For over a decade I’ve avoided Photoshop’s pen tools. The struggles I’ve encountered using them have been, well, monumental. And embarrassingly frustrating. You can do wonderful things with pen tool such as take a muddy, mundane sketch and create a beautiful image with sharp, clean lines.
I had a breakthrough last week ago. I finally figured out why I struggled with them. My problem turns out to be basic. I have no sense of left/right, horizontal/vertical, clockwise/counterclockwise. If you ask me to turn counterclockwise, I stop and envision a clock face first. My brain tells me the left is -> that way. You get the picture. I’ve always known this. But it wasn’t until last week that I realised this was the root of the problem.
Those mildly quirky bits of how my brain processes certain things turns into a hinderance when working onscreen. I can’t anticipate which direction a curved too will go. I struggle to flip things and end up going through all the options before hitting the correct one. It’s impossible to work on autopilot because I need to think through every move. So, I sat down and devised a solution.
Why was it such an issue? I’ve gotten along without figuring out how to use shapes and the pen tool until now. It boils down to this – I can’t stand not figuring out how something works. I did, in fact, fire up pen tools every now and then, over the years. Frustration was the result. When I began playing around with cleaning up old patents, so they were viewable, I realised now was the time to tackle pen tools. They offered the only way of getting the crisp lines I wanted.
The line tool is basic enough. I just get impatient and oft times don’t line things up correctly. It’s the old issue of horizontal vs vertical flip and nudge a little to the right or left. So, I sat down with the Antoinette Flyer and used it to discipline myself into getting lines even and laid down properly. Old airplanes were wonders of straight lines and cables, so it was the perfect thing to work with. Wheels were easy – the shape tools took care of that.
The propeller was problematic. I initially thought I could fudge my way through using the freehand pencil tool. It was a disaster. I wandered over to YouTube and watched a couple videos on using pen tools and that’s when I had an epiphany. Pen tools are about understanding directions. I spent a frustrating hour trying to get the curves right for the propeller and thought this isn’t going to work without someone standing over my shoulder yelling “the other left”. Little post it notes turned into the next best thing. I often have left / right notes on my screen when I’m running through a tutorial with a customer. I stuck them back on, included notes on horizontal / vertical, etc. All the little directional indicators I needed.
The propeller looked ok.
Now I felt frisky and time for more lessons with pen tools
Here’s the original patent.
I found it in the form of a velocipede – bicycle for we mere mortals. they were nicknamed Penny Farthings. Getting all the bends correct and using different line thicknesses to create a shadow effect was a challenge. I’m a little embarrassed to admit, it took me around 8 hours to get them right. I drew them and erased over and over until I got the basics down on how the pen adjust lines.
Here’s the line drawing of the above Penny Farthing
Pen Tools and Shapes were ideal for this
Yes, it did take a lot of work to get the little curves correct but worth the effort. I looked at the sketch and thought it was time to elevate it to the next level.
Pen tools and a bit of colour
A bit of colour elevated the line drawing
I can already see ways of improving the image with a bit of free hand highlighting. That’ll take practice but will be fun. This little patent sketch is now poster worthy. And yes, I turned this into merch. How could I not? I’m now trolling through old patents looking for other ideas to work with. This challenges my brain on so many levels. It’s exhausting but fulfilling.
Wander over by clicking this link -> Bittergrounds.Redbubble to see how it looks on different things. When you get there, click on the Cycles category. I’ve been busy over at the store. Lots of things coming and going as I fuss with designs. So have fun, let me know what you think. Remember, anything you buy goes to supporting this website.
Check out my first pen tools sketch of the Antoinette Flyer mentioned above:
Cleaning up a magnificent 1908 Antoinette Flyer schematic
Ugg it gets dark early now. Is it too early to say “can’t wait for spring”? Anyway, on my way home the other day and I had a thought. I’ve been reading up on taking sharper, defined photos which in turn led me to some ideas about night photography. When I came up off the subway I thought no time like the present and hiked up to the roof of the public car park I cut through on my way home. Ok, I’m exagerating. I took the convenient elevator to the roof.
MAN IT WAS COLD! I was shocked how cold it had become. I’d been inside all day and didn’t realise how the wind had whipped up. I wandered around the roof testing out shutter speeds, ISO etc to see what I could do. I was a little more than pleased with the results – I’ve posted a few on Instagram and Facebook. Didn’t take long and I decided time to go home for a cup of tea and warmth. For a Canadian, I’m a real winter wimp. When walking towards the ramp to the elevator, I was struck how the light was playing off the concrete. Shadows, light and angles – all the ingredients for something that might be fun to play around with. I took four photos with different settings and toddled off home.
When I fired up Photoshop and looked them over, one stood out. I played around with it, switched one layer to black and white, bumped the highlights and shadows, increased the grain and fussed a bit. Then I blended it with colour layer until I had just the right feel. And here it is:
Concrete and Light
What gave me the idea were a couple of photographers who stressed “don’t be afraid of grain”. So I used it to my advantage. If you’re the curious type, here are a few details – ISO 1600 F5.6 27mm +1.67 1/8. Who knew concrete parking garages could be so moody.
Quick note: I wrote this on the fly so if you spot an embarrassing typo please drop me a note in the comments section.
Check out my Instagram and Facebook pages if you want to see extras that don’t make it to the site (links below)
Not a clue how I managed to create this:
It’s a view from my balcony – north skyline of Toronto, last summer. I fussed with it a bit off and on during the winter, trying this and that. Problem is, I wasn’t keeping any notes on what I’d done. I simply created it, saved a copy and moved on. I found it while culling photos and thought “cool”. I like it but for the life of me can’t figure out everything I did. I vaguely remember using it to experiment with saturation and highlights. I enjoy tweaking saturation for a specific effect to draw the viewer’s eyes to a feature I’m interested in. I also remember thinking St. Mike’s cemetery should standout. It’s one of the oldest cemeteries in Toronto, surrounded by highrises and condos. Not a lot of people realise it’s nestled where it is.
I think I was trying to make some of the architectural features pop out as well. I’m endlessly fascinated with how highrise buildings change neigbourhoods and how simple design elements can radically change the view. To the left of the photo, the blue building (not that bue in real life), has a cool pattern that shows up if you adjust the highlights a bit. I’ve noticed that in a couple photos. I suspect that was the intent behind this work – trying to make the balconies and windows reveal their patterns.
Kind of cool. It’s now my desktop background. I do have notes on what Photoshop elements I was experimenting with around Christmas so maybe that will clue me into what I did.
Still working on the doorway arch. Hard to believe I haven’t flitted off to another project already, but this one has turned into an excellent challenge with all the shadows and highlights. After doing a line trace of the original photo, I’ve been using a simple round, black brush tip with varying flow to get the deep, dark shadows and sense of depth. Here’s the next stage:
I’ve turned the water colour wash off for awhile so I can concentrate on just the ink effect. I’m saving each stage, so far 15 shots, so I can pull them together on an animated gif to show the work as it progresses. When I finish the art, I’ll post it for you.
Back banging away with my Wacom tablet again. I’ve been working on trying to even out my water colour wash effect. To date, it’s been pretty much hit and miss so I’ve been working on some new ideas. I was looking over shots I took yesterday and spotted a photo that would be excellent to try out some of these ideas. I was wandering around in the Bloor/St. George area, by Varsity stadium photographing some of my favourite buildings. One in particular has a beautiful arched door – Munk Centre for International Affairs:
I did the usual, outline of the photo first. Yea, cheating still, but I like the effect of free handing the outline. I tried using Photoshop to do an outline, but it looks too clinical. Then I used a basic round tip (2 to 6 thickness), black for highlights and shadows. While I was pissing around with it, I realised I could get an excellent pen and ink effect by varying pen pressure and flow. Another issue I have is consistency in shadows. I can look at a photo right in front of me and still screw up the sun direction. I had to go back a number of times and correct the angle. Even with the original photo laying underneath the drawing as reference, I still get it wrong. It’s like I look at a photo, understand where the shadows are supposed to be then my hand says “let’s pop that shadow on the opposite side”. Go figure.
After completing a small section, I wondered if a light wash beneath the outline would enhance the shadows so I went to work on a different brush – flat, square and light ink flow with buildup. I was able to build up a darker colour in spots. Best part, I was able to duplicate this a couple of times. I’m not doing any blending, just straight water colour brush, varying sized. So, yea, I’m pleased. The shadows have given the arch real depth. Come back in a week to see how the picture is going.