Preparing to Paint: Messin’ with Digital

In the post awhile back called “Help Me Choose the Next Painting Project”, I displayed a variety of photos digitally altered with hopes of gaining opinions on what I should choose for my next painting. Although I’ve done some pastel work and even a little acrylic, I’ve wanted to try out some ideas and a new palette, so this effort will be in watercolor.

Of the comments received, several urged me to consider the Shanghai Yam Seller at the bottom of the post. I took that to heart and began my long drawn-out process of playing around and preparing to paint it.

This post will remain in the digital realm as I play with various programs and concepts to try to get a handle on what the painting could be. The next post will actually show pencil and paint to paper as I work up some thumbnail shape sketches and then value sketches as I carry out a specific painting process.

(Just a cautionary note: although I have posted about watercolour painting before and described my own attempts, I’m certainly not much of an expert although you may find me emphatic in some of my comments. I’m just exploring and trying to improve….)

Here’s the original photo cleaned up a bit in Photoshop:


I like the posture of the yam guy connected by the handle to his stove on wheels, and its shapes. I want to preserve the sense of a cigarette in the hand at his mouth.

What to do about that busy background, though? My idea for the painting is the stillness of the yam seller and his equipment in the midst of the city’s bustle, but there’s a lot of distraction back there, especially the visual disruption of that motorcycle.

My next step digitally was to try to blur away distractions in Photoshop, with the aid of some plugins. I got to this:

ShanghaiYamSeller DOFvig

Not entirely successful, since that motorcycle is still rearing its ugly head, but suggestive of a direction to go.

I want a sense of movement in the background, though, otherwise that sense of stillness in the whirling of the world all around is lost.

ShanghaiYam vigmove col

That seems to show more movement all around and I’ve also brightened and exaggerated the colors.

Next I wanted to try black and white versions to get a sense of a workable value structure.

ShanghaiYam FinalBW

After trying a few versions, this one is giving me ideas. I want to accentuate the lighter tones of the subject’s face, hands, arms and foot. There’s a compositional question here though. Does this tension between the figure as one focal area and his stove trailer as another focus work? The stove, if anything, is grabbing more attention, and I would rather it be subordinate to the figure… Does the eye go naturally back and forth exploring the frame or does it get stuck in some purgatory of clashing foci here?

I was reading up a bit on notan, and I thought playing around with that might be helpful for me. (Notan being rendering of just black and white, in an effort to get a pleasing distribution.)

ShanghaiYam Notan2

This is one attempt, still done digitally, this time in ArtRage which is a great program by the way. I rather like the patterns of the upper part, but it’s pretty weak in the lower left, both here and in the photo itself. I was also reading about “flagging” the head, that is bringing the greatest contrast of light and dark around the head as a focal point, and I haven’t really done that here.

ShanghaiYam NotanAR

This is another attempt with its own failings, including not flagging the head, but it seems to me to be a bit more cohesive overall and better balanced in the lower left.

I followed a strategy of starting off with a bare dark and light notan. In the next, one adds dark darks to get a three value sketch:

ShanghaiYam 3 Val AR

I’ve brought more attention to the head now, but there’s still something cumbersome and not quite right to me in the whole middle area just above the handle. Oh well, that’s what the real shape and value sketches will attempt to address. I think that middle background pillar is just too contrasty…

Using some of the ideas from this process, I’ve accentuated aspects of this final photo before I go to the real messin’ around stage on paper:

ShanghaiYam AMP2 move

Notes to myself: keep a sense of blurred movement in the background, and choose some different colors for the guy’s clothes, especially the pants. That purple grates on me, but I’m not sure what would be a good substitute. Maybe a dark red with relationship to the colours on the yam trailer, which would help integrate and also bring more attention to the figure…


Explore posts in the same categories: Art, China, Photography, Watercolor

7 Comments on “Preparing to Paint: Messin’ with Digital”

  1. Very interesting. I found your commentary to be fascinating. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Linda,

    Thanks for stopping by…


  3. Hi Fencer,
    I took a lot of time going back and forth between the various essays you have made and like your thought process very much. It’s the sign of a true artist.

    What works well here, is that you are starting off with an inherently good photo, compositionally and tonally. There’s lots of interest and lots of ways to go with it. I like your tonal sketches- both the two tone and the three. They give you a good read on the balance of the image.
    I see what you mean about the purple pants.
    You might want to look at the weight of the principal colours that you are going to use – red, black green and white (from what is already there) and choose a variation of these for the pants so that the painting stays balanced. That is, so that the eye can move around the painting connecting each of these colour blocks.
    I usually do this exercise in threes or multiples thereof. For example if you count the skin colour in with the reds, you nave an imputed triangle forming from connecting these three colour blocks. Visually connecting the green of the grass on the left and the turquoise of the stove gives you an imputed direct line connection, and by adding just a dab of a similar green somewhere in the picture,even as an underpainting, you can achieve a second triangular dynamic that carries the eye around. The blob of green by his hand in his mouth might be sufficient or you might choose to give a wider triangular effect by placing one closer to the pillar in the back.
    Your fourth essay, (the first black and white one) show how the black and white/light and dark balance out. They are a bit more complicated to describe for this “weighting” exercise, because the blocks of black and white are more than three, but you can see that they balance out well.
    Depending upon your own feelings about it, you might try something in the green range for his pants or red. Either would keep your palette limited, which is a good thing because it will help maintain the quietness of the pose in the overall image. Going to some other colour range would make the pants just pop out as a focal point, which is not what you are trying to achieve.
    It’s an interesting visual problem, which is why I decided to blather on about it.
    I’m glad to see that you are working on this finally. I’ve been waiting patiently to see how you would approach it and where you would go with it and thoroughly enjoyed how you played with it and talked about it, too.
    Thanks so much for sharing your process.
    Sounds like you have a good handle on what you are doing.

  4. fencer Says:

    Hi lookingforbeauty,

    Thanks a lot for your comments, especially how to consider some of the visual connections you describe… it’s great to hear from someone more accomplished about these things!

    I’ve been thinking that I’d make the pants a lighter warm neutral of some kind — to keep a sense of the folds in fabric that I might lose if I made them too dark — and go for a reddish-orange-rust in the torso or shirt. The whole color scheme, warm and cool dimensions, I haven’t quite got to grips with yet, but I’m definitely going with a limited palette of some kind…

    Almost ready for the next post, another trial sketch or two to go.


  5. Demy Says:

    That’s a very interesting transformation – I’ve never been much of a fan of digitally enhanced photos but I can see how digital enhancements bring out the elements of the original photo. Looking forward to your future work.

  6. fencer Says:

    Hi Demy,

    Thanks for stopping by… I’ve got a couple of more color
    sketches to do, and then I should be ready to see where I’ve gotten to!


  7. […] Fencer in his blog was playing around with some photos to use as a basis for a watercolor painting and delved into monochrome versions as a way to analyse the scene. Lookingforbeauty describes art works that while not exactly black and white, still work with a reduced palette of just two tones. […]

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