How I Work As a Digital Artist: Graphics Software

Graphics software for a digital artist is like a favorite pair of jeans — once you’ve broken them in, you’re loathe to get a new pair and start the process of breaking them in all over again.

Being a computer geek on top of being a digital artist, I’ve done my fair share of demoing the various software out there for creating art. The hard part about a 30-day demo (or even purchasing new software outright) is that often I have deadlines to meet and my habits and productivity are so entrenched in my current setup that I find it tough to really dig in and give new software offerings a chance. I barely find the time to even try out the new features of the software I am already using.

All of which is a long way of saying that my digital studio is Adobe-based — Photoshop for sketching and drawing, Illustrator for vector art, and InDesign for the occasional design needs I have that are better accomplished in dedicated layout software than cobbling it together in Illustrator (which I definitely do as well). I am currently using the basic CS6 Creative Suite; as of this writing I have not upgraded to the new Creative Cloud subscription-based version Adobe has recently introduced. More on that later.

As discussed in the previous Creative Pro article focusing on the digital art computer peripherals I use, the Wacom Intuos4 tablet is an integral part of my software choice. And Wacom and Adobe products work extremely well together, which is unsurprising considering their legacy and recognition in the digital art industry. This is a Big Deal™ for us artists, because there is nothing worse than a laggy, feature-lacking, and frustrating experience with drawing digitally. For me, Wacom and Adobe are a fluid and seamless whole. Even on my older Mac Pro, the tools got out of my way and let me focus on creating art — key for a digital art set up. This also relates to the setup of your core computer system (discussed earlier in this series),

My basic workflow goes as follows:

• Get a rough sketch down with good old paper and pencil. I like to sketch with a lead holder/clutch pencil and laser paper — it scans nice and flat, and I like the tooth and texture for quick sketches.

• Snap a photo with my iPhone, and then upload to a special Dropbox folder which my Mac “watches” (via third-party software utility Hazel). Once the file syncs to the Mac, Hazel will run an AppleScript which opens the file in Photoshop and runs a custom Action which I put together for sketch prep. All of this will be discussed in detail in a future article. To keep it simple, you can just email the photo to yourself to follow along at home.

• Once I have the sketch in Photoshop and prepped for the cleanup sketch, I get to work on cleaning up the artwork using Photoshop and my Wacom Intuos4 graphics tablet. Photoshop’s Rotate View tool, Drag-Resize Brush Cursor keyboard shortcuts and Spring-Loaded Keys feature are a huge part of me having been able to switch over to a more fully-digital workflow back when they were introduced in Photoshop CS4. See these videos I put together back then for a quick demo of how they work:

Photoshop CS4: Rotate View Tool Overview from George Coghill on Vimeo.

Photoshop CS4: Drag-Resize Brush Keyboard Shortcut from George Coghill on Vimeo.

Photoshop CS4: Spring-Loaded Keys from George Coghill on Vimeo.

• When cleaning up sketches in Photoshop, I will use as much non-destructive editing as I can, so my sketch file is as flexible as possible for the inevitable client revisions. Layers, Layer Masks, duplicating layers and Layer Groups play a major role in this. I also automate any recurring and repetitive tasks with the Actions in Photoshop’s arsenal. Nearly all of these are custom-built.

• Since my typical client workflow ends with the artwork created as vector art, I always finalize my sketches to a very high level of completeness so the vector art creation holds very little in the way of surprises. I make it clear to clients that all major edits should be done prior to moving on to the vector art stage.

• Vector art creation is relatively straightforward, I mostly use the Pen tool, but I’ve been coming around to using the Shapebuilder tool quite often these days thanks to being enlightened to some of its less-obvious features by Adobe Illustrator guru (and CreativePro author) Sharon Steuer of the Illustrator WOW! advanced vector art techniques book series. I also rely heavily on the Appearance panel, which I feel is one of the most powerful additions to Illustrator since I started wrangling paths back in version 8. I’m also a big fan of the Eraser tool. As with Photoshop, custom Actions play a major role in my creation process.

I keep my digital tool set pretty minimalist. Photoshop and Illustrator seem to serve my needs and wants pretty well. The biggest factor in switching to Photoshop for digital sketching was the Rotate View tool. Being able to move the canvas around like that is essential to working digitally. I really wish it existed in Illustrator as well. Just like in real life, one should draw with the natural motion of the body, not work against it and adapt. I think this is why I never got into the brushes in Adobe Illustrator — I had to learn all these awkward and painful contortions to get the kind of control over the lines I want.

In keeping with the spirit of this series being and introduction for the up-and-coming digital artist out there, I should point out that your tools should not define you. You do not need to use expensive software, or the latest version of the software, to create art digitally. I will say that sometimes the features added or available in the newer or higher-priced programs are game-changers as far as how one works (such as the Rotate View tool in Photoshop that I can’t shut up about).

That said, I got started before any of this stuff was introduced, and there are many artists out there working digitally that are using surprisingly old software and computers. I like to think of software as an investment. I’m not against spending the money for it, but I also don’t just upgrade every single time a new version comes out.

For Adobe-based digital artists, this is changing with the introduction of the subscription-based Creative Cloud software distribution. You subscribe to an Adobe account, and you get access to all of the software they develop. The upside is that
you always have the newest version, and Adobe can offer more frequent updates new features. The downside is that if you ever stop your subscription, you may not have the software to open or edit those files you created while you were a subscriber. For those like me who usually upgraded every other major version, that means we are forced to pay twice as much as we used to.

I worked out the match once, and if you were to upgrade the basic version every major release, you were paying about the same as a year of subscriptions costs now. That sounds more than fair. But not having software that can open and edit the files once the subscription ends is deeply troubling to me.

Eventually, I will have no other choice. I am sure also that features will be added that I will just not want to work without. When that time comes, I will wrestle with that decision. But for now, I am sticking with my legacy CS6 version. I’ve dabbled with the CC versions. They are nice. But nothing that compelling has enticed me to turn over to paying for use of software I can’t keep using indefinitely. I think Adobe should have some sort of method to allow you to keep the version you were at once your subscription reaches a certain length — 18 months perhaps. You can bow out and keep the software at that version level. You basically paid for a full license in the old model at that point.

So to recap the basic points form this article:

• Adobe and Wacom products work great together. I am a fan and that’s what I use

• my workflow starts analog, on paper

• the digital workflow starts with an iPhone photo of the rough sketch, which is cleaned up in Photoshop along with my Wacom tablet

• vector art, when created, is done in Illustrator from a very finished sketch created in Photoshop.

• you do not need the best, newest or greatest art software, but it can often make a positive difference in your workflow

Next Month: Software Part 2 — Utility Software

In the next part of this ongoing series, I’ll discuss the non-graphics software I use to create and manage my artwork and files, and to automate other non-creative aspects of my freelance artist business.

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Posted on: January 21, 2015

George Coghill

George Coghill is a freelance illustrator specializing in cartoon logo design. Visit his website, coghillcartooning.com

2 Comments on How I Work As a Digital Artist: Graphics Software

  1. I’ve really been enjoying this series by George Coghill. He writes well, I like his approach and attitude and it’s very helpful to me to hear someone talking shop about the tools and issues that we all grapple with. I’ve enjoyed the series so far and look forward to future installments. Thank you! peterwdesign.

  2. Thanks for the kind words Peter, glad to hear you’re enjoying the articles! 

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