Monday, August 25, 2008

Gouache Meets Photoshop

In my previous post I showed some sample illustrations from a couple of Disney books that were painted completely in the traditional method of paint on illustration board. However, just so you don't get the idea that I am totally against using Photoshop, here are some samples that employ a hybrid method that I like to use.

This illustration is from a book published a few years ago by Random House, entitled "Beauties in Bloom", which featured two spring themed stories, one featuring "Snow White" and the other, "Cinderella". This was the first in a series of seasonal books put out as part of the "Disney Princesses" program. Though I'm admittedly not keen on the packaging of the characters under the "Disney Princesses" banner, I do enjoy illustrating the classic characters in original new tales, rather than just retelling the film stories.

After my final pencil layouts of the pages have been approved by Disney, I then separate the elements of characters and backgrounds. I transfer the background drawing onto a sheet of illustration board using graphite paper and a photocopy of my drawing that I can trace over with a sharp hard pencil. Once the background image is on the board, I start out painting in the large areas such as sky and grass using dilute washes of gouache on the surface which has already been pre-moistened with water brushed on evenly with a large flat brush. Once the larger expanses are in, I can start building up the details of bushes, trees, and surface texture on the ground.

In the case of "Snow White", since the film's backgrounds were rendered in watercolour, I am using the gouache more dilute in order to approximate the look of real transparent watercolour. It's a bit of a cheat, but then I'm pretty sure that even the Disney artists used some opaque gouache in areas that needed lighter highlights over dark areas. Frankly, I've never been good at handling real watercolour, so I prefer to use gouache because I'm more comfortable with it. Once all of the backgrounds have been painted, then comes the rather tedious task of scanning them into Photoshop, usually in two or three sections because of the limited area on the scanner plate. I then have to reassemble them into single Photoshop files, which is often tricky due to some areas having scanned a bit darker or lighter than others, and therefore needing some adjustment.

With the backgrounds out of the way, I can then get to the characters. Working from my clean pencil layouts, I place a sheet of matte finish mylar film on top of each one and, using a very fine #00 watercolour brush, carefully ink each set of characters as delicately as I can in order to approximate the way they used to hand ink the old animation cels using a crowquill pen and ink. When these are all completed, I then scan in each sheet of character art, again sometimes having to reassemble any large character groupings that were too big to scan in one piece. (Fortunately, that doesn't happen often.)

At this point, each page of character line art has to be converted into a transparent layer in Photoshop. This is so that I can then colour the characters by "painting" on a second transparent layer below, thus resulting in an image that really does approximate an animation cel with solid flat colours beneath the clean ink lines. What's nice about this method too, is that I can very easily go over separate areas on the line layer to change the colours of the line to something that relates better to the area of colour they contain. This is also the way they used to ink the cels in the early Disney feature films. Usually I keep this part pretty basic; just brown lines to surround warm colours and dark blue lines for blues and greens. I do a bit of tonal modeling on the areas of colour, but I keep that real basic too, otherwise the characters start looking too much like plastic.

Once both backgrounds and character layers are in the computer, it is then a very easy and fun process of assembling them together for the final picture files. The benefit of working this way as well, is that if either Disney or the publisher require any changes to be made, it is not much problem to slightly shift or adjust the size or colour value of a character, without having to worry about the background. Finally, the real benefit for me is just sending the client a couple of CDs containing all of the page setups, instead of sending a bulky stack of original illustration boards by Fedex, which can be quite costly, as well as nerve racking, hoping they arrive safely.

Because I really enjoy trying to match the background painting style of the original film, here are a couple more examples of my Disney book work which show some variety in approach:

This is a scene from "Happy new Year, Pooh!", that I did as one of a series of "Winnie-The-Pooh" books for Reader's Digest. It was a book of the month type of thing, where each title related to something in each month of the year. I did three books in the series. I quite like working with the Pooh characters, as well as doing the looser pen, ink and watercolour backgrounds that the film employed to adhere more to the original Shepard book illustrations. These backgrounds are more like coloured drawings than true paintings, and therefore are easier for me.

Still, that doesn't mean I shy away from more painterly approaches, as I had fun trying to mimic the style of background artist, Eyvind Earle, in "Sleeping Beauty". Eyvind would paint in large, opaque, flat areas of colour, then build up the surface detail in multiple layers with his gouache. My paintings are a lot more basic than his, though, as he would create incredible textures and ornate design work in his film backgrounds. In June of 2007, I got to see the exhibit of original Disney animation art that was on show in Montreal (having first debuted in Paris). It was a real pleasure to be able to get up so close to some original Eyvind Earle backgrounds and analyze his approach in the brush work and order in which he would paint all of the elements. His gnarled, old tree trunks were incredible to behold. My simplistic "forgeries" pale in comparison, I'm afraid, but it sure is fun trying to paint in his style!


bclark said...

Great post, I saw that Snow White Image and went!@ I know that book, I feel a bit better knowing the artwork was done in a good old fashion way, since my little girl (3)some times just caries that book around for days!

nice site, read it often.


zoe said...

Hi Pete,

I'm just starting to play with gouache for the first time. I have a little bit of watercolor experience. What is it about the diluted gouache that you find easier to work with than a watercolor wash?

Thanks for these posts! They are so helpful.


Marc Hudgins said...

Hi Pete,this probably isn't the right post to comment on, but I've been thinking about your issues with digital vs. natural media, and I was wondering if you had a chance to try ArtRage? it's a FREE natural media program (or buy the full version for $20!) it has really nice, realistic paint qualities (like blending and nicely dimensional brushstrokes). compared to Photoshop, it's extremely limited, but what it does do, it does remarkably well.

You can find it here:

Pete Emslie said...

Brad - I'm glad to know your little daughter enjoys her Snow White book. After all, that's the most important thing - that the illustrations somehow elicit an emotional response from the young kids reading these books.

Zoe - Real watercolour doesn't seem to work as well on illustration board as it does on the more absorbent watercolour paper. On board it tends to dry with a hard edge. Also, I've never felt comfortable with the transparency of watercolours, and prefer gouache for being able to more easily correct things. Dilute gouache seems to give me the look I want with more efficiency.

Marc - Someone else on here earlier had mentioned ArtRage to me. I decided to check out the free download and play around with it. I must admit, I'm not too keen on what it does either, though I grant you it's a technical marvel in how it simulates the look of real paint. It's the damn brush tool limitations I don't like. You can read my full opinion on ArtRage in the comments section under "More Photoshop Frustration!"

Mitchel Kennedy said...

Pete, you are talented!

Raff said...

I was at that Montreal exhibit. Remember that big oil painting they used at the beginning of Pinnochio?

Those guys were geniuses on a level I couldn't describe to someone who hasn't seen the work up close.

I heard about some secret wet-in-wet techinque the Disney guys knew for BG painting. Did anyone let you in on it?

Thad said...

Dang, the Sleeping Beauty one really captured the look well, and for some reason that Aurora really screams "Emslie drew this!" :-D

Tapan Gandhi said...

these are all so well done obviously, but that Sleeping Beauty one is simply astounding

can't wait to see the bgs u can hopefully bring in to school, pete!

Pete Emslie said...

Hi Tapan,

Yes, with all of these traditional/Photoshop "hybrid" illustrations I've done, I still have all of the boards with the original background paintings in my files. I'd be happy to bring in a few to Sheridan to let you see them and ask any questions you might have. I look forward to seeing you back at the school next week!

sean metcalf said...

if you go to file/automate/photo merge, it does a good job of matching and assembling your scans really quickly. i use it all the time, and is usually flawless.

that was a good thorough post about your process. very cool.

Jessica said...

Have you seen "Four Artists Paint One Tree"? It's a clip from the Disneyland TV show, showing Sleeping Beauty artists Eyvind Earle, Marc Davis, Josh Meador, and Walt Peregoy all drawing a single tree. And you do get to see Eyvind Earle painting and see him build up all those layers.

I know you can find it on the Sleeping Beauty (Special Edition) DVD. Good stuff.

Geneva said...

This is extremely late to the game, so I understand if this is not addressed (or even seen!), but would it be possible to hear you talk tools and technique with gouache some more? I'm especially mesmerized by those beautiful lines you're able to paint on characters. They're so tight and natural-looking.

Thank you!!

Your pal,