Learning Photoshop without throwing my computer through a window
November 17, 2015 7:40 AM   Subscribe

I have Photoshop CC and a cheap drawing tablet. I would like to learn to make art such as this. I'm a beginner trying to teach myself through online tutorials, and not having much luck. How else can I learn?

I've been trying to teach myself Photoshop for some time now. I bought the "Photoshop Classroom in a Book" book as well as taken Lynda.com tutorials. The problem that I'm having is that, at least once per session, I encounter some weird issue with Photoshop that prevents me from following the instructions of the book or class. I will then go off and spend up to an hour or two trying to sort out this minor side issue so that I can proceed with the instructions.

An example: in one of the Lynda.com courses I was learning how to lay out a grid, and the keyboard shortcut that the tutorial provided to do one thing had the effect of doing something totally different (flipping my screen upside down). After a frustrating hour-plus of Googling, I managed to figure out it was a Windows setting. In the meantime, I was ready to throw in the towel on the tutorial for the day, if not week.

My local community college offers a Photoshop certificate, but it's aimed at photographers. I am also so much of a beginner that when hunting for answers on the Adobe forums, most of the responses are over my head, involving settings and things I haven't encountered yet, and thus not helpful.

(Please note that I'm using Photoshop instead of Illustrator or another program because a.) It's the only one I can afford, and b.) I see numerous other illustrators online who claim to use Photoshop + a tablet to make exactly the kind of art I would like to make.)

Additionally, I can't get the hang of my graphics tablet. It's a cheap one, to be sure--the Wacom Intuos Pen and Touch Small. I hate drawing on one thing and having the actual image appear somewhere else. I can't seem to get used to that. It also feels like I'm drawing on a whiteboard--too slippery, even with a sheet of construction paper laid over it.

My questions:
Would it be worth it to invest in a higher-end tablet, one where you draw directly on the screen? Does the "slippery" nature of it improve on the higher-end things?

Is there some online way to learn Photoshop that involves receiving actual feedback from a skilled instructor? I feel like things would progress so much more quickly that way.

Assume that I am a proficient artist in traditional media.
posted by whistle pig to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Not sure how useful this is but bouletcorp has a number of 'making of' videos for cartoons that you can look through. He doesn't really say what he is doing, he just shows it.
I would find a tablet too much of a handicap for this sort of thing. I would want a real computer.
posted by Bee'sWing at 8:11 AM on November 17, 2015

Hello, I am a digital artist/illustrator with 10+ years experience using tablets & Photoshop.

Would it be worth it to invest in a higher-end tablet, one where you draw directly on the screen? Does the "slippery" nature of it improve on the higher-end things?

The slippery feeling is actually WORSE on the tablet-monitor combos, because the screen is made out of glass instead of matte plastic. However, it does tend to make life a lot easier in every other respect. Keep in mind, though, that lots of people learn to do amazing work with the separate tablets, and some artists even prefer working on them instead of the tablet-monitor style.

In the meantime, you might try taping a piece of paper over the surface of your tablet. It won't interfere with the pen detection (though I don't know what effects it will have on the touch features).

There is definitely a learning curve for drawing on a tablet, regardless of what software you use. It takes time in and of itself. It's doubly difficult to learn Photoshop's eccentricities simultaneously with trying to master the tablet hardware.

You are correct that Photoshop can be used to produce the artwork seen in the examples. Photoshop is extremely complex, and it was not designed with digital painting or illustration in mind. Many of the things that traditional artists consider basic needs (like blending 2 colors of paint) have to be done with weird tricks in Photoshop. PS can indeed do almost everything! It just doesn't do everything in a simple, intuitive way. Many artists prefer using pared-down (and often cheap or free) alternative software such as MyPaint, ArtRage, Sketchbook Pro, or Paint Tool SAI. These can allow you to learn some of the universal basic principles of digital artmaking, like brush control, layers, color mixing, etc., without the overkill of Photoshop's hundreds of features and keyboard shortcuts.

I feel your pain about the lack of relevant instructional materials online. When I was learning, I used to frequent a bunch of online forums that were dedicated to digital art. Most of these have since dispersed. YouTube tutorials are great, and Lynda.com has a decent set of tutorials if you search for "Digital Painting" instead of just Photoshop itself. You might also like the Digital Painting 101 series on Ctrl-Paint.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 8:15 AM on November 17, 2015 [7 favorites]

Would it be worth it to invest in a higher-end tablet

How long have you spent with your tablet? And is your time getting used to the tablet, the same time you're trying to learn Photoshop features? I ask, because I think the two times should be kept separate...that is, I think it's possible to get used to the tablet being separate from the screen, if you have a while to just draw with it and not do much else. After using a tablet for a few years, I then switched computers and OS's and found myself unable to use my old tablet...then, after a few tabletless years, I picked up a Bamboo, from Wacom's lower-end line, and did find there was a learning curve to get used to my hands being so far from the drawing. But just having a Photoshop document open, big and blank with nothing really going but the brush tool, helped to keep things simple so I could regain those reflexes.
posted by mittens at 8:22 AM on November 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Personally, I would give yourself a break from tutorials and concentrate on getting used to drawing with the tablet, and figuring out to how to do basic things in Photoshop.

When you're starting out, the only things you really need to be learning about are (roughly in order)

- How to draw comfortably on a tablet. Note that this takes a LOT of practice, and you may not feel completely comfortable drawing on a tablet for months or longer, depending on how often you practice and how well your particular drawing quirks interact with tablet use.

- How to choose colors and lay them down on the canvas. (Using the color picker, using the eyedrop tool to select colors from your image, using the paintbrush versus using the paint bucket to fill areas with color, how turning antialiasing on and off changes how these tools behave.)

- How to crop and resize your image.

- How to use layers to create and organize your art (drawing the lineart on a transparent layer, "inking" that lineart on a new layer above it, coloring the lineart on a layer below it, painting a background below all of those, seeing how the art looks when you hide the lineart layer, that kind of thing.)

- How to use transparency of layers and of painting/drawing tools to create or modify your art (What happens when you paint with a brush tool that is at 50% opacity? What happens with you layer a bunch of different textures on top of your art? What happens when you change the "mode" of those layers to alter how they look?)

Focus on these basic skills. Get to the point where you can do the following comfortably:

- Draw a sketch
- Ink that sketch on a separate layer
- Color that sketch on another layer
- Crop and resize your image for print or for the web

THEN you can worry about tutorials and expanding your skillset. If you try to learn too much before you're comfortable with the basics, you'll just end up getting overwhelmed.

You're right that a PS for photographers course would be worse than useless for you right now. Honestly, you'd be better served by playing around, saving lots of different in-progress versions of your images so you aren't worried about messing them up, and getting comfortable.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 8:47 AM on November 17, 2015 [11 favorites]

Seriously, Illustrator is the tool you need for most of those pieces. Not Photoshop. Or get Inkscape if Illustrator is out of your reach for the moment.
posted by zadcat at 9:15 AM on November 17, 2015

How to get used to a tablet: Use it for EVERYTHING. You no longer have a touchpad. You no longer have a mouse. You just have a tablet. Now try to use your computer as normal.

If you want to play a computer game where you push the cursor against the edge of the screen to move the view, you can plug the mouse in again. It's a special game controller now. Go back to the tablet when you're done with your game.

This will get you used to drawing in one place and seeing it in another pretty quickly.

(Also, as someone who's been using Illustrator as her main medium for a decade and a half, I have to disagree with Zadcat. This ain't Illustrator work. Or if it is, it's someone who knows it inside out and knows how to get faux-painterly stuff out of it, which is an uphill battle. Possibly Illustrator PLUS photoshop.)

I wouldn't recommend investing more in a bigger tablet yet. Just get used to the tablet. It's kind of like doing blind contour drawings, except you can sorta see the results. It's really great once you get the hang of it; no more killing your back hunching over the paper!

(One thing that might be causing you problems, by the way: if you trace around the base of a coffee cup plopped town onto the tablet, does it come out as an oval on screen? If so, open up the Wacom tablet's preferences, go to the 'mapping' tab, and turn on "force proportions".)
posted by egypturnash at 9:38 AM on November 17, 2015 [5 favorites]

I second everything Narrative Priorities says.

It takes a while to learn to draw on the tablet. A Cintiq or tablet like alternative where you draw on the screen may help- but it still took me a few months of using a Cintiq at least 40 hours a week to start to feel comfortable and that was after years of Intuous and professional digital illustration experience. It still has an offset and different feeling from traditional media.

It is frustrating, when you know how you want colors to blend based on traditional, and can't figure out how to make it happen digitally. That is, sadly, very normal. It's like learning any new medium, so instead of trying to figure out how to get oil to look like watercolor, just let it be digital for time being. As you gain skill, you can start to manipulate the tools better and get closer to the look you want.

I think learning digital illustration is easier tackled coloring lineart rather than painting right off the bat. But then again, I love lineart. Just put the lineart on one layer, then add another layer below and start messing with colors. If you scan in lineart, change the layer to Multiply Blend Mode and then you can color on the layer below.

A Digital Painting Class with Photoshop might help, but not all instructors/classes are created equal. I've seen (taken and refused to teach) some terrible ones that were full of bad techniques. A mentor online might be helpful, but I don't exactly have anywhere to point you to find one.
posted by SometimesChartreuse at 10:47 AM on November 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Nthing that getting used to drawing with a wacom takes time. To facilitate this, try doing some regular drawings on paper and scanning them in, then using the wacom to color and play around with them in photoshop. This will let you create more finished pieces while getting you used to the screen/pen interface before moving on to actually drawing with your wacom.

I have used the 'draw directly on the screen' wacoms, and I have to say I prefer the traditional ones. It's so much better for my posture to be looking up at my screen than down at a work surface.

Keyboard shortcuts are really key to getting photoshop to act like a drawing program. For example, to blend two colors, set a soft brush to 20-30% opacity, then pick up colors using the 'alt' key (the color picker shortcut) every few strokes as you move gradually between colors. You can find lists of keyboard shortcuts online, and you'll probably find a handful that are really helpful to how you work. Just figure out what tools or actions you use regularly and then find or create hotkeys for them. Here's some tutorials you might mind useful. The ones by Linda Bervist were really helpful to me when I started to learn digital painting.
posted by ananci at 10:54 AM on November 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I asked a similar question.

However (and I should update that question) I use Photoshop in combination with a Mac based program called Affinity Designer. Holy hell I love it. It has a vector option and a bitmap option. So I can also ink or outline in Affinity designer then use the brushes on the "Pixel" layout or use Photoshop to paint. There's a free 10-day trial or the whole thing is $50 (one time payment). It's also available in the Mac app store.

The thing is, Photoshop isn't a vector tool so it doesn't have good line smoothing. Some people can paint like you wouldn't believe in just Photoshop but especially as a new comer, those lines will be shaky. I also think that the person you linked to likely uses a vector program.

So, I would strongly consider Affinity Designer. It's been super awesome. They have lots of tutorials and a forum on their website. You can really easily make your own painting brushes too. It responds to a tablet and has pen pressure settings.

That said, keep in mind that people (like you linked to) have been doing this for literally YEARS. I get it, I also want to learn something right.this.second. Really, you just have to keep trying. Also, the brain actually cements your learning overnight. So if you sleep on it, you may have a better go of it the next time around. Definitely learn the basics, play with different programs, play with different brushes. Lots of people hand-sketch then ink and paint over it as a template, too. (Or use a photo as their template as a base layer to ink over.)

(Just some examples because I'm also learning and experimenting: This is made in affinity designer. This by contrast I hand drew the outline, scanned it, bitmap traced in Inkscape, then painted in Photoshop. This I inked first then painted in Photoshop.) Memail me if you want any of my brush settings or whatever.
posted by Crystalinne at 12:15 PM on November 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone! I have a much better idea now of how to proceed.
posted by whistle pig at 5:13 PM on November 17, 2015

Perhaps Corel Painter is what you’re looking for? It emulates a number of media very, very well.
posted by davidpriest.ca at 9:18 AM on November 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

I basically learned to paint in photoshop by following Control Paint... it's a very comprehensive series of free videos that covers everything - you can pick and choose what you need.

I stepped up from a cheap Bamboo tablet to an Intuos and never looked back... it's just using it until it becomes instinctive.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 12:09 PM on November 21, 2015

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