Sunday Mailbag

September 27th, 2009 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: It is my experience that digital art, even when scanned inks and with digital finishing, takes longer to do, for the artist, than if the art were totally done traditionally. A problem I keep running into is that clients assume anything digital is faster and easier for an artist to complete. Have you found that your working method is any faster than if you worked entirely traditionally? I will agree that a digital file can be easier to make corrections on; but does that make up for a longer initial work time?

A: That question seems to ask two things. First it seems to ask if it’s wrong for clients to think working digitally is easier and faster, and (I assume) then think they should have to pay less. Second if I think digital work is faster.

I’d have to disagree with your statement that digital art takes longer than traditional art. Of course it is all dependent on the style and final look of the work, but for me personally the time involved is about the same, or if anything it’s a little faster to work digitally. Not much, but a little. There is a certain fearlessness about working on the computer that can allow for a looser and more aggressive approach to the final work, but then again it can also lead to spending a lot of time on some insignificant part of an illustration due to the computer’s lack of scale.

By “lack of scale” I mean it’s a lot harder to grasp the actual size of a given illustration when working digitally. It all depends on your monitor’s resolution, the image’s DPI, etc., but it’s very easy to get lost int he scale and end up doing a lot more work that what is necessary on a job.

Here’s¬¨‚Ć an example. The first job I did after getting my Cintiq was the MAD Magazine parody of the movie “Van Helsing”. I got the Cintiq initially because I thought it would increase my productivity, but I immediately ran into the “scaling” issue. I was happily coloring away on the splash page, working at print size, 300 dpi at 100% zoom. I spent about 20 or so minutes coloring this face in one of the splash page panels:


Okay… it doesn’t look like I spent that much time on it, but I I played with the muted, grayish skin tones, and made his teeth all yellowish, added shadows and modeling. I thought it looked pretty good.

Here was the problem. That face took me 20 minutes to paint. Here is a scan of the actual page at 300 dpi and 100% zoom with a familiar object to demonstrate scale:


That’s right, I spent 20 minutes painting something smaller than a dime on the printed page. You can imagine how long it took to do the rest of the two page splash. Ever since then I work at 50% zoom for most of the coloring I do… on the Cintiq screen that roughly translates to 150% of physical print size, so I get adequate detail without doing so much that it’s lost when the thing is in print.

Once you get a handle on the scale issue, things go much quicker digitally.

As far as the client is concerned, It should not matter to them how much time it takes to do an illustration, at least not in regards to the payment. Illustrators are not paid by how much time it takes to do a given piece, they are paid based on the usage of that piece. It’s the COPYRIGHT to use the art an illustrator sells, not the art itself. The art gets you the job, bit the usage of your art is what has value. I could do the exact same illustration for two different clients, and if client A uses it in a national ad campaign I’ll get paid many thousands for the piece. However if client B is the local pizzeria using it for a local flyer ad I’ll get paid significantly less. Same amount of physical work, totally different uses and therefore totally different payments. I wrote extensively about this subject some time back.

It’s interesting how some clients do consider the relative ease or difficulty of a given illustration to be a factor in what they pay. Some might think that if it’s a simple image with little background and detail it’s somehow worth less that something that took you a long time to create. Considering digital art to be “easier” might cause clients to think they should pay less. These “clients” are inexperienced buyers of illustration and it’s up to you to educate them in how it works.

Thanks to Ernie Kwiat for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. David says:

    I’m not an illustrator, but I’ve heard from illustrator friends of mine that doing work the traditional way has another benefit I hadn’t thought about: extra income. The original artwork can be sold, or auctioned for charity, etc.

    • Tom says:

      That is true. In fact I’ve got that as a topic for a future blog post: The loss of original art from commercial illustration due to the increasing prevalence of digital illustration.

  2. Jeff Zugale says:

    I do a great deal of digital art, and I also ran into the same kind of time issue as mentioned. Just like Tom, I learned (the hard way) that zooming in too far will really, really slow you down if you let it! So do as he describes, keep the scale in mind!

    Many digital painters that I know always zoom out so that the entire image is visible at all times while they paint, rarely if ever zooming in at all, to keep the entire image in perspective. This seems fairly common among people who have Cintiqs, as the monitor is so large and you can swivel it to different drawing angles.

    On top of this, I would offer a few more bits of advice:

    1. LEARN YOUR KEYBOARD SHORTCUTS. I remember reading about a study where they compared Photoshop users who knew the keyboard shortcuts vs. those who didn’t, and discovered that people who knew and used the shortcuts worked around TEN TIMES faster than the rest. If you are constantly moving your brush hand to choose different tools, select different brush sizes, zoom levels, menu items, etc. it’s a good idea to take the time to learn those shortcuts. Along with that, don’t be afraid to customize some shortcuts to make them more comfortable for you. Also, Intuos tablet and Cintiq users have the many programmable buttons and sliders, to which you can apply many of these shortcuts, which also help immensely. Finally, if there’s a task you do often that require a lot of menu item choosing, consider setting up an Action to handle it and assign a keyboard shortcut to it.

    2. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF “DIGITAL MAGIC.” There are many repetitive things that the computer can shorten drastically for you. In addition to keyboard shortcuts and Actions, there are many kinds of customizable brushes that you can set up to do things that are tedious to do by hand. A good example is drawing or painting trees or rocks, especially in the background; creating “leaf” and “rock” brushes in Photoshop or Painter can let you render out your background in seconds instead of hours. You can do this with buildings, vehicles, tech gear, etc. as well. This assumes of course that the style and assignment permits this, but if so this can really save you time. You can always go into the quickly-rendered parts and hand-paint some bits to relieve any repetition and make it more real.

    One thing I do a lot is to use Painter’s Glow Brush to create lighting effects and rich, glowing flesh tones, as it lets me do things in a few swipes of the brush that would take many minutes using digital oil or airbrush.

    Another idea: let’s say you’re doing a brick apartment building with a lot of windows. Instead of suffering through drawing all those bricks and repetitive windows, especially in perspective, draw one side of the building as if you’re looking straight at it, an “elevation” view. You can quickly fill an area with a brick line pattern, then draw a single window and place it numerous times. Then, use Photoshop’s Transform tools to tweak it so that it’s in the proper perspective and placement.

    If you’re doing comic-book or cartoon-style coloring, the *free* BPelt “Multifill” and “Flatten” filters are indispensable and can save you many hours of work. Google them, you’ll find both the filters and lots of tutorials on how to use them.

    These are just a few examples, with a little thought you can come up with many more. Doing things like this don’t have to make your work look “digital,” use your head and creativity to hand-tweak things to make them “live.”

    3. LEARN FROM OTHER DIGITAL ARTISTS. Everyone has their own way of doing things digitally. You will often find that someone else has found a really fast way of doing something that takes a long time. Forums like CGTalk, and many, many others are full of digital artists working in the entertainment industry that share tons of process advice and software knowledge.

    I would also HIGHLY recommend the wonderful video tutorials offered by The Gnomon Workshop (, Massive Black ( and (, as they are generally quite inexpensive ($30-50) and full of great technique knowledge from the masters of the digital art field. I got a great deal out of Ryan Church’s “Introduction to Painter” disc. These videos are now all available for purchase and download, apart from the stuff which is subscription-based ($25/month).

    You can speed yourself up immensely by trying these things, so get to it! 🙂

    To address one aspect of the original art income, it is possible in some cases to generate further income from all-digital artwork by selling prints in the $10-20 range. Success at this is not guaranteed, but many people have been able to equal or exceed the revenue they’d get from selling a physical original in this way. In general it’s found that if you’re an artist whose originals are in demand, high-quality digital prints will sell to the same audience. Your mileage may vary, of course – it depends highly on the tastes of your collectors!

  3. […] fun to browse or research and we finally get an answer to the question many have had to confront: is it or is it not faster to work digitally than traditionally? We got some pointers on sharpening our two sentence comic synopses and then even more pointers, […]


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