Tweaking This Paper Process

Today Ashley cracked her knuckles, rolled up her sleeves, and crafted some Photoshop brushes. “But why?” you may ask. Here’s a story:

Heraclitus said that you can never step into the same river twice (oh, those clever ancient Greeks!) and we can say the same for our illustration process. Every time we pick up a pencil at our hulking antique drafting table, there’s a new constellation of factors running like a river under the surface: how much sleep we got last night, what we ate (or didn’t eat) for breakfast, how tightly cranked our stress levels are, and of course, what the subject matter is and why we’re drawing it. Crank the mix up to eleven with the fact that we’re both gluttons for punishment in the name of progress, and you get a constant state of evolving and experimentation. Welcome to Joel and Ashley’s world of freelance illustration!

Today the piece of the This Paper Ship puzzle that wasn’t broke, but we decided to fix anyway, was how we craft our illustrations.

Our pen-and-ink illustration production process has generally looked like this since 2012:
1. Sketch full composition in pencil.
2. Ink everything in pieces on new sheets using a light box.
3. Scan inked pieces, clean up, and assemble in Photoshop.
4. Apply color, make small edits, etc. on screen using Wacom tablet.

Scanning inked drawings has a special place in our hearts, it’s wonderful for myriad reasons, and we’ll continue to use it regularly. But this year, we’re introducing a much larger emphasis on digital painting, directly in Photoshop, using the tablet. The reasons for this are as follows:

1. Composing in pencil is intuitive. It’s beautiful process; it’s a Mozart symphony. You make some lines, step a back to soak in the piece as a whole, add in a little more here, adjust that line here, que bella. Then using our current system, we break up that orchestra—SMASH! throw the violins off into the balcony, CRUNCH! cram the cellos under the back row seats, CLUNK! shove the flutes through the ticket booth—and then try to paste it back together, in its original state, in time for the opening curtain. OK, that’s an extreme analogy! But the scanned-ink process does transform that intuitive give-and-take of pure drawing into a more mechanical, factory-assembly situation. Not to mention the on-screen cleanup process; when you scan in a drawing at a high resolution, you will discover that even a clean piece of paper exhibits what our dear Art History professor Mike Mendez used to call “schmazz”, i.e., little bits of dust that you have to take the time to manually erase before you can move on.

2. Digital painting saves time. We’ll probably write more about the business side of freelancing in the near future, but believe us when we say that a lot of drawing needs to get done to have two people live solely off of freelance illustration. Not to mention, all of those extra little drawings that we do for blogging and marketing; networking is so much snazzier with original illustrations, and as we all know, more pizazz = more pennies = more pizzas. (See what we did there?) When we can do three drawings with digital painting in the time it normally takes us to do one drawing with the pen-and-ink-and-digital-coloring process, it’s a no-brainer.

Does that mean we’re dumping our Bristol, watercolor paper, microns, and brush pens off on the curb in a rainstorm? Absolutely not—there are plenty of illustrations that lend themselves much better to the scanned-ink process. But we’re itching for the new horizon that digital painting helps us cross, and we certainly want to pack more drawing into every day.

Which brings us back to the Photoshop brushes Ashley created today—a new set of beautiful soft shaders. It was a simple process based on several online tutorials, which consisted of scanning in swatches of original watercolor textures, isolating them in Photoshop, and using Photoshop’s brush preset actions. Then we added more sail and applied the brushes on a little turtle friend on our Contact page, painting him in Photoshop directly above a layer containing the scanned pencil sketch.

Here’s to the pursuit of improvement—and more drawing, drawing, drawing!


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