Improving Your Paintings in Photoshop

After the Dismount, After the Photoshop

Artists use all kinds of methods to get a fresh perspective on a painting in progress, from just stepping back a few feet and squinting, to turning the painting upside down. Looking at it with a mirror or reducing lens changes the view, too. Otherwise the artist’s eye gets so used to seeing it, it can’t spot obvious errors; the painting gets stale along with the eyes. It helps to put the painting away for awhile, up to a few years if you have the time. You’ll for sure get a fresh perspective if you don’t look at something for a generation or so, but by then you’ll just want to throw the damn thing away.

There’s a nice easy way to step back from your painting, if you have the software. Photoshop is what I use, although there are other applications around that work just as well. You need a digital camera or a scanner to do this.

After the Dismount, BeforeRodeo Bull before the Photoshop treatment- click for larger view

The Rodeo Bull got the Photoshop treatment, followed by analog paint application (brushes and canvas). I knew something wasn’t right about it, but wasn’t sure what, and my studio isn’t big enough to step that far back (about 300 feet might do it). I scanned the canvas and opened the file as a jpeg.
Dismount- flippedRodeo Bull flipped for freshness

The first thing I did was flip the image (Menu>Image>Rotate Canvas>Flip Canvas Horizontal). Immediately I could see errors in perspective and anatomy. That’s magic! I began a process where with the Lasso tool I was cutting out ears, horns, eyes, pasting each element into a new layer to make it bigger or smaller or move it around. I always save the original view, so I can turn off the trial layers and see how it looked before I started. Flipping the image back and forth when it gets stale is easy and keeps the eyes fresh.

Rodeo Bull with Overlays

Rodeo Bull with changes made on overlay layer.

Once I had the changes, I flattened the file to a single layer, and Selected All (Command-A), cut and pasted (Command-X; Command-V) to a place it on a new layer where I could make it light and barely there. By pushing the transparency slider in the layer menu to 40% the bull was visible but not going to get in the way too much. I added another layer over that for drawing on, which had the effect of laying a sheet of vellum or tracing paper on top of the artwork. Which is where I made my alterations, drawing with the brush tool and a dark sienna color. I use a Wacom 4×5 tablet to draw with, by the way, and I also work on a Mac Powerbook G4.

Last step- printing out the new file and putting it next to the actual painting where I could refer to it while I made the changes in acrylic. In a few hours, I had a stronger and better painting. Still not quite there, but I can do this again and again. Playing with your artwork in Photoshop saves time and lets you play fearlessly. If you don’t like what you did, change it with a simple Undo, and you can try it again-before committing it to your canvas.

3 thoughts on “Improving Your Paintings in Photoshop

  1. mikiaboom says:

    A Very interesting entry! As a portrait painter I use the horizontal flip everytime when I have the feeling something is wrong with the face and I can´t define what it is. It is a 100% sure way to find the error at once. Unfortunately I have a too impatient character to go through all the Photoshop steps you describe. But I may make an effort in the future! By the way: I often paint bulls, buffight bulls (I am French, but I live in Spain). You may see my bulls paintings in my blog “Un jour, une image” under the page “Ole!”.
    Anyway: Thankyou for sharing your experience, and have a nice day!

  2. Donnie says:

    I am glad I found your blog on altavista. Thanks for the sensible critique. Me and my husband were just preparing to do some research about this. I am very happy to see such good information being shared for free out there.
    Best wishes,
    Anselm from Arlington city

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