Marta Dec – your friendly book designer, always here to help you make your book a reality.

Piła/Poznań, Poland
marta@martadec.eu

Tutorial: My artwork feels off; how to fix it?

Have you ever felt that there is something fundamentally wrong with your artwork?

I think each of us has been in this situation before. Imagine: you’ve been looking at the same image for hours on end, fiddling with this and that, but still you can’t shake the feeling that something is off, not right – flawed. Is it your imposter syndrome? …maybe. Is it your brain telling you that it’s four AM and it’s time to go to sleep? Also, maybe (look at the clock, won’t you?).

But maybe there’s another reason – one that’s hard to see, especially if you really have been looking at the same image for hours. Our brains have the tendency to accept what we have in front of our eyes for a longer period of time as correct – this is why writers are often advised to let texts sit in their drawers for a while and then do revisions, and why digital artists often flip canvases to check for mistakes.

This blindness can affect anyone – beginner and professional alike. But if you are a beginner, there are some basic checks that might help you figure out what the problem actually is – and some simple tricks that might help you fix it.

Values

Value is basically how light or dark something is, on a scale from pure white to pure black. If your artwork feels flat, ask yourself – is there enough contrast in the image? Are the highlights light enough, and shadows dark enough? Are you using different values for your foreground and background elements?

To figure that out, try putting a Black&White Adjustment Layer on top of your artwork – see if the thing that need to “pop” do so also without the distraction of colours.

One of the tricks I use very often is an Overlay or Soft Light layer placed on top of my artwork, often on low opacity. With a big, round, soft brush, I add contrast in strategic places – for example, if the most important element of the artwork is in the centre, I might darken the edges and lighten the middle slightly. This will help me lead the viewer’s eye to what I want them to focus on.

Other things to read up on that might help you: atmospheric perspective, foreground, middleground and background.

Lighting

When you’re working on a photomanipulation, it’s often impossible to find photos that all have the same type of lighting going in the exact same direction as you need it to. Obviously, it’s best to avoid choosing images that have lighting that differs drastically, but there are moments where that’s not exactly possible.

There are two main things to check here:

  • Does the lighting go into the same direction on all the photos you used, and is it consistent with the light source(s) that you’re using in the image?
  • Is the type of lighting the same all over?

Obviously, different sort of lighting setups will require a different approach – something, the light will be harsh and so the shadows will have sharp edges; sometimes, it’ll be soft and require low contrast. A while back, I wrote a tutorial on different types of lighting – here’s where you can find it: [link].

Photomanipulation showing a cat and mouse sitting on a street. The lighting in the artwork is off.
An older image of mine from 2007 – the lighting is too soft on the clock, and the cat’s shadow doesn’t affect the mouse.

Other things to pay attention to:

  • Are all the objects casting shadows that affect not only the background, but also each other? A common mistake is, for example, forgetting about shadows that should be cast on the model by hair that the artist painted in.
  • Are you remembering that complex objects have different planes? Another common mistake is to use a big, soft brush to paint in lighting overall. That might work in some cases, but most objects are not flat and should not be shaded this way. Take a look at the planes of a human head and how they react to lighting – here’s a great resource created by William Nguyen: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/GX3Ax1. Try simplifying all the objects into similar planes in your imagination – that might help you light them correctly!
  • Did you take into account that some surfaces are reflective (and so reflect light more intensely) and some aren’t?

Remember also that lighting is a very complex subject, so keep in mind that it takes a long time to master it – don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t getting it right just yet. Just keep learning!

Helpful resource: “Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter” by James Gurney.

Things to read up on: reflective materials, bounce light, rim light, lighting in different environments

Colours

What’s one of the most important things to remember about colours? That they influence one another.

If, for example, your character is out in a sunny field with an intensely blue sky overhead, the sky will cause the light falling on your character to have a blue tint. If your character is holding a red beach ball, the light bouncing off of the ball on their hands and body will be red. Take that into account when adjusting colours of different photos so that they match – often it’s not enough to make a general adjustment.

For example, if you’re placing your model in a new environment, take a look at both the general colours of the background and at how particular objects in it affect each other – and adjust colours of your new element accordingly.

However, if you are struggling with general colours, here’s a trick that will help you match them quickly and correctly:

Perspective

The images we use are often taken by different photographers and from different perspectives. That’s another reason why some elements may look off when placed on a new background.

One thing that many people struggle with is figuring out the size that their character should be in the new scene. There are a few tricks that might help you with that – and they all or described in this awesome tutorial by [AT]kiolia – https://www.deviantart.com/kiolia/art/Placing-Figures-in-Perspective-182640378!

Photoshop also has some really great tools that help a lot when trying to match perspectives of two different images. One of them is Perspective Wrap – which you can use is you have any version of Photoshop CC. Here’s a good tutorial that explains how it works:

If you’re working on a complicated piece with many elements, it’s also good to use a perspective grid. You can make one yourself using the line tool, or use the Polygon tool – here’s how to do that: https://www.deviantart.com/iingo/journal/How-to-Make-an-Easy-Perspective-Grid-on-Photoshop-572542052.

If you don’t want to do this yourself though, here’s a helpful plugin, which is called Perspective Tools: https://gumroad.com/l/MESl. It costs $15, but it allows you to create various grids quickly and efficiently.

Composition

Last thing on our list – composition. The most fool-proof method of making sure that the composition isn’t the element that is making you feel queasy is following one of the age-old techniques:

  1. Rule of thirds – where the most important elements should be placed at the points where lines cross.
Photomanipulation with a wounded mermaid, showing a composition based on the rule of thirds.
  1. Centered – with the most important element in the middle of the image.
Photomanipulation with a dragon curled around a tower, showing an example of a centred composition.
  1. Golden Triangles – works similarly to the rule of thirds, but is based on triangles.
Painting by Franz Snyders, showing a composition based on golden triangles.
Franz Snyders, “Dogs fighting”. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_triangle_(composition)#
  1. Golden Ratio – where the scene is contained within a spiral.
A painting by Sandro Botticcelli, showing a composition based on the golden spiral.
Sandro Botticcelli, “The Birth of Venus”, source: https://teachingthroughtheartsblog.wordpress.com

Tip: When using the Crop Tool in Photoshop, you can use an overlay of every one of these methods.

Other methods of making composition more interesting? Here you go!

  • Use leading lines. Try making various objects and background elements point towards the point you want the viewer to take interest in. In the artwork below, I used plants and fish to make sure the model’s face is in the centre of attention.
A photomanipulation showing a dark-skinned mermaid, an example of using leading lines in composition.
  • Line of sight. Humans naturally focus on faces of other humans, and the direction they’re looking into. If you want to signal that an object in your scene is especially important, make all the characters look directly towards it.
  • Rule of odds. An odd number of subjects in the image will appear more interesting to the viewer than an even number. For example, if you want to draw attention to a particular point in the landscape, try placing three trees there instead of two.
  • Think about the angle. A good method to make a scene feel more dynamic is making it angled.
A photomanipulation/fanart for Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden series, showing  how to use lines of action.
  • Consider lines of action. If the characters in your artwork are in dynamic poses, the viewer’s eyes will naturally follow the implied lines – arcs – of their movements. Use that to focus their attention on the elements you want to stand out.

That’s it!

I hope this tutorial helped you a bit – maybe you even discovered that one thing that you needed to fix?