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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: Polishing Hand-Drawn Illustrations in Photoshop

Forty-five years ago when I started as a writer, editor, photographer, and layout person in publications, I was in college. I was also studying fine arts, learning how to draw and paint. Until I started using this fine arts training in the art therapy work I now do with my fiancee, my skills had lain somewhat dormant. After all, I needed to make a living, and publications work offered solvency whereas painting and drawing did not.

So it was interesting last week to come full circle with a new graphic design client who needed spot illustrations for her self-published print book.

I was already realizing while preparing sample drawings and paintings for my fiancee’s and my art therapy classes that I still had the skills I had honed four decades prior. I also learned about the illustrative effects (illustration as opposed to fine arts) I could achieve with gouache (opaque watercolors, which are ideal for commercial illustrations). With all of this in mind I did some sample drawings of eggplants for my client’s print book, and we were off and running. Now I am also a book illustrator.

A Learning Experience

At this point, you may be asking yourself how my situation pertains to yours. Presumably if you are a graphic designer, or if you work with graphic designers, you understand that layout and illustration are two different skills. When I was an art director, I used to hire (or subcontract to) different people to perform these two functions. (It’s a little bit like the 1980s, during the advent of music videos and MTV, when people assumed a musician could make an unforgettable music video just because she or he could sing or play an instrument.)

So the first takeaway from my recent experience is that if you are an art director and you need spot illustration work, look for an illustrator, not a graphic designer or a fine artist (or at least review samples if someone says they have all three skills).

Blending the Power of the Computer with the Creativity of the Pencil

What I think is more intriguing about my recent opportunity is the concept of marrying hand-drawn art with computer embellishment. (When I was painting and drawing back in college and shortly thereafter, I was just beginning to hear about friends who had purchased home computers. It was the early 1980s, and they were very expensive and had only minimal graphics capabilities.)

I’m not talking about using the pen tool in Adobe Illustrator to create outlines, flat shapes, and flat colors, although this also has merit. I’m also not talking about using a Wacom drawing tablet (or the current iteration thereof) to draw bold brushstrokes in a raster image editor like Photoshop, although this also has merit.

What I’m describing is sketching (in this case) eggplants using pencils and paper, creating both contour drawings (essentially outlines) and heavier modeled drawings (darker images showing highlights and shadows to give a 3D look to the art). I did these and also a gesture drawing (sketchy, showing movement) of a vine, which may run up a scholar’s margin in the layout of my client’s print book.

In all cases I had to consider whether the style of the rendering of the subject matter would complement or detract from the type treatment, photo, color screens, and colored type of the double-page spread.

First I scanned the contour drawing of the eggplant and the vine into the computer, saving each as a grayscale TIFF. For the mock-up I used a resolution of 266 dpi. Had I chosen to render the drawings as line art (as black-only pen and ink drawings), I would have opted for a much higher resolution (to avoid seeing any pixellation). However, I wanted to preserve the gray shades of the pencil drawing, so I produced the art and scanned it as a softer image with various levels of gray.

I did the same for the darker, modeled eggplants and for the more sketchy vine and eggplant contours. (Keep in mind that this is early in the design process, so having a handful of options for the spot illustrations is a good thing.)

Using Photoshop Tools to Adjust the Scanned Drawings

This is where it got interesting. I then used Photoshop’s Levels command to selectively lighten and darken the images of the vine and eggplants, just to experiment. Too dark, and they would compete with the photos and type on the double-page print book spread. Too light, and they would disappear.

I also had drawn the images larger than their final size. With the contour (line-only) drawings, significantly reducing the final image size when placing the drawing in the InDesign file made the contour lines around the vegetables too thin and hence too light. So I had to go back to Photoshop and adjust the Levels command to darken everything. I tried the Threshold command, but it rendered the image entirely in black pixels (no shades of gray), and this looked too heavy.

In contrast, for the scanned drawing of the vine, I had inadvertently captured too much of the background tone of the paper. When I placed the art in InDesign, I could see the shaded background. So, again using the Levels dialog box, I lightened the background while darkening the pencil lines: only not too dark, since I didn’t want them looking like pen and ink drawings.

I also used Photoshop’s “Dodge and Burn-in” functions to selectively lighten and darken areas within the heavier, more developed image of the eggplant. In addition, I found that using the Smudge tool (the little index finder icon), I could blur areas as I might do by hand with a charcoal drawing or a paper “blending stump” or “tortillon.”

I even used the eraser tool to omit extraneous lines from the drawing. I found that by using a large brush shape with “feathering,” I could make smooth gradations between light and dark areas of the eggplant drawing.

Finally, I used various blurring and sharpening filters (Gaussian Blur, for instance) to either sharpen focus on the pencil strokes or minimize them.

So, essentially, I did on the computer all the things I might normally do with a soft drawing pencil and a gum rubber eraser on an actual drawing on paper. Fortunately, and unlike an actual drawing on paper, I could make copies of a drawing file, try different things with each, place them in the InDesign file, and distill and print a PDF copy. Then I could compare them. You can’t do that with just paper and pencils.

Recoloring Images

Using the hue and saturation controls in Photoshop, I found a way to turn the black and white drawing into a purple one, just in case. I thought my client might prefer that, and I didn’t want to remake the original drawing using colored pencils. Fortunately, I was able to set the original coloration (which was black only) and the “target” coloration, which I created in the Photoshop dialog box by specifying amounts of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. This was a “replace color” function, and in the research I did it seems that there are a number of ways to do this. Fortunately, in my case I instantly changed the color of everything in the drawing. If this interests you, you may want to check Google for descriptions and video tutorials.

The Takeaway

So what can we learn from this? Most of the designers I know will produce everything from scratch in a vector illustration program (like Adobe Illustrator or Corel Draw), usually using the pen tool and solid strokes and fills of color. Or they will use Photoshop for bitmapped drawings. Personally, I find this tedious and time consuming, particularly when I don’t know whether a client will like the final look. In contrast, I can draw something or at least produce a quick sketch pretty quickly.

I think it’s a wonderful option to be able to blend traditional drawing or painting methods with the capabilities of the computer. These include ease in revising drawings (you can make one version, copy it many times, and then change these copies in myriad ways), the ability to copy parts of images or entire images instantly, the ability to change the overall tonal range of a drawing (one small area or the whole thing), and the ability to colorize an image.

If you’re a print book designer or illustrator, you may be doing this already. Or you may just be creating art from scratch using the computer. But do consider this hybrid approach. It could make your life a lot easier, especially for sketchy illustrations you might need for roughs, just to communicate your design vision to a client.

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