Dan Johnson

A personal digital painting

I have been doing a lot of texture and similar work recently, so I decided to get back to a personal painting. I saw a bit of Alien 3 on TV a while back and was struck with some of the interesting sets and dramatic lighting. It seemed like it would be a fun image to paint, so I hunted down a similar image and started to work during some down time on a recent family vacation.

Here is my take on it. It’s pretty close in terms of architecture and lighting, but I had to come up with some of my own details. And because the image from the movie was practically monochromatic, I decided to add a bit of color variation for visual interest, and so it wouldn’t be as much of a direct copy. Anyway, it was a fun little project. I’m freelancing and looking for new projects again, so I may have time for some more personal projects that have been on the back burner for a while.

Back to posting

It has been a long time since I have posted anything, but things have been busy for the past few months. Early in the year, I started a contract with 2K Games, working on the upcoming NBA2K15. Initially, I was creating facial and hair textures for the Create a Player feature that is a big addition to this version of the game. I also created shoe textures and quite a few in-game pricing icons. My contract was extended twice, but last month we finally hit the hard deadline and got everything working. The game should hit stores next month, so if you are a basketball fan, look for it. My work is in there, along with hundreds of other artists and programmers, of course.

More Adobe Certification

Everything Adobe is Creative Cloud now and it was time for me to recertify as an ACE/ACI. As usual, I procrastinated until almost the end. After the tests are available, you have 90 days to recertify. If you don’t, you have to take the full proctored test again. Having passed it once, I never want to do it again. With the CC versions, it’s hard because updates come automatically and if your version of CC isn’t the latest one, it won’t have the new features. It’s hard to know unless you really look into it. The lab where I’m teaching Illustrator now is running CC, but it’s not the latest build, so there were tools and features I didn’t know. 
So I had them install the latest version, did some quick practicing and studying, then took the test with only a couple of days to spare. As usual, it was awful and I was down to the last few minutes as I worked on the last questions. The questions were obscure and difficult, some answers were poorly worded, and at least one question was based on a false premise, so how could I find a correct answer for that? I was told once by someone at Adobe that the people that write the exams don’t actually use the software, and each time I take a test, I am convinced of that more and more. But I did pass and am now up to date as an Adobe Certified Expert and Instructor in both Illustrator and Photoshop. For now.

Good news, everyone!

I had been putting it off for a while, but the deadline is coming up at the end of the month. I finally took and passed the Photoshop CC recertification exam. So I am now an Adobe Certified Expert in the latest version of Photoshop. It actually wasn’t that hard, although it had the usual obscure questions and answers that didn’t quite seem to fit. But it’s over and now I have to worry about the Illustrator exam.
In other big news, I am now being represented by Way Art in New York. This is pretty exciting and something that all illustration students talked about in school: getting a rep. I am also in the Workbook directory for artists. This is through my association with Way Art. Hopefully, the coming year brings lots of new work for larger clients. The links to portfolios I created specifically for these sites can be seen at the links to the right.

Just a few updates

You may (or may not) have noticed the change in the title of this blog. I’m now teaching CS6 and sometimes even CC and I now have it myself, even though I’m still doing most of my professional work with CS5. I’ll be switching over fully when I feel it’s stable enough with my system.

I also inadvertently came across an article I had written a couple of years ago about the basics of matte painting for the PSD Tuts+ website. It was just a short one explaining a few basic concepts and how Photoshop was used in the process. I’ll post a link to it in case anyone is interested.

The time has come for me to recertify in Photoshop once again. I had thought the deadline was earlier this month, but it is actually on the last day of October, so I will be studying up on the new features in CC and taking the exam soon. 

Click here to read my article on matte painting.

A new commercial illustration

It has been a while since my last post. I’ve been busy doing film effects work, but I still take time for my freelance projects. This is one I finished recently. It was a bear to do because of all the detail and elements that had to be included. It was also more difficult because I am living away from my home studio, so I had to do this with my smaller tablet and without my secondary monitor. But I think it came out okay. Actually, I’m rather pleased with it. I get asked this all the time, so this one took about 67 hours to create, including comps, getting source material, and calls with the client.
What is it, you ask? Well, it’s a piling driver, making a retaining wall of Z-sheet piling for flood protection. Because it’s in a residential area, this particular driver is designed to pound the piles into the ground more quietly.

Some recent work

If any of you have been wondering what I’ve been up to in the long silence of the past few months, I’ll let you in on it. Much of it has been not that interesting from an artistic point of view; I’ve been reworking past images for application in new layouts. The film effects work is kind of interesting, but there’s nothing I can show at the moment. 
But there are some fun things I can show. Here is a digital painting I just barely finished last week. In the final piece, it wrapped from the front to the back of a card so you didn’t see the entire elephant at once, but I painted it as one image, then adjusted it for the final layout in Adobe Illustrator. It was a quick little project, but is was fun and something I don’t get to do much of.

Here is a personal piece I did as a matte painting challenge contest for the CG Channel website. The plate was provided and instructions were given to create a Rivendell-like setting as a matte painting. I shot my own source material for the buildings and used them along with a new sky to create this painting. Video footage was also provided, so I then took my matte painting into AfterEffects, motion tracked the footage, then matched my painting to it. I also added some birds (had to key out the sky) after stabilizing the original clip. There was a good deal of masking and color correcting, then mist was added at the bottom. As I was working on it, I did send it around to get advice from other matte painters and I think that really helped. It may not be perfect, but I was pleased with the result, for a quick comp of the painting. In case you’re wondering, I didn’t win or place in the contest, but it was a great experience nonetheless.

Click here to see the final comped footage.

Catching up

Followers of this blog may have noticed that things have been very quiet this year so far. Things have been quite chaotic and busy for me, and a lot has changed. My teaching career has practically ceased for the moment, although I did teach a weekend course on digital illustration at BAVC recently. So I have been concentrating on other things. Oddly enough, I did recertify in Photoshop and Illustrator CS6, so now I am up to date as an Adobe Certified Instructor in those programs. However, if I’m not teaching, it probably makes no difference, but I don’t want to have to take the full proctored exams again.

As far as hardware, I’m on the same laptop. It’s old, but it’s still getting me there. But I did update the RAM. Although my Mackbook Pro officially only recognizes up to 4 Gb, I now have 6 and it seems to be all utilized and working fine. The OS has been updated, not the the very latest, but close enough, although I hate having to do that all the time.

A bigger change has been in my work. I’m still doing digital illustration, but I have been doing more film effects work. For the past couple of months, I’ve been doing rotoscoping and plate reconstruction at a local effects studio for two upcoming films, White House Down and Fast and Furious 6 (I hadn’t even realized there were that many). I’m pursuing more work like this in an effort to get more into matte painting, so we’ll see how that goes. The effects industry is in sad shape now, if you have been following the news on that topic. I’ve been looking at some opportunities that would take me away from home for a while, so I’ll keep you posted.

Working non-destructively in Photoshop

Have you ever been working on an image in Photoshop and needed to go back to an earlier version? Maybe a photo was sized too small or a filter was applied with too much intensity. After a while you changed your mind, or maybe the client wants something different after the job was supposedly finished. Especially in professional work, the more flexibility you have with your image editing, the better off you are.
Many of the tools Photoshop offers edit pixels in a destructive manner. That is, they permanently change pixels. Image adjustments, transforming, filters, erasers, brushes, and more usually work this way. Destructive editing is like killing pixels: once they are dead, that’s it. Sure, you can undo or go back in the History, but this is very limiting. The more non-destructively you work, the more options are open to you. In the past, we had to duplicate layers before making a change to have access to the original content. Photoshop now offers four better methods to do this: pixel layers, adjustment layers, masking, and smart objects.
Layers are pretty obvious. Believe it or not, back when I first learned Photoshop in school, it didn’t have layers at all. Everything had to be done with active selections and Alpha channels. You may know that you should paint on new layers, but did you know you can also use cloning and healing tools on blank layers? Just be sure to check their options to sample Current & Below or All Layers and get to work non-destructively covering up the stuff you don’t want.
Masking is another way to work non-destructively that has been in Photoshop for a long time. To remove a background or other unwanted areas, make a selection, then instead of deleting or copying and pasting, add a layer mask. The unwanted content is gone, but still there. You can paint white on the mask to bring it back. The new Properties panel in CS6 allows you to feather the mask edge, reduce its density, and refine its edge. None of this is possible if you erase or delete. You may never need to use an eraser tool again. Photoshop offers pixel-based layer masks, vector masks, and clipping masks. You can even group layers and add masks to the entire group. The possibilities are endless!
Most image adjustments should be done with adjustment layers. They don’t add much to the file size and can be edited over and over. If you have a selection active beforehand, the adjustment layer gets a mask automatically. They can be clipped to only affect one layer and you can even change their opacity and blend modes.
The newest and most powerful way to work non-destructively is with Smart Objects. Back when they were first introduced, they were pretty cool, but by CS4, they got even smarter. Like any other layer, you can mask them and change opacity, fill, and blend mode. But what is really great is how they protect the content on a layer. Any changes you make only affect the Smart Object, not the content. Now filters are smart. You can re-edit them, add multiple filters, change their order, and mask their effects. Transforming is also better. You have the full range of scaling, rotating, skewing, warping, and the rest. You can apply a transformation, then go back and do some more. All the values from the last time will still be there; they don’t reset. So, before doing any image editing, try converting each layer to a Smart Object as a first step. This works for more than raster content. Smart Objects can hold multiple layers, vector shapes, type, 3D objects, and even other smart objects. Just double-click the layer thumbnail to access the original, untouched content. And remember, don’t kill pixels if you don’t have to.

Photoshop, Resolution, and You

Resolution is a topic that is misunderstood by many, including some professional artists and designers. The problem lies in the fact that it can refer to different concepts: the number of pixels in a monitor’s display, the quality of a printer’s final output, and the amount of detail in a raster image that is prepared for printing. The last definition is what we want to cover here.

In this case, the issue of resolution only pertains to raster images that are to be printed, nothing else. It is common to think of resolution in terms of DPI, or dots per inch, but as we will see, this is incorrect. Photoshop has a command just to take care of this issue, Image Size. All images that are prepared for print should pass through this dialog box. It is divided into two sections: Pixel Dimensions and Document Size. A quick look at its options shows that resolution is connected to the printed (or document) size and is actually measured in PPI, or pixels per inch. Inches (or centimeters in most of the world) are a real world measurement and only apply to printing on paper. Monitors, mobile devices, and other screens measure increments in pixels, not inches. We often think of high resolution as 300 PPI and low resolution as 72 PPI. This is true, but remember that you only need to worry about it when printing. Since your monitor measures images in pixels and your printer measures in inches, you need to translate pixels to inches when printing. That’s where Resample Image comes in. Resample means to add or remove pixels. No matter what resolution an image has when you open it in Photoshop, you can change it here in Image Size. Uncheck Resample Image to lock the Pixel Dimensions. Only the print size changes; the number of pixels stays the same. Therefore, resolution is relative. Using Photoshop, you can adjust it to what you need. Just make sure you have a large number of pixels to start with.

It is a common misconception that you need to work in 72 PPI on images for web. The truth is that browsers, monitors, and other screen devices don’t use resolution because they don’t see inches. You can work in whatever resolution you want; just keep the pixel size in mind. It is actually a good idea to work larger than your final image because you have more detail to work with. You can even work in high resolution or print size. To make the final web image, the best way is to use Save for Web. With this dialog box, you can choose the format you need, adjust compression (if applicable), and resize the image. Notice that here there is no resolution, only pixel dimensions. No matter what resolution your image has, if you make a JPG, PNG, or GIF with Save for Web, then open that image up, its resolution will default to 72 PPI.

With these few points in mind, the mystery surrounding resolution can finally be solved. Just remember, you only need it when going to print. For the web, think in pixels and you’ll be fine.