Digital Artistry Series #1: Planning Your Work
This article is the first in our new Digital Artistry series. This series will focus on the key elements of producing professional quality digital art, walking you through in a series of articles and tutorials covering the theory and techniques behind the world's great digital art. We will identify common mistakes in amateur's works, and teach you applicable tips and tricks to take your own work to the next level.
You Must Remember to PlanYes digital art is art, but that doesn't mean that you can just splash a load of Photoshop effects across a canvas and hope that it turns out to be something incredible. I'm all for creativity, but if you want to get the most out of your skills then you must remember to correctly plan your work! If you look at the best digital artists in the world, a huge percentage of them will carefully plan their works. This helps to lay the foundations for each concept, after which they can begin being more free, creative and truly express themselves. Having this conceptual foundation and this framework to work within helps refine your approach and give you creative direction. Whether you're working within a brief or not, it helps to define your themes, moods and early ideas. Consider using a mind map to list all your early thoughts and help collect the your ideas. Try to think beyond the obvious, and consider emotions, metaphors and abstract visuals. For example, if you were designing a piece around the theme 'abduction' you make initially think of 'aliens', 'spaceships' and if you were being a little rude even 'probing'! However, how about concepts such as 'weightlessness', 'terror' and 'thirst for knowledge'. These concepts may seem more abstract but are equally relevant and allow you even more creative freedom. Really push your mind map as far as it will go and you'll be surprised at some of the concepts you stumble upon.
Remember to Sketch! I also really advise you to sketch out your initial ideas and compositions. This will help you a lot when you start working digitally. Take out a pen and paper and draw some rough sketches, identifying the basic layout of your piece. Which elements go where? Does your piece have depth or perspective to it? The Most Common Mistake People Make When I look at where most amateurs are falling down, it's almost always because they over complicate their work. Often this can happen in the planning phase, but more often than not it is due to a lack of planning at all. Remember: More does NOT equal better. I see so many amateurs adding hundreds of effects to their work and using endless Photoshop filters. Guess what - adding a ton of visual elements doesn't make your work more professional! In fact quite the opposite, it can just dilute the concept behind the piece, and make the composition messy and shambolic. Adding intricate details is fine, and many top artist's use them in their work. However, details should be used to support a solid, simple composition, not to take over your entire work and detract from the key themes/ideas at work!
Establishing Planes in Your WorkA great way to give your work focus is to establish planes, or direction lines. The amateur digital artist will assume that elements can be placed randomly on a page. The professional realizes that the viewers eye must be captured and then directed. It is your job to guide your viewer's eye. This can be done through several techniques:
- The larger shapes and objects in your composition can form planes along which the eye travels. Think of a photo with a road stretching into the horizon. It's difficult to look anywhere else but down that road right? Well this is the principle you want to apply to your digital artworks. Choose a focal point in your piece and then direct attention to it use these planes or direction lines.
- Equally important, but often overlooked is the effect that smaller planes can have on the focus of a piece. This can be anything from the gaze of an eye to the point of a finger. Even small tree branches or splashes of water can help direct the viewer's eye in a particular direction. Use these minor details to your advantage.
- Light and color are also crucial to directing the viewer's eye, but we will cover these later in this article.
If we look at the piece Rapture below, we can see how these principles also apply to more complex digital works. This piece is rich in detailing and benefits because of it. However, in terms of composition it's really very simple:
Using Light and ColorAs well as using directional planes in your work to guide the user's eye, you should be directing it using light and color where applicable. Now you've probably considering the basics:
- More color = more attention
- Brighter color = more attention
- More light = more attention
- Consider that it's not just brighter colors that attract attention, but colors that CONTRAST the surrounding colors.
- Variations in color can draw the eye too. You may have a bright red background, but if you have a central figure comprised of a rainbow spectrum you can bet this is where the eye will go! This is an extreme example of course, but the principle rings true for other cases.
- Light can be contorted to construct planes of direction in itself. Also, you should be aware of the sources of light in your piece and how you can work with them. It's not just a case of 'make the central figure's face well let to make it more appealing', try to get creative and be aware of the subtleties of light. You don't want your piece to appear unnatural (unless this is what you're trying to achieve). Use light sources such as candlelight to help add definition to key subjects/focal points in your work.
Narrowing Conceptual FocusI've discussed the importance of directing your viewer's eye visually through planes, light and color. I've also stressed the importance of not over complicating your compositions visually. However, it's equally important (if not more so) to keep your work simple conceptually. You don't want to be portraying a thousand different messages to your audience. Keep things clear and simple. Let your artistic talent do the talking. This isn't to say that we all need to become advertisers or artistic directors. It's all well and good to have a snappy, enticing theme for your work, but this isn't always possible. A clear, simple theme should be more than sufficient. Your aim should simply be to make this theme clear to your audience in the first few seconds on looking at your piece. If your theme was 'weightlessness' a talented amateur may come up with a complex photo manipulation of an intricate scene with floating weights, illusions of gravity, multiple characters and countless objects/details. The professional artist may just focus on a super simple concept such as a boy being lifted into the air by a string of balloons. However, the simplicity of this concept instant puts across the theme, and he still has creative freedom to express his talent in creating a really impressive piece. Don't let your desire to create crowd your concept! This piece below called The Choice (by Esfero) is a clear representation of the perils for nature in the coming years. As a concept it's incredibly simple - a single tree, half dead, half alive. However, not only does it communicate the concept very well, but it still gives Esfero plenty of scope for displaying his incredible talent in the details of this work of art: Volcano (by John Postman) below. This is proof that a concept can be simple no matter what it is! This piece was done simply for fun and is not trying to fit within any sort of design brief. However, many lesser designers would have been tempted to over complicate this concept, giving it a busy background or placing it in a complex setting. The sheer rawness of this fun little concept works perfectly.
So To Recap...Just to recap, here are my pointers for taking your work to a more professional level:
- KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid!). This ranges from the concept to the visuals. Intricate details are fine, but within a concise, clear concept.
- Use planes and directional lines to attract and guide your viewer's gaze.
- Use light and color for the same purpose.
- Don't be afraid to omit things (backgrounds, objects, settings). This will only help to clarify your work.