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Sunday Mailbag

Sunday, October 5th, 2008

A: I have a question (and I don’t think I’ve seen it answered yet!)! Has there ever been a face that no matter how many pictures, video or resources you look at, you just can’t get a grip on it? Myself, I specialize in a variety of anime stylizations, but there’s this one face (Nathan Fillion to be specific) that no matter what I try – anime, traditional caricature, or realism – I can’t quite get it! I’ve been able to create some drawings that people recognize without me having to give clues, but it’s not quite satisfying ME. If you do have one of these sorts of Achilles heels, do you have any tips or strategies to overcome it?

Q: Well, I did have almost the same question asked a while ago, but this one is asking from a little different angle… why do caricaturists sometimes struggle with a certain face and is there a way to overcome it?

Faces are faces. Basically we all have the same physical features. It’s the subtle differences in perception that the caricaturist is trying to figure out and then accentuate. Why, then, would one face be harder than another?

In some cases it’s just a matter of the face itself not giving you enough information to work with. The so called “plain faces” that do not seem to have any outstanding features for a caricaturist to grab hold of. I find that to be a lack of observation rather than a lack of features on the part of the subject. Maybe someone has nothing obvious to exaggerate, but that should never stop an artist from attaining a likeness. All that needs doing is to draw the features as they really look to attain a likeness. That has nothing to do with exaggeration. The trick with caricature is to both exaggerate AND attain a good likeness. Drawing the features accurately but making poor choices in exaggeration will kill the likeness. In general the struggles one might have with a “nondescript” face is that they cannot see anything to exaggerate so therefore just exaggerate blindly or at random. That is like shooting with a blindfold on… you might occasionally get lucky and hit the target, but you usually miss.

I believe when an artist struggles with a recognizable person like your example of Nathan Fillion, it is because they have lost objectivity. They entered into the drawing with a preconceived perception of what the subject looks like and what they needed exaggerated, and are then not objective about drawing that person’s caricature. If their preconceived perception is wrong, they can’t get past that and insist on trying to shoehorn their caricature onto the face, rather than letting the face dictate the caricature. You have to be able to approach the subject with an open mind and set preconceived notions aside.

There are a few ways around this problem I’ve found effective:

  • Set aside the drawing for a day and come back to it with a fresh eye. If you are working on a deadline that might not be possible, but if it is that seems to be the best solution. It is easy to get “too close” to a drawing and lose objectivity. Take a long break from it and do some other drawing of an unrelated matter in the meantime. Draw a car or a chair or something non-organic.
  • Toss out all your photo reference and get new ones. It’s possible your reference is confusing you. Pictures can lie and you might be fixated on a single picture or something you think you percieve from that picture that isn’t right. In one picture a subject may look like they have a big jaw but it could be the angle or lighting fooling you. Toss them all out and dig up fresh ones.
  • Work from a video. Put in a DVD with the subject in it in the player or computer and work up a page of sketch studies of the face. Moving images cannot lie as well as pictures. You will be working from a more true perception of the face.
  • Adjust the scale of the drawing and study it. I do this a lot. I find a drawing looks a lot different when it is smaller or larger than the size I am working at. Step back from the drawing board and look at the sketch, or use a magnifying glass to enlarge. Better yet, scan it in and adjust the zoom on the image in PhotoShop. You may notice where you are having problems. You might even try and flip the drawing and look at the mirror image of it. That is more about seeing the structural problems of a drawing, but it may help you figure out the problems.

Great question. Thanks. I’ll do Nathan Fillion as this week’s “Sketch o’the Week” and see if I can do something with his face.

Thanks to Jade Gordon 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!

New PhotoShop Line Art Trick

Friday, June 6th, 2008

For years I’ve been using an easy trick to create a layer in PhotoShop containing my scanned, inked line art that remains intact as I color “beneath it” sort of like an animation cell. It’s a simple thing to do:

  1. Scan line art as grayscale image
  2. Duplicate background layer containing inked art, rename “Inks”
  3. Set layer mode to “Multiply”
  4. On background layer, press “Command” + “A” to select and then “Delete” to delete line art on that layer
  5. Convert to RGB or CMYK

Finished. Because “Multiply” mode means that whatever is on that layer in “multiplied” with what is below it, all the black lines stay intact and all the subtle gray lines become transparent and overlay the color I place beneath it, while all the white becomes transparent. Neat, easy trick.

Except nothing is ever easy, is it?

There are two difficulties with that technique. First, the white areas on the multiply mode are not gone, they are merely inert when in Multiply mode. This means that once you take that final step and “flatten” the image for sending to the client, all the white areas combine with the lower color layers. Since it’s in Multiply mode when flattened that just means any color below it takes over and the white in effect is gone. That works great IF you have only one layer of lines in Multiply mode. But what if you need to have different layers of objects in a given illustration for some reason? Then it does not work, because if you merge a multiply layer with another layer, any areas on the other layer that have no color in them become opaque white, and no transparency is transferred. In other words, if you want to have a single figure, inked and colored, on it’s own layer on top of a background illustration you cannot do that with the “multiply trick, because once you merge the multiplied inked figure layer with it’s separate colored layer, the “white” comes back all around the figure:

© 2008 Tom Richmond
The linework for the boat and the color beneath the boat are their own layers
in this image, with lines for background beneath and color for background beneath
that. It looks like this if flattened to all together at once.

© 2008 Tom Richmond
This is what happens if I just merge the boat line layer with it’s colored
underlayer. The white on the inked layer comes back.

You can select the white areas with the magic wand tool and delete them to create the transparency, but that is problematic as the wand tool doesn’t do a very good job of making good edges and you end up with a kind of “halo” effect that necessitates a lot of clean up around your image. I’m working on a job right now that requires a multiple layered final file, and this is a real headache.

There is a larger problem with this technique, though, and it applies to the process of four color printing. I just learned about this from MAD after I noticed that the blacks in my “30 Rock” parody seemed dull and washed out compared to other MAD jobs.

“Multiply” mode doesn’t just drop the black linework “on top” of the color… it literally multiplies it with the color below. That means that your black areas aren’t just 100% black, but they are black plus the cyan, magenta and yellow inks of the color beneath it. All blacks in a CMYK printed image are more than just 100% black ink… they have the other inks in there as well (in fact, PhotoShop has a setting for “rich black” in CMYK mode that is a specific combination of the four inks in percentages), but the density of the inks easily becomes very heavy when using the Multiply trick.

The problem with this in printing terms is that ink density (the percentage of each of the four colors) has it’s limits for the printer, yet PhotoShop literally dictates the ink density based on absolute percentages. You have 4 different inks in CMYK printing: cyan, magenta, yellow and black. Each can be up to 100% coverage. Therefore the max ink density is 400%, meaning 100% of all four colors. Printing a 400% ink density is impossible… it will never dry. PhotoShop’s default color setting profile calls for a max of 300% ink density, but even that is a little strong and those settings do not apply in PhotoShop to an image you are working on, but only to those that have been converted to that color profile. So, you may be working in a profile like CMYK SWOP v2 (default North American printing setting) but you can easily exceed that 300% ink density when working, especially using the multiply line trick. Printer’s want lower ink densities. MAD‘s printer, by example, wants a max ink density of 280%. Working in RGB and then converting to CYMK will limit you to a 300% ink density (or whatever the profile calls for), but I don’t trust conversion like that to keep the colors right.

So, in an effort to figure out a better way, I discussed it with several knowledgeable PhotoShop gurus and found a different line art trick that works around these issues. It’s called the “Channel” line art trick, and it works just as well and almost as easily, but results in a layer of line art where the white is literally not there and yet the black and gray lines are merely transparent as opposed to being in multiply mode, which results in a lesser ink density.

Here’s the process:

  1. Scan line art as grayscale image
  2. Create a new blank layer, rename it “Inks”
  3. Go to the “Channels” palette, there is only one channel called “Gray”
  4. At the bottom of the channels palette, click the “dashed circle” icon entitled “Load Channel as Selection”
  5. In “Select” drop down menu, select “Inverse”
  6. Go to your “Inks” layer
  7. Press “D” on your keyboard to reset swathes so full black in active color
  8. Press “Option” + “”Delete” to fill selection with black
  9. On background layer, press “Command” + “A” to select and then “Delete” to delete line art on that layer
  10. Convert to RGB or CMYK

Using this technique, your line art layer will contain all your lines but the white will be gone, rather than just inert due to the multiply mode. So instead of this:

© 2008 Tom Richmond

You get this:

© 2008 Tom Richmond

The great thing is that the channels trick also preserves the subtle gray lines and any washes or values you had in the original inks, as the selection of the channel is smart enough to not just select the absolutes but also the transparencies of the image. You can use this trick to create as many layers of line and colored objects as you want and merge them at will to create layered images. best of all, the transparent black reacts differently to merging than the “multiplied” black, resulting in lower ink densities.

The one caveat here is that you should scan your lines in at a higher resolution for this technique to make sure you do not lose any linework. I do most of my inks at 200% of print size, so that is plenty large if I scan at 300 dpi. If I was inking at 150% or closer to print size, I’d bump up the resolution of my scan to twice print resolution, or say 600 dpi as opposed to 300 dpi.

I am sure this technique has been used by many people, is all over the internet and I am hardly the originator of it, but it was cool nonetheless to “figure it out”.

Isn’t shop talk fun?

The MAD Blog Tip Jar!

Tuesday, November 20th, 2007


A number of the blogs I visit regularly are supported by advertising, where their content is littered with ads screaming “click me”! There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but it is distracting from their content. Others do not have advertising but do give readers an opportunity to “tip” them by donating some money to support their efforts. Favorite blogs News From Me by Mark Evanier and Cedric Hohnstadt‘s Cedric’s Blog-a-Rama do this as do many others.

The “Tip Jar” concept seems a little crass but combined with the right blog and content I think it’s perfectly reasonable. The blog in question needs to be updated daily and contain posts with useful information, entertainment and relevant news or links. The blogger needs to be spending real time and effort on the blog’s content. That kind of offering has a value.

I’ve been reluctant to do anything like that for some time just because it felt a little awkward. However it has been pointed out to me repeatedly by colleagues that my blog has offered quite a lot of valuable content like the tutorials, advice and information on freelancing, etc. as well as the occasional entertaining anecdote. I don’t know about that, but I do know I spend a lot of time and effort trying to write meaningful posts every day, even though some of them are about gadgets or technology and the Dreaded Deadline Demon sometimes rears his ugly head.

I finally decided to include a link to a “tip jar” for The MAD Blog. What put me over the top was that I had been trying to figure out a way to justify the time and effort to do more tutorials and step by steps. I’d like to start a regular feature on drawing caricatures as well as possibly doing some more videos. Having even the possibility of a little monetary support for these efforts makes that justification easier.

You will find this button:

…at the top of the blogroll. There is also a page called “About Tipping The MAD Blog!” found under the “Pages” section near the top of said blogroll. Either will allow anyone to tip the blog via PayPal/credit card. Under no circumstances should readers feel obligated to contribute. Only do so if you really feel you’ve gotten something worthwhile here. I will say that any money collected will be used for purely selfish use for purchasing toys, games, gadgets, and otherwise totally unjustifiable cool stuff. Tips will never be used to feed my children, pay for art supplies, mortgages or utility bills… some of it may possibly go to buying The Lovely Anna new shoes or handbags, but I have no say in that matter.

Regardless if the tip jar is overflowing with moola or only rattles with a few tarnished coins, The MAD Blog will continue along as it has, hopefully with content readers will find useful, enjoy and maybe even learn something from. Thanks as always for visiting.


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