Creating the Cover Art for One April in Boston
Traditional vs. Digital Painting—How my methods have evolved over the past two decades
by Cortney Skinner | 12.11.19
It was about 20 years ago when Ben Edwards commissioned me to create some silhouettes, pen and ink interior illustrations, and a full-color cover painting for his new book, One April in Boston. At the time, I was living in the historic town of Arlington, Massachusetts, only yards from where the British and minutemen clashed 224 years before. Ben and I started the project at the beginning of the internet and the digital era, and so our conversations, exchange of ideas, and meetings about the project took place in person, over the phone, and by snail mail.
The cover painting was created in oils using traditional methods. It began with preliminary sketches in pencil to arrange the composition of the cover elements and then taking reference photos based on those sketches. At the same time, careful research was being done on the historical aspects of the architecture, the clothing, and uniforms to be in the painting, as well as the weapons and accouterments carried by the British grenadier.
The photo above shows the cover painting along with some of the reference photos—some I took while I still lived near Boston. My friend Henry posed as the 18th-century Bostonian, but I changed the style and color of his suit so that it wouldn’t match the red of the grenadier’s coat. Ten-year-old Mark Schmidt posed as young Ben Edwards. As you can see, several adjustments and changes had to be made within the painting to alter Mark’s modern suit into one of 1775. Mark and his sister Lynelle served as models for Ben and Betsey Edwards throughout the book. I was living in Hollywood when I took the reference photo for the British grenadier, with my friend Frank posing. Much of the clothing and accouterments he wore had to be corrected during the painting process—including substituting the cardboard tube for a “Brown Bess” musket of the type carried by the British in Boston in 1775.
Traditional oil painting is a time-intensive procedure. The sketch must be finalized into a master drawing, and then that drawing transferred or redrawn onto the painting surface after that surface is carefully prepared to take the oil paint. Before the final painting is even begun, a color study must be created—which is another painting altogether—though done in a more sketchy and rapid manner in order to figure out the colors, contrasts, and color temperature that will be used in the final painting. It’s easier to figure out those critical particulars in the color study than during the process of the final painting.
You can see in the photo above some of the two dozen oil paints I use, which are alkyd oils that handle like traditional oils but dry faster (in about 8 hours) allowing for a more rapid painting process. Many different brushes are also used. Without getting into too much detail, it can be said that traditional oil painting employs dozens of “working parts” and many steps: the underpainting, many layers of paint on top of preliminary layers, maintaining and cleaning the brushes, mixing the paint with certain mediums for various effects or “brush-ability,” and—of course, when something doesn’t look right—laborious wiping off or repainting over what is needed to be changed.
One other detail about traditional painting is that if you would like to change something—alter the color, hue, contrast, or, indeed, the position of any element in the painting—it must be over-painted or completely repainted. This can add hours or indeed days to the project.
Finally, once time is taken for the final protective glaze to dry, the finished painting must be packaged carefully and sent out by mail (hopefully, without damage) to the client. The client must then commission a photographer to shoot negatives which will be used for the printing process. More steps are required to prepare the negatives for the press.
In the years since that painting was created, I’ve added “digital paint” to my methods of creating illustrations for my clients. You can see in the photo above that the tools have been simplified; a stylus and tablet are employed, which simulate how the brush interacts with paint and the painting surface. I use both Photoshop and Corel Painter (seen on the computer screen). As far as the time-saving aspects of digital paint go—there’s no switching between “brushes,” no cleaning with thinner, wiping on rags, or juggling the many brushes in use. Choosing colors is a straightforward prospect with no contending with paint tubes, mixing on the palette, and, naturally, there’s no time taken for the paint to dry or to constantly remix to get the desired color. Various techniques can be tested, and if they don’t work, a simple “undo” takes one back a step or more.
The master sketch can be brought into the painting on its own “layer” as can reference photos and material. Unlike traditional painting, each element in a digital painting exists on its own layer separate from the other elements, which allows a single element to be moved or altered in size, it’s contrast, hue, or color changed, etc. This frees the artist to continually tweak and adjust the components as they go—in essence, keeping the painting in a sort of “flux” and allowing improvements to be made right up to the time it’s sent to the client.
Finally, sending the artwork to the client requires only a click of the mouse—no packaging, no possible damage during transit—and from there, the client can send the digital file directly to the printer.
Though I still enjoy traditional painting for personal projects, the demands of commercial illustration can be better undertaken through digital painting, with my personal preference being to simulate the rich and brushy paint strokes of traditional oils by employing digital brushes. Modern tools can create traditional art.