Back to basics

Frida with tennis ball and tongue.

Oh, Photoshop, how do I love thee? Let me count the years. . .

Wow! Okay, so it’s been nearly two decades since I first started using my favorite software program. Back then, it was a wee 3.0, yet boasted these amazing things called layers (layers!) that any artist with a Macintosh Quadra and a love of all things flashy and new dove into and probably hasn’t resurfaced since.

These days, of course, Photoshop is nothing less than a magical machine of infinite image-manipulation. It’s a powerful program capable of wonders (and disasters), and anyone who works with graphics these days should know at least enough about it to be dangerous. Unfortunately, the seductive power of Photoshop also makes us forget that to be truly dangerous, we need a firm understanding of the fundamentals of image-making. And that sometimes, the most amazing effects are done by hand.

Frida will sit still for 3 seconds at most, which means these warm-up sketches are done faster than a Google search.

Since I’d been spending far too much time on Photoshop lately, I took an afternoon to reacquaint myself with some old school wet and dry media. I had to see if I could still pull off some decent pictures without my digital magic wand.

I recruited my loyal pup, Frida, as a model. Being a Boston Terrier, she tends to move around a lot, and this offered the additional challenge of keeping up with her.

I had to bust out the X-acto to sharpen the tip of my charcoal pencils. I was pleased to discover I could still whittle down a perfect point.

I had a bunch of chipboard and cardboard lying around, which I thought would make a nice alternative to paper. Then I dug up media I hadn’t used in a long time, including a small batch of Prismacolor markers. Does anyone still use these? I had forgotten how much I love those French grays! They still had that lovely smell of xylene in the morning—just another reason to work quickly.

Prismacolor marker. Frida looks rather cat-like as she prepares to pounce on a tennis ball.

Okay, there’s nothing earth-shattering about dog drawings. However, it was a great exercise to get out the old tools and work without the benefit of lighting effects and infinite do-overs. But another thing I’d forgotten was the sensual joys of these materials: the dry scratch of charcoal and the gorgeous surprise of an ink wash saturating the page. Even the markers challenged me not only with their toxic stink, but with the knowledge that their line would not erase. When I made my mark, I had to mean it.

Still knee-deep in a revision of my novel, I’ve been getting back to basics with that, too, and thinking about how fiction boils down to choice and consequence. After a decade of writing, I forget this sometimes as I’m dazzled by the whiz-bang shimmer of cleverness and postmodernism. By stories that are more special effects than especially affecting. As a reader, however, I find that such pieces won’t resonate with me unless I sense an emotional core somewhere, a reason for me to care beyond the spectacle. With my own work, I’ve been intoxicating myself with imaginative madness and forgotten that my characters have to make choices as well. That ultimately the shape of the book depends on mastery of the basics and a firm command of story—not simply clever illusions and allusions.

At any rate, for my drawings, I’ll be stepping back from Photoshop a bit more. There’s something lovely about the fragility of a Crow Quill nib and the screechy sound it makes. So what if my gouache gets overworked and I draw outside the lines? It’s a reminder that my hand was there.  If solid composition and technique demonstrate that the artist knows her stuff, a few imperfections only make the piece more memorable.

Couldn’t resist a touch of Photoshop color here. There’s really nothing wrong with digital tricks, so long as they’re used discreetly.