Friday, September 16, 2011

Paint a watercolor landscape ... from scratch.

Challenge: paint a watercolor landscape ... and do it from scratch, without falling back on a photograph. This is quite a good exercise, if you're learning how to make Photoshop play tunes, because it takes you all over the map in terms of tools. And the good news is, it's dead easy.

The easiest part of the lot is where you're ready to tell Photoshop to apply the filter and make the artwork look like a watercolor, right at the end. That's just a mouse click, really. But you have to have something ready to be converted, and unless you're going to grab a photo and run it through the machinery (which might be convenient, but it ain't clever, and you really do have to ask, "Yes, but is it art?"), well, you'll have to slap the art together first. Right.

And that's where it gets interesting. Before you hit the button to apply the watercolor filter, you want to end up with something like this:

So the next intelligent question is, where the [expletive deleted] do you start?

The first thing to get your head around is working bottom-up, not top down. Imagine your landscape, and ask, "What's the most distant thing in the picture?" The answer is always going to be, the sky. So heres where you start. Set the canvas size in Photoshop ... big enough to work in comfortably, with some elbow room. I used 1500x850 at 100dpi, but you could use something much bigger -- or smaller, if you're on a tablet-size screen.

Pick a color to represent the sky. Bucket fill the canvas, and call this Layer One. Change your ink/paint color to white or pale blue, and load up an .abr brush set of clouds. Plunk at least one or two clouds into the frame, right there on the sky, to give yourself some sensation of it being the sky, otherwise it could just as easily be a big blue product label! You should be looking at something like this now:

And that's Layer One ... the bottom layer, the most distant thing from your eyes.

Now, create a new layer, and be sure you're painting in this one, because you're going to change your paint/ink color to something like a light brown, choose a small brush, set the "softness" to about 80, and actual hand-draw the outline of a hillside, and fill in underneath it with block color. You'll need 90% opacity on the brush, and just ... paint the skyline and full under it.

Then you can choose a darker shade of the same color and swoosh in areas which represent the darker shadows of depressions, little gullies, in the hillside. Then pick a dark green, and load of an .abr brush set of trees, and "stamp" the silhouettes of trees into the distant hillside:

Now, keep in mind, this is ART here, you're not trying to be photo-realistic. That's a completely different technique, which takes about fifty times longer! This project is on its way to being a watercolor painting done from scratch, it's not trying to be a photograph.

And now that you have a hillside and some trees in place, you can go back to the bottom layer and work up the sky with some more clouds, to give it a really nice texture and feel:

And you think to yourself, that's not too bad.

Notice that in the real world, things faaaaar from the camera tend to get pale with distance, because of the sheer volume of air between you and them. This is the simplest example of "atmospherics." It's why massive mountains look blue or purple. Things tend to start to fade into the sky when they're very, very far away. Our hillsides are not so far away -- they're big in the shot, and you can still make out the details (individual trees), so you know these hills are not the size of the Himalayas! But the principle still holds good, and you can get a lot of mileage out of a simple little trick: make background objects in a landscape paler than mid- and foreground objects, and you automatically get the illusion of distance.

Which means it's time to add some mid-ground objects. So make a new layer, choose a darker green and draw in the line of a closer hillside. Fill the body of the hill in, in the dark green, then choose a lighter green and swoosh in the areas of this hillside which would represent the little knolls and crests on the hillside. They're paler because they stand up and catch the sun.

Then you can choose whichever kind of trees suit your landscape, and start to "stamp in" the trees. Use two or three shades of green for these trees -- darker and lighter; and experiment with what looks most striking -- light over dark, dark over light, or dark over light over dark, and so on. Remember, this is ART, you're not trying to be photo-realistic...

Keep going with this stage till you have something which looks "done" ... and this is where your own artist's eye will have to guide you. It's easy to overdo this part of the process and wind up with a murky mess. If this happens, delete the layer, create a new one and go again. You can also use .abr brushes to add a hint of grasses into the nearer hill.

One of the important things to get your head around in artwork is that you shouldn't try to paint every blade of grass, or every leaf on the tree, or every strand of hair on someone's head. To begin with, it's physically impossible to do this; then, it gives a poor result if you try. The same goes for this kind of digital work ... hint at the grasses, don't try to paint the whole thing in.

When you're happy with your mid-ground, it's time to look at the foreground. Close up, you can add overhanging trees, grasses, little plants that pop into frame. The closer things are, the more clearly we can see them. If you notice, trees in the background are not much more than blobs suggesting trees, but right up close you can actually see leaves and individual grass stems. This is what you need to try to achieve in a painting.

Paint your foreground into a new layer...

This is what the single layer will actually look like. Objects floating in space, not making much sense till you view all layers together. (Actually, I've whacked a couple of extra trees into the background on this same layer. They should have been on a lower layer, in fact, but I was hurrying to finish the piece off, because South Africa vs. Fiji, in the Rugby Union World Cup, was coming on TV in about five minutes' time, so ... ahem! I simply forgot to change layers when I added the extra trees to the background. However, you can get away with the occasional small booboo like this, because when you view the whole project all of a piece, it doesn't make any difference at all.)

The last thing I did was to add some birds in the middle of the shot ... why the middle? Because they help to draw the viewer's eye into the picture, and with the lines of the overhanging trees, you're "guiding the eye" into the painting an keeping it there...

And the only thing you need to do now is to go into your Filters menu, and apply the "Watecolor" effect. You need to apply it as little as the settings will allow, with the maximum brush detail you can get, and the effect is...

...nice. Done! Sign that one and call the project complete.

This one is different from the painting I uploaded the other day...

...because the previous one, above, started life as an incredibly simple Bryce render which was used as the bottom layer for a painting. The effect is a lot more realistic than the watercolor, but realism ain't always the result you're looking for. And it's neat to start completely from scratch and work from a blank screen, like a blank sheet of art paper. Ye gods, does anybody remember art paper...?

This painting used Mystikel's Cloud Pack, Designfera's Trees and Forests, Ron's Birds -- and I wish I could tell you what the grass brushes were, but I've gone blank. Am having a senior moment.

Jade, 17 September
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