Digital Artwork – does it improve a photo?

Digital Artwork – does it improve a photo?

Most of my work is photography, but sometimes when I am looking at a photo, I start to wonder how it would look as a painting or sketch. Now I’m no artist in that sense – I can’t draw much and I’m not that good at writing these days with spending so much time using a keyboard. And so my best approach now is to use digital painting tools to see if I can get close to what a real painter would be able to do. In this story, I’ll talk about my various paintings and show the original photo and would be really interested in your thoughts on which you prefer. First up for discussion is a crayon sketch of a monarch butterfly on a beautiful flower. I was really pleased to have captured this insect in such detail in my garden last summer. They flit from flower to flower and so it is a constant chase to get the whole of the butterfly sharp and detailed but not have too much fussiness in the background. To help me, I used a flashgun on the camera to highlight the butterfly and darken the background, and so I had a reasonable success rate!

This first drawing is a colored crayon sketch:

Crayon sketch of a beautiful orange and yellow monarch butterfly feeding on the plants in a domestic garden. Prints available in my store
Crayon sketch of a beautiful orange and yellow monarch butterfly feeding on the plants in a domestic garden. Prints available in my store

I think this would look great on a canvas print and I added some canvas texture to help illustrate that even further. The original is here:

Beautiful orange and yellow monarch butterfly feeding on the plants in a domestic garden. Prints available in my store
Beautiful orange and yellow monarch butterfly feeding on the plants in a domestic garden. Prints available in my store

Even as I look at them now, I do wonder if the photo has more presence perhaps and is certainly dramatic against the darker flowers in the background. But which would look better on a wall – I’m not sure!

Pencil drawing using digital techniques of a beautiful orange and yellow monarch butterfly feeding on the plants. Print available here
Pencil drawing using digital techniques of a beautiful orange and yellow monarch butterfly feeding on the plants. Print available here

I also did this pencil sketch of the same butterfly on a different plant after seeing a real charcoal drawing on the site of a friend of mine, Katrina Gunn. I think this one is perhaps more successful?

I was really attracted to the next location. We were exploring the oldest part of Athens in a district known as Anafiotika and came across this narrow street.

Narrow steps in ancient neighborhood of Anafiotika in Athens by the Acropolis. Prints available here in my store
Narrow steps in ancient neighborhood of Anafiotika in Athens by the Acropolis. Prints available here in my store

The original street did not look just as pretty as this unfortunately.

Wires, scaffolding and general mess spoil the image!

The wires strung along the roofs and particularly the mass of wiring underneath the little streetlamp meant that I had to spend quite a bit of time getting this cleaned up and suitable for a print. Even the Greek Flag on the Acropolis above was not having a good day!

I chose an oil painting approach for this one as I thought the warm colors would really bring out the warmth of the day:

Digital oil painting of the narrow steps in ancient neighborhood of Anafiotika in Athens by the Acropolis. Prints in my store
Digital oil painting of the narrow steps in ancient neighborhood of Anafiotika in Athens by the Acropolis. Prints in my store

Now I am more confident in my opinions here. I certainly prefer the oil painting version. It feels warmer, the details around the edges that could be a distraction fade away and I even added a bit of light to the streetlamp. So, this is definitely my favorite of the three!

Traveling back to the USA, I took a short vacation in New York and traveled on the Staten Island Ferry across to, yes, Staten Island! Not an awful lot to see there, but the journey across gave some very nice views of Manhattan. The river was very disappointing though – I am not sure this stretch of water is ever very attractive, but it certainly wasn’t that day. So, my image of the skyline of New York City was pleasing enough, but the water surface spoiled it.

Manhattan Skyline from the Staten Island Ferry

I’m not sure an artist should show their preparatory sketches, but this is mine! I decided it could really benefit from a brighter more pleasing river, especially as that would give the image a much stronger first impression and so I created this version for my store.

Panorama of Manhattan in New York City with an artificial water surface. Prints available in my store
Panorama of Manhattan in New York City with an artificial water surface. Prints available in my store

I could really imagine this in the offices of a Wall Street bank – perhaps in a large metal print! Well, I can always have dreams!

I decided that this would be interesting to see as a pastel drawing instead, which would hide the artificiality of the ocean surface, and so this is what I created.

Digital pastel painting of a panorama of Manhattan in New York City from the Hudson River. Prints available in my store

My final examples are from a tour of an old castle in Slovenia built into mountainside in a large cave. I thought there was something magical about the plain walls of the castle and the brilliant garden outside the window, but the photograph was a bit too stark for my liking.

Simple window with flower box in solid stone wall in old castle
Simple window with flower box in solid stone wall in old castle

To simplify it and also to add back the warmth I felt when viewing the scene, I decided on a pastel treatment:

Pastel drawing of a simple window with a flower box in solid stone wall in old castle. Prints available in my store
Pastel drawing of a simple window with a flower box in solid stone wall in old castle. Prints available in my store

I personally think this works as well – much warmer, and the slightly blurry effect of pastel crayons makes it much more inviting. A canvas print perhaps!

Well, those are my thoughts. As always, I welcome any comments and ideas. And if you would like to be advised on new stories as I add them and to get special discount offers on my work, please sign up here.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. I appreciate the link love there.

    That said, I am a bit ambivalent about using filters on photos to get a hand drawn or painted effect. Yes, it does improve the image, but I still feel an urge to grab a mahl stick or canvas bridge to swat your cursor away while saying, “This is MY territory!” I know, I know … the art world is big enough for all of us, but the feeling still rears up from time to time and I have to check it. Y’all are just using software as your tool instead of charcoal, pastel, or paint.

    So how does it feel being able to wield your artistic license to take a photo and make it better?

    1. I hadn’t really thought of it like that! I can understand the feeling though although I have always been in awe of real artists who can just create something with paper and charcoal, and I thought that buyers of art would always pay more for the real thing! We photographers have our own fears though – the rise of very competent camera phones means that everyone takes their own pictures and are generally happy with them. The whole stock photography world has collapsed partly as a result of that. I think we are coming closer together in terms of what we are aiming for. If I don’t like the sky, I can change it. The water too rough and gloomy – gone and replaced by something else. An artist doesn’t have to directly replace the sky or remove an errant branch – they don’t have to paint it like that in the first place. I’m rambling but I hope you can see what I mean!

  2. I have some paint software, from Coral if I remember correctly, that I haven’t used in years. With it you can take a photo and, using a tablet and stylus, use the photo as the basis for a digital painting… hand working it. As I recall you can also paint from scratch witht the thing. Honestly I didn’t do much with it and haven’t even thought about it in years. I find it difficult to get to snotty about digital applications. When so many people are using AI to post-process their photos with little if any input from the photographer… and AI created art… it’s hard to take a stand against someone who at least created the original photo then applied some digital magic to it in order to realize their vision.

    1. Yes, I also bought that Coral software back in the day. Hideously complicated if I remember. The plugins I use now are much easier although that perhaps make them less like your own “art”!

    2. Just an art snob’s two cents on the topic: I don’t consider “AI” generated things to be art. Art is communication, and I’ve never had a meaningful conversation* with a computer. But, we’ve all seen those discussion topics before.
      (* – by conversation I mean something more than “Give me my **** file!”)

      1. I think I said this earlier, and Bob disagreed, but I don’t really think of creating art as such – I try to create a meaningful view of a scene or location that will make the viewer perhaps say “wow” and maybe even think it would look good on their wall. Now is that art or good photography or good photography plus postproduction with some plugins that create an artistic effect (that I choose and modify) to create that wow factor. Does it matter?

  3. One more thought, Steve. You said “I have always been in awe of REAL ARTISTIS…” In my not so humble opinion, a skilled photographer IS a REAL ARTIST. Just sayin’ my friend. 😉

    1. I know. I do have trouble using that term, I know!

I'm always interested in your thoughts - please leave a comment!

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