Digital Artfulness

The wolf revisits an old bugbear: is there something just-that-bit-fishy about digital art?

So, a couple of years ago, I wrote an article on digital illustration, wondering if reliance on the computer was letting me down. Was I using digital technology to compensate for an inadequate brush technique, for example?

Well, my brush technique has improved. It’s had to, of course, as I’ve had a bunch of inky illustration work to complete for publishers. The Chook Doolan series, for example, is done entirely in ink and wash – except where I’ve, er, corrected my work in PhotoShop.

Joe, Chook's friend from 'Chook Doolan: Saves the Day", tweaked in PhotoShop.

Joe, Chook’s friend from “Chook Doolan: Saves the Day”, tweaked in PhotoShop.

So this is where I am now: I would never develop characters on the computer – it’s too restricting. The only place for that is with a pad and a pencil, surrounded by reference drawings perhaps, but away from the lurid light of the screen and all the distracting delights the internet holds. Rubbing out a sketch is still much easier on paper, and shuffling things around on a desk in these very early stages is immediate and effective.

BUT I reckon that if you have a pressing project, a scanner, tablet and computer and you can use PhotoShop then… you’d be stark, staring mad not to take advantage of what’s in front of you. Technology is a huge timesaver, when used at the right stages. And ‘the right stages’ vary according to the technique, project and individual.

Some illustrators use the computer for finished art but hand-sketch characters, storyboards and roughs. Then there’s the ‘digital all the way’ folk, the ‘tweak at the end’ types, and those illustrators who use technology in a more piecemeal way, to help the process along.

There’s so many approaches, and none of them are wrong. Here’s how it’s been working in my Melbourne lair.

Digital roughs, hand-drawn finals
I’ve just finished the 5th in the series of the Chook Doolan Books written by James Roy. For these, Walker Books send me text – 64 typeset pages with convenient holes for images to go in. I print it out and scribble little stick figures all over the printout as I work out what should go in the holes.

For the first three Chook Doolan books I then drew inky roughs on paper, scanned them, tweaked them a little in PhotoShop, plonked them into the layout and then sent off the document for approval. Once the layouts were approved, I did another set of more finessed final drawings in ink, using a light table to trace parts of the earlier roughs that I liked). That’s about 50 drawings, done twice over, and using a couple of pads of pricey ‘Draw and Wash’ paper.

Rough on left, final on right - both ink on paper

Rough on left, final on right – both ink on paper

Rough on left, final on right - both ink on paper

Rough on left, final on right – both ink on paper

At the time, I felt that drawing directly onto the screen for the roughs would somehow be cheating and I wanted to keep that scratchy look. And maybe this was the best option, while I was getting to know the characters in Chook’s world. But then, for book four, Chook Doolan : The Tiny Guitar, I decided to do all the roughs digitally using PhotoShop and my Wacom Tablet – after doing my stick figures in the document first of course.

Digital rough on left, inky final on right

Digital rough on left, inky final on right

Chook Doolan, The Tiny Guitar

This was so much easier, and I think the roughs look better too. I was able to resolve compositions on screen for the roughs – flipping, tweaking and re-sizing elements. I used a nice, pencil-type PhotoShop brush for the outlines and a washy one for the shadows, and tried to keep the drawing loose. All this saved mountains of paper and at least a bottle of ink. And Walker loved the roughs. After that, tracing the roughs onto paper was a synch, and inking a pleasure. I confessed my new computer-reliant technique to writer Sue Whiting (who is also an editor at Walker Books) recently. “Aha!” she said “You’re getting smart then.”

Using technology to develop and check compositions

So recently I’ve been putting together a series of drawings of (surprise) wolves. I wanted the final artwork to be done entirely by hand, but wasn’t confident I’d be able to compose, hatch and shade the illustrations without a huge amount of rubbing out, tracing and growly words. Time for that expensive computer to earn its keep! I sketched the layouts in pencil:


… then used the sketches as a reference for a digital line drawing, below:


I printed the digital line drawing out and taped it to a lightbox. Then I traced this layout onto thick wash paper.

But before I started the hatching part, I mucked about with the digital line drawing in PhotoShop, trying to work out where shading and shadows might go.


While I was developing the drawing by hand, I scanned it in at various stages and fiddled with the scans in PhotoShop to work out which areas to hatch and shade. I then worked up the hand drawing, feeling more confident about getting the details right.

Here’s a partially complete drawing scanned in, and flipped to work out where faults might lie.


And the final below. This one is slightly tweaked with text added, but the ‘non-digital’ manually-inked piece worked out well and is now being exhibited at The Little Bookroom in Carlton, Melbourne.


Here are some wonderful, highly accomplished illustrators who use digital technology perfectly.

Lovely scene from Gus Gordon's 'Herman and Rosie'

Lovely scene from Gus Gordon’s ‘Herman and Rosie’

Gus Gordon
Herman and Rosie and Somewhere Else feature Gus Gordon’s masterly use of found elements, watercolour splotches and pencil outlines. Here, most of the illustrations are created by hand, but digital technology has been used to scan elements and layer in PhotoShop. It all looks simple and effortless, but is the result of years and years of practice. And I’m pretty sure Gus does a lot of his collage by hand initially, rather than on screen. Moving things around by hand can reveal new compositions and free up the page. Shuffling things around on a screen doesn’t seem to work the same way.

One of Jim Field's many digital/watercolour studies.

One of Jim Field’s many digital/watercolour studies.

Jim Field
Oh Jim Field! The problem with looking at Field’s incredible work is one can feel it makes sense to work digitally early, but just because Jim can do it doesn’t mean most of us can… And he still does a lot of character development work by hand-sketching. If you look at Oi Frog written by Kes Gray, for instance, it’s clearly all digital. And it looks like the roughs are digital too – but they’re still just terrific. Basically, it’s all down to excellent character design, a lot of hand-drawing in the early and middle stages, research, experimentation, oh – and a total mastery of composition, light and shade. That’s all.

Marc Boutavant's 'Mouk' - cerise and turquoise delightfulness.

Marc Boutavant’s ‘Mouk’ – cerise and turquoise delightfulness.

Marc Boutavant
Marc Boutavant’s stunning pallette, quirky (and much imitated) character styling and just the right amount of texture create beautiful, richly detailed, spreads. Boutavant creates his images digitally, using “as few tools as possible” (src: Play Pen: New Children’s Book Illustration, Martin Salisbury). There’s not a drop shadow in sight, every element is subtly different, and the characters development is lovely. It’s also really hard to get that shade of turquoise with paint alone…

Kevin Waldron's 'Mr Peek at the Zoo'

Kevin Waldron’s ‘Mr Peek at the Zoo’

Kevin Waldron
Kevin Waldron works in pen, ink and gouache. He then scans his illustrations, along with various textures and found elements, and manipulates and layers everything digitally. He’s not lazy; there’s no obvious repetition in his work but rather LOTS of hand drawing, and restrained use of fancy brushes, layers and filters. The characters are original and consistent and the quirky and ostensibly-simple style pulls off that tricky feat of looking fluid and easy to create – even though it isn’t. I really enjoy reading his blog to discover the many eclectic things that inspire him.


Lee Wildish
Dragon Stew, written by Stephen Smallman and illustrated by Lee Wildish, is one of the wolf’s favourite children’s books – maybe it’s because of the steaming pile of dragon poo in the middle. It’s also everything a rhyming book should be – very funny with a strong story and hilarious characters. Anyhow, it appears these illustrations have been completed entirely in PhotoShop, using a variety of brushes to sketch digitally and probably a thousand scanned hand sketches on multiple layers. What is evident is the character development and attention to composition and detail. The expressions are wonderful, as is the movement in the drawings.

So the success of any illustration – digital or hand-drawn – still depends on the skill of the artist. The computer is just another tool: use it appropriately and it will save your time, money and sanity; use it badly and you’ll have a headache, sore neck, wooden characters and a boxed-in layout. The wolf speaks from experience. Grrrrr….

And finally, the wolf has realised with horror that not one of the illustrators featured above is female. SHAME! Bleedin’ heck!! What a massive oversight.. but the wolf’s day is getting packed and there are JUST SO MANY amazing female illustrators who use digital and manual techniques in an original and seamless fashion. So, quickly for now, check out the wonderful illustrations of Sara Ogilvy, Sarah Warburton and Sarah McIntyre. And that’s just the ‘Sarah’s…

Lovely digital composition from Sarah Warburton.  A mountain of character development work beforehand of course

Lovely digital composition from Sarah Warburton. A mountain of character development work beforehand of course

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