Tom Ross November 5th, 2012

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 Plan

Yes 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.

Planning Your Work

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 Work

A 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.
Always remember why you're using planes in your work - to guide the eye of your viewer. Try to think about why you want to guide their gaze. Are you trying to make part of your composition more important for a particular reason? Are you trying to divert attention from another area? Are you trying to draw in the user and make them feel immersed in the environment you have created. Never succumb to randomness, guide your viewer with a deliberate hand and well planned approach.

Planning Your Work

The above piece Space Opera by artist Pierrick is a great example of using planes to focus the viewer's gaze. Yes, Pierrick also uses color/light to do this, but below I've shown how even a grayscaled version of his design has clear directional lines of focus to it:

Planning Your Work

If we look at the piece La Femme by the great James White below, our eye can't help but follow the beautiful contours of light. James White is regarded as one of the top digital artist's in the world and look how simple the composition is. Is he splashing every Photoshop filter available across a canvas littered with excess detail and obsolete visual elements? No! He has a clear, concise composition with deliberate planes established to draw and direct the user's eye.

Planning Your Work

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:

Planning Your Work

We get a clear sense of rising as the man and elements of tree/smoke are pulled upwards by some hidden force. Notice also how the branches all curve and point upwards, as well as the arc of the man pointing upwards. We get a very unified sense of direction to the piece, which brings all of the detailing and the various visual elements together into a complete whole. Below I've demonstrated this clear direction in Rapture:

Planning Your Work

Using Light and Color

As 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
These are all crucial fundamentals that you should bear in mind for your piece. Always try and remember where you want to draw attention to and why. However, there is more than this to consider:
  • 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.

Planning Your Work

In the piece Chronoscape by Alexiuss there is a clear use of light and color to draw the viewer's eye. The majority of this attention is in the bottom-right area of the piece, as the bright light beams draw the gaze. The striking reds of the flaming tree and the ghostly blues of the light cast contrast the moody gray smoke/clouds in the rest of the piece. This is a great example of contrast being used to give focus to a composition.

Planning Your Work

In the above piece Illuminati by Mika Makela you may not notice a great deal of focus. Well that's because what is shown is a black and white version of the original that I have manipulated. This shows a lack of focus, as the color in the original is crucial to directing the viewer's gaze. The piece is well designed and has some lovely details. However, it feels very busy and you don't quite know where to look. Take a look at the original design below:

Planning Your Work

It's still a fairly low-saturation piece, but the subtle color that is there makes the world of difference! The fact that the small areas of red light are so minimal, set against a design that is otherwise not very colorful means that they really stand out. The lesson here? You don't need to use masses of color to grab your viewer's attention! Minimal color can work just as well, just as long as it contrasts against the surrounding composition and background.

Narrowing Conceptual Focus

I'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:

Planning Your Work

Check out the awesome photo manipulation 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.

Planning Your Work

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.
I want to stress that although these may sound basic, almost all designers don't pay them enough attention. Make sure that you not only read this advice but that you go and execute it and see results in your work today. Look out for more tips in the rest of this series, coming your way soon. I'll discuss some of the other fundamentals of the pros that are missed out even by very talented amateurs.

What Are Your Thoughts?

We would love to hear your opinion. Do you agree with these fundamentals of conceptual and visual design? Let us know in the comments below. (dpe)

Tom Ross

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One comment

  1. GREAT article!! I loved all the tips (and the summary at the end that sort of pulled everything together). I couldn’t wait to scroll down and see who the great author was, and then I was like, “Heyyy!! It’s Tom from Blogs.Fans.Extra!” Nice seeing you here, Tom! I can’t wait to see the rest in the series!

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