In this blog I'll share what I have learned over the years about drawing and painting. My processes creating illustrations, visual development and concept art. I'll share thoughts, techniques and ideas that have worked for me in my career as an illustrator. I hope they inspire , and work for you too!

donderdag 6 december 2012

Dan dos Santos: How to photograph your paintings

How to Photograph Your Paintings

-By Dan dos Santos

I've been asked this question a lot here on Muddy Colors, and I guess it's about 
time I finally got around to it. 

One of the reasons it's taken me so long to do a post about photographing my
work, is because photographing a piece is the very last phase of a commission.
 Which means when I do it,  I'm usually strung out, on my 40th hour of being 
awake, trying my hardest to make a deadline, and just don't havethe time 
(or stamina) to snap pictures of my setup. Which is shame, because it is arguable 
the most important part of a commission.

Getting a good photograph of your work is absolutely essential to the reproduction
 process, and deserves just as much consideration as any phase of an illustration 
assignment. After all, it doesn't matter how beautiful the original art is, the 
Art Director is not going to be impressed if the cover it was commissioned for 
looks bad.

It is important to know, different types of reproduction are better suited to 
different types of paintings. I work in oils, on a smooth untextured surface, with  
a decent amount of transparent layers. The process I am going to explain is what 
works for MY WORK. You may find alternative methods work better for you. The 
key is to experiment.

So let's get to it!

Why photograph a painting myself?

Typically, it is the Publisher's responsibility to scan a piece of original art. So why do even have to bother doing it ourselves? Well, for a few reasons...

Firstly, I find my work reproduces a LOT better when I photograph and color-balance the image myself. Different artists use different mediums, and no one means of reproduction are great for all of them. A studio photographer will default to what method works best for the majority, which means you are not always getting the best results possible.

Secondly, it's more convenient for my Publisher, who would otherwise have to send the art out to be scanned and lose at least a day in the process. Sometimes a day is really important when you're working against a deadline. Even if I hand deliver an original, I still bring a scan of the image as a courtesy.

Lastly, cost. Sending a painting to get scanned professionally will cost upwards of $100. If you are doing this a few times a month, that will add up quickly. That money can be better invested in nice photo equipment.

For particularly large, or particularly important pieces, I will sometimes go to a professional photographer to get my work scanned. But 9 times out of 10, I just do it myself.

I often visit a local professional who has a 12 foot bed scanner.

Should I use a Camera or Scanner?

Personally, I choose to photograph my work instead of scanning it. This is for two reasons:

1. Scanners tend to be quite small, and I don't want to stitch together 20 scans to get a single image.

2. The light a scanner uses is really harsh, and tends to overpower the appearance of subtle glazes.

For me, I find a camera better captures the way a human eye perceives the original art, particularly if you work with multiple layers of glazes. It seems to better retain the sense of luminosity and transparency.

Of course, this will vary depending on what type of surface you work on, what mediums you use, etc. For instance, if you work on paper in a medium with a matte finish like gouache or watercolor, you will likely have better results with a scanner.

Should I shoot inside or outside?

I always shoot indoors. On a cloudy day, you can get a decent shot outdoors, but it will never compare to the consistency of a controlled studio environment.

And now the Set up....

The most basic premise of getting a good photo is to light your painting with as soft and even of a light as possible.

The easiest way to do this is with strobes and bounce umbrellas. Bounce umbrellas not only reflect the light backwards, but they soften and spread it in the process. Soft light is very important. If the light is too direct, some areas of the painting will be brighter than others creating 'hot spots' or washed out colors. A soft light also helps to avoid harsh shadows and highlights.

I use the same lights to photograph my paintings, that I use to photograph my models. It is a monolight kit, consisting of 2 x 750 watt/second strobes (1500 total), complete with umbrellas and stands. I use the exact kit found HERE. A set up like this costs about $1000.

If you are looking for something less expensive, I recommend a 'continuous light' kit. For the first 10 years of my career, I used this kit HERE. A set up like this will cost about $350

The advantage of the strobes is a much brighter and much whiter light. Having a lot of light is important if you want a lot of detail, and the whiter light makes color balancing your image a lot easier. The strobes also have an adjustable intensity, which the continuous light do not. Lastly, strobes do not put out as much heat as the continuous lights. Continuous lights are commonly referred to as 'hot lights', and for a very good reason. It may not seem like a big deal, but trust me, after 40 minutes under a 650 watt bulb, your model WILL be sweating.

So what if you can't afford either set-up?

You can achieve similar, albeit diminished, results with common lighting tools found at a WalMart or Home Depot.

I would recommend:
4 x clamp lights, like THESE
4 x 120W compact fluorescent bulbs, in the 5000K range, like THESE
2 large sheets of white foam core.
Total cost: $50

If you do not have umbrellas, you can use a white piece of foam core. Just angle it appropriately so that the light bounces back at the painting the same way the umbrella would. You can even score and bend the foam core to create more a concave shape.

Once you have the necessary lights, the next step is positioning.

I photograph my paintings upright, at a 90º angle. To either side of my painting, is one of my strobes. I aim the strobes AWAY from the painting, and let the umbrellas bounce the light BACK toward the painting at roughly a 160º angle. This is called a 'raking' light.

This angle is extremely important! If you place your lights in such a manner that the light strikes the painting at an acute angle (less than 90º), the light will bounce off the painting, and back into the camera lens... causing glare. Glare, is quite literally a reflection of the light source on your painting's surface. The more acute this angle is, the worse the glare will be. An on camera flash would result in the absolute worst glare possible, since it is striking the surface at an angle of 0º degrees.

Once the lights are in position, I set up my camera and tripod. Now cameras and lenses are a great big bag of worms that I am not going to open here. We could talk about that for days! Suffice it to say, the better camera you have, and the better lens you have, the better your image is going to be.

I will say this though...

I shoot with a 50mm prime lens. A prime lens is one that does not zoom in or out. Instead, you have to move the camera forwards and backwards. That is annoying for reference shoots, but the advantage of a prime lens is that the image is crisper, and has much less distortion around the edges. A prime lens is not necessary (I only got mine a year ago), but it is a big help. If you do get a lot of lens distortion with your camera, there are several features in Photoshop that can help correct that.

Many people assume that narrowing your aperture to F/22 will always give you the crispest shot. This is not true. Any adjustable zoom lens has a 'sweet spot', a perfect combination of aperture and zoom where the light is most focused. (Think of it like sun through a magnifying glass). This sweet spot is usually somewhere in the middle of a lens' zoom/aperture range. To find it, you need to experiment. 

To find mine, I shot some fine magazine print in every zoom range possible. I went through those shots, found the one with the most detail, and then shot at that zoom range in every aperture possible. The crispest amongst those will tell you where your sweet spot is.

File Format:
Always shoot in RAW format if possible. Check your camera's settings, and try to find the highest quality/compression possible. Many high end cameras offer a RAW format option. RAW format does very little compressing, and allows you to alter your exposure/color settings after you shoot the image.

Always shoot at the lowest ISO possible (Sometimes called ASA). I typically shoot at 100 ISO. If you go above 400, you are likely going to get a lot of noise in the dark areas. It's better to have a really slow shutter speed than to try to bump up the ISO.

White Balance:
White balance is imperative! Look at your lightbulbs, and find out the exact color rating. The closer to 5000K (or above), the better. Anything less than 3000K, and your image is going to be too yellow. Yes, your camera will correct for it, but in doing so will lose the difference between subtle whites and yellows. Once you know the temperature rating of your bulbs, set your camera to that exact white balance. On my camera, I can set it in 100K increments. Your camera may only have 'custom' option. In this case, you will need to photograph a 'grey card', in order to accurately calibrate your camera.

Do not attempt to hand hold a camera when reproducing your work. Even the subtlest of vibrations will ruin the detail. In fact, not only do I use a sturdy tripod, but I usually set my camera on a delayed timer, because the simple action of even pressing the shutter button by hand is often enough to shake the camera. Like wise, if your camera lens has a Vibration Reduction feature, turn it off. If there is no vibration, that feature actually does more bad than good.

So we've got our lights set up with no glare...
Have our lenses zoomed into their sweet spots...
Set our ISO to 100...
Adjusted our White Balance...
And leveled our tripods to ensure they are perfectly straight with our painting...

We are ready to shoot!!!

Now my camera is by no means 'top of line'. I shoot with a slightly outdated, 10 megapixel, Nikon D200. The image this gives me isn't huge, but it is certainly large enough for a 6x9 inch book cover at 300 dpi. However, I'm worried about more than just the book cover.

What if my client wants to zoom in on the painting, and use just a detail of a the face?
What if I want to make a poster of the painting?
What if I finally do a book of my art?

I am going to need a MUCH larger image for any of these purposes.

Because of this, I actually shoot my painting in 3 separate shots, and then stitch them together later. I take a shot of the top, the middle, and the bottom of my painting, all with significant overlap. When shooting the middle, I take special care not to crop on any particularly important areas like a face.

I then import these RAW images into Photoshop. Using the built in RAW editor, I can adjust any exposure/color inaccuracies I see.

Once I am content with the exposure/color balance, I splice the images together. Photoshop actually has a really nifty Photomerge tool just for this sort of thing. Go to: (File > Automate > Photomerge). If I still see some color imbalances, I usually remedy it using the 'color balance' tool, or 'selective color' tool.

The final result is a file that is about 20 inches tall at 300 dpi... more than enough for most professional applications!

I tend to keep this original file for my own personal records. I usually give my Art Director a slightly smaller file, roughly 11x17 (300 dpi), which is still more than enough for any of their needs.

I then make a low-rez version (800-900 pixels) for my website, add a small watermark, and I am done!!!

LINK to the original post at Muddycolors

donderdag 4 oktober 2012

Thoughts on character design

Somethings I think are important in character design.

This post is about  thoughts I have about character desing, not a ‘how to draw’tutorial. Besides knowing how to draw a character, how to use perspective, howto draw expressions, there is also an internal process going on  when I design a character. I tried to write down some thoughts about designing characters, and I’d like to share them with you. I hope they can be ofuse for you. If you have comments or additions, please leave a message in the commentssection. 

1. Observation

I make a habit of constantly observing people.I found that for me to understand a character, I need a certain understandingof people, how they act, how they convey their emotions, why they wear certainclothes, how they use body language to emphasize or contradict what they aresaying.  A man who just got robbed,will walk into a police station completely different than a man who was justcalled his stolen car has just been found. Someone who is genuinly happy foryou  will smile at you differentlythan a salesman giving you his smiling talk.
I find it really useful to study actors, andthe way they ‘get to know’ their character. How they use body language, facialexpressions, clothing, make up etc. to define a character.  Some actors have really mastered the art of ‘becoming’ a character. They are very much aware of every gesture, howthey move, talk and breathe. It can be really helpful to approach the desing ofa character in a similar way
It is the task of a character designer to usehis knowledge of how people and translate this into a design that is believable. 

2. Reading the script
I thoroughly read the script, speak with thewriter in order to get as much information as possible about the character tocreate an  idea in your mind tounderstand  who this characteris.  Designing a character is notjust playing around with shapes; it really is finding and defining the character’spersonality.
When I read the script I focus on: How does the character feel, but alsohow he uses subtext in his expressions; If he’s scared, does he show it, ordoes he hide it, how does he relate to his environment. If he’s big, does hefeel big?
3. Documentation
There is more to the character than just howhe feels. ‘personality’ can be added to the character by how he dresses, how hecombs his hair. If I want the character to be believable and  convincing I need to use elements from the world we know, and use and alter them in my design. The choices I make arebased on the script, and from this, I try to be creative, and come up with manydifferent ‘solutions’ for what the character could look like.
Google is a very helpful tool in referencingclothes, and assecoiries, but going out and looking at the real stuff, andmaking sketches on location can be very important as well. When I need to findout what dress a dancer has to wear, it can sometimes be more useful to go to adance club and speak with dancers, and understand what is important for a dancedress, than to randomly combine google images into one dress. Someone who knows all about dance dresses should also be convinced by my design...
I like to combine ‘direct’ documentation withassociative documentation. For instance when I need to design a certain dress, I look for dresses in real life(direct documentation) but also for things I associate with the mood it has to have,or the personality of the character, or something random that comes up when Ithink of the character. (associative documentation.) Combinig these twoelements, often lead to believable, but also creative design.

4. Trial and error
It takes more than one drawing to come up witha final character design. Sketching often is no more than thinking visually. Someideas are good, some are bad, but there’s always room for improvement.
Step 1, 2 and 3 are essential to come up withvarious ideas and concepts. A character designer comes up with many differentideas and approaches to the subject. Allowing myself to try things that don’twork, is essential to eventually come up with great ideas. Nobody likes to showtheir bad drawings, but in order to be creative, it is neccesary to exploremany different directions.  I hateit when a drawing  or a conceptdoesn’t work, or when I make a bad drawing.  The alternative however, is not allowing myself to make anymistakes, wich would mean doing the same thing over and over again...that’s notan option for me.
The great thing in designig a character thisway, is that  I ‘get to know’ thecharacter during the process.  Whena drawing doesn’t communicate what I want it to, it means it doesn’t portray thecharacter.  Trying againdifferently makes me slowly but surely discover who this character actually is.
5. Technique
A lot of books are written on character designtechnique. As I mentioned, I won’t go into ‘how to draw a character’ in this post, but there aresome things to be said about technique.
It is important to constantly keep ondeveloping both my drawing skills, as well as my creative skills, which meansbeing able to come up with creative and original ideas.
Because most characters are based on humancharacters – even when the character is a tree, a donut or a rock, it’sexpression and the way it’ll communicate with as is by human gestures andemotions- it’s important to attend life drawing classes. In these classes Idevelop a better understanding of human anatomy, expressions, shapes, 3dimensionality drawing skills, quick sketching skills and so on… 

When drawing from life,  making a caricature of what I see is very useful. Certain features of a model stand out, and emphasizing these features is like underlining an important remark in a notebook. I can go through my sketchbook and easily recognise what it is that stood out to me during a specific drawing session, and I can use this information in my character designs.

Within a charachter it’s all about proportions. About the relationship between the sizes of the different body parts, the sizes of the different volumes, textures, colors, etc.
In the end there has to be a relationship beteen all proportions that suits the character.  Wether it is balanced , for instance based on the golden ratio, or disbalanced; creating an off-balanced character.
It often helps me to think of contrasts. if a character has curly hair, I can juxtapose this by adding straight elements, for instace a sword, so they complement each other (fuzzy curly hair, soft vs. metal straight). Or a man who is very wise and knows a lot of things, may have a big head, so his body can be small to put emphasis on the head. Using contrasts is a useful tool to be very clear about what you want to express. If all is blue, then red stands out. When I have established that, I can look for the right balance between red and blue. So I first look for the big statements, and then refine them.

maandag 23 april 2012


Recently I found myself planning an illustration. Working out the concept, the composition, the colors, shapes, characters ect. It seemed like I wanted to be on top of everything in advance. I think its is a good thing to 'do your homework' before staring an illustration, but it is equally important to let a drawing evolve, and have accidents occur, to respond to.
Creativity needs freedom and space.  Especially at the moments you are not deliberately trying to squeeze out a concept for an illustration, the best ideas seem to pop up. (in the shower, while taking a walk, in your dreams)
Also, to be creative, it is nessecary to leave in the possibility for your painting to fail. If you do not do this, and you are sure what is going to be the outcome, you will do the same thing over and over, and never learn something new...

In order to push myself to explore new techniques and concepts and to let creativity flow freely, I like to play this little game:
Before I get started, I make sure my equipment is ready. I set up a blank canvas and prepare my paints, or get my sketchbook and have my pencils ready. Then I set a time limit for myself. This can be 10 minutes, or a whole day. For this painting, I took 1,5 hours.

1: limited time:  1,5 hour.
2: In the first 15 minutes I come up with a concept, do little sketches, and look for reference images
3: In the remaining hour  and 15 minutes I paint.
4: I try things I haven't done before

This way of working forces me to make descisions quickly. There is no time for hesitation, and often it results in strong choices. I learn ton's of new stuff doing it, even (or maybe especially) when it's not working out at all...

woensdag 21 maart 2012

Words of wisdom

Some good advice by Gregory Manchess:

1. Draw Now. Think Next.
Ideas without followthrough are useless. Conceptual art without skill is nothing. Ideas are cheap. One doesn’t get better at ideas by thinking better thoughts. You must train to learn how to create them, what to do with them. Train yourself to search for the good ones, to generate good ones from practice.

Draw. Draw your fool head off, but draw. Draw first. Think about it next. Contrary to so-called avant guard thinking, drawing doesn’t create answers, it creates more ideas.

2. Learn to be authentic.
No one is quite like you anyway. Forget about being original. “Oh, it’s so original!” Bah. You already are. Take the higher road, and learn to be authentic.

You are already connected. What you have to say is important because we all want to know. Learn to discern, of course, what is important from what is frivolous. It is all stowed inside, as you’ve been working on it already for a long time. You won’t find your style. If you are authentic to who you are, your style finds you.

3. Build luck and use it.
When preparation meets opportunity, it’s called luck. Create your own luck by being prepared to see it when it’s about to happen. Don’t wait for it. You won’t see it if you don’t know what to look for. Luck happens when you are ready for it, and you are ready for it when you’re prepared: training.

4. All painting is re-painting.
Do it again. Drawing it once is never enough. Painting it once isn’t either. Do it over and over, focusing on improvement each time. Got a favorite part of a painting? Learn to paint it out. Learn to paint over it. Do not try to save those good mistakes. Paint them again and this time shoot to get it right...under your control. Nobody is an expert by doing something good once.

5. Create momentum.
Finished one good piece? Great. I’m happy for you, but that’s not momentum. When one painting is done, move into the next as soon as possible. Repetition is key to keeping momentum, and momentum is key to gaining successful training. Repeat your successes.

6. Keep finishing.
Stop quitting. Finish the stupid thing already, so you can move into the next one. Do not allow failure to dictate your progress. You must push against that. Fail and fail again. You will push through that failure and keep moving. But learn from it as you do.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better. --Samuel Beckett

7. Seek advice.
Everyone has an opinion, especially about your work. It’s rather easy to recognize the parts of someone else’s work that are problematic. Finding your own? Tough as nails. When someone tells you what’s off about your work, they are usually correct. When they tell you how to repair it, they are nearly always incorrect.

8. Take criticism well.
Which leads me to criticism: learn to take it, and use it well. Do not take it personally, but try to decipher what it is they are coaching you about. You can use that stuff, man. Grow some thick skin. Unless they’re a jerk, there are golden nuggets of wisdom in there. And remember: it’s meant for you, and you are the only one that can use it.

9. Work for good habits.
Training as a painter is like training as an athlete, musician, pilot. Learning a language lights up many of the same parts of your brain as learning to draw a hand. It is now an indisputable fact that the brain is plastic, even into old age.

To your last breath, the brain wants to learn and will do everything it can to get the advantage. It builds nerve fibers to speed up learning. It strengthens the nerves to send signals faster, for efficiency. Trick is, you want to build that stuff for good uses. The brain is just as happy to build strong nerves to reinforce bad habits.

10. Draw through, not around.
Years ago, I was ok at drawing, but I needed to get better. Here’s the problem: I wanted to be the kind of good that when I looked at my own work, I actually liked it. I had to do this, otherwise, I wasn’t about to spend all those years to come away feeling awkward about my attempts. And then quit. No way.

The absolute, drop-to-your-knees, scary part of it was that I realized very quickly that it was going to take training. That every time I drew, I had to get it as right as I could at that very moment. And that was going to take time, effort, and learning to feel a sense of progress, even when it wasn’t working in the least. I was going to have to push through that crap.

The only way to get to that stage is to hunker down, and hone in. The way around is through. Do not look for the shortcuts until later. Train yourself through it, dammit.
The goal doesn’t dwell on the applause-- it focuses on the skill.

woensdag 29 februari 2012

Using the Gamut mask

On this website you can find a GAMUT tool. You can choose different types of color wheels, play around with values, and cut any shape in the mask. LINK
In his book 'Color ans light' James Gurney explains the gamut mask a lot better than I do LINK
For anyone interested in very detailed information on color and light,check out this LINK