, keep us posted about your progress with digital art!

Pete Emslie said...

Hi Christina,

Actually, the various textures that can be achieved with the novelty brushes don't interest me much. I want a brush that behaves like the real McCoy. I've just now added a tutorial on building the custom brush that can reasonably simulate a real paintbrush, enabling one to create something that looks like it was painted in acrylic or oil. If you try to recreate it, I only hope you have better luck with it than I've had!

Ramon said...

Hi Pete,

The problem with the aura in Painter is probably due to the layer being applied by the usual composition operation instead of a "paint mix operation" (whatever that might be).

Anyway, I've seen older artists struggling to get their favorite "realistic look" out of the computer while younger ones create the look from the computer outwards.

The later started painting with computers. They are not "contaminated" with the expectation of the tools acting like their real counterparts.

Maybe you could try to go back to crayons... digitally. Learn about how digital compositing works from the inside (a good reference).

CJ Grebb said...


As you said, Photoshop will NEVER give you the level of control or the same feel you get when using physical media.

The trick is to learn and embrace what photoshop CAN do. I've got a few custom brushes from the digital painters where I work that don't rely on the direction check, and they have been used to make paintings that are stunning, and easily as good as something that could be done with oil and canvas.

These guys use a keyboard peripheral called a Nostromo, that allows them to change brush size, opacity, pick colors, etc. at a blinding speed. When you work every day in this way, the connection between changing settings with your non-drawing hand and painting with your stylus hand becomes almost instantaneous. It's really amazing to watch.

Plus, they breath in no chemicals, they never have to clean a brush, wait for paint to dry, worry about spilling, clean up, run out of materials, etc.

I guess I just want to advise you to get out of the mindset that using Photoshop or any other digital painting program is EVER going to feel like picking up a brush. It's simply not - the trick is to embrace the difference and start learning from there.

David Gale said...

Wow! That brush is a godsend! Thank you!