Digital Illustration versus Old School Watercolor on Paper

Is Digital Illustration pushing out Old School Watercolor on Paper?

I proudly come from a family of artists. The artists in my family were women, some of them rumored to be crazy and impetuous (“as artists can be, you know” as some relatives explained). All women, and from both my mom and dad’s side. I love being a part of the long line of artist, toy makers, and gypsies. I love it that they were all women, and broke the mold – so much so that some thought they were crazy. Too bad we have lived in different times. I’d love to have some martinis with these artistic, pioneering, headstrong women!

A Family Tradition of Artists on Canvas, Slate and Paper

For years a delicately painted, framed slate featuring purple pansies hung in my grandparent’s bedroom. The artist was my great grandmother, Grandma Mom as we called her. She was raised by a wealthy country gent and his wife, along with eleven siblings in middle Missouri. There she learned the finer things like how to embroider, quill and paint. My children, now old enough to have children of their own, still nestle in the quilts she made by hand. Grandma Mom’s artistic skills and proficiency of her tools was stunning, judging by the excellent quality of her oil paintings, and the fact that there were so few of them in number. Like all moms, I’m sure there was no time to paint. I often wondered whether she would have a huge collection of stunning oils if she had lived in an era when pursuing a career while mothering was acceptable. Still, her talent, composition and technique were incredible. It has taken me many more paintings to come close to the skill demonstrated in her few.

Aside from my mother, my maternal grandmother on the other side of my family was the top influence in my life to be an artist. She was my mentor and source of encouragement for all of these years, until she died. It is she I thank when things go well. When things don’t go well, I roll my eyes as I recall my naiveté when she told me I would be a rich artist. But I’m glad I did it, glad I listened, and so very thankful she took the time to encourage me. (I’m still waiting for the wealth tho!)

Even after 30 years I cannot paint irises as well as she. As a child I begged her to sketch quick invented portraits of 1940’s looking women for me. She would resist, then eventually give in, as I watched in amazement. Her interpretation of girl scouts, young teens and even men were from a gentler, sugar-coated era, when chins were not angled and people had full lips and dimples. Her deftly created illustrations and cartoons were visual confections to me, and it was from her that I learned to draw my first profile at 8.

My mother also dabbled as an artist, although she feels she was never a true artist. She actually made money selling her work commercially, unlike many of the true artists she compared herself to – no small feat! Her work sold at the local Famous & Barr company in the 1970’s, as well as craft events and individual commissions. She was both artist and artist rep. Her primary love was decor and creating great environments. Artwork was a means to that end. But I watched and learned, as she learned. She was a great, practical teacher, and always open to letting me try something new. She believed in me, and would probably hang anything up I created. Now my kids do the same, which is flattering. And they continue the creative bent in their own lives. I find the continuation of creativity so wonderful to watch. Creativity makes life joyful for everyone. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to share.

So, enough of the sentiment. Here are how things have changed in the way of creating commercial art.

Goodbye paper. Hello external hard drive.

Art Rage Digital Illustration

An example of an illustration I’m working on in Art Rage Pro. You can use Art Rage Pro with just one monitor!

I treasure the paintings, the scraps of paper. And yet now as a working artist, it bothers me that I leave little of this behind for posterity. Most of what I do is digital.

Digital painting is supposed to  be faster, however there are plenty of moments when I wonder whether I’m saving any real time. I have determined the real benefit to painting digitally lies in the “Command Z”, or “undo” feature. This admittedly saves hours – however the creative time and work are still on me. There is no auto-illustration button, which keeps me employed doing what I love.

Here are some techniques I’ve learned over the years that will help anyone interested in getting into digital illustration. I also offer some of my own personal evaluations of illustration software below.

  • I use two programs for painting: Corel Painter and ArtRage Studio
  • Photoshop & Illustrator can be useful for small spot illustrations or quick changes
  • I first develop rough sketches for the client to determine color palette, styles and general looks of characters & surroundings.
  • Sketches are then recreated and cleaned up as much as possible
  • Sketches are scanned in. I generally save a version of the sketch with increased brightness so pencil marks fade & background is white.
  • Once all sketches are complete and approved, I begin the painting process. Everything is painted at one time, so the style and settings change as little as possible.
  • Artwork is always begun at higher than necessary resolution: 600 pixels per inch. This allows for cropping if needed.

Art Rage Pro

Art Rage was a nice surprise. I found it online, tried it out and instantly liked it. You can download a demo, and purchase if you like it. At about $50, it’s a pretty incredible painting tool. Simple and fast. I also liked the templates that can be resized for clean lines. You can also import jpegs and create tracing layers, and export as high-rez jpegs for printing.

Art Rage Pro is great for fast painting without a lot of variation in techniques. It’s also a much handier sketch tool when I want to draw right in the program. I find the pencil tool to be no frills and easy to use, just like a standard #2 pencil. I don’t need a lot of programming and set up to create a pencil, and don’t want that hassle in drawing software.

Corel Painter

While I’ve used Corel Painter for several years (since it first came out), over the years it has become overwhelmingly complex. It’s the professional tool of choice for most digital painters. However, I often get frustrated that there are too many options. For example, if I want to do do simple watercolor in Corel Painter it’s no longer a matter of choosing a water color brush. Now brushes have the appearance and behavior of other tools, and I must sift through 5 control panels to figure out how to change settings. Much of the initial time is setup. If it crashes, as it has done several times midway through a project, I not only lose my work, but the settings as well.

corel painter screen capture

Screen capture of Corel Painter showing an illustration project I created in Painter. (The squiggly lines are just to show how you can affect lines by using varying pressure with your styles in Painter.) Users definitely need 2 monitors for Corel Painter, or you’ll be spending most of your time moving control panels back and forth.

Control isn’t a bad thing…

While Corel Painter used to be intuitive and simple, it still has superior behaviors per art tool. This is why it’s complex to use. Corel works much better with my stylus than Art Rage. I also have greater control over brush sizes, shapes and more. Here’s an example of a water color setting. I applied light and heavy pressure on the stylus. I can also control the amount of bleed in the paper, or set it to none at all.

corel painter close up

You can see where I applied less pressure (thin lines) as compared to heavy pressure (thick lines) on my stylus.


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