Friday, May 28, 2010

Letters from a Philatilist

How nice to get a letter in the mail. So many times all that's in the mailbox is junk mail and, even worse, bills. It's doubly nice to receive a letter from a stamp museum. These letters are from Mr Henry Lukas is the education director at the Spellman Museum of Stamps and Postal History where I did an author visit a couple of weeks ago. I love how he stuff the corner of the envelopes with all sorts of stamps. It like a little art museum on every letter.

Also during my visit I met lots of new friends including my buddy Nicholas who sent me this wonderful picture of a tarantula. Thank you Nicholas!!

BTW, if you are in the Boston area, the Spellman Museum is having another family day on July 4th.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Photoshop and Wacom Tablets

When I first started using the computer to create illustrations I primarily used Adobe Illustrator. This paper plate design was the first image in which I used Photoshop. I also used a mouse to create all my work (yep, I did that jungle plate with a mouse.) Wacom tablets were/are expensive, and I thought $400 was a ridiculous amount to pay for one. Oh, did I mention that I'm a cheap skate?

But then a friend of the family, who happened to be a graphic designer came to the house and saw my workspace. And she said, "you idiot, go buy a pen tablet!" I'm sure she said it much more diplomatically than that, but that was the gist. And she was right. If you want to use Photoshop for painting, a mouse will only take you so far. You really need to invest in a tablet. The good news is they have come down considerably in price.

The really difficult part of using a tablet is that you draw in your lap but your brush strokes show up on the monitor. That incongruity takes some getting used to. And honestly, I never found it as natural as drawing with paper and pencil, although I know some artists that don't have a problem. But a couple of years ago I upgraded to a Cintiq. The Cintiq is basically the Cadillac of the Wacom line. It's a monitor with a Wacom tablet built into it, so instead of drawing on a separate tablet you draw directly on the monitor. Sound cool? It is wicked cool, and much more natural feeling to me. I can't tell you how much I love my Cintiq. One of the function buttons was sticking the other day on my precious baby and I was fretting as if one my real children had come down with the flu. What would I do if my poor Cintiq became ill?! Luckily it recovered on it's own. Phew!

Programming the Wacom Function Keys

When I first started using a Wacom tablet I didn't make good use of the available funtion keys. I still had one hand on the keyboard to do things like hit "b" (the hotkey for the brush tool) and "e" for the eraser tool and my all-time favorite "CTRL-ALT-Z" for undo. But I have since started programming my Wacom for the way I work and it has definitely streamlined up my work flow.

Think about the tools that you use most in Photohsop and try bringing that functionality down to the tablet. I spend most of my time switching between the brush tool and the eraser tool. So in the Wacom preference utility, I set the left function keys to "b", "e" and "CTRL-ALT-z". The preference utility can be accessed in Windows by going to "Programs -> Wacom Tablet -> Wacom Tablet Properties" Notice how I can specify that the keys only have this behavior within Photoshop. You can set up different behavior for use in other applications (Illustrator for example)

The other thing that I have found very useful is to reprogram the buttons on the actual Wacom pen. I have set the top one to the left bracket and the bottom one to a right bracket. "[" and "]" are hot keys that are used in conjunction with brush tools. The they will resize the paint brush up and down in incremental steps. That way I can increase and decrease the size of my brush just by tapping my finger against my pen.

I recommend playing around with various button configurations and see what works for you.

Note: I think the newest Intuos 4 tablets have a different function key configuration so my preference screens may look different than yours.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Half Drop Repeats in Photoshop

Here's a little addendum to yesterday's post about creating repeating patterns in Photoshop. This variation of of the repeating pattern technique, makes creating simple half-drop repeat in Photoshop is really easy.

First create a new document the size of your final pattern. Make sure it's an even number of pixels high and wide. Make a note of the size because you will need that info later.

Next set the background to the desired color. For this to work you must make it a solid color (no gradients or anything like that) Remember I said this was a "simple" half-drop repeat. Next create a new layer above the background layer and create or cut-and-paste your pattern here. For my example I cut and pasted this little pig from another file and dropped it in here.

Make sure your image does not bleed off the edges of document and that it is on it's own transparent layer. Your layer window should look something like this.

Next create a duplicate of your image layer. Photoshop automatically named my new layer "Image Layer copy"

Next, make sure the "image layer copy" layer is selected and click "Filter -> Other -> Offset." Set the horizontal offset to half of the total width of your document. In my case my file is 500px wide so I will set the offset to 250px. Also set the the vertical offset to one half the total height. Again, my document was also 500px high so I set the offset to 250. (This is why we needed an even number of pixels when we initially created our document.) Also check "Wrap Around" for the Undefined Areas. When I click okay my original pig is still there but the new pig has been shifted to the corners.

Now, click "Select -> All" and "Edit -> Define Pattern" and you have a simple half drop repeat. Hmmm, I think I need some pajamas made out of my new "pig party" pattern. :)

Friday, May 21, 2010

Quickly Creating Patterns in Photoshop

As I was unpacking my materials from the NESCBWI conference this week I realized that I completely forgot to cover one of my presentation topics. I'm so annoyed with myself, because I thought it was one of the neater things that I was going to cover. I can't believe I forgot it. Oh well, at least I'll post it here on my blog. Better late than never, right?

I discussed this technique a while ago in the context of creating polka dot patterns but I think it's worth repeating. Many folks like to create collage images but are concerned about the copyright implications of using other people's fabric or paper designs in their work. This is a quick way to create all sorts of repeating pattern of your own in Photoshop.

First create a new document in Photoshop. It doesn't matter what size you make it as long as the height and width are an even number of pixels. I'm going to make mine 200px wide and 200px tall. Make note of the size, you will need it later.

Next draw something. The only rule is that you can not touch the document boundaries with your drawing. You can change the background to different solid color if you want, but make sure your drawing does not touch the edges of your image.

You can add textures, shadows, what ever, get as fancy with this as you want. Here I set the background to a light blue and drew a flower.

Now I could stop right here. If I click "Select -> All" and "Edit -> Define Pattern" I will get a pattern that will look something like this...

It's not bad but I want something less grid-like. So I'm going to modify it. First if you used more than one layer to create your image (which I did) you will need to flatten it into one layer. Next, select "Filter -> Other -> Offset" You will need to set the horizontal offset to one half of the total width of your image. In my case that would be 100 pixels. You will also set the vertical offset to half of the total height, again, in my case, that will be 100 pixels. Lastly, you will check "Wrap Around" for the undefined areas. If you click on the other options you will quickly see the difference. Once I run the offset filter I have something like this...

Now I can again draw something in the middle. But again don't touch the edges of the document. I can even draw over my original drawing and modify it just as long as I stay away from the document bounds. I drew another flower and one of the green curly cues overlap my original flower.

Now if I click "Select -> All" and "Edit -> Define Pattern" I get a more fluid looking pattern like this...

As you can imagine, making new patterns is rather addictive and before you know it, you will have a whole library of your own patterns to choose from.

ADDENDUM: I didn't make it very clear what to do after you click Edit -> Define Pattern. So here goes...

After I hit Edit -> Define Pattern. I like to save the original pattern file. So for my flower pattern I would save it as "flowerpattern.psd" I like to save all my patterns to a directory I called "PatternFiles" that way if I ever need to change one I have the original file to work with.

Once I save it, I can close the original file I won't need it anymore. Now I can create a new file. Make this new file larger than the first pattern file. For example, my flower pattern was 200px X 200px So I made a new file that's 800x1125 (it doesn't matter how big it is - just as long as it's bigger than the pattern file so you can see your pattern repeating) In this new file I make a selection. I wanted my pattern to fill the whole file so I clicked Select -> All then I clicked Edit -> Fill and when the dialog box comes up, I selected "Pattern" for the "Contents Use" dialog. And down below where it says custom pattern I click the little arrow next to the pattern and my new pattern should show up in the list. I select it, and when I click okay my new file should be filled with the flower pattern.

Hope this clears up any confusion.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Rounding Corners in Adobe Illustrator

I was creating a shape in Illustrator today and lamenting yet again how lame the "Stylize -> Round Corners" command is in Illustrator. I was hoping they had improved it in CS5 but alas it's still the same old function. I just want to be able to select a corner of a shape and apply a radius to it. Rarely do I want to round all the corners of a shape like Illustrator does.

That's why I was so thrilled to find this page on Hiroyuki Sato's website today and I just had to share it. Thanks to for the link. If you download the collection of Illustrator scrips on Hiroyuki Sato's site you will find one called, "Round Any Corner" If you select one or more corners of your shape and run that script*, it will ask you for a radius and apply it to just those selected corner. It makes so much more sense to me than the "Stylize -> Round Corners" command. Some of the scripts didn't seem to work for me. I don't know if I was doing something wrong of it's because they aren't compatible with CS5, but the round corners one seems to work okay.

*To run a script select "File -> Scripts -> Other Scripts..." Or you can make it show up in the menu by putting the .js file in the "Program Files\Adobe\IllustratorCS5\Presets\Scripts" directory.

Monday, May 17, 2010


I had an awesome time at the New England SCBWI conference this year. All the presentations I went to were wonderful and I feel so recharged and inspired to get back to work. Thank you Marla Frazee, Matt Phelan, and Richard Michalson for your great workshops. I really wish I could have stuck around on Sunday. There were more talks that I wanted to go to.

And it was also great meeting lots of new friends and catching up with old ones. There was a hugely talented group of illustrators attending like Melinda Beavers, Hazel Mitchell, Lucy Payne Pollack, Carlyn Beccia, Andy Smith, Jennifer Meyer and Robert Squier just to name a few.

Although if Robert wasn't there I might have won first place in the poster showcase. My entry (shown above) came in second after his. Curse you Robert Squier!! :) But seriously his poster entry was very very cute. Congratulations!

I think the one thing that stuck with me the most was something Cynthia Leitich Smith said during her keynote. And that was, "do at least one thing every week to promote your work." It doesn't have to be a big thing but do at least one thing. That's something I'm going to try live by.

Friday, May 14, 2010

New England SCBWI Conference

I'm packing up my bags and heading out to the New England SCBWI conference this afternoon. I'll be moderating an "Illustrating with Technology" special interest group this evening. Hope to see some of you there!

I'm also getting things ready for Letter Writing Day at the Spellman Museum of Postal History on Sunday afternoon.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Creating a Texture Brush in Photoshop

I'm working on a Photoshop techniques presentation for the New England SCBWI conference this weekend and I thought I'd share with you one of the techniques I'll be discussing on Sunday. The following tutorial will show you how to create the texture brush I used to create the image above.

This is a fun technique for creating custom brushes that will add texture and interest to your images. By the way, I'm using Photoshop version CS3 in this demonstration.

First get some white paper and some black paint (yep, I said paper and paint) I used some copy paper and cheap black acrylic craft paint. Then I used sponges, Saran wrap, leaves and anything else I could find to make irregular shaped blobs on the paper. You can even get your kids to help with this part.

Once it all dried, I scanned in some of my blobs. Here's one that I created with a wadded up piece of Saran wrap dipped in paint.

I selected the blob using the marquee tool and then clicked Edit -> Define Brush Preset and hit OK.

If I then use the brush tool using my newly created brush, I get something like this...

It's interesting, but too mechanical and repetitive for what I want to do. So I'm going to open the brush palette (Window -> Brushes) and make some changes.

I clicked on the Shape Dynamics on the left-hand side of the dialog to open the shape dynamic options. The first thing I change is the size jitter, I set the Control to pen pressure. But I don't my brush size to vary too much in size, so I set the minimum diameter to 70%.

Next I set the Angle jitter to 100% and also check Flip X jitter and Flip Y jitter. This will give it a more random look, like I was dipping a sponge in paint over and over again twisting the sponge as I went.

As you can see from the preview window in the bottom of the brush dialog this is looking a lot more random now. Of course I encourage you to play around with all the brush settings and see what sorts of effects you can come up with.

It's very important to remember that once you change the brush settings, you need to save it as a new brush. Or the next time you go to use the brush it will revert back to the old settings.

Now if I use this new and improved brush to scribble over my image. I get something like this...

And if I go over it again with another color, little bits of the blue will still poke through here and there...

By layering more and more colors I can get a nice subtle texture. This was all done using that same brush. I did lower the opacity on the last few passes to get a softer overall look. This is how I created the frog image at the top of this post.

Hope you found this useful. I encourage you to experiment and come up with your own texture brushes.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Another Old Watercolor

I usually don't work this loosely but I have always really like this painting, unfortunately it must have been done on cheap watercolor paper because it has yellowed pretty badly - I tweaked the colors in Photoshop. This beach scene was done at Chautauqua Institute in Chautauqua, NY where I spent a summer studying art.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Yet Another Old Piece of Art

This one is a pencil drawing of my daughter when she was about 18 months old. She is now rolling her eyes and asking if she can go to the mall with her friends :) This was another piece that I've always really liked but I really wasn't planning on it turning into anything and I drew it dangerously close to the edge of the illustration board. The top of her head is almost at the edge of the page. Thank goodness for Photoshop.

Old Watercolors from my Closet

I've been doing some spring cleaning the past few days. Well, spring cleaning might be a misnomer in my case. Can you really call it spring cleaning when you only do it every two or three years? But regardless, I have been shoveling out my studio. And I've found some old watercolors stashed away in a portfolio in the back of the closet. I thought I'd share a few over the next couple of day before they go back into hiding. Or who knows, maybe I'll even frame a couple.

I thought this one of magnolia blooms was appropriate since here in New England the Magnolias just finished flowering. This painting is approx 15" x 22"