One of the main reasons I created Digital Image Magazine was to spread awareness of the art-making possibilities of the computer. The personal computer has become a very powerful and versatile tool for creating art. The artwork you create with a computer is just as much yours as the more traditional forms, such as oil painting or watercolor. Think of a word processing program, such as Microsoft Word. It helps you to write a document, by correcting your spelling, perhaps, or formatting it nicely for printing. But Word is not writing the document for you. It’s just a computerized piece of paper, really. In the same way, computer graphics programs we’ll look at here do not create the art for you. This is a misunderstanding many people have, and it prevents digital art from being accepted by the art world at large. But don’t let that stop you from exploring this wonderful new tool that technology makes possible. And it is just that: a tool. It’s up to you to use it to create your own unique works of art.

Another goal of Digital Image Magazine is to gather together all the different programs in one place, and show you how to combine them to create images. The image of the girl holding a bunny (top) is an example of this.  Three software programs were used to create this image: Photoshop, Painter, and Vue Infinite. In addition, stock photographs were used for the animals. If that last part totally threw you, don’t worry. I’m going to explain what all these things are in a minute. I just wanted to give you an idea of the limitless possibilities that are yours when you use a computer to create art.

So, let’s take a high-level look at computer graphics. At the simplest level, computer graphics software allows you to manipulate the pixels that make up the image you see on the screen. We can group these programs into two major categories, based on how they work: 2D and 3D.

2D Graphics Programs

The first category is “2D” and it includes programs like Photoshop, which is probably the most well-known computer graphics program in the world. You may not realize that Photoshop can do a lot more than just remove red-eye and blemishes from your photos. Photoshop is also used by illustrators to create paintings, such as this:

Photoshop painting by Bao Pham
Photoshop painting by Bao Pham

This painting was creating using the brushes that come with Photoshop. Adobe Photoshop is an image manipulation program, which allows you to create and change the pixels making up a photograph or other image. There are other programs which offer similar capabilities such as The GIMP, Paint Shop Pro, and Corel Painter.

2D graphics programs are used primarily to create paintings and to modify photographs. (That’s a very broad statement, but we need to start somewhere!) Think of them as the computer equivalent of a pastel drawing or watercolor using traditional media.

Visit ImagineFX’s website to see a tutorial on how this image was created. It’ll give you a good idea about how Photoshop is used to paint.

3D Graphics Programs

If 2D is like drawing on paper, then 3D is like modelling in clay, building a diorama or stage set for your models, setting up lighting and cameras, and then taking photographs of the whole thing. If that sounds complicated, well that’s because it is! But don’t let that scare you away. While the high-end 3D programs are extremely complex (and very expensive), you’ll find some lower-end programs that will do incredible things without having a very steep learning curve.

3D applications in the high end includes programs such as Maya, which was used to create the Gollum character in the Lord of the Rings movies. There are simpler, less expensive applications, such as Vue Infinite, Bryce, Cinema 4D, that are easy to use and not that hard to learn.  While 3D programs are used primarily in the movie industry to create animation,  they are also very capable of creating “still” images, as well. In fact, as you saw in the painting of the girl with the bunny, 3D programs are terrific for creating landscapes and trees, useful for backdrops.

Creating the Easter Portrait

Let’s take a look at the various parts that make up the Easter portrait. First, we have the original photo of the girl. Notice she does not have a bunny! That comes later.

Original portraitThe first step is to open this photograph in Photoshop. We need to remove everything but the girl. For this we use a masking tool, called FluidMask, which we’ll feature in an upcoming article. Next, we need to create a new background for her. Usually, digital artists will turn to a stock photography site for a background image. (See 25 Free Stock Photo Sites for more info.) This can take a lot of time, however, and after spending hours searching, you may not find a suitable image. This is where a 3D application comes in handy. I use Vue Infinite 6.5, from e-on software. Vue comes in several versions, ranging from Vue Easel ($99 USD) to Vue Infinite ($695 USD).

Here’s what the Vue interface looks like. As you can see, the background sky, the cherry tree, the grass, and even some easter eggs are created all within Vue. Once you’ve arranged and lit everything to suit your needs, you create what’s known as a render. A render is the process of creating a flat, 2D image based on the 3D objects, lighting, and camera placement in the Vue document. The render output is a Photoshop file just like any other. It’s now ready to be combined with the girl image. Please keep in mind that this article is very high level, so I won’t go into the details here. We’ll save that for future articles. What I want you to see is the process of combining applications, to see some of the possibilities available to you.

Vue Screenshot
Vue Screenshot

Notice there is a log in the image. This is what the girl will be “sitting” on. Now we need some Easter-type props to complete the setting. For this, stock photo sites come in handy. It’s easy to find specific items on a stock photography site, such as an Easter basket with ducklings or a cute bunny rabbit. For backgrounds, I tend to use Vue Infinite, and for foreground objects, you can buy 3D models online or turn to stock photography sites.

To create the bunny in her lap, I found this little guy at a stock photo site.

Baby bunny The bunny is isolated from the background in Photoshop. The other animals are done the same way. By placing the bunny on the log just so, he seems to be looking up at the girl. Looking for stock photos is very time consuming, but it can be a lot of fun. You need to keep your eyes open for creative possibilities, though.

Once all the pieces are in place, I open the image in Corel Painter. As we will see in future articles, Painter is wonderful for turning a photograph (or composite of photographs) into a painting. This also helps to make all of the images look like they “belong” together. Vue creates some very realistic backgrounds, but they do not look exactly like photographs. So, when the background from Vue is combined with real photographs, the difference is obvious. But by taking the image into Painter, we can apply a unifying painterly look to everything. And since a painting was our goal from the start, it works out very well!

Easter portrait close-up
Easter portrait close-up

Okay, hopefully that very fast immersion to the world of digital art did not give you whiplash! This was just to give you an idea of how it all works. Check out the other articles here at Digital Image Magazine that will show you, in detail, how to create your own digital images. I hope you found this informative and interesting. Let me know if there are other topics you’d like to see covered here!