William H. Hays lives and works in Brattleboro, Vermont. He and his wife, Patricia Long, spend their summers in Liverpool, Nova Scotia where Hays paints maritime landscapes. He is an accomplished print maker and portrait painter as well as a landscape artist. His work is represented in the Elaine Beckwith Gallery in Jamaica, VT, ADJA Studio and Gallery in Liverpool, Nova Scotia and the Art Sales and Rental Gallery at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax. He also operates a The Artist's Loft Gallery (and studio) as well as a one-suite bed and breakfast in Brattleboro, Vermont. During the summer months his gallery/studio is open in Liverpool, Nova Scotia. There is an extensive online gallery showing the breadth of Hays' work at www.theartistsloft.com.

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"Computers For The Traditional Artist"

by William H. Hays
Published on the web
February, 2004

My experience is that digital imaging tools have been slow to be picked up by a large proportion of the traditional arts community. I say this knowing that some have taken to digital manipulation of images quite naturally. But most artists who work in traditional media of painting and sculpture have been less likely to see beyond the very daunting task of learning to untie the Gordian knot of the desktop computer. The many step-by-step processes required to get from point A to point B can easily overwhelm anyone. But the practical applications for traditional artists make the effort of learning well worthwhile.

Most visual artists who are learning digital imaging are quick to pick up the cut-and-paste applications of imaging programs. Novices frequently start their learning with an initial flurry of surrealistic images where a piece is taken from one image and blended into or pasted on top of another. As one learns more about the capabilities of digital imaging programs, the deeper applications present some surprising opportunities for addressing your work on the easel.

We all regularly reach the point in our work where we have questions about what direction to pursue. Your latest painting may need something that you can’t quite identify. Taking a picture of the painting at this stage and putting it into your computer accomplishes two things. First, it removes the image from the three dimensional object, flattens it and lessens texture and detail. It is surprising how this simple exercise changes the way we see a painting in progress. Sometimes just seeing the work on the monitor wakes up our muse and we can proceed with the newly apparent solution. Second, putting the image on your computer allows you to make almost unlimited changes to the painting without doing any damage to the work on the easel.

You may want to see what a painting will look like if you modify or eliminate some part or passage of the work. Your composition can be modified by electronically drawing on the image with your mouse or stylus. Simple line drawings and cartoons on top of the image can show you how the work might change on the easel. This type manipulation is easily accomplished, if somewhat crude. More complicated explorations can include changing the relationships of scale and position within a work. Say a house placed in your landscape seems out of scale. By selecting the house and putting it on a transparent “layer” above the original you can change the size, the placement, the shape and even look at changes in perspective.

This painting needed extensive reworking at this point. I
wanted to look at opening up the background, changing the lighting, changing
the composition of snow patterns, and eliminating the feeling that the viewer
is hovering above the brook.

At this point I have completed most of the first three
objectives and need to explore the “hovering” problem. The bottom center
foreground is noticeably soft because the newly added snow is quickly drawn in
with the mouse. I borrowed color, tone and texture from the surrounding snow
already painted. This solution on the computer guided me into completing the
composition on the easel.

“Crest of the Falls” (oil on canvas 48” x 39”)
In the completed painting, the over-painted foreground gives
the viewer terra firma on which to stand and a better lead-in to
the simplified composition.

This kind of structural manipulation of a painting saves time and effort while providing an almost unlimited palette of possibilities to look at a painting in progress. More complicated changes can also be explored. For instance, there may be an imbalance in your choice of colors. This kind of problem can be very difficult to envision because of the effect one color has against another. It can also be very difficult to go back once a change (such as glazing) has been started.

A digital image of your painting can be made to shift from warm to cool overall or only in parts. Changes can be made by selecting an area and modifying the color within the chosen location only. Better yet, the modifications can range through the entire scope of the spectrum in a moment – and back again. The resulting effect on the chromatic balance of your work can be seen right away.


“Deep Forest Falls” (oil on panel 16” x 23”) had reached the
point where I felt the visual space was flat. I decided to explore
changing the color relationship between the foreground and background.


I explored putting a digital glaze of cobalt blue and red
madder over the background and mid ground shadow area. To do this I first made
a selection of the areas I wanted to glaze (shown outlined in black). By using
a transparent layer above the original, I was able to digitally apply the
effects of glazing.


The changes on the easel went much further than I originally
planned. But the work on the computer showed me how I could achieve a more
interesting relationship between the foreground and background than in the
previous state of the painting.

Most portrait painters will reluctantly admit to using photographs of their subjects. Even when relying primarily on sessions with the model, photographs are a convenient record to use in the model’s absence. Few tools in portraiture are as useful, especially when initially drawing the subject on canvas. Using the photo helps the artist retain the structural relationships that are so important in portraiture.

Gridding a photo to transfer the image onto a gridded canvas has been a tool of artists since the beginning of photography. The computer simply makes the process faster, easier, more convenient and less expensive.

Once the painting is started, problems with facial structure and proportion can be looked at with relative ease. By a digital image of your painting in process and overlaying it onto the original source photograph, a quick comparison is accurate and informative. If you make the overlay of your painting semitransparent, you can look at exactly where your painting is going wrong and make changes to correct it while still in the early stages of the work. Of course, you can also look at changes in backgrounds along with tonal and color variations wherever you choose.


The original source photo for “Mary Bourne” (detail)
gridded off and ready to transfer.


This image is a composite of the original source photo under
a semi-transparent overlay of an initial stage of the painting. You will note
that the mouth and overall body position appear to fit right into the source
photo. The eyes and nose, however, are out of alignment and need to be moved.


Having trouble with the shape of her glasses, I traced them
from the original photo and transferred them (along with the original grid)
onto a later stage of the painting to reference changes to their shape and
size.


The final painting, “Mary Bourne” (detail) oil on canvas 38” x 28”

As one might suspect from this quick review, there are many more possibilities for using computers to help you in the process of creating your work of art. The program that I use, Photoshop® by Adobe, is a very deep program that continues to reveal new ways I can look at images – even after 13 years of using it! Along with the aforementioned tools for working out a painting in process, there are more basic tasks that are simplified using computers and digital images.

Recording your work in 35mm slides has been a standard for artists for many years. While digital photos of your work cannot not yet reach the subtlety of color and high definition of film, the images are still quite useful for print and the web. I (reluctantly) continue to photograph my work in slides since the format is still what most galleries and competitions request. But the digital images have given me a new way of showing work to collectors and galleries by putting together a CD ROM slide presentation of my work. The results are fantastic! I consider looking at digital images on a good monitor to be far superior to looking at 35mm slides (not to mention easier). Inexpensive slide show programs can be purchased online. But you must keep in mind that each new program has to be learned and they are not necessarily easy.

One CD can easily carry well over 100 large images. They can be organized in categories. They can be introduced with title pages. They can be labeled within the image or in a neutral border outside of the image. You can also include any written materials on the CD – resume, artist’s statement, text of articles, etc. The only problem here is getting gallery owners used to the new medium – they are used to looking at sheets of slides. I have heard some gallery owners say they feel that the artists’ works might not be truly represented in digital format. Since I go to great lengths to make sure that the images I present are accurate, I have trouble understanding that particular concern. Plus, I have seen many a 35mm slide that does not represent a painting accurately – especially in a format less than one inch wide.

I don’t need to tell anyone what web sites can mean for an artist. They have quickly become an important tool in marketing your work. Having control over the creation of the images is very helpful in presenting your best face to the world. The monetary savings of creating your own digital images of paintings add up very quickly. If you are having someone prepare images for you now, you may want to consider the investment of learning to do it yourself.

All of this comes at a price: time and money. You have to invest in the software and hardware. But more than that, you have to invest your time in learning to use the programs. This is not easy. However, I am convinced than any artist who has the desire to, can learn, regardless of age. Remember that on computers, they still call the tools names like “brush”, “eraser”, “pen” and other borrowed terms from our profession. As an artist, you have an advantage at the start because you have already learned visual literacy. Now you just need to apply those lessons to a new medium – the computer.



"Self Portrait, Oil on Panel, 16" x 23"

William H. Hays lives and works in Brattleboro, Vermont. He and his wife, Patricia Long, spend their summers in Liverpool, Nova Scotia where Hays paints his maritime scenes. He is also an accomplished portrait painter. His work is represented in the Elaine Beckwith Gallery in Jamaica, VT, ADJA Studio in Liverpool, Nova Scotia and the Art Sales and Rental Gallery at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax. He also operates a gallery/studio and one-suite bed and breakfast. There is an extensive online gallery of Hays' work at www.theartistsloft.com.


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