Friday, October 26, 2007

Color Me Beauttifffuuull

Welcome, boys and girls, to color correction part one. This is the post where Maggie takes a Crap Photo* and makes Maggic.

*Crap Photo in this case meaning something that looks like a black cat at night

I'm starting out with a photo instead of art because you can be a bit more free with a photo. With a photo the idea is to get it looking beautiful. With a print file the idea is to get it looking like the original piece of art. Not at all the same thing. Well, slightly the same thing.

Anyway, this is just a very fast correction of a very drastic example. The methods I'm using here, however, are some of the most common ones I use in my every-day artwork Photo-shopping. Uh, what else did I want to say before I began? Oh, don't try and make prints from this lousy of a photo. And now, without further ado . . . the Crap Photo.

Step One. The Crap Photo before alteration. I had my camera set on the wrong setting so it pretended like it was starved for light. There's information there -- I can sorta see the puppy -- so with my endless optimism, I decide I can probably do something with it.

I open up Adobe Photoshop. I have the whole thing (an older version - 6.0 I think?) but you can do most of this in Photoshop Elements as well, which is much cheaper.

Step Two. You're thinking - holy cow! What did she do!? Right? What I did was use PS's extremely useful "Adjust Auto-Levels" function. In my version, you can find it by going up to the Image heading, finding Adjust, and under that, Auto Levels. Adjust Auto Levels has significant drawbacks and is pretty tactless, but for a quick fix or to see if a photo even has enough information in it to fix, it's priceless.

Note on Auto Levels: if you have a photo with extreme brights and darks, Adjust Auto Levels won't work well for you. It works best if the photo is all mostly too light or all mostly too dark. You can isolate dark areas or remove a super bright area that is skewing the rest of the image's values to good effect, but that takes a bit more skill.

Step Three. In most dark photos, the color leaves a lot to be desired, so I headed straight for Color Balance. You can find that Image > Adjust > Color Balance. I nearly always adjust my photos' colors the same way - up the yellow and the red. This one is no exception. In this step I've done Blue -22 (though I think of it as Yellow +22 -- basically I'm warming it up).

Step Four. I'm not done with the color. Back to Color Balance. In real life, I would just drag the scroll buttons to where I wanted them all in one step, but I wanted you guys to see the difference each color modulation makes. In this one I increase the red by +27. I should note here that I know that my monitor and Photoshop in particular tends to make photos look a bit more green than they really are, so I always do a bit more red than I think I ought to.

Step Five. More Color Balance. The final slider - magenta/ green. I pull it to - 12 green. I'll probably tweak later after I'm done with other adjustments.

Step Six. I head to Image >Adjust > Brightness/ Contrast. I pull the contrast up to +14 and the brightness up +8. Be careful with contrast. It's a lovely toy but it can obliterate details in a moment. Brightness is useful for finding details, especially if it's for a commission photo and you need info, but you can also wash your photo out pretty quickly.

Step Seven. Now to one of my guilty favorites: Image > Adjust > Hue/ Saturation. I love bright, over-saturated photos. I'm just a sucker for that look! So I could probably get away without the crazy saturation, but I increase it +16 because I want to soooo bad.

Step Eight. Now I don't like the color anymore. I need more yellow, so I go back to Color Balance and slide it to Blue -11. Almost done. I'm nit picking. This isn't bad for such a Crap Photo.

Step Nine. I go to Filter > Sharpen > Sharpen and see what that does. It does crap; it just sharpens all the pixels and makes it look grainy. In a pretty good photo, you can get some nice effects with Sharpen, but with a photo that started out this bad, you tend to just get graininess. If I were playing for keeps with this photo, I'd ditch step nine and keep the version I got with Step Eight.

Any questions?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Mattress Paid for by Fairies

"The Library" - 12 x 16" colored pencil work in progress.
Copyright 2007 Maggie Stiefvater
email me to preorder prints

Last night was my first night sleeping on a mattress paid for by fairies. Regular blog readers will know that I recently sold the rights to my first fairy novel to Flux and that I was going to use part of the advance to buy my husband and I a new mattress. Well, I did just that, and last night was the first night on it.

It took a bit of getting used to last night. For starters, it's one of those pillow tops, which means it's taller than our old mattress. A lot taller. But it looked comfy, so I pole-vaulted on up there and gasped a bit, my lungs adjusting to the thinner atmosphere.

Huh, I thought. This is strange. Where's the dying animal sound that normally accompanies my arrival in bed? This new mattress, unlike our old groaning one, was silent and glad to see me. I could almost hear it saying in a pleasant air stewardess voice: welcome to your new mattress bought by fairies, maggie stiefvater. we hope you have a pleasant night with us. we're planning a nonstop trip to morning.

So then I lay down to find my first comfortable spot of the night. Then - gasp - I didn't wake up until eight this morning. That freaky air-stewardess voice in my head hadn't been kidding on the "non-stop" part. And my eyes didn't feel gritty when I opened them. Could it really be morning? As strange as the painless awakening was, imagine my shock when I looked in the mirror and discovered I had no bags under my eyes. I was beginning to think those babies had moved in for good.

And the best part? My hair looks fab. I couldn't figure out why this was until I looked at the neat and tidy sheets. Sheets that hadn't been tossed and turned in. Hair that hadn't been teased into a rooster fro by fretful pillow rolling.

I almost don't feel bad that I bought this mattress instead of a Camaro project car. Almost.

Anyway, you're probably wondering what the images are all around the text. Well, my lovely publisher Flux is having my cover and title meeting on the 16th and they've invited me to send in cover and title concepts for consideration. Of course this has led to me creating a great deal of digitally pleasing trash (you've seen some of it here) and depositing it in my editor's inbox. "Stolen" and "The Midnight Bird" are my latest two suggestions and the rest are ones that I made look slightly more official from before.

The girl with the key was the most popular one last time -- how about now? And which title grabs you the most?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Planning & Painting

The Puppies! Three weeks old and getting terribly cute and friendly . . . due to various life crises on the part of some of the buyers, there are now four of them available, so let me know if you're in the market. :D

Last week (before my life got slightly crazy with going to the zoo, puppies, mid-life crisis, and other indoor sports), one of my blog readers asked a good question. She asked:

Dear most wonderful Maggie (okay, I made that part up, but the rest is true):

You can create these beautiful, big, well-composed paintings fairly quickly (at least it seems quick from the rate of posts) and I'm wondering what kind of prep work you do. I find it way easier to work on something once the painting is underway - the planning stage is where I procrastinate.

Do you work from well-composed photos, or do you sit down and work out compositions first? How long does that take you? I saw your WIP posts of the big horse - do you do that level of planning for every painting? How much time do you spend planning out focal points and contrasts?

This is a question I get a lot at my workshops. Artists tend to be perfectionists, and insecure ones at that. Combine the two traits and you end up with paintings that take 2.5 years to complete.

I am no exception, but I've come to grips with both -- most of the time. Basically I've given myself permission to create a crappy work, because I'll just do another one. You'd be surprised how freeing it is. And you'd be surprised how much more you improve when you paint 300 imperfect paintings a year instead of 5 perfect ones.

That aside, onto the Maggic of it. How long it takes me, and what exactly falls into the definition of "it."

(by the way, everything I'm about to say applied to my acrylic paintings but not necessarily to my colored pencil pieces -- which are a bit harder to do fast that large).

SIZE: 16 x 20"
MEDIUM: Acrylic
TIME SPENT: 3 hours

First of all, I want to say that part of why I'm so fast is by virtue of creating a painting or drawing every single day for two years. It means that a lot of the prep work becomes automatic. What I used to agonize over, like choosing a good crop, now takes five minutes. Figuring out values and adjustments from the photo used to take another three or for years. And then color choices? Oh man. I remember a simple 8 x 10" colored pencil piece that took me two weeks of work, off and on. Now that piece would be done in 2 or 3 hours. So keep in mind when looking over these steps that, like everything else, practice makes perfect. Or at least close enough to perfect that no one else will notice.

So. First step is choosing the photo. Or taking the photo, depending on your subject. (Or setting up your subject if you're working from life) I really recommend taking your own photos as practice for building good compositions. A good rule of thumb is that crap photos make crap drawings, at least until you're ace at manipulating them. If you're unsure if you can pull it off, stick to good photos with nice lighting. Do not agonize over this step. Remember, your painting will take you 3-4 hours, so you can always do another if it didn't turn out perfectly (and they never do).

Step two is cropping and composition. Composition is a wonderfully complicated subject that I didn't care about at all when I first began. I didn't understand it was important. But it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that composition makes a huge difference. Take a look at the first photograph -- well, the second. Not the cute puppies. The shot of the Irish town. Then take a look at the painting. The uncropped photo shows you a beautiful town, but it's not as pleasing to the eye as the cropped painting. For any photo, there are usually dozens of options for cropping. Pay attention to the basic compositional rules and then pick the one that pleases you the most. Not your husband, dog, friend, artist partner . . . you. Because cropping and composition will become part of your style.

Now there are a lot of different composition rules, and I can't tell you why they work, but the ones that I consider pretty crucial are:

  • You should have a focal point.
  • The focal point will generally be the point of greatest contrast -- if it's not in the photo, it behooves you to make it thus in the drawing or painting
  • Divide your canvas into thirds. Your focal point should lie roughly on one of the intersections of these lines (see how the road vanishes on one of the thirds? That's my focal point. And the front car lies on another one)
  • Don't divide your painting in half. Your horizon line should lay on one of the thirds
  • Every corner of the painting should be different.
Every other compositional element is negotiable. I play with the photo in one of my photo editing programs for about five minutes before I begin the painting. If it's a complicated image or I'll be cobbling together a lot of reference material, I do a preliminary drawing, like the one I did for the colored pencil piece I'm working on today. In that case, I do a very brief 2 minute sketch with only three values to work out where everything goes and what problems I might encounter. I do up to four of these sketches if a piece really stumps me. If I can't make it look clear in a three-value sketch format, I pitch the painting and start over.*

*by the way, I'm getting very close to the end of my sketch book and I'll be drawing a name out of my blog-subscribers to give it too -- so subscribe if you want a chance at winning it

Step Three is slopping down the actual paint. This used to take me longer as well, until I did the John Singer Sargent project in January of this year. Sargent told his students to slop down paint with confidence instead of dragging a dry brush across the canvas, showing the world how you hesitated. With that in mind, I work quickly when I paint. I don't do a preliminary drawing on the canvas. Instead I block out the rough shapes with a warm color for the foreground shapes and a cool color for the background shapes. This takes literally ten or twenty minutes, because I'm talking very rough and very ugly.

I let that dry for about a half hour while I mix up big globs of paint, and then I start putting down more realistic colors. With each step, putting down more realistic colors, I refine shapes and tighten up details. This process take me about two hours, maybe three if you throw in a half hour here and there for drying time.

Really the secret is not to second-guess yourself and to start rough and refine as you go along. Don't waste time doing a detailed drawing on your canvas. It'll work itself out. (Well, if it's a portrait, you might rethink this. People tend to like their portraits to look like the subject).