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Copyright © 2013 Sharon Steuer

High-Impact Hybrids: Combining Digital and Traditional Tools to Create Memorable Images

Digital tools give artists countless ways to expand and improve their creative options. For San Francisco-based artist and author Sharon Steuer, that includes using a Wacom pen tablet as a starting point to weave together oil paintings, drawings, digital painting, photographs and personal artifacts to create memorable images.

The Starting Point: Digital Tools with a Traditional Feel

As an artist well-versed in traditional media, Steuer said using a Wacom tablet and pen elevates the responsiveness of her digital tools, creating an experience much closer to that of a physical pen or brush.

“If you're drawing using anything other than a pressure-sensitive tablet and pen, you simply can't create a mark that will vary based on your changes within the stroke,” says Steuer. “Only using the Wacom tablet and Art pen can I control the character and nuance within each stroke to respond to tilt, swivel, rotation and bearing.”

Steuer uses her Intuos 4 pen tablet to paint in Illustrator and to handle masks in Photoshop.

“If I draw with the tablet, the Wacom Art pen gives me feedback as to what the cursor is going to look like if I touch down. And the bearing, tilt, pressure and rotation of my stylus is going to change what I get as a mark,” says Steuer.

Copyright © 2013 Sharon Steuer

An image of a San Francisco eatery created from a series of photos collaged to form one imaginary perspective in Photoshop, and then painted using Illustrator bristle brushes with the Intuos 4. Copyright © 2013 Sharon Steuer.

The Evolution of an Image

Steuer’s work with her Intuos provides a foundation for projects that incorporate both digital and traditional creative techniques. The following series of images shows how she employed this approach to create a work that was versatile enough to serve both as a commercial project and as a gallery-quality fine art piece.

To begin with, Steuer used Photoshop to stretch, crop and color-correct her original photo of vegan pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup.

Copyright © 2013 Sharon Steuer

This color corrected, stretched and recropped photo became the starting point for the digital painting. Copyright © 2013 Sharon Steuer.

Steuer placed the photo off the artboard in Illustrator to use as reference as she began to recreate the image in Illustrator on her pen tablet, leaving out unnecessary details in the original image.

Copyright © 2013 Sharon Steuer

The first stage in the digital evolution of the photo. Copyright © 2013 Sharon Steuer.

Locking the first layer with the objects and photo, Steuer created additional layers, painting the image using two bristle brushes at default settings (one Angle and one Mop), and a custom calligraphic brush.

“I choose Illustrator because I get not only all of the subtleties and nuance, but every line is infinitely editable,” says Steuer.

Copyright © 2013 Sharon Steuer

Using the Mop bristle brush in Illustrator to heighten the appearance of the garnishes. Copyright © 2013 Sharon Steuer.

Copyright © 2013 Sharon Steuer

Using the Angle bristle brush on a specific path to apply a different color and opacity. Copyright © 2013 Sharon Steuer.

Copyright © 2013 Sharon Steuer

For the final web image, Steuer compressed the bowl’s bounding box vertically. Copyright © 2013 Sharon Steuer.

After the image had served its original purpose (promoting the restaurant on the site UntappedCities.com), Steuer decided to rework the image as a fine art piece for a gallery show. Thanks to her Intuos 4 digital toolbox, she was able to combine traditional and digital tools.

Copyright © 2013 Sharon Steuer

The gallery-ready version of “Vegan Pho.” Copyright © 2013 Sharon Steuer.

Steuer saved a new version of the original, resized some elements and added others. She then printed the new image and coated it with clear acrylic medium. After collaging the print onto a 6 in. x 6 in. cradled board, she drew and painted on the surface with watercolor pencils.

Getting Up to Speed on Tablet Drawing and Painting

Steuer said she understands why some artists are slow to adopt new and unfamiliar digital tools. At the same time, however, she knows just how easy it can be to climb the pen tablet learning curve, based on a few key tips:

  • Set the tablet up directly in front you so it is square to your body. As long as you are square to your tablet, you can swivel around a bit relative to your monitor;
  • Take advantage of the tablet’s ability to rehearse marks by hovering over a line change before placing it;
  • Set the parameters of the stylus buttons in whatever way is most comfortable to you;
  • Experiment with and customize the many brushes that come already pre-configured before spending time building something new;
  • Customize both the keyboard and tablet shortcuts for your personal workflow; and
  • Keep your free hand on the keyboard, ready to use keyboard shortcuts on the fly for opacity, brush size and other parameters.

For Steuer, making the transition to a pen tablet meant more opportunities for her art as well. “The truth is, now that I am acclimated to pressure sensitivity using the Wacom pen tablet, I can’t imagine drawing any other way,” she adds. “I couldn’t have completed any of my projects without the tools my Intuos 4 makes available. That’s about as bottom-line as it gets.”

Credit: Some of the above imagery and text is excerpted and adapted from The Adobe Illustrator CS6 WOW! book by Sharon Steuer. Copyright © 2013. Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and Peachpit Press.)

Sharon Steuer is a nationally recognized fine artist and author of the Adobe Illustrator WOW! Books (Peachpit Press) series and Creative Thinking in Photoshop. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards. Steuer hosts courses on Lynda.com covering the use of Photoshop, Illustrator and Wacom pressure-sensitive pen tablets.

Learn more about Sharon Steuer at her website, and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.