Even More Things To Rant About

This one has been a long time coming.

Digital artists out there, riddle me this–why the hell is it that many people seem to want to do any bizarre, math-laden thing possible, with the feathering and lassoing and burning and levels and overlay layers and putting in the shadows by lowering the brightness and so on and so forth, rather than actually apply virtual paint by hand?

For example–we shall name no names–but t’other day I was wandering around VCL, and someone requested an easy way to do cloth folds in Photoshop. Now, this is a perfectly valid question, assuming one doesn’t want a “cloth folds” filter. My response was “Well, what style is it in?” I mean, obviously you do cloth a lot differently if you’re doing Art Nouveau than you do if you’re doing strict realism, right? And if it’s cartoony, that’s something else again, and if you’re a cubist that’s way different. The fact that it’s photoshop you’re using has far less to do with it than how, exactly, the cloth should LOOK. At least, in my world.

However, someone else comes in and says “Use the lasso tool to grab a triangle, feather it, adjust the brightness and contrast, etc.” And this is exactly what our questioner wanted, and all was right with the cosmos, and I’m glad it all worked out. But it still leaves me going “Dude. You could achieve all that in three seconds in Painter and have a great deal more direct control. You could even use the airbrush, or a soft, low-opacity paintbrush in Photoshop, and have fabulous control as well, and furthermore, you could do it with different colors other than the slightly darker value of your base color, for a generally much more interesting result.”

This is, of course, a minor incident in the grand scheme of existence, but it did get me thinking about something that always baffles me about digital art. Now, I love digital art. And with very few exceptions, I use it pretty much like paint. If I want something lighter, I pick a lighter color, grab the brush, and physically paint it lighter. If I want something darker, I pick a darker color, grab the brush, and paint it darker. Occasionally, sure, if I’m not sure of a general scheme, or want to try some kind of dramatic lighting, I’ll use an overlay layer or something. Very handy, those. And you can’t beat the gel layer for making sure you’re painting on the right stuff. But mostly, I just paint.

I am coming to realize that this is a minority view. I have read dozens of tutorials, the goal of which seems to be to prevent the artist from ever having to paint ANYTHING–it’s all “Run a random noise filter, now run this, and run this and run this and then this and pick a color and flood fill and run this filter, and select your light source and run a gradient and voila, leopard spots!” Which look pretty much like randomly generated nuggets of color, and took about six hundred more steps than the Ursula method, which is “Pick a color. Paint the spots. Pick another color and do a little touch-up around the edges. The End.”

Now, why do I care? The answer is, I don’t, particularly–I have bigger fish to fry, and if this method works for somebody, more power to ’em. But I do occasionally get exasperated, for lack of a better term, by the sheer avoidance of actually, god forbid, touching the picture with trembling human fingers, even at the remove of a graphics tablet or mouse. Even when I was starting out, I drew directly on my image for almost everything–I used a lot of layers, sure, but my method of shading was to shade, not to make a lasso and feather it and use slider bars and so on and so forth. The end result of this was that I learned how to paint. Not well, maybe, and I got a lot of bad habits, but I learned how to affect a painting directly, rather than via slider bars.

Now, I have seen quite nice work done via the lasso-adjust-filter-filter-layer-filter method. It can be done, obviously. Don’t write me to tell me that your favorite artist does it that way and I’m not worthy to lick his boots, because that’s not the issue. You work this way and like it? Fine, wonderful, glad you’re happy, skip the rest–it doesn’t apply to you. You could build Michelangelo’s David out of pig droppings and hummingbird intestine if you wanted to, and it would be fine with me. But if you’re doing it because you’re scared of marble, I retain the right to go “Huh.” And with things like Illustrator, where you want unnaturally vectorized vectors and so forth, and have far less need of direct human fumbling, then this obviously doesn’t apply–that’s the effect, after all, that’s what the program DOES, and the style it’s usually rendered in, and some of it is spectacular. (Peganthryus, I’m lookin’ in your direction…) But I suspect, in the art center of my brain, which is significantly more fine-tuned than my black and withered little soul, that most of the people using these methods are not doing it because they really want a copy of Illustrator, or because this is really the effect they want, they’re doing it because…of something else. Maybe they’re scared they will mess up, and the less actual prodding they have to do by hand, the happier they are. A few of ’em may be lazy, or not know you can do it any other way, or may be holding the mouse in their armpit because of an accident with a grain thresher a few years ago. And of course, the great glory of Photoshop is that, with quite minimal knowledge, you can do all kinds of things to astound and astonish the untrained eye. Who once thought lens flares were cool? C’mon, hands up–I’ve done it too. But at the end of the day, the real cost of crappy Photoshop filters is NOT the time you and me spend clutching our eyes and screaming “IT BURNS! IT BURNS!” I think it’s that people get so wrapped up in finding a way to paint half the painting without ever actually touching it that they don’t learn how to paint, and they spend astonishing man hours trying to figure out a way to make the computer do it for them. I mean, c’mon, how often have you seen people try to use fur filters in Photoshop? Makes a nervous tic start up under your eye, doesn’t it? (Well, it does me.) Far better people should devote a little time and energy to sitting down and learning how to by-god-paint-fur, and many of them eventually do, but y’know.

This is not a new or groundbreaking thought, I know–it’s been said many times before, and I’m not saying it any better this time. I just wonder if anyone’s noticed this angle before–not the reliance on filters to make cool effects, which is epidemic, but a weird, and often elaborate avoidance-of-actually-painting. Am I on crack? Or what?

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