Art on the Computer Tutorial

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Taking photo editing into new creative directions

This tutorial was developed with Photoshop 4 and Painter 5 but the info remains useful for more recent versions.

Painter 8

Before and after - Painter 5 

Value Added Imaging

It's a well-known saying that a picture is worth a thousand words, but it's not necessarily true. Without graphics it might be difficult to catch your readers' eyes and keep their attention, but adding a graphic just for the sake of it - adding a jokey office image to the annual report for example - can actually detract from your message. The dangers of vector clip art with their overpowering styles are obvious, but even bitmap images have to be suited for their job as adding an out-of-focus snap or a glossy royalty-free image can be just as inappropriate. The purpose of any image is to give the text a human point of interest and focus, but this can easily be destroyed by off-the-shelf graphics which seem gratuitous, impersonal and too obviously computer-based.

In short, you only get out what you put in and with most computer-based clip art this is very little. The good news is that, thanks to the editability that the computer offers, there is no reason to treat any image as a take-it-or-leave-it given. Instead it should be seen as raw material that can then be tailored to your individual requirements. That's what we're going to do in the master class, transforming an image that doesn't work as we want it, into one that does. I'm happy to call the end result art, others might be more sceptical (see But Is It Art?) but the main purpose is to ensure that by putting something of ourselves into the image, the viewer ends up getting more out.

The basic image we are going to work on is a typical uninspiring royalty-free image of a clown. It's exactly the sort of image that, if it was used as is, would actually detract from whatever publication it appeared in. The colours are dark and drab, the clown looks old and anxious and the image as a whole is hardly life-enhancing. The photo might work if it was used to accompany an article about the sadness behind the laughter, but it's not going to pull in the punters. We're going to turn the image around to add movement, life, colour and attitude and in so doing make it fit to be the centrepiece of any publication. To begin with we're going to see what can be done with the market-leading bitmap editor Photoshop and then we're going to see what more dedicated art-based solutions, and in particular Painter, can offer.


The first step is to prepare our image. Even before we begin, we have to think about how the final image will end up so that we can create it to the right size and resolution. The rule of thumb is that the dots per inch resolution (dpi) should be 1.5 to 2 x the lines-per-inch halftone screen frequency (lpi) of the outputting device. If we want to be able to output our image on an imagesetter at between 100 and 150 lpi, for example, we have to be working at a resolution of between 200 and 300 dpi. The image as supplied is 673 pixels x 1008 pixels which, at 200dpi, means a size of around 3.5 x 5 inches. If we were wanting to use the photo as it stands that is the maximum we could comfortably go to before pixelization would start becoming apparent. Fortunately, because we are only using the image as the source material for our artwork we are free to use Photoshop's Image Size command - with the resample option set to on - to rescale our image to any size we want memory permitting (see Art Materials).

Colour correcting

Because the existing image is only the basis for our final image it's also the time to do any necessary major editing, in this case making up for the unforgivable lack of a funny nose by adding a simple red circle. Next it's necessary to colour correct the image. Our image is far too dark and doesn't have enough contrast - two problems that can be sorted by manipulating the tone map in the Curves command dialog (Ctrl + M). Essentially we are trying to boost the contrast and range of colour to give us more to work with. At the same time we can drop out the dull image background which will open up the possibility of adding some paint and canvas effects in due course.

We've boosted the range of colours in the image, but to create a realistic artistic effect we're not actually looking for the typical continuous tones of a photograph. Instead we are looking for the more limited palette of the artist who has to mix their own paints. The next step then is to use the Image:Adjust:Posterize command to reduce the number of colours. By setting the number of levels to four, our RGB image is cut down from a potential 16 million colours to just 64 (4x4x4). The immediate effect is to produce a silk-screen effect with the image broken up into areas of solid colour. There is no control over the colours that result so the default flesh colour comes out far too dark. Using the Magic Wand tool (shortcut W), it's easy to select these areas and then with the Hue/Saturation command (Ctrl + U) to massage them back to a more acceptable colour.

Using the posterize command and tidying up with the magic wand tool it is possible to create a silk-screen effect.

If we were interested in a crude Andy Warhol pop-art effect for a web page, for example, we might stop here - especially as the restricted palette would ensure small file-sizes and download times. However, while we've certainly given the image some attitude, we've hardly managed to escape from the over-computerized feel. We need to start adding some life to the flat colour and to do that we have to appreciate the fundamental importance of the line in art. It's the underlying lines in an artwork that are its essence and which give it its movement and life. Of course the ability to draw from life and from scratch is essential to the artist originating a work, but we can take a shortcut and use our existing image as our source.

Layer Painting

We could simply paint on the existing image, but Photoshop offers a lot more flexibility and creativity through its layers which effectively act as acetate sheets laid on top of the image. A new layer is added by clicking on the New icon at the bottom of the Layers palette. Once a layer has been created and selected from the palette all editing actions are applied to that layer - in fact it's impossible to do anything to any other layer until you have first selected it. The underlying image is kept on the background layer which is different to the other layers in that it's impossible to change its opacity. This problem is easily worked around, however, by selecting the entire background image (Ctrl + A) and then cutting (Ctrl + X) and pasting it (Ctrl + V) onto its own layer. It then becomes possible to change the main image's transparency with the opacity slider at the top right of the Layer palette so allowing easy tracing of the major lines of the semi-transparent image on a third layer created on the top of the layer stack.

In fact the lines of the image are such important features that, having created one traced outline of the image, it's a good idea to create another. This is easily done by first hiding the current outline, by clicking on its eye symbol in the palette, and then adding a new layer and repeating the process. To ensure the outlines are different you could choose a different brush size, but the use of layers offer a number of ways of adding variety in any case. To begin with it's possible to change the transparency of the layer which effectively changes the brush strokes from solid black to gray. Alternatively, it's possible to change the layer's blend mode with the drop-down list at the top left of the palette or by double-clicking on the layer name and setting options.

Adding outlines as layers and adjusting their transparency and blend modes offers a number of creative effects.

Blend modes

Changing the blend mode affects how each pixel of the current layer interacts with the value of the pixel stack below it. By default - normal mode - all non-transparent pixels conceal all underlying pixels, but there are 15 other options. Darken mode, for example, automatically takes the lowest brightness level whether from the layer or stack. It's easy to combine effects by simply duplicating the layer by dragging it onto the New layer icon and then choosing different settings. After considerable experimentation I decided the effect I liked best was one outline layer set to colour burn - ie lighten the underlying pixels - and the other outline duplicated and with one copy set to a shade of gray and the other set to dissolve mode. Dissolve mode works by limiting the transparency setting to either on or off and scattering the pixels so that, with an opacity setting of 40%, 60% of the underlying pixels show through. The result in this case is to produce a strong grainy effect as if the line had been drawn with a piece of chalk which helps to break up the flat areas of colour and to add some artistic texture.

This use of layers and simple line work makes an immediate difference in capturing the spirit of the clown. Photoshop layers have one further trick up their sleeve in the form of adjustment layers. These allow colour correction effects to be applied and then fine-tuned without making any permanent changes to the underlying pixel values. The clown's face is still too dark and strong so using a colour balance adjustment layer, masked to only affect the image's flesh tones, it's possible to create a warmer effect by increasing the red and decreasing the blue in the image midtones. Similar adjustment layers could be used to boost overall saturation, or to recolour just the clown's hat. In fact for maximum flexibility we could have started the whole ball rolling with a Posterization adjustment layer so that all our art effects could have been managed as infinitely fine-tunable layers with the original pixel data left completely unaffected.

The use of adjustment layers offers more flexibility through customisable and non-destructive colour correction.

Artistic Filters

The various uses of layers have taken us a long way from our original image but there's no denying that, while the aesthetics of the image have improved, they are still clearly computer-based. Ideally we want our image to look as if it has been painted from scratch using real art brushes and materials. Photoshop offers a set of around 40 dedicated artistic filters - previously available as the Aldus Gallery Effects package - that look perfect for the job. They are divided into three main categories of artistic, brush stroke and sketch effects available from the Filter menu. As editing can only be applied to one layer at a time, to see the effect of the filters we first have to merge all our layers. The easiest way to do this while ensuring we still have a completely editable PSD backup, is to Save A Copy (Alt + Ctrl + S) of the file to a format which does not support layers, such as TIFF, and to then open this file.

The artistic and brush stroke filters, such as the palette knife, rough pastels and watercolour effects, look they will automatically transform our image into a hand-crafted work of art. In practice, however, the results tend to be disappointing. The paint daubs filter, for example, suggests that it will add dabs of paint as if applied with a brush. In fact it simply works by defining areas based on colour similarity and then blurring the results. The watercolour effect works in a similar way, but then adds outlining and inexplicably boosts shadows and saturation. While these filters could be used for creating the rough basis of an art image they certainly aren't realistic enough to stand by themselves.

Rather more successful - especially if you are producing work for black and white or spot colour output - are the sketch filters which are designed to emulate artistic sketching techniques. As such they tend to work by converting the colour information in the image into shades of the current foreground and background colour so remember to first restore the default black and white settings (D). The chalk and charcoal filter, for example, converts highlights into grainy chalk strokes in the background colour and shadows into flatter charcoal strokes in the foreground colour. It's possible to change the thresholds for which colours will end up as which, but there's no control over the strokes themselves so that the chalk strokes are permanently set to a right diagonal while the charcoal strokes are set to a left.

Photoshop's Sketch effects are useful for creating art effects with limited colours and limited budgets.

Paint Alchemy

Photoshop's artistic filters show the potential of mimicking traditional art methods, but ultimately there's simply not the fine control necessary. Worse, the vast bulk of the filters ignore the most important factor in recreating an art effect, the artist's brush. The end result is that all the filters tend to flatten the image rather than bringing it to life. One company which has recognised this failing and come up with a third-party solution is Xaos. Its Paint Alchemy plug-in offers hundreds of traditional and futuristic brush-based styles divided into 17 main categories with options ranging from coloured pencil through to cubism and impressionism.

The huge difference of the Alchemy effects is that they are built on clearly visible brush dabs. Moreover the control offered over these brush strokes is huge, ranging from changing the brush shape through to controlling size, coverage, colour and opacity. The obvious danger of a simple filter approach is that the end results look too regimented to be convincing or attractive so the program also offers a number of options for adding in variation. This can either be set to occur randomly by setting hue or saturation variation, for example, or it can be controlled so that the angle of the stroke can be set to depend on the underlying image's brightness.

The fine control offered compared to Photoshop's in-built filters is immense and for one-off special effects the results can be striking, but Paint Alchemy has one unavoidable limitation. Although you can customise the effect to your heart's content before it is applied, there is very little you can do afterwards. Essentially we have hit the artistic limit of Photoshop. Without interactive tools that mimic the traditional artist's brushes there is no way that we can confidently produce a completely realistic artistic effect. Other paint programs have recognised Photoshop's weakness in this area and all of its competitors - PhotoPaint, xRes, PhotoImpact, Picture Publisher and even Paintshop Pro - now offer a wider range of brushes than the market leader.


Typically these all-purpose programs allow the creation of fairly realistic chalks, felt pens and air brush effects, but they can't compete with the dedicated approach of MetaCreation's Painter application. Painter was designed from the ground up to mimic traditional art materials. Each brush has a basic method that describes how it interacts with the existing image so that a brush with the Cover method will conceal the image below like poster paints, while one with the Build-Up method will move all colours towards black like a felt-tip pen. In addition, each brush has a major sub-method which describes how its brush strokes are defined so that a brush with the Soft sub-method will produce smooth anti-aliased strokes, while a Flat brush will produce hard pixellated edges.

Between the various methods and sub-methods it's possible to describe all the 15 major brush types ranging from pencils through to watercolours. Within each of these major categories a number of other options are available so that within the Brush category, for example, there are actually 22 different effects to choose from ranging from Camel Hair through to Coarse Hairs. The difference between these tools will depend on factors such the spacing and placement of dabs through to the number, thickness, scale and even clumpiness of the bristles. Each of these factors can be controlled minutely and it's also possible to set a number of factors such as size, opacity and bleed to be tied into variables such as brush angle, velocity or pressure. Once you've fine-tuned the effect you can save it for future use. With such customisability it's hard to disagree with Metacreation's marketing slogan which says that Painter "is the only art materials you'll ever need".


Apart from its emphasis on mimicking existing natural media the other major advance that Painter offers over other programs is its cloning capabilities. Essentially the File menu's Clone command is used to copy an image, but while maintaining a pixel-to-pixel link to the source document. This link can be used in a number of ways. By deleting the image, but then turning on the Tracing paper option (Ctrl + T) it's possible to see a partially transparent image which can then be used as the basis for recreating the image from scratch. Alternatively it's possible to use the AutoClone command (see Ten Minute Art) to automatically recreate the image with the currently selected brush. A middle path is to use the Colour Palette's Clone Colour option which means that whichever brush is used will automatically pick up the colour value of the original pixel in the source document so avoiding the need to specify your own colours.

As we've already done a lot of work on our core image this is the cloning option that we are going to use as we attempt to add a bit more artistic realism to our image. We can also take advantage of the Colour Palette's Hue/Saturation and Brightness variation sliders which ensure that each brush stroke's colour is slightly different to the last, just as they would be if we were mixing our own paint. Finally, to ensure we get as far away as possible from the computerised feel our image has at the moment, we're also going to take advantage of Painter's various Watercolour brushes. These have been designed to mimic their real world counterparts by working on their own dedicated Wet layer of the image. Within this layer the colours mix as they would in real life so that the pigments interact and are even drawn to the edges of the stroke.

Water colours

Painter offers a range of different watercolour brushes each with slightly different effects. To add the broad swathes of colour it makes sense to use the Broad Water Brush option while for more detail to move onto the Water Brush stroke. Each brush has its own default size but it's simple to resize the brush by holding down Alt + Ctrl and dragging on screen. Each time you change brushes, the clone colour option is lost so after a while it's easier to let this lapse and to instead choose existing colours from the image with the eyedropper tool accessed through the Ctrl key. To add shadows around the jawline it's simple to add a black wash and, if this gets too dark, it's possible to erase the effect by adding white or by turning to the special Wet Eraser brush which only acts on those colours in the Wet layer. Once you're happy with the effect you've achieved, you can simply dry the wet layer with the command under the Canvas menu.

This is the stage at which our image moves away from its computer origins and begins to look as if it was really created on paper. Many users will assume that it's at this stage that those without an artistic bent will suddenly be revealed, but that's actually very unlikely. To begin with there's the huge advantage that the computer offers in terms of its immediate undo. If the brush stroke you add makes the image look worse you can simply hit Ctrl + Z or, if you only decide that you've gone too far later, you can always bring back information from your source document using the Straight Cloner brush. Just as important though, it's actually important to let yourself go a bit. Much of the impression of real art that Painter produces comes from happy accidents so, for example, it's the fact that watery brush strokes seep over outlines that make them look realistic. It might seem like cheating, more a process of aesthetic discrimination than tortured inspiration, but most "real" artists would admit that the final artwork seems to create itself as much as they do.

Applying Texture

Thanks to Painter's natural media brushes we've managed to give it a realistic painted look, but it still looks slightly flat. Painter can resolve this in two ways. The first is through it's Apply Surface Texture command which allows a 3D canvas effect to be applied to the image based on the clone or source image's luminance or, more commonly, based on the selected paper. Painter comes with a number of different paper textures ranging from raw silk through to ribbed pastel and you can always create your own. Within the dialog it's possible to set the softness of the effect, the strength, shine and reflectiveness of the simulated material and the angle, brightness, concentration and colour of the lighting source.

Using the Apply Surface Texture effect with the paper option allows us to give our image a canvas feel.

The latest Painter also offers the option to create the illusion of depth for the individual brush strokes that make up the image. Using the Impasto dynamic plug-in, it's possible to first float the image as an object with the commands under the Select menu and to then paint onto the floater with either colour, or depth, or both. It's possible to select whether the effect picks up the underlying paper grain and again to control the appearance of depth and the light source. What's even more amazing is that it's also possible to select virtually any of the program's brushes to interactively apply the textured effect, for example, while following the lines of the clown's face. If you select a brush like the big loaded oils it's even possible to see the effect of the individual bristles as they are dragged through the underlying paint.

With creative interactive possibilities like these we've certainly come a long way. Our end result is perhaps rather a strange mix with elements of silkscreen, chalk, watercolour and now thick oil paints, but two things are certain. Firstly, our artistic image is much stronger, more eye-catching and more appropriate than the original and, second, it does not look like it was produced on a computer. As far as I'm concerned, that means that the computer has truly come of age as a serious artistic tool.

Tom Arah

December 1998

Painter 8

Art Materials

So what equipment do you need if you are interested in the possibility of art on the computer? First of all, of course you need the computer itself. Bitmap handling is built on number-crunching power, so it's sensible to have at least a Pentium MMX as the MMX instructions were specially designed to speed up such repetitive parallel tasks as applying filters. You also need as much RAM as you can decently afford. An A4 RGB image at 250dpi takes up over 17Mb of RAM and undo and layer information will soon demand as much again, so 64Mb is really a minimum for serious graphics work. On the hard disk the image file will be much smaller thanks to compression, but you'll still need 5Gb+ for storage and, increasingly importantly, to offer a scratch disk for image caching. In terms of your display, you'll need at least a 17" monitor and a fast graphics card capable of working at 24-bit true colour at high resolution and high refresh rate.

In terms of peripherals you'll almost certainly need a scanner to bring in photos and drawings. For art work the original image might just be raw material, but it still makes sense to have one of the recent 600 dpi, 30-bit + models. Rather more important is your outputting printer with the art-based priority placed on absolute quality rather than speed or running costs. The standard in desktop print is currently undergoing another major leap forward with the new six-colour, high-resolution Epsons offering near photographic quality. The Epson Photo EX looks a particularly good option for the computer artist as it enables output up to A3. Perhaps the most important peripheral of all is the easily overlooked input device. Trying to paint with a mouse is simply not a serious option. Pressure-sensitive tablets like the Wacom range are very reasonable especially as there is little advantage in straying beyond the budget A6-sized UltraPad II.

So how much is the system likely to set you back? The answer is surprisingly little. A number of Pentium II systems meeting all our requirements appeared in the round-up of machines costing less than 1300 in issue 44. After adding in 250 for a scanner such as the PC Pro recommended Umax Astra 1200s (issue ), 310 for a printer like the Epson EX and 120 for the UltraPad that still comes in at just under 2000 (ex VAT). Even better we have taken care of a lot of the software on the way with most scanners coming ready supplied with a bitmap editor, such as PhotoPaint or PhotoImpact, and the Photo EX bundled with Photoshop LE. If you make sure you get the UltraPad as part of a promotional bundle with MetaCreations Painter you'll have everything you need to start being creative.

But is it art?

Yours for $20 million dollars, but would Van Gogh approve?

In the masterclass I've been happy to give myself the benefit of any doubt and to say that the end result is art if it looks aesthetically pleasing and has clearly been re-interpreted through the human imagination. Effectively, if it looks like art then it is art. However, there are serious questions about whether this is true. When you've seen how the image was produced does it remain a creative artwork? Would you go out of your way to see an exhibition of manipulated photographs? More to the point would you pay $24 million dollars for a photo of a sunflower that has had a Van Gogh filter applied to it?

Clearly there is more to a work of art than simple aesthetics and it is an issue that computer-based art brings into sharp focus. The first cultural critic who explored the issue was Walter Benjamin in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. This was primarily concerned with whether photography and film could be considered as art, but the question is even more relevant in the age of digital reproduction. Benjamin recognised that a work of art doesn't stand alone, but must be seen within the contexts of tradition and of the author. Art works not just on an aesthetic level but on a magical, "auratic" level. It is the aura of the one-off original work touched by genius that means that we'll stand in awe of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, but hardly notice the same image in the rack of postcards in the gift shop.

Read in this auratic context, the whole essence of the computer can be seen as intrinsically anti-art. The use of cloning, multiple undo and, above all, the ability to print off multiple copies all conspire to remove the originality, magic and aura from the image. I certainly appreciate the argument and agree with it to a large extent. After all if I'd really painted the clown from scratch it would certainly mean much more to me. However, I'd also argue that it's just as wrong to completely ignore the aesthetics of the image. If an image moves the viewer isn't that ultimately the most important factor? Also I certainly don't agree that by it's very nature the computer can never be used for originating true art. Just about everyone on the planet has a camera, but photographers like Diane Arbus and Henri Cartier-Bresson still stand out as true artists within the medium.

Ultimately I'm happy to sit on the fence recognising the importance of both practical aesthetics and magical aura; of the viewer and the author. After all I'm in good company. In his corporate role, Bill Gates has bought the reproduction rights to numerous art collections, but for his own satisfaction he also spent millions buying a single Leonardo Da Vinci notebook. I only wish we could all afford the original as well as the postcard.

Tom Arah

December 1998

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