My Discovery Of Photoshop

My discovery of Photoshop came after I worked as a graphic designer and art director for a few years. Back then, in the pre-desktop publishing days, we learned to put things together from different sources. Photostats, illustrations, and typesetting all got pasted onto boards to create press-ready artwork. I think that the idea of putting stuff together is something that has always stuck with me, regardless of what it is exactly that I’m using or where it came from.

People are often surprised to hear me, as a digital artist, say that the computer is place to create finished ideas, not to develop one or brainstorm. But for me that is true. The computer introduces constraints in terms of interaction and reduces the sense of freedom that is essential to effectively develop ideas, because you must also focus on the process of interacting with the machine to a degree that hinders. I have been a witness to, and actively involved in, the advent of the desktop computer as an essential tool for artists.

One thing that I’ve noticed over the years is that the computer itself becomes something other than a tool; for many it becomes a comfort zone. More specifically, the actual software that artists master can often become a comfort zone. And when engrossed in a comfort zone, innovation and fresh ideas eventually dissipate. The process of creation within a comfort zone becomes routine, and the resulting work is uninspired. The fun gets sucked out of it, and it shows.

When I first started to use Photoshop, I was more than intrigued. I was hooked. I had found my medium as an artist. But after a while, I realized that being comfortable with the program was limiting in terms of staying fresh and developing new ideas. I began to explore other programs. I had been working with Illustrator prior to Photoshop and started bringing the two programs together to produce finished compositions. At the same time, I was very interested in Painter and a variety of 3D applications as they began to appear. I started playing around in different programs and was very excited to break out of my comfort zone.

My work was becoming more experimental and inspired, and I was having much more fun with it. Then I noticed a common denominator. It was Photoshop. Even though I was spending considerable time in other programs, I was always bouncing in and out of Photoshop. For 3D applications, I would make backgrounds in Photoshop ahead of time to align elements or to ensure perfect angles.

Midway through the 3D process, I would find myself back in Photoshop, creating textures and displacement maps. Then, at the end of the 3D process, I would find myself opening the finished renderings in Photoshop, adjusting them, and using them to create something new once again. This process was not limited to 3D applications; it also proved true when I combined Photoshop with other programs such as Illustrator or Painter.

Photoshop becomes the cornerstone application when working this way; it is essential at many points in the process. However, take note that this process of leaving Photoshop snaps you out of the Photoshop-only induced comfort zone, injecting some excitement into the tried-and-true process of putting things together.

How I Learned Photoshop and Didn’t Get Overwhelmed

I was so happy and content in my world of 2D black and white. It was enough to have to learn line weights and perspective. I was quite satisfied with my work. I think at some point, for most of us, something tends to come along and shake things up in a big way. For some it may be that person you know that did something so outrageously cool or that book that came out and displayed some amazing art. For me, it was seeing comic books like Battle Chasers, Wild Cats and Danger Girl. Whatever it is, these moments require change and growth. In this article, I dive into my thinking and methods which continue to inspire and motivate me in my ongoing journey to learn digital painting with Photoshop.

I’m dating myself here but I can remember this time as if it were yesterday. My grandmother bought me a nice new 386 computer that ran Window 3.1. I was so excited at the possibilities. One of the first things I bought was a grayscale palm-held scanner. What a relic. You basically had to place it over the picture and drag it down the page. If you didn’t do it right, the image would be scrunched on one side because you didn’t drag it straight. But once you got through that headache and the image was in the computer, it was time to color. Back then, I remember putting the picture in Microsoft Paint (I know now that this was horrible but it was all I had). I spent hours coloring pixels. I had a lot of fun but those images were simply atrocious. There is no other way to put it. So this may have scared me away from coloring my images in the beginning.

So, what was my moment and how has color changed me? Well a few years ago, I and a friend of mine wanted to publish our own comic book. This project amounted to a lot of work and no published product. However, I did learn so much from the process. My friend was the writer and was going to do all the art work so I needed to learn how to color. I had no idea at the time how much I had to learn. There were so many fine comic book colorists doing some fine work that I looked to as examples. I guess I always took their work for granted.

It helps to learn Photoshop when working on a project or when you need a specific solution. The early days of my Photoshop experiences were times when I wanted to color a comic book page or give a cool image to a friend. Usually in these events, you don’t really have a full grasp of what the program can do but you know what you’d like to do with it and you learn if it is actually possible to do it or if you need to do something else. In this process, we tend to gain some unexpected nuggets that we can save and use later. Today, with sites like YouTube and professional tutorials, we are able to learn much faster and more conveniently get the information we need. I think one of the biggest keys to learning Photoshop is deciding to learn it no matter what. No matter how overwhelming the toolset is.

With any new application that I’m interested in learning, I like to get the big picture as to what it can do and then break it down into pieces. If I was a newbie to Photoshop today and I wanted to learn it, I would go online or look at some of the latest digital art books by the pros. Seeing what they can do is very motivating and gives you an idea of what can be done. Next, I’d look at all the menus to get an idea of my options. Menus are usually broken down into sections.

Finally, we can all learn from someone else. Especially a pro or those who posses skills that are much more advanced than our own. I can always come away with something that I didn’t know. Access to this information today is very available.

Become a Photoshop Expert in 10 Steps

After working with Photoshop since version 4 in 1999, I realize that nobody really knows every thing that Photoshop can do. This makes it a great toy and tool, because there’s always something new to discover. But you can learn most of it and keep learning. I recommend the following habits if you want to become a Photoshop Expert.

For this article, I’m defining expertise as being able to:

  • imitate something from real life (e.g. how shadows and light really work, how glass and water bend light).
  • guess with reasonable accuracy how a particular effect was created by someone else in Photoshop.
  • troubleshoot your own errors as well as someone else’s.
  • manipulate pixels non-destructively.
  • work efficiently through the proper use of shortcuts, panels, actions, and tools.
  • know how and when to use most of the features in Photoshop.

Here are the 10 things I recommend you do if you want to be a Photoshop expert.

#1: Own the latest version of Photoshop
It’s pretty hard to really experiment with Photoshop if you don’t have your own copy at home. Having the latest version is important too. Particularly with the last two versions, CS3 and CS4, new features are added all the time. These features usually either make your job easier (like the Adjustments panel), or give you tools that didn’t even exist in prior versions (like some of CS4’s 3D capabilities).

I do recommend you purchase your own copy. Please don’t used pirated stuff. If you are a teacher or student who is not using Photoshop for commercial purposes, you are allowed by Adobe to purchase the educational version at about half-price. It is as fully-featured as the non-educational version. You can usually buy this version at college book stores, or online at sites such as creationengine.com.

You are allowed to run your Photoshop software on two machines. I have one copy on my desktop PC and one on my laptop for travel.

#2: Play and Make Mistakes
Experimentation and play is the key to learning something beyond the basics. Try out all kinds of tools and filters, and see what they do with different settings. You can’t really ruin Photoshop. And if you do, you can reset all the defaults by closing Photoshop, then pressing and holding the Shift+Ctrl+Alt keys (Mac: Shift+Cmd+Opt) while Photoshop restarts.

Take a bunch of photos from your camera (or online) and throw them together. See how blend modes change an overall image as layers are moved around. Try all of the layer adjustments, and every filter combined with another filter. Don’t worry if it’s ugly. You’re learning. And there’s always the History panel to allow you to back up several steps and try something else.

#3: Take a Class
To be honest, I had an awful Photoshop teacher. He did little beyond schedule what we were supposed to complete in the textbook. I stopped going at one point. I had learned how not to teach, and four years later I was teaching Photoshop. What a good teacher can do is give you assignments you never dreamed you could do (and enjoy!) More importantly, a good instructor can give you personal guidance when you don’t even realize you made a mistake, or there’s a typo in the textbook, or you accidentally skipped something, and something goes wrong.

Finally, a good instructor will give you projects to do that give you real-world scenarios and specifications. This prepares you for making real money with Photoshop.

#4: Go to Seminars
Kelby Training provides absolutely fantastic seminars all over the United States. I have had teachers such as the amazing Bert Monroy and Dave Cross. These seminars have increased my creativity and efficiency in Photoshop beyond belief. The day-long seminar is always fun and very inspiring. Go to one of these seminars if you can, or find something comparable in your area.

#5: Read Photoshop Magazines
Photoshop User Magazine from NAPP is the undisputed master when it comes to American Photoshop publications. You can find it for $10 at book stores, or you get an automatic subscription when you become a NAPP member. You will need that NAPP membership to access the tutorial files online. Each issue has a bunch of tutorials at all levels, plus reviews of products and news about the industry. The magazine caters to photographers, designers and hobbyists alike.

Layers Magazine is great too, but does not cater just to Photoshop users. It addresses almost all of the Adobe design products. It only has a couple of Photoshop tutorials per issue. If you work with Illustrator, InDesign, Flash, and Dreamweaver as well, this mag’s for you.

I also like to buy those really expensive ($15) imports from the U.K., such as Advanced Photoshop and Photoshop Creative. These can be found at book stores too. Unlike Photoshop User, they include a CD-Rom with every issue that provides all the resources for the tutorials, plus brushes, textures, and the like. These magazines sound like an awfully big expense at first, but they are so worth it. The tutorials are always very well done, and gorgeous to boot.

#6: Read Photoshop Books
Some Photoshop books out there are not so great, but most of them are really top-drawer. When considering a Photoshop book for purchase, look for three things:

  • Are the images really beautiful or interesting? I have a book here I taught from before I really evaluated the images. They are bordering on ugly. Find a book that makes you feel like you can’t wait to create those images.
  • Is the book written to your level? It can be really frustrating if the instructions are too easy or too hard for your experience level.
  • Does the book match your learning style? Some books use blocks of text and others make each step into a bullet point. Some have more step-by-step images than others. Decide what works best for you and look for books written that way.

I do have three specific book recommendations. Each of the books below contains wonderful tutorials, and is written very well.

“Layers: The Complete Guide to Photoshop’s Most Powerful Feature” by Matt Kloskowski
“Photoshop Fine Art Effects Cookbook: 62 Easy-to-Follow Recipes for Creating the Classic Styles of Great Artists and Photographers” by John Beardsworth
“Adobe Photoshop CS4 One-on-One” by Deke McClelland

#7: Do Online Tutorials
I love doing online tutorials. Some good places to find Photoshop tutorials are psd.tutsplus.com, good-tutorials.com, and tutorialized.com. If you work with online tutorials enough, you find some favorite writers. Look for tutorials writers who provide enough images, proofread their work, and don’t leave steps out. You should be able to create a result that looks much like the one promised by following exactly what they have written. As with books, look for tutorials written to your skill level. But push yourself to do more challenging stuff than you’re used to.

#8: Be a Community Member
This can take many forms. Sometimes I like to check out online Photoshop forums and see if anybody needs a question answered. I often find cool ideas for myself as well. I also hang out on Twitter, and follow a large number of fellow graphic and Web designers. They are always feeding me new links to incredible online resources. I have RSS feeds I read from my favorite design blogs, and I comment on all of the articles that move me. I read everything by smashingmagazine.com and minervity.com.

There are design communities in the offline world too, of course. I am a member of the local group called ADAC. When I had more time a few years ago, I was even a board member. Real-world design clubs are a great opportunity to learn all about design in addition to some of the business aspects of freelancing (ADAC once had a great talk from an intellectual property attorney about copyright law for artists.) More importantly, you can come away inspired with fresh ideas by looking at the works of others.

#9: Learn Other Adobe Programs Too
Photoshop rarely works in a vacuum for most designers. There are many times when a Photoshop project is enhanced by the contributions of artwork done in Illustrator, for example.

Learn how to save your work for the press using Acrobat. Learn how to create vector artwork in Illustrator and import the paths into Photoshop. Learn how to place your Photoshop files into InDesign. Learn how various Photoshop plugins can expand your design horizons or make your work easier. These are but a few examples. A thorough understanding of Photoshop must include an understanding of how well it plays with others.

#10: Teach Photoshop
I wasn’t a Photoshop expert when I started teaching Photoshop. I am now, thanks in part to having taught it. Teaching Photoshop helped me develop my expertise in ways that no other experience can. When you have to communicate how to do something to someone else, you come to understand it in a way that sets it in concrete in your brain.

I often get my students to find something new to learn, and then have them turn around and teach it to another student. And when both students make mistakes during this teaching process, they both learn more. Writing tutorials – and finding out if someone can follow them – takes this concept step further.