Three Ways To Learn New Image Editing Techniques

Well, I thought that I’d write about digital image editing again. This is mostly because, when preparing one of the digitally-edited paintings that will appear here in October, I accidentally discovered how to create a hazy “light pollution” effect using version 2.10 of a free open-source image editing program called the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP). Here’s a small preview of the painting:

The full-size painting will be posted here on the 9th October 2020.

If anyone is curious, the effect is very simple. Just use the free select tool to select an area of the painting, use one of the hazy circular airbrushes, crank the airbrush size up to maximum (don’t do this if you’ve got a really old computer though, since I once crashed an earlier version of GIMP doing this on an old Pentium 4/Windows XP machine a couple of years ago), change the foreground colour to yellow or orange and then give the selected area one light spray. Like this:

This is a reconstruction of what it should look like when you are adding this effect. Note the type of airbrush selected on the right-hand side of the screenshot and the airbrush size halfway down the left-hand size of the screenshot.

But, how do you learn how to do random stuff like this? Well, there are several ways:

1) Tutorials: One of the easiest ways to learn how to do new stuff with your image editing program is just to look online for a tutorial. However, this has a number of limitations that it is worth being aware of.

For starters, many tutorials you’ll find on the internet are program-specific ones. Although this isn’t really an issue if you’re using a popular or widely-used program, it can be a bit annoying if you’re using older or less well-known software – since there won’t be as many tutorials out there.

Likewise, tutorials will only teach you to do what other people have already learnt how to do and decided to write about. If you want to do something, but don’t know how, then you’re relying on someone else having exactly the same thought and then going to the effort of writing a tutorial about it.

If it’s a popular type of effect like a scanline effect (in GIMP 2.10, you can do this by just going into “Filters > Distorts > Video Degradation”. It’s a vast improvement over the convoluted method you had to use in earlier versions of GIMP), then you’ll probably find a tutorial. But, if it’s something a bit more random or obscure or difficult to describe, then no-one might have written a tutorial about it.

In that case, you need to….

2) Experiment and mess around: One of the best ways to learn how to do new stuff with your image editing program is to just mess around with it. As long as it has an “undo” feature, then don’t be afraid to set a bit of time aside for messing around with all of the different effects and features. But, although this will show you what the program can do by default (and you’ll need to know this), it won’t show you everything that you can do with it.

Why? Because a lot of interesting image editing effects are actually emergent properties. In other words, they’re unintended things that happen when you combine two or more effects or features in a program. Or even when you use an effect from one program on your image and then open the image in another program and use a different effect on it.

In other words, it’s a bit like colours in traditional painting. If you’ve only got red, yellow and blue paint, then you can create pretty much any colour by mixing them together in different proportions. The same principle is true for digital effects.

For example, a few years ago, I wanted a quick and easy way to create 1990s-style floral patterns. I’d tried just drawing/painting them, but it was very time-consuming and didn’t really look that good. So, I wanted an easier way to do it. And, when messing around with an ancient late 1990s image editing program called “Jasc Paint Shop Pro 6”, I realised that I could create this kind of effect by combining the “Noise” and “Glowing Edges” features in this program. Like this:

Ok, there probably aren’t many users of “Jasc Paint Show Pro 6” (1999) these days, but these are the steps you need to do in order to create a 1990s floral pattern style effect in it. I forgot to include the noise settings in this image – set them to “random” and choose a high percentage like 85%.

But how did I work this out?

I’d used each of these features separately in the past and knew how they worked. So, combining them seemed like a logical thing to do (and I’m surprised I didn’t work this out sooner). So, this sort of thing works best when you get to know your program well.

The program has no purpose-built option or button for this floral effect. It’s an emergent property of two other effects. In fact, by also using the program’s “Colorize” feature after making the floral pattern, I’m also able to create the backgrounds for the little drawings at the beginning of these articles too. Again, there’s no purpose-built button for adding this pattern. It’s something you can only make by combining different effects.

And you can do this sort of thing in any image editing program or combination of programs. So, mess around with whatever program or programs you’re using and learn what all of the features do. Once you have a good understanding of them, you’ll probably be able to work out how to combine them in order to create the effect that you need.

3) Accidents, efficiency and laziness: If you use an image editing program regularly, then you’re probably just going to pick things up by accident. You’ll notice a feature you haven’t tried before or you’ll make a mistake and discover something new in the process. It’s always fun when this happens.

Remember the “light pollution” effect that I showed you at the beginning of the article? I hadn’t planned to add this to the painting. My original plan was to shroud the background in mist by using a large pale blue or grey digital airbrush. However, I forgot to change the brush colour from the yellow I’d been using to add lights to the background. So, when I used the large airbrush, the effect just appeared by accident. It was a really cool moment.

If you use image editing software regularly enough, then you’ll probably have moments like this every now and then. Likewise, you can also discover a lot through sheer laziness too. In other words, if one of your image editing processes is time-consuming or convoluted, then you’re probably eventually going to start looking for and experimenting with ways to speed it up or make it more efficient. Because it’s less effort.

For example, GIMP contains a feature that allows you to digitally add lighting to your image (“Filters > Light and Shadow > Lighting Effects”). However, this requires a lot of calibration and is only really useful if you want to include one light source. So, after a while, I just suddenly realised that I could create a similar effect (kind of like a bloom effect) much more quickly by just applying a slightly larger digital airbrush to any light sources in the image. I use it in pretty much all of my drawings and paintings these days. Here’s an example:

“Centre Of Daydreams” By C. A. Brown

All of the glowing areas around the lights in this painting were created using both traditional painting techniques and a digital airbrush – and this was just because I wanted a quicker way to digitally add lighting than using the program’s pre-made “lighting effects” feature. So, if you use image editing programs a lot and for long enough, you’re probably going to start spontaneously finding more efficient and/or better ways to do things.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Why Traditional Art Skills Still Matter – A Ramble

Although I seem to be using more digital effects than usual in some of my recent paintings, I thought that I’d talk about why more “traditional” art skills still matter.

In short, whilst image editing software, digital effects etc.. can make a painting look even better, they can only improve what is already there. What this means is that the underlying artwork still needs to follow traditional rules, use traditional techniques etc..

This is something that I was reminded of when I made the digitally-edited painting that appeared here yesterday:

“1992” By C. A. Brown

This was a painting which, for time reasons, I made relatively quickly. In essence, it is just a picture of two people against a reasonably plain background. Although I used some watercolour paint (and waterproof ink), a fair amount of the colours, lighting etc… were added to this picture digitally. Yet, I was still able to make this painting look vaguely good. But, how?

Well, the answers are fairly old-fashioned. For starters, one of the things that makes this painting so striking is the fact that – for the most part – it uses a carefully-planned colour scheme.

The main colour scheme is a red/green/blue one, with emphasis on red and blue (since these two colours [which are only complementary colours when viewed on a RGB computer monitor] look ominous/unsettling when placed together, which fits in with the gothic atmosphere of the painting). In addition to this, there are also some subtle hints of a complementary orange/gold and purple colour scheme too.

By choosing the colours carefully (a traditional skill), I was able to improve how the painting would look when I started adding digital effects.

Likewise, whilst you can use an open-source computer program to add dramatic lighting effects to your art, they’re going to look weird if you don’t follow some traditional rules.

For example, in order to make the digital lighting stand out in this painting, I used the old Tenebrist technique of making sure that at least 30-50% of the total surface area of the painting was covered in black paint. Since brightness is relative, making most of the painting extremely dark will make everything else (including the digital lighting) look bolder/brighter by comparison.

In addition to this, I had to add all of the shadows, reflections etc.. to this picture manually (using traditional and digital tools), so that the digital lighting would look a bit more realistic. In other words, this required traditional knowledge about working out where the light source will be and changing the picture accordingly. And, even though I messed up the placement of a couple of the shadows in the picture, it still looks vaguely right at first glance.

Without this, the ominous red glow in the corner of the painting wouldn’t look as realistic, since the people standing next to it wouldn’t look quite as “3D” as they do in the finished picture.

So, yes, although digital effects, image editing etc.. can seriously improve your art, they can only improve what is already there. In other words, you still need to learn and use traditional skills (eg: perspective, lighting, colour choices etc..) in art that you will be adding digital effects to.

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Sorry for the short and rambling article, but I hope that it was useful 🙂

Today’s Art (1st June 2018)

Well, today’s digitally-edited cyberpunk painting is probably more “digital” than “painting”. This is mostly because I’m experimenting with things like pattern/texture effects (seriously, one of the programs I use has an effect for pyramid tiles! Seriously, these take forever to draw by hand! WHY didn’t I discover this years ago!?!), various other effects, and the digital lighting effects in an open-source image editing program called “GIMP“.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Console” By C. A. Brown