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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Lost Empire - Digital Art Tutorial

I often post tutorials for sculpture pieces, but rarely do I create one for digital art. But at the urging of those who are interested in the process, I've chosen the Lost Empire piece as a good example of the steps that it takes to go from a photograph to a final piece of digital art. 

The Lost Empire is part of my China Lights series. These were photos taken at the end of April 2016 of the China Lights exhibit in City Park, New Orleans. This amazing spectacle was already art, so the challenge of creating digital art was to bring it far enough away from the art it already was and take it to a new level where the original objects I photographed became something else entirely. 
It is easy for photographers to lose perspective when photographing other peoples art and merely clean up the photo rather than transforming it into something new. If you leave the object as is though I consider it a form of plagiarism if you claim it as your own art. A good example of this would be to photograph a great piece of graffiti and then sell the photos as your own art. They are in that the photograph is your creation. But the art photographed is not yours, nor should it ever be claimed that it is or even vaguely insinuated that it might not be another persons work. 

But in the case of the China Lights pieces my intention was to morph my original photos into something totally new and different as you will see in this example. Please keep in mind that I did this photo shoot at night. Please note that any of these photos can be enlarged by clicking on them to see the details.

Image #1

This was the original image I took of the front gates of the exhibition, a truly remarkable sight towering into the night sky. 

The original image was taken on a low light setting on the camera. This was to keep the background clutter to a minimum and to mask the thousands of milling people that were there to see the exhibition. You will note that some of the background and people can still be seen. So my first step was to eliminate some of this clutter so that the focus was only on the object. 

Step #2

You can see here that I've chopped out the people and eliminated the background clutter to a uniform black. The branch of the tree you see shadowing the left hand side could not be eliminated easily, so I've left it for the time being with intentions to address it later. 

Step #3

Now I'm going to play with the colors and the resolution a bit. After looking over about 2 dozen color changes, I decided to just go with a negative image of the original. This will allow me to take the first steps in changing the photo from a night image to a day image. Again you will note that branch to the left. Since its really a permanent part of the image I decided early on to populate the image with a forest scene. 

Step #4

After looking over several dozen images for one that I felt was suitable and then testing out that image to see if I liked the uniformity of the piece, I chose the above image that was taken in Audubon Park last year. 

Step #5

Now here is where it gets tricky. Merging photos using layering is not a technique I can explain easily in a tutorial. But basically what I've done is over-laid the trees over the original object and then began to work with the merge to get the above image. Its still quite rough but you can see how I've purposely begun to change the color scheme and bring details out that the camera could see even in the dark. You will note that the new image fits in almost perfectly with the existing tree branch that covered the original object. 

Step #6

In this image I've changed several elements. I've eliminated all the blues and greens out of the image, and I've taken out the lit dragon that was in front of the object. The only thing left is the top of the dragon which is currently blurring into the archway. I've used part of the preexisting forest to fill in the area where the body of the dragon was, and create a uniform forest area where it originally was located.

Step #7

In this image I've darkened the forest area and introduced a little more purple into the piece. I've also brightened it a bit to make the colors a bit more vibrant. I've also begun to brush around the four bases to make it look more like natural foliage.

Step #8

Here I have overlaid the original photograph over the new version to bring back some of the original red to the structure and make it stand out more from the surrounding foliage. While you cant see it here, in each of these versions there anywhere from 10-100 color variations that I look at. In this case I want the structure to stand out from the foliage just enough so that you get the impression of a lost temple deep in the woods. You also note that the dragon that was in the center now stands out again against the center of the temple and that Chinese calligraphy also is standing out again versus the previous version. This is because of the overlay process. Some of the details lost in previous versions return. 

Step #9

Here I've overlaid the original version a third time which changed the color scheme yet again and brought some blues back in during the layering process. But at the same time we've picked back up a lot more detail in the archway that was not there before. Note again the dragon head is now even more easily seen right where we really don't want it.

Step #10

And like magic, the dragons head is now gone from the center. By carefully re-splicing some of the pieces to either side of it I am able to almost seamlessly remove it. 

Step #11

Here I have done some clean up of the forest under the archway and added more foliage using a transparent layering around the four pillars to make it look like they are emerging from the forest depths. You'll also note that the strange vertical line towards the center of the archway is not gone leaving the calligraphy in a more uniform pattern.

Step #12

Here are beginning to narrow in on what the finished art will look like. I've eliminated yet again the blues, muted the purples and brought out a much greener forest. Now I can start to feel the majesty of this archway gleaming in the forest depths.

Step #13

Here I've merged two more versions together. The one above with a complete sepia toned version. The goal was to bring about a more natural earthy tone which will be used later.

Step #14

The above step was not to remove the green but to give the temple itself a slight earthy tone. I've removed most of the sepia from the trees and returned the natural green to it, leaving the sepia in just a few spots and on the temple itself.

Step #15

Here you see the reasoning behind the sepia tones. By placing the sun just rising in the center of the archway, the sepia blends to look more like a shadow or dappled sunlight on the structure and forest. The sun is actually a blend of white, pale yellow and a little red. I've also brightened the image, bringing back a brighter shade of red in the archway.

Step #16

And here at last is the final version. I used a diffuser over the sun to give a slight aura to it and darken the edges of the photo so that the focus is on the center of the structure. 

So lets look back at the first and last versions together.

When you see the two together you realize how many steps were taken to create a piece of digital art. This piece took me about two days to complete. Smaller changes were constantly being made but the photos above were at the major save points. 

Now there is one last step in the process. The naming of the piece. Without a dynamic name a piece of art can fail. I've named this piece "The Lost Empire" because I felt that it not only represented the China of the past but also represented a lost magnificence that the Chinese government is letting slip through their fingers because their focus is on domination, not wisdom. Thus a lost empire which crumbles around such an amazing past. So for me that name serves several purposes both obvious and more subtle. 

So here is the final version with the name attached. I hope this tutorial has been a little helpful in developing digital art. Some think its just a matter of a few clicks, but its far deeper than that to create. A lot of thought goes into the piece that can never be outlined in a tutorial regarding what the final piece should be. Most digital art that I create does not start out with a purpose. Instead it just starts out with a photo and perhaps an idea or two where to take it. But I let the art speak for itself and see where it takes me as I journey towards its completion. Remember the original goal was to create a piece of art that was so wholly and completely unlike the original that it becomes something new. I think I've accomplished that here. I look forward to your comments and questions.

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