Turn Snapshots into Art

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Ever watch a street-fair artist make a convincing sketch right on the spot? It's a great skill, but surprisingly not all artists have it. As cartoonist Robert Crumb said, "You say you can't draw a straight line? Don't let those artists fool you. They all use rulers." Not only do they use rulers–artists also use photo references to help them draw more accurately.

For computer-based illustrators, tracing over photos is a great way to create realistic drawings quickly. By combining parts of different photos, you can make custom illustrations that aren't limited to the imagery in a single photo. This is the technique I used to create the image of the coffeepot, cup and saucer, and teapot.

For this project I used three found photographs, a Microtek ScanMaker II HR scanner, Adobe Photoshop 5.0, an Apple LaserWriter II printer, a light table, Adobe Illustrator 8.0, Adobe Streamline 3.1, a number 2 pencil, and matte acetate.

I scanned in the photos, increased the contrast, and used Photoshop's Unsharp Mask filter to emphasize the edges of the objects. Then I printed the images, traced them on my light table, and scanned the sketches back into Photoshop. I converted the images to PostScript paths in Adobe Streamline and then used Illustrator to create the composition and add color.

Next I brought the composed image into Photoshop and used filters and layers to add texture and depth to the final illustration. The whole process took little more than two hours, and the time I spent drawing by hand was a welcome break from my daily computer work.


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2 Next I printed out the black-and-white photos on my laser printer, slapped each one onto my light table, and covered them with matte-surfaced acetate. I traced over the prints with a number 2 pencil, following the edges of the objects and making sure my pencil marks were dark and solid. I used solid black lines to enclose all areas I planned to fill with color, leaving no line breaks to allow bleeding. Then I scanned in the pencil drawings and opened them in Photoshop.
3 At this point I could have combined the three sketches in Photoshop and added bitmapped color and texture. But I decided to develop the images further in Adobe Illustrator, so I used Adobe Streamline to autotrace each scanned drawing and convert it to PostScript paths. I used the Outline method, setting the Tolerance to Tight to pick up as much detail as possible.
4 I opened each PostScript drawing in Illustrator, and sized and positioned them in a single Illustrator file to create a pleasing composition. Next I filled the white shapes inside the black lines with solid colors. Then I imported the gray-scale TIFF version of each object to use as a reference for drawing the table edge and shadows, and filled the shadows with solid colors. This produced a flat, smooth-textured piece of art.

5 To add texture, I opened the finished Illustrator EPS in Photoshop and experimented with various filters. I made a softly textured version by applying the Rough Pastel filter, and a black-and-white version by applying the Charcoal filter. Then I placed each of these versions in separate layers in a single Photoshop file. I put the black-and-white version in the top layer and set it to 50 percent opacity in Overlay mode.

6 The final result is an image with pleasing shapes; a softened, textured effect; and interesting color artifacts.

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