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Light Pixie Studio – Sharyn Richardson » Preserve your memories | fine art portraits that tell a story | photographs and paintings by Sharyn Richardson | Light Pixie Studio | What do you want to remember? | worldwide

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Painting with pixels

An artist wants to hear that a client’s story is thought to be well told and that the work is appreciated for the art of it. The client must be satisfied and comfortable with the integration of the work in their home, that it looks well and visually fits the space. When I spend weeks or even months creating for someone, it’s important to me that their idea has been fulfilled. That’s why no one pays anything in advance so that the creative process remains pure and there’s no advance pressure to perform but only to create.

Painting with Pixels – the Whole Story

The client is a part of my artistic process, not only to tell the story as only they know it, but all the way through to the end in choosing a title. This is Thoughtful Explorer about a child playing charades while connecting dots, exploring, emerging, evolving, and revealing both his inner dialogue as well as the public revelation of it. This was my last winter’s work to imagine, as the grandmother did, a marvelous memory of an evening at the Capital (bat) Bridge in Austin, Texas, and the emergence of a complex, multi-dimensional boy into full participation and conversation with his family. There’s more of the story to tell but it is the child’s intimate story and the grandmother’s–not to be shared or told here. She tells me, “Your painting has climbed into my heart and captured it!”


Painting with Pixels is the same as traditional painting and at the same time quite different too

Over the years only a very few clients have asked how this work of painting with pixels is done; I think that’s because the finished product looks like traditional processes should look. And for those who haven’t seen it done or don’t know the technical/digital potential, it’s inconceivable that one can create as I do even though it is being done widely all over the world and is the future for many artists. This grandmother did ask and I answered her by building a wristwatch as they say. Here are several photos of what I had to begin, reference material for the boy, my initial sketch, where I paint, and the workshop where I stretch and frame to help you visualize too how the work is produced. Below that are the grandmother’s questions about the digital process along with my answers.

Desktop environmentOverview of my desk

Physical and material

Typically the background light is subdued so all my attention, what I’m thinking and seeing, is concentrated on the monitor. I do use a focused light to  illuminate just the desktop with tablet, brushes and other tools. The light is brighter here than usual for this photograph. I sit in a Henry Miller Aeron chair so tiredness is a result of an overactive mind rather than an aching back. Below the left corner of the monitor are two book-sized boxes that contain 3 terabytes of backup data. In addition l have about the same amount of duplicate data in the cloud and on a second internal hard-drive. I cannot afford to lose data that is ephemeral but able to produce tangible things, especially my paintings. Some of the smaller objects in the room are mementos of a good life, many of them are real treasures with significant stories, and they inspire and make me smile for the memories.

The interim “canvas”

The flat black rectangle angled to the screen is the Wacom tablet on which I work. I keep a jeweler’s loop  and my brushes along the edges. Look in the upper left corner of the screen to see a semi-transparent grey square overlapping one wing of the bat; now look on the surface of the tablet where I laid one of the brushes. Notice that the brush is oriented the same as the shape on the screen. I programmed that particular brush to have long flexible fibers with a flat, angled tip so that’s what shows in the grey square, plus the brush on screen moves in the same 3-dimensional plane as the one laying on the tablet’s surface. All of my digital brushes are fully articulated in space, in other words they orient in my hand just as I would turn and direct a sable brush and they likewise direct the way the paint is put down–how thick or thin the line, how translucent or opaque the color, etc. That grey square is a visual reference useful to double check my programming of the brush. Once I see how it works, I turn the visual reference off so it’s not distracting.


Of the three brushes that are standing upright in their holders, the one at far right is an airbrush and you can see how different it looks from the others. The shape is designed to fit the hand in the same way a traditional airbrush does; it helps those of us who learned to use an airbrush before the digital/wireless age. It would feel odd to hold an airbrush any other way although this one is very lightweight and doesn’t have the air and paint line hanging heavily off the back end. All of the brushes and the tablet are wireless which makes them easier to manipulate. One of the strangest things I had to get used to was the very light weight of all of these brushes but especially the airbrush. Now after so many years, it would be just as strange to work the way I used to do it.

Working details

I zoom into the image to work more closely on small areas like the eyes or the bat and then move out again to see the effect overall. Again, that’s not very different than any painter works except that I don’t have to walk across the room to zoom in and out. Notice how I’ve kept the school photo of the boy in front of me as I work. It’s not only an easy cross reference but a way for me to connect my work with a very real, little boy. That one photo was the only reference material I had for the boy but, combined with the grandmother’s description of the event and on-line photos of the bridge in downtown Austin, it was possible to recreate her memory one step at a time. Below is the preliminary sketch I prepared as the work began to evolve and to flesh out the concept for the client. Notice that I changed many things, from the stripes on his shirt to the basic orientation of the bridge while working from the sketch to the final painting.

Layout Sketch


Production workshop

Next below is the top of my carpenter’s bench. The tool in front of the portrait is a BeA air-driven stapler that helps me attach the canvas properly to the stretcher bars. It’s made in Germany and is one of my favorite tools. It just feels good in the hand. The ka-chunk of the trigger is precise and dependable.

Stretching canvas

Next shows the back of Thoughtful Explorer; the canvas is already stretched and stapled into place. I’ve just finishing installing corner keys which allow subtle adjustment of tension. Depending on temperature and humidity some environments allow a canvas to loosen a bit in time. That’s normal, but having an easy means to adjust for it is a good idea, so I always install what are called Best Keys. In this picture they are the diagonal silver brackets across each of the four corners. Without them it’s hard to keep the canvas taught over the years but with them a small open end wrench does the job in seconds. It matters to me that the back of the painting is neat ‘though it won’t be seen once hung on the wall. I sign all work with its title and my personal cypher/signature with date–canvases on the back and fine art papers on the front.

Back of canvas

How Painting with Pixels actually happens – questions asked and answered

1)  What do you have in your hand(s) as you create?

I hold an art pen that can be programmed for all the same things I used to “buy” in my brushes. One pen can be reprogrammed on the fly, but I’ve found that owning four of them lets me set up each one for various tasks I do over and over in a project. Three of the pens look pretty much alike—it’s on the software side that I tell the pen how to lay down their strokes. Even then I change opacity and size of the brush itself including the shape of the brush, as I work. To keep these three straight, I apply a temporary sticky label. The fourth brush is an airbrush, also programmable within the nature of what an airbrush does in laying down a spray of color, and it looks as different from the other three brushes as a real airbrush does from a regular paintbrush. These pens have changeable nibs that emulate the feel of the real thing. So by changing the nib I get the drag of watercolor on cotton rag or the smooth flow of light oil paint on tightly woven canvas, etc. These pens are designed by Wacom and purchased separately from the tablet on which I make my strokes. So one of my painting implements is in my right hand and I hold it just like I always held a conventional brush. For me that means four fingers on the top of brush, thumb underneath just above the painting surface and with my ring-finger applying variable pressure. Oh and the pens recognize the pressure gradient I’ve programmed to determine how thick or thin, how opaque or transparent the paint is applied.

2)  On what does your image appear as you are working?

First, I paint on the tablet and nothing appears there at all as the surface is a special space age material that permits the pens to emulate the feel of any real media I’ve chosen to use. The surface is a plain but silky black and it can be turned in any direction so the programmed buttons work for either the left or right hand. So in my case my left hand rests on or over the buttons as I work. The tablets come in a variety of sizes. As I always previously worked on large but not monstrous canvas, muscle coordination for me is more natural on a large tablet but not the extra-large version. Mine measures about 13” x 20” with a slightly smaller painting surface. In order to see what I’m doing, I do not look at the tablet at all but at a very large monitor designed for graphic designers. Surprising to me, it only took a few hours to get the eye hand coordination that would otherwise be used on a regular canvas surface. A monitor has one drawback in that my work appears more luminous than it will on paper or canvas because it’s lighted from within, if you will, unlike the reflected light off the surface of any paper or fabric media. I’ve been doing this for a long time and learned to compensate to get exactly what I want in the finished painting.

3)  What is the color substance on the canvas and how does it get there?

The color is pigment made from the same mineral or botanical substances that any quality watercolor or oil or other paint is made. When the image is a watercolor, the pigment is conveyed through the nozzles of a highly specialized art printer. When the painting requires a heavier color application like oil or oil pastels, another kind of art printer for giclée must be used. All of these printers and the individual pigmented colors they use are expensive to own and maintain, not to mention the learning curve to use them properly. After printing I apply a UV-light protective coating. All of my work is guaranteed for an heirloom quality lifetime.

One question the client didn’t ask

There’s a question that wasn’t asked but that may help bridge the gap to the fourth question. I had the artistic skills to do the artful work but adding the digital technical skills required many additional years of specialized training and practice. Even now after all these years not a week goes by that I don’t actively pursue some new learning. I’m very knowledgeable about what I do well beyond computer literacy but especially in how to make all the parts work together. That includes insuring that the monitor, the software, the printers and the various paper or canvas options all “see” the same thing I do and in the same color space. I can now make my tools create exactly what my mind imagines. The question that wasn’t asked is this:

What is the language you use to communicate throughout your workflow?

I use the language of Photoshop first and foremost. It does not and cannot tell me what to do or how to do it. It does not create anything; I do that one brush stroke at a time. But it is the computer language/program that “speaks” to all the pieces of technology as I work. So the first thing I do when beginning a painting is to create a .psd file which is the native Photoshop file protocol. I have to be able to access other file protocols too, like .tif for getting maximum information from a scan, .cr2 for communicating with Camera Raw, and for emailing to my clients I use .jpg because computers, iPads and cell phones can read that format where they typically cannot read the others. If we exchange image files the color spaces must be the same from one computer to the other or I must convert them so they both convey the same color information. It’s like hiring a translator. There will also be one or more .docx files for the research documents I build, as for instance when I began educating myself about the Capitol Bridge in Austin and the Mexican free-tailed bat. There are several other file extensions too but this is a good idea of the ones I use most.

Then I begin adding various files to a master folder that will hold videos, slide shows and other images sent by the client or scans of images emailed, and my various research documents. This painting has about 25 total files with 16 of them in the .psd Photoshop format. PSD doesn’t save files bigger than 2 GBs so in the beginning I broke the image into separate files of logical parts, like the background, the bat, and the child. The files get so big because I work at 300 ppi and keep all versions so there’s a retreat-back option.

For this painting there are files holding the boy’s hair as the color was changed to match what the client “knew” rather than what the photos showed, another file is for the raised eyebrow as I worked out his quizzical look, one for the change in his shirt, and another for the highlights and shadows created by the setting sun, etc. Eventually I discovered that Photoshop has another file format (.psb) that can handle much larger files, so I no longer have so many separate files and folders. Once the image is finished to my and my client’s satisfaction, I make a much smaller, flattened version from which to print. All of my work is done on a gamers’ computer and even then it sometimes gets bogged down a bit.

The client’s last question:

4)  Does your process have a name?

There are many artists who work similarly. In spite of the modern, technological nature of the process of painting with pixels, I don’t use the term “modern artist” because that evokes an aesthetic rather than a process. But like those who use traditional media, the image outcomes vary tremendously with style, artistic vision, color sense, client base, even work ethic and business model. The generic term for what we all do is “artist,” then more descriptively “digital artist.” I rarely use that second term because it misses the point that there is no program to imagine and create the work for me. And it confuses those who’ve never seen a painting evolve and could have no idea that it takes time and effort as it always did. The benefits are many, however. Our home with my studio doesn’t smell of solvents, expensive paints don’t dry out in the tube, I have unlimited color mixable at will, my fingers are clean, I don’t have to wait for the paint to dry to continue working or to change my mind, I can mix media on one project if a watercolor sky with an oil pastel subject better evokes the scene, a painting is replaceable if lost to fire or other damage or loss. I am essentially unlimited except by my imagination.

It was fun for me to think this through as one might try to convey an unknown and highly abstract concept to an intelligent inquiry. Here’s hoping it was interesting to you and succeeded in clarifying the process of digital art.

Email me through the website or at sharyn @ lightpixiestudio.com with comments or questions.