Wednesday 27 June 2012

Beetle Week Day 2: Painting Bugs with ArtRage Studio Pro

Welcome to Day 2 of Beetle Week!

Earlier this year I was commissioned by entomologist and insect photographer Morgan Jackson of Biodiversity in Focus to contribute to a soon-to-be-published, honest-to-gosh dead-tree book about jewel beetles in Ontario. The result? My first series of scientific illustrations, instead of the off-kilter, surreal science paintings I'm known for. 

Today: Painting Bugs with ArtRage Studio Pro

Technical specs: 

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When tackling a new illustration subject for the first time, I like to begin with mechanical pencil and bristol paper. They're my comfort zone. After that though, I have decisions to make. In my undergraduate degree, I worked mainly in oil paint. Since then, I sometimes find it more useful to paint digitally, especially for a project like these beetles. Adjustments and corrections to ensure scientific accuracy are much easier with digital media than with traditional paints.

I've tried a number of digital painting programs, and by far my favourite is ArtRage. If you're not familiar, it's a digital painting program with versions available for PC, Mac, iPad and the iPhone. Each one is relatively affordable (under $100 for the PC version, compared to several hundred for Photoshop).

The main attraction for me with this program has always been the interface. Instead of drop-down menus, ArtRage includes all the important tools right on the screen in two quarter-circles in the corners:

Screenshot showing the interface, from my original test of some of ArtRage Studio Pro's tools. Click to enlarge. 

On the left, all your tools: oil and watercolour brushes, inking pens, pencils, erasers and host of other tools from technical to goofy. On the right, the colours, allowing you to adjust tones and how metallic the paint appears. These two palettes, tools and colours, mean everything to me as a classically-taught painter. I feel just like I'm dipping into my palette or brush box.

In ArtRage you can control the paper or canvas surface (or blackboard, or sandpaper or...) and the digital paint handles differently on each type. The big advance in Studio Pro (also known as ArtRage 3) over the previous 2.5 version is, in my opinion, the amazingly realistic watercolours.

I planned to use watercolours for the beetles early on. It can give the work the feel of old naturalist's studies. However, as the project went on, I realized that more than watercolour would be needed to bring out the richness of texture and metallic colour on some of these little animals.

Here's a look at Xenorhipus:

Xenorhipus, one of the more colourful jewel beetles for this commission. © Glendon Mellow

This painting required a lot of stippling.  The Intuos 3 graphics tablet has 1024 levels of pressure, so you can achieve some subtlety of colour depending on how hard you press.  It's one of the main features of working on a desktop that remains superior to the iPad version.

Here's an up-close look:

Up close, closer than I look while actually painting, you can see metallic green pain near the top swathed in more liquid greens. The little greyish tadpole strokes in the bottom half show how varying pressure even in a single stroke can add to the detail. 

A few of the beetles were shiny brown shades, others were multiple bright metallic shades. Another nice feature in ArtRage is you can store and name specific palettes.  Here's one of mine, for Trachys:

Custom colour palette for Trachys, the most brilliant of the subjects. You can see the point of grey chosen on the colour palette at right that I've listed as "grey dots". I found that often, the colours I chose needed to be more brilliant than the ones in the photo references to "read" similarly to the eye. 

I also saved a custom brush that I found was useful for fine detail, hairs and lines on a number of the beetles. Here's a sample of a few light-colour brushstrokes on a dark ground from the painting for Texania:

Custom brush menu. You can save multiple menus, and make them available to more than one file. I've placed some brush strokes on the white area beneath the menu so you can see what they look like without the rest of the bug's head.

If you'd like to learn how to save your own custom tools, I made a short video tutorial last year:

ArtRage is powerful for painting, but sometimes a little less perfect for editing. A couple of the beetles had a kind of "squashed banana" look to them as a result of me trying to inject more dynamic poses and bending them where they don't bend. When I went in to fix them, I used Photoshop Elements 6, the eraser, free transform and the clone tool.

Here's examples of the bent beetle Paragrilus (left), and unbent (right).

Paragrilus, in a dynamic, twisty, squashed-banana pose on the left, and fixed using Photoshop on the right.

There are selection tools in ArtRage Studio Pro, as well as some tools called templates that can be used and I suspect could have done the job in fixing Paragrilus's tilted back, above. I'll have to experiment some more. In this case, I went with tools I already knew to make the correction, and ArtRage allows you to save files in Photoshop's .psd format, even keeping layers intact.

Have any other scientific illustrators tried using ArtRage to do their work?  I'd be curious to see other examples or get feedback on this project. I would certainly use it again, perhaps even with digital pencils as I become more comfortable with them.

Questions, comments and opinions encouraged below!

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Check out the rest of Beetle Week!

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite © to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

Print ShopFind me on Symbiartic, the art+science blog on the Scientific American Blog Network!


Daniel said...

I've so been dying to try our ArtRage. I might just pick it up.

Random question, is there a feature in ArtRage that lets you just turn the canvas. That's been one of the pros I could see in using an iPad is you can just turn the whole thing to make smoother strokes (I find certain strokes to be really difficult to make unless I reorient my canvas).

The beetles are looking superb!

Glendon Mellow said...

Daniel, you can shrink it, move it on the screen and rotate it like a record.

Lots of technical info here and here about v3.5.

According to this review at Ars Technica, if you have V-Ray for Maya, you can import the canvases and look at them in 3D tilted away from you.

Emily said...

You really captured the metallic body of Trachys and you are making me want to try ArtRage!

Glendon Mellow said...

Thanks so much Emily! That one is my favourite too. I saved it for last, and was really pleased I was able to produce something I like that much at the end of the run.

Adam J-G said...

Hey there!

My name's Adam, and I'm one of Morgan's colleagues that worked with him during the course of this project. Specifically, I huddled in the microptics room and snapped all of the buprestid photos for the book, including the a good amount of the reference ones that Morgs sent over!

It's awesome to see the processes you went through and the programs that you used to create the drawings for our book. ArtRage seems like a nifty program that I'll have to check out at some point! We all think that the work you did was awesome and I absolutely don't blame you for putting your Trachys design on an iPhone Emily said above, you definitely nailed the blue and gold metallic hues for that little critter!

I used to draw a lot...and back before I went to university, one of the programs I was interested in was scientific illustration. That didn't quite pan out, and I haven't drawn in quite a while (3rd year of university maybe?) it's always to see a successful scientific illustrator with experience and talent. You did an awesome job for us and we all appreciate your work immensely! :)

I'll be checking out your Beetle Week feature and keeping track of your blog in general from here on out!

Adam J-G said...

(P.S. Darn, definitely didn't realize the rest of the posts for Beetle Week were up or I woulda posted that response on Day 5! This heat and the lack of sleep it's causing are clearly getting to me...)

Glendon Mellow said...

Hey Adam! Pleased ta meetcha!

Yeah, the heat last week was intense. Thanks so much for the reference photos! I appreciated the chance to work on actual scientific illustrations for a change. I love doing the more surreal work, but this was a big opportunity, and I'm really grateful.

You can always get back into art, that's the beauty of it. I think sketching as a relaxing form of activity, like yoga or reading, is vastly underrated. Hope you find your way back to it some time. It's a useful skill for any scientist, but biologists especially, in my opinion.

Thanks for introducing yourself!

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