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
Did you know NASA created travel posters? I didn’t until today. Check out the artwork created by the Jet Propulsion Lab team. The hi-rez “Visions of the Future” series is available to download in pdf and tiff format. And they are HUGE.
Travel posters for cosmos – illustrator Liz Barrios De La Torre
Travel to Europa
They print out @ 30″ x 20″, so you might need to trot down to the local print house to make a poster sized copy, but, the quality is worth it. Of course you can always shrink them down, but the posters deserve a full size printing and framing. The series also makes kickass wallpaper, by the way. Under each poster is a small write up about the planet and NASA’s work regarding it.
Astonishing geology and the potential to host the conditions for simple life make Jupiter’s moon Europa a fascinating destination for future exploration. Beneath its icy surface, Europa is believed to conceal a global ocean of salty liquid water twice the volume of Earth’s oceans. Tugging and flexing from Jupiter’s gravity generates enough heat to keep the ocean from freezing.
On Earth, wherever we find water, we find life. What will NASA’s Europa mission find when it heads for this intriguing moon in the 2020s?
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Get frosted on Saturn’s moon – illustrator Joby Harris
Visit Titan and be awed!
Frigid and alien, yet similar to our own planet billions of years ago, Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, has a thick atmosphere, organic-rich chemistry and a surface shaped by rivers and lakes of liquid ethane and methane. Cold winds sculpt vast regions of hydrocarbon-rich dunes. There may even be cryovolcanoes of cold liquid water. NASA’s Cassini orbiter was designed to peer through Titan’s perpetual haze and unravel the mysteries of this planet-like moon.
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
There are 15 in the series, and again, free to download and enjoy. An absolute must is a visit to the “learn more” page to see the thinking involved in the creation process. They have a great retro, 1950s feel to them. The colours, design and content made me immediately flash onto my all time favourite sci fi movie Forbidden Planet (1956) and travel posters of the era. Turns out there’s a reason: “As for the style, we gravitated to the style of the old posters the WPA created for the national parks. There’s a nostalgia for that era that just feels good. David Delgado, creative strategy”.
Forbidden Planet 1956 – courtesy MGM
Train travel poster from the 50s
See what I mean – colours, style, fonts and concept certainly evoke the era. It would have been amazing to sit in on the creative process. Check out all the posters at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab’s Vision of the Future page – https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/visions-of-the-future/ You can download individual posters (each about 200megs in size) or download all of them at once.
I’m thinking of creating a new sub-category for the Photo Log -> Art & Design or Exploring Art & Typography. Not sure yet, it depends on how frisky I get. I’ve been looking over my attempts at design and decided to try and push myself out of the same old / same old pattern. I tend to gravitate toward textured backgrounds and deep browns way too much. So …. here’s my second kick at the can:
I wanted something that has a fairly generic urban feel. The view is Yonge Street in Toronto, south facing. The CN Tower is off to the right, hidden behind the buildings. The photo itself isn’t anything to write home about, but I liked the overall feel to it. The previous poster was pretty good, but too derivitive of something else I’d done for a customer. Nice poster, but didn’t really push myself to learn a new technique or try a different approach. I spent the last 3 or 4 days evaluating fonts for different uses along with expanding the colour palette stored in my brain. I had an embrassing amount of fun creating a series of retro feeling headers. It’s an interesting exercise matching fonts to colour schemes. The dreaded 1970s avocado green was the most difficult, but with the right contrasting colours to balance it, I was pleasantly surprised at how well it works.
Anyhow… I digress as usual. The scene in the photo is Yonge Street, south of Pleasant Blvd on the little cusp of a hill leading to Summerhill. It’s a bland little photo but popped alive with NIK’s Color Efex Pro filter Bleached Portrait. I didn’t tweak the filter at all, just left it as NIK made it. I like the sense of space this photo gives far more than the previous photo.
The main font is HWT Unit Gothic by the Hamilton Wood Foundation1. For the tagline and address I switched over to Adobe’s Chaperral Pro. It plays well with the tall, condensed feeling of HWT and makes the web address very readable.
Overall a nicely balanced effort. It has the urban feel I was trying for in the last try, without all the over complicated fussing. When I finish playing with the retro headers I’ll pop them up.
1. Learn more about the Hamilton Wood Foundation at the Hamilton Wood Type & Print Museum