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Digital Tools Allow Illustrators to Take the Bolder Path

Even after all of his years of illustrating children’s books for major publishers, and teaching thousands of students the art of illustration, William Low still reaches that proverbial fork in the road in the art he creates. Low identifies the fork as the place where artists can take the safer route or be bold. Low always chooses the riskier route because the digital tools he uses, such as Photoshop and his Cintiq 24, allow him to experiment without the risk. “The good part about staying on the safe path is that you can almost predict the results of the painting because your intuition and skill kicks in. On the riskier path, the possibility of failure is greater,” Low said, noting that his digital workflow has helped him both mitigate risk and produce striking work.

Letting the Music Emerge from the Art

Low was recently commissioned to create a series of Forever® US postage stamps that feature winter flowers. Low had never painted flowers before but was excited for the challenge. He had to grow some of the flowers because they weren’t available out of season. When the flowers were ready to be illustrated, this long-time Cintq user reorganized his studio into an unusual configuration.

“I knew I wanted to paint with an easel so I took my Cintiq 24 off of its base and built a wooden arm that would hold the Cintiq on an easel like a canvas. Instead of a palette, I used my keyboard.” This set up allowed Low to light the flowers in the way that would allow him to take the riskier path when he came to the fork in his commission.

“When I reached that crossroads, I was aggressive about color. I could have spent all of my time drawing leaves, but I wanted to focus on the shape of light, shades and color. I wanted to paint a composition that became a flower.”

Low describes this as a mental game that allows the emotion of the illustration to kick in. “I wanted to let the music emerge from the illustration,” he said.

Finding the Nuance of a Calligraphy Brush with Digital Tools

Cover from William Low's book, Daytime Nighttime, available Spring 2014

Capturing the emotion or melody of an image is what Low teaches his students. As a child in Chinese school, Low was taught calligraphy with a brush and paper. “When you hold a brush and lean on it, the line tapers from thin to thick. This nuance in a character is exciting to me. Brushes express the energy of a mark.”

When Low became an adult, his heart was in fine arts, but his father insisted Low get a “real job.” He then pursued illustration to bring in a regular paycheck to suit his father and continue painting to satisfy his own passions.

Low began illustrating digitally with Photoshop 3. “Digital creation allowed me to mix colors in a different manner. I could quickly sample the colors I wanted and experiment with compositions. I became bolder with color.”

Low then integrated a pen tablet into his work, and the pressure sensitivity gave him the nuance of the calligraphy brush. “Computers allow for precisions, but to create digital art, you have to roll up your sleeves and draw,” he said. At the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), where Low teaches, the students have a whole Cintiq lab where they can experiment with the drawing techniques that Low teaches.

Expert Advice on Creating Tension in Digital Illustration

“The Cintiq lab changed the lives for a lot of students,” he said. “It allows them to be bold in their own work and take chances.” But Low also cautions students using the Cintiq. “With the Cintiq students can zoom in on a specific part of their drawing and spend all of their time on that small section. They forget about the rest of the piece.”

To stop that, Low encourages students to use the Cintiq 24 as their main screen with the drawing fully displayed in it, and on a second display zoom in to the area they want to focus on. “That main screen gives them a reality check,” he says.

Poster image for NYC Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Arts in Transit Program.

When Low is working on his children’s books commissions, his Cintiq also improves his workflow. “There are about 20 interior drawings in a children’s book and I create five or six versions for each page.” For Low, creating layers and saving different versions means he can take chances and revise his work without worrying about losing anything.

“When you’re illustrating a painting, you need to pace it. Not every page can handle tension. You have to hit different tones so the emotions register. That tension must drive each piece.”

Children’s book authors and illustrators never meet and so the illustrator must create their own version of the story. The illustrations must tell a story in conjunction with the words, but must also allow for the reader to use his or her imagination to fill in the blanks. “The scene must hold up on its own. The words should add another layer to the story.”

Low’s children’s books often feature urban landscapes. For less experienced digital artists, that temptation to use the computer’s precision to replicate each window or door would lead to a cityscape that never captures the personality of the place. Low uses his drawing skills and his Cintiq to tell the story of the city through the variations in the digital brush marks he makes. This nuance adds life to the landscape.

It’s this same life and nuance that Low wanted to bring to the winter flowers, but that would require he take the bolder path when he reached that fork. The US postage stamps that Low created may reach more people than any of his other commissions and the risk was far greater, but Low was unruffled. Low’s digital tools allowed him to maintain his vision for the stamps and allow the melody of the flowers to emerge. “I hope the stamps outlive me,” he said.

To see more of William Low’s illustrations, visit his website.

Watch the video below for Low’s process of illustrating with a Cintiq

William Low - demonstration of technique and inspirations for his book "Machines Go To Work" from William Low on Vimeo.