Planning Acrylic Paintings Digitally - Part 2 - How I use ZBrush, Keyshot, and Photoshop.
In part 1, I looked at why a supposed technophobe would have any interest in planning acrylic paintings digitally. In this instalment, I'll give you an insight into how I use the various apps.
This is a general overview of the process I use and can change depending on the painting I'm working on. It will give you a taster of what can be done when you plan digitally.
I start planning a painting by using a process of free association. To see how this works, I've made a little video to demonstrate. Free association is a great way to beat artist's block especially if you don't mind things getting slightly surreal.
Next, I draw some thumbnail sketches to help me develop ideas for the composition. This allows me to try things out quickly and explore the different possibilities open to me. The key here is not to settle on an early idea but to keep pushing the composition in various ways to create something original. I tend to do this traditionally with a piece of paper as I find it much quicker. But if you want to do this stage digitally, there are many options. Photoshop is one of them, or if you want to work on a tablet and are on a budget Procreate may be perfect for you.
At this time, I'll also develop some of the most important elements by drawing more detailed versions. Again, I prefer to do this with paper and pencil. When will we get to the digital stuff? I hear you ask. Don't worry, it's coming.
ZBrush is 3-D modelling software that is used in everything from films (the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter) to videogames (The Last of Us, Gears of War, God of War) to jewelry design and scientific visualisation. It's also a beast to learn. I came into the world of 3-D modelling as a complete novice. I'd never sculpted digitally and the only traditional sculpture I'd done was making coil pots at school. Saying that ZBrush has a steep learning curve is certainly no understatement.
But don't let me put you off. There are absolutely loads and loads of tutorials online to help you learn the basics. Pixologic - the company that makes ZBrush - have a huge selection of videos that would keep you busy for a very long time. It took me three months of hard work learning how to use ZBrush to produce this image.
It was a collaboration with YouTuber Davy J.Y. Art with a Pen. He designed the dragon on paper and I created it in three dimensions. It was a lot of fun.
I am by no means a ZBrush master but I can use it to a level I'm happy with to help me plan my paintings.
Sometimes when drawing things in two dimensions a character will look great. It's got a gorgeous silhouette and all of the negative space is interesting. And yet it can't be recreated exactly as a three-dimensional model. It just doesn't work as a real-life object. This is where ZBrush helps. Models can be sculpted and you can work out exactly how each part is going to connect to the others. The model can be changed to explore poses to make them more dynamic. I'd be lying if I said this was an easy process but it is possible.
I've made many videos that show how I use ZBrush but I'll just add a small selection here to show you how the robot was created for my painting Revelation. Don't be put off by how technical it all sounds. Remember that I'd only been using ZBrush for a year when I sculpted this robot and even then, I didn't use it constantly.
Although I've touched on some of them, I'll go into the pros and cons of ZBrush in the next post.
Assigning materials, painting, and lighting are the next stages in the process. I originally tried to do all of this in ZBrush but I didn't find it up to the job. The lighting is not in true 3-D and it is lacking the ability to create transparent and translucent materials, and also to turn objects into lights. For this I needed Keyshot.
Keyshot is expensive, especially if you buy the version that works with ZBrush, Maya, Solidworks, etc. Luckily, there is a version that still has all the functionality of the full version with the one proviso that it only works with ZBrush. It's a lot cheaper. Still not cheap, but a lot cheaper.
Keyshot allows you to make one part of your model gold, one part skin, another part glass, and yet another part a light source amongst many other things. You can also turn the model to tweak the composition and set up multiple light sources. Keyshot is definitely where the fun starts. Changing a material is as easy as dragging another material on to an object.
It is also very easy to create multiple versions of the same image. I won't go into too many technical details here as they're way beyond the scope of this general overview but I will give you one example. Ambient occlusion is a posh way to say realistic shadows. Keyshot can do this but it takes a little bit of work. First, you create a version of your image that is lit generally. Then you make another version for the ambient occlusion. The two images can then be combined in Photoshop to produce a realistic result. This is not the only other version you could make, another example would be a very glossy image. This would allow you to add areas of high gloss to your image in Photoshop at a later time. All of this is relatively easy to do and it's where you start to see the model coming alive.
I've already hinted at this but the next stage in the process is to take all of the work done in Keyshot and put it together in Photoshop. I also use Photoshop to add in temporary backgrounds, skies, for example. The possibilities are endless in this stage but I tend to keep the composition fixed in general. That should have been sorted in ZBrush and Keyshot but I will occasionally make small changes. The thing to remember is that Photoshop works primarily in two dimensions so it's great for modifying things like contrast, colour balance, and sharpness, but you won't be able to change the viewpoint at this stage. Think of Photoshop as the polishing stage and you won't go far wrong.
This all may seem like a lot of work to just plan an acrylic painting, and you're right, it is. I spend a lot of time getting the plan right. Due to the subject matter of my paintings, it is very difficult for me to get good reference images. So I have to create my own. It is possible to put in a lot less work to produce a simpler plan that can then be developed as you paint, but it would at least give you the main shapes, the lighting, and the shadows. I also develop the painting as I start working with the acrylic paints. I make improvements as I go. Below I'll show you some of the original plans with the final paintings so you can make comparisons.
I prefer the personal, hand-made touch that working traditionally with acrylic paints provides for the final painting. But working digitally in the planning stages gives me great flexibility and improves the quality of my paintings. In the next post, I'll give you the advantages and disadvantages of planning digitally so that you can decide whether it is something you want to try.
See you next time!