Some think that using a computer must necessarily be antithetical to producing ‘real’ illustration. But as computer technology develops, has it anything to offer? Illustrator Shoo Rayner explains how he sets about making his computer work for him.
The last twelve years or so have been very frustrating as I have instinctively known what digital is capable of but did not have the resources to play with it. I wanted to produce CD-ROMs but came to find it an unsatisfying medium. I use the animation and programming skills that I learned to keep up my website which is far more interactive (and I get feedback from the viewers). Then in 1997 I upgraded my computer yet again and this time the machine, an Apple PowerPC, had the power and the software to really do the job.
Books on disc
Around the same time I had the idea for ‘The Rex Files’, a spooky, spoofy animal detective series. I told Hodder, my publishers, that I wanted to deliver the book on disk ready for the printer. They did not bat an eyelid. After a few teething troubles it seems to be working out better than I had hoped.
I have been producing my own typesetting and delivering camera ready artwork for a few years now. ‘The Rex Files’, I decided, were going to be completely laid out on screen. I wrote to the electronic page, live, using all the different typefaces and sizes as I went. The physical look of the books grew as I wrote the text around the spaces that were my illustrations in my imagination.
My first on screen drawings were made using the four cursor keys, then I got used to using a mouse for drawing. Now I have a drawing tablet that lets me draw straight into a painting program on the computer. As the old saying goes, it is a bit like sucking toffees with the wrapper on. These programs have clever sound effects to make you think you are dragging pencil across paper, but it still feels like a shiny, plastic pen on a shiny, plastic pad.
The computer: servant or master?
My major problem with art programs is that it takes several hours to produce a bad imitation of what I can do on paper in minutes! The computer is supposed to be my servant, not my master.
When drawing into paint programs you are forced to use the programmer’s idea of what your chosen medium is all about. This is why so much computer artwork has a sameyness about it. Most designers use programs like Photoshop or Corel Paint. Within these programs, photographs or drawings can be manipulated to the nth. degree.
Spot the filter
There is a game that designers play called ‘Spot the Filter’. Filters are the basic building block of image manipulation. When an image is digitised, it is turned into thousands of dots. Each dot is represented by a number. The number represents the colour, hue, shade, brightness, size etc of that dot. By changing that number you can change what the dot represents. A filter applies a mathematical formula to all the numbers that make up the image, thereby altering the whole image.
One person revolutionised the filter business. His name is Kai Krause. Every time I see artwork that has been passed through one of his filters, I can tell. You see his work all over the place. He is responsible for adding a uniform look to television, magazines, advertising etc. In no time at all, using his filters, you can make your work look slick and indistinguishable from any other designer’s work. Idiosyncrasy is hard to come by in computer graphics.
Less is more
With ‘The Rex Files’ I decided to paint the pictures onto paper using grey washes. The books are printed in black and white, so I could use my own scanner to bring the pictures into the Photoshop program. After a lot of playing about I realised that less is more. It is so easy to get carried away with what is possible at the expense of what is best.
One of the simplest filters is called Blur. Look at most photographs and you will see that the background is out of focus. I naturally draw everything in focus. This is because my eye shifts focus all the time to take in the scene. (And I am not very good at painting out of focus!) By selecting the background area of a picture and blurring it, real depth can be achieved. I use it in night scenes to add a sense of mystery and also to differentiate between the main and incidental parts of the story.
The very first illustration in ‘The Rex Files’ is of Franky, Rex’s sidekick, being yanked off the page by his collar. I used the ‘Clone Brush’ in Photoshop, which paints a copy of another part of the picture. By painting at 40% transparency, the repetitions fade, since each repetition is a faded clone of the previous one. This is how I produced the whooshing effect. I have used it elsewhere to give frightened characters the jitters.
With real paint, I am never satisfied with highlights. Adding white paint on top of a picture never quite does it for me. Using electronic white paint is quite different. For a start, mistakes can be redrawn. I use it for ‘motion marks’. These look even better when painted over blurred areas. They seem to hang in space.
Drawing more freely
Photoshop is brilliant for tidying things up. I have often drawn a dodgy or extraneous line and thought ‘never mind, I’ll sort it out on screen.’ Once an image is digitised and saved, you can keep working at it and go back if you make a mistake. A lot of the original paintings have mistakes in them that would normally make me start again.
Illustrators commonly get precious with finished artwork and lose some of the life that is in their roughs. Knowing that I can make mistakes actually allows me to draw more freely.
Being a spooky series, I needed to draw the ghostly Phantom Bantam. I drew the Phantom on one piece of paper and the background on another. Photoshop allows you to build up artwork in layers. I scanned the Phantom into the top layer and increased the layer’s transparency and the Phantom became a ghostly image superimposed on the background.
As I write this I am about to start work on the fourth book. I imagine that I will find new ways of treating my artwork. I think I have got past the ‘Gee Whizz!’ stage and I am now using my computer as another tool on my desk. Yes, the computer can make your work look slick but to produce individual, idiosyncratic work requires the years of experience, personal insight and sheer hard graft that has always been required.
Hereford Libraries asked me if I would put on an exhibition of my artwork, for the Year of Reading, as illustrators’ work is so rarely seen. I decided that ‘The Rex Files’ should be the one to show as not even the publishers are getting to see the original artwork. I will be backing up the exhibition with a virtual exhibition on my web site … so do pay a visit.
Books written and illustrated by Shoo Rayner include six ‘Ginger Ninja’ titles from Hodder, four ‘Jets’ titles from A & C Black/Collins (plus seven titles written by Michael Morpurgo) and sixteen ‘Animal Crackers’ written by Rose Impey from Orchard, of which the most recent, A Medal for Poppy and Stella’s Staying Put, are soon to appear in paperback.