A good friend and fellow illustrator told me about a critique he overheard, and there are a few things that I'd like to comment on. The critique was between two guys who work digitally and for the purposes of this entry, we'll call the guy giving the critique, Bob, and call the guy getting the critique, Stan.
So, Bob's sitting at his table at a convention and Stan walks up to him. They have a conversation that mostly consists of shop talk and invariably leads to Stan asking Bob to take a look at his portfolio. Stan whips his book out like there's no tomorrow and Bob takes a few minutes to peruse the work and let it make some impressions. Finally, Bob starts his critique as Stan listens intently. During the critique, Bob explains to Stan that there is a certain sameness to the various substances in his work. Trees feel like they are made of the same stuff as rocks. Flesh feels no different from metal, which looks as though it could just as easily be fabric.
Stan looks worried, but Bob offers up a suggestion. Since Stan works digitally, Bob tells him that he should just take pictures of metal and add them as a separate layer over any metal objects he might be trying to depict. He suggests taking photos of rock and working that in as a layer under his mountains and cliffs. In short, Bob is suggesting that Stan add texture where there is none and begin to differentiate the various substances he is trying to portray.
Sounds simple enough, right? Well, it's this advice that I want to talk about, and I somehow think that no matter what I write, I'll be digging a hole. But continue to write, I shall.
I will state at this point that I am not anti-digital. I believe that a good image is a good image, whether scrawled in the blood of virgins with the tip of a vampire steak, or cobbled together with ones and zeros by robots on the verge of sentience. I will look at anything once and if it's a good image, I'll likely look at it at least twice, but I'm not going to hold the medium against the artist. After all, there are people who still use an airbrush, and I don't hold that against them!
The practice of using layers of texture to liven the digital surface is a pretty common practice, and it's one that I completely understand. Digital painting, on its own, has the potential to be cold and a little too clean, which can turn a viewer off. To add the necessary texture that the viewer's brain expects to see, layers of grit from various sources are often employed. Some might call this a shortcut, or go as far as to call it cheating. Whatever. It is what it is. I can add texture almost as fast in oils buy employing all kinds of tricks and no one labels it as harshly. I really don't see the difference.
So, I hope I've made in clear that I don't take issue with the use of texture layers in digital work (thought I must say that I prefer it when folks create their own texture). However, it just might be possible that Bob's advice to Stan wasn't the soundest. To me, lack of differentiation in substances is more of a fundamentals issue — an issue of drawing and painting. Adding the textures to help make trees feel like trees and metal feel like metal is fine and all, but it doesn't change the fact that Stan wasn't able to do it with his drawing and painting. Suggesting that adding textures will solve his problem is a crutch when what Stan really might need is to learn how to walk.
For my money, the best digital work out there is still primarily fueled by the fundamentals of drawing and painting. If you took their computers away, the artists who do this great work could still produce some amazing art. While I understand the desire to speed things up and cut as many shorts as possible, fundamentals are still essential — and I believe that being able to make clear the "treeness" of a tree and the "rockness" of a rock is all part of that. Perhaps this is where Stan's work is falling short, and it is entirely probable that if Stan took the time to really get his drawing and painting down, he might not need these specific texture layers, or at the very least have developed the sensibilities to employ them more deftly.
Texture layers are not inherently bad. Brushes specifically designed to create leaves on trees, or links in chain mail aren't inherently bad. Step and repeat isn't inherently bad. But, knowing how and when to use these features is the challenge, and I think true understanding of the how and when comes from a good foundation (and a healthy breakfast — seriously, I'm starting to sound like someone's Mom).
So was Bob wrong for suggesting what he did? Maybe. Maybe not. I think Bob gave Stan the only advice he knew how to give, or perhaps the advice he felt was kindest. It is really difficult to look an aspiring artist in the eye and tell them that they need to beef up their drawing skills. No one wants to do that, and it would be hard to hold that against Bob if that's what he was doing. It might have been prudent for Bob to have suggested more than one avenue for Stan to explore, but that's just my take on things.
Of course, at the end of the day, all of this is rendered completely moot if Stan's true desire was to have a more collage-like feel to his work. If that was the case, then I guess I've completely wasted everyone's time, and you should probably go about your business.