Photoshop on a Dime

John Jacobsen
Monday, October 12, 2009

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Earlier post Man on Wire misc

Later post Managing the Most Remote Data Center in the World code southpole

As a side benefit of transitioning back from European time since returning home last week, I have been waking up early most mornings and getting in a bit of painting. Some days there is nothing like gradually improving old paintings, scumbling, glazing and blending with some quiet music going and the sun slowly rising outside.

As satisfying as that can be, I don’t want to only rehash the same unfinished paintings endlessly (some may be beyond help). I keep coming back to the problem of composing new pictures — what to put in a piece, and where to put it. When I draw (or just close my eyes), many images or ideas arise… not to mention the thousands of photos I take or the images I “clip” from books and the Web. But it can be hard to knit this slurry of ideas and source material into something which works, which has, in other words, a unique and compelling aesthetic logic. Painting is such a slow process (at least the way I do it) that it can be painful to make the required compositional choices once a piece is “launched.”

I have posted before about making studies and preliminary drawings, but I keep tweaking my methods, looking for processes which will help generate the most compelling images (at least to me) and will add more momentum and fun to art making.

One thing which I’ve tried before and which I returned to this morning is the use of transparent overlays to make preliminary studies. I first encountered this method of drawing in slides of Eric Fischl’s work. A few years back I tried a variant of the process for composing pictures, using transparent sheets known as Kimodesk. While trying to add some content to a sketchbook drawing this morning, I tried it again, and it seemed powerful and slightly magical, as if I had a physical version of Photoshop at my fingertips:

  1. One ‘composes’ multiple figures, buildings, etc. quickly, simply by moving sheets around on top of each other;
  2. You can draw on both sides of the sheet for a greater expressive range;
  3. The surface takes graphite like soft, black butter; gouache works too if it’s very ‘dry’ (no washes… probably oil would be fine);
  4. Unlike a drawing in a sketchbook, where you have to erase whenever you move or change something, there is very little penalty for making adjustments;
  5. It is easy to duplicate a picture element or series of marks;
  6. You can trace existing drawings from sketchbooks and incorporate found photos, etc., or just run the Kimodesk directly through a laser printer, making a nice, rich black;
  7. You can flip your drawing and see the image in reverse at any time (a good compositional check, essentially the same looking at your painting in the mirror1).

Kimodesk looks really good and can be used directly in finished works (as Jack Damer, who introduced me to the material, has done), but probably glassine or other transparent paper would work nearly as well for the preliminary drawings I’m interested in at the moment. Unfortunately I don’t believe anybody is making or selling the stuff at the moment. If anybody knows otherwise, please let me know.

(Why not just use Photoshop? I like Photoshop, but the lack of physicality is offputting at times, and you have to get the images into the computer and back out again. Plus, I already spend 99.9% of my time in front of a computer.)

Footnotes:

1

The eye gets used to flaws in a work-in-progress. To counter that problem, in addition to the mirror trick, some people turn their work upside down, or use a convex lens to make it look farther away. Salvador Dalí used to have his wife Gala place his paintings at surprise locations around the house where he could bump into them unexpectedly and be struck by things he hadn’t noticed about them… lacking Gala, most of the rest of us use other tricks.

Earlier post Man on Wire misc

Later post Managing the Most Remote Data Center in the World code southpole

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