Professional Digital Art Primer

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What you as a budding digital artist need to understand is that, although you see all this fantastic software on the market these days, showing you all the fancy pictures artists have created using that software, Good Art Needs Planning! That's why, even in this era of advanced 3D software, Hollywood artists still begin their art design process using either paintbrushes in Photoshop (or other digital painting software), or using traditional media, such as paper, pencil, pen, and/or marker. 3D software is used much later in the design process.

The reason is, you need to have your piece of art planned out first; including the Lighting, Composition, Scale, Design, and as much Detail as you can cram into the short planning period; before trying to build it in 3D. You need ALL possible "questions answered" before you even start the scene in 3D so you can work fast and with artistic vision. Starting your process in 3D software runs a very high risk of ending up with art that looks VERY obviously computer-generated, and lacking the artistic impact it needs to grab viewers' attention. And working without any planning can cause you to work very slowly as well. So you'll want to take full advantage of art planning before even opening 3D software so you can be assured the final product WILL look professional.

Hollywood artists work in a fast way, using certain steps to keep their creativity flowing, and assuring the final product always looks good. Here are some typical, though not mandatory, workflows.

Matte Painters typically work in this fashion:
They pull up Photoshop (or other painting program), and using their Wacom Tablet, they take big, general brushes and start blocking in very general shapes, to get the basic form and composition down. Gradually they use smaller and smaller brushes, adding smaller form, and eventually detail.
Once they have a really good quick sketch down, which took them anywhere from 30 minutes to 8 hours, they show it to the Art Director for appoval. If it gets approval, they do this:
They piece together photographs, and/or images of pre-rendered 3D models, and blend them together in Photoshop to match the sketch, and work on it until they have a finished Matte Painting that is film-ready.

Matte Painters: Dylan Cole, Ryan Church, Chris Stoski, more »

Concept Artists typically work in this fashion:
They begin by quickly sketching Thumbnail Sketches of various images until they come up with one they like. Usually using Paper and Pen, or Photoshop and a Wacom Tablet with a brush set to look like a pen, they quickly draw one or more small rectangles, and then start scribbling in them to get the basic form of the image they're thinking of. Once they have the basic form in the first thumbnail done, they quickly move to the next thumbnail and start scribbling in a different picture. They're careful not to get too caught up in detail, and are instead focused on form and composition.
After doing a few (or several) of these Thumbnails, they pick one they like, draw an even larger square, and start re-drawing the image, using the chosen thumbnail as reference. They start light, blocking in the basic form, then gradually get heavier and darker as the form in areas gets smaller and more detailed. They work until they have a good enough sketch to build a digital painting from.
Then, they scan the sketch into their painting software, if it was drawn on paper, and begin painting over the drawing using basic brushes first, and gradually working more and more detail into it, capturing all form, composition, and lighting, as well as more and more refined detail as they go.
Once they have the completed digital concept painting, they can submit it for approval, and once approved, they do as the Matte Painters above do: Either blending photographs together, or building the scene in 3D and compositing that together, to get the final, film-ready image. (Although, to clarify, in the visual effects industry, the final concept image is typically submitted to professional modelers who then build the 3D components of the scene, and then pass them off to the animators and compositors to create the final shot. Most industry artists are specialized, but when starting out, you will typically take on all roles, and create your own work from start to finish.)

Concept Artists: Mark Goerner, Feng Zhu, more »

To help you get started making entire sheets full of your own Thumbnail images you can make digital paintings from, here are printable images of different types (aspect ratios) of Thumbnail rectangles to draw in.

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So, to make sure you start off on the right foot to creating industry competitive digital art, Remember and Apply these points and you'll be On Your Way!

  • Start quick, either with general brushes or with tiny thumbnail images. - This forces you to focus on Form, not Detail.
  • Work quick. - Don't think too much or you'll lose the Artistic Vision, and everything will start needing "logic" behind it. Also, you don't want to "fall in love" with any image to the point you can't come up with anything else. You need to work fast, and keep your creative mind constantly moving, constantly imagining.
  • Work on Form and Composition First. - If these things aren't right, no matter how much Detail you put into the image, it just won't ever look professional.
  • Get all Form, Lighting, Composition, and Detail questions answered in the Sketch or Painting before even opening your 3D Software. - Starting in 3D will leave your final image looking like amateur, obviously computer generated, 3D graphics.
  • Or, get these same questions answered before blending photographs into the final digital painting.
  • And finally, if you want Your art to look like that of Professional artists, then You need to work like the Professionals work.

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