Re-create the Past

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Countdown to 2000 Craig uses a palette that includes only seven dark colors, but his detailed application of color gives the piece beauty and impact. His lasso-and-fill technique, with its sometimes painstaking pixel-by-pixel selection, preserves the detail in the original images. His patience pays off, as does his artful use of turn-of-the-century images to provide a nostalgic look at this century's passing.

Creating authentic-looking period pieces requires the right touch–details, color, and images must all add to the effect. Graphic artist and illustrator John Craig creates collages with that in mind. He combs antique stores and estate sales for vintage wood engravings, photos, and illustrations. His work goes further than appearing nostalgic; he uses digital tools to mimic old-fashioned production techniques.

Craig started making vintage collages years ago without any help from computers. But the work process he established then still affects how he works with a digital system. In the beginning, he used a stat camera to photograph engravings and images, pasted them up by hand, and colorized the whole image with Pantone film overlays. He also experimented with different ways to use film. For instance, he noticed that using the acetate side of the film gave his collages a cream-colored, aged-looking background. Now that digital tools are so powerful, he includes them in his process but still relies on some of his original hands-on techniques. He has also kept his original color palette so that his digital creations maintain that nostalgic feel.

Craig creates each composition manually, scans it, and colorizes it in Photoshop. He converts his scan to bitmap format, restoring the image to line art while preserving its details. Converting an image to a bitmap lets him later selectively apply color by lassoing only those details in the original line art that he wants to colorize.

For this project, Craig used a Canon CJ10 scanner/printer/photocopier and Adobe Photoshop 5 running on a Power Mac G3. You can see more of his work at http://www.theispot.com/artist/craig.

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1) For this composition, done for a travel magazine's survey of worldwide millennium celebrations, Craig began with illustrations taken from antique novelty and party-supply catalogs. He cut out the images, sized them on a photocopier, and created a collage.

2) Setting his scanner to ensure high contrast, he scanned the image and converted it to a bitmap and then back to gray scale for editing. He used Photoshop's pencil and lasso tools to clean up stray lines.

3) In Photoshop, Craig began with a parchment color as the background, placed the scanned line art on another layer, and chose Preserve Transparency so that Photoshop would apply color only to black pixels within the areas he would be selecting. He then created a third layer for his highlight colors. Using the line-art layer as a guide, he traced various items (such as the balloons) in the collage with the lasso tool and filled them with light colors. He derives some of these tints from the darker colors in his palette and some from secondary colors, giving tone and depth to the highlights without competing with the richness of the darker colors.

4) Craig then filled all noncolored areas with a gold tone. Note that the cream base is still visible in the moon face and selected fireworks centers.

5) Next Craig colored the entire line-art layer red (using Fill); he then selectively colored the balloons, bells, fireworks, and portions of the background with the darker colors in his palette. To select each item, he used the lasso tool, and he simply used the paint bucket for shapes that were fully outlined in the original engraving. Craig wanted a deeper background tint, so he created a new layer and gave it a butterscotch fill. Finding that a bit too dark, he added another layer of white with an opacity of 50 percent.

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