Digital and traditional media: pros and cons

April 6, 2018

Anteater sketches with colour pencil


Another Friday, and I thought today I would talk about my practical medium experience of late. 


I recently invested in an iPad pro and of course immediately started to compare my illustration process and results when compared to traditional media. I think at some point I got in the trap of thinking I wanted to only do "digital illustration" from that point on, but experimenting with the iPad has actually made me realise I shouldn't see myself as one or the other, and approach each job with a "what medium would be best" focus, which I would have done with traditional work in terms of contemplating gouache, watercolour, acrylic, pencil, etc. In other words, digital is just another skill in your repertoire. 


I do, however, really love having the iPad as another tool for work, especially in the drafting stage. So I thought I would write down some things I have noticed about using the iPad (and Photoshop with my Wacom when using a computer) when compared to traditional work:


1. Texture: When painting or drawing with traditional media, the texture is already going to be there. The paper, strokes, thickness, etc. However, when working digitally, you have to create this. Not only in terms of choosing a digital brush that mimics certain characteristics of a physical brush/pencil/pen, but even in terms of a background, solid fill, and so on. You have to now create all that lovely texture you would have accidentally or unavoidably created with the real thing. It can be hard to make it look natural, and it can take some time to experiment and find brushes or textures you like, which can also be the case with traditional work,  but it also means you have so many to choose from without buying each individually!


2. Time: Working on the iPad can be so much quicker, you can choose colours within seconds, don't have to wash your brushes, you can open up a new canvas easily, no scanning and fixing it up, resize your brushes quickly, and so on.  


3. Undo: When you try to two-finger double tap your actual paper, it means you've been on the iPad too much. It's addictive to be able to so easily undo a step, and that's something you can't do with real paint. This can make experimenting a lot more fun on the iPad, free of regret and easy to fix up, however it also makes it feel like anything could be a mistake waiting for that double tap, and I sometimes find myself questioning whether I should undo it. This can be a reminder to go back to your process and maybe not try to be so perfect.


4. Layers/saturation/hue/brightness: this is a really handy thing if, for example, your piece is great but the art director was thinking a red shirt for that kid instead of blue. That's fine, change the hue and saturation for the shirt and you're good to go. It also helps if you start a piece outside where it is sunny or in the darkness at midnight where the lightness or hue may be off. Or if you just change your mind three dozen times (me). 


5. Opacity: Opacity needs to be approached differently when considering digital and traditional. In terms of digital on the iPad, you can change the opacity of a whole layer. Photoshop you can change either whole layer or current brush settings. What I like, in real life, is being able to change the opacity even mid stroke. You push a bit more on the pencil, and a bit more of the pigment is pushed into the paper. You go over a painted part with lighter strokes or watered down paint and you can see the layer underneath and build up a lovely story. You have control at every point because it is your hand muscles, not a predetermined (or post-determined?) setting. (You can do this to an extent digitally, depending on whether the brush tool being used can) It is also easy to forget about opacity when working digitally, unless it's to tone down the strength of a draft outline you're using to map out a work. Whereas when working traditionally, it's just a fact of reality. Not every brushstroke will wipe out the existence of the brush stroke underneath.  


6. Layers: Ahhhh, just click the "+" and you're onto another clean layer. Drag it down and now work on the background with no fear of affecting the edges of other layers. Change the background colour with couple simple clicks. Don't like it? Don't worry! Change it again. Make a layer "multiple" not "normal". Group layers and turn them off, we want to focus on something else. Get where I'm going? Layers are awesome.  


So there you have some little things I have noticed. I think the thing for me is, don't do only one or the other. Don't label yourself as either a traditional or digital illustrator. If you are an illustrator, your passion is to tell visual stories, not carry around an iPad or paintbrush. See with each project which one would be better, and if you find yourself exclusively using either one or the other for work, have fun in your own time with the other. I've learnt a lot about myself and how I approach art and illustration by working with both, and I don't want to give up either. I do, definitely, love using the iPad for roughs. But I often still plan on normal paper. The iPad means I can take a picture of this draft once I'm already in a canvas, which can be really handy. So they can both slot into your overall process here and there. Just remember, your passion as an illustrator is about telling stories, not the medium you used to do so. 



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