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GraduateIt may seem as if it’s taken a long time to graduate. To your family it’s happened in a flash! Once you were a small boy adventuring for the first time. Now you’re a man who’s learned important things, especially the lay of the land along with the topography of your own mind and heart.

Proud Accomplishment

First hunt, an early and proud accomplishment

As you graduate

Today anything is possible! As you receive the congratulations of your family and many friends, take a quiet moment to consider your future. Set goals and grow toward them with planning and hard work. Treat everything as an opportunity. Your life is the most important thing you will ever build, one decision at a time, life’s challenges faced and conquered. Today is the beginning. Have confidence. Trust life. Invent yourself!

What DOES zone editing have to do with it?
Minus 21 Farenheit at the winter creek

This is creek water frozen solid while making a texture of large ice crystals. See the detail of shadows in the bank above and with a glint of snow diamonds here and there.
Canon 5Dm3: 100mm 2.8 L ISO:50, 1/60, IS USM with UV plus 8xND filter;
Panorama, then zone editing in CS6 with channel masking for luminosity layers, then curves first before other adjustments, final hi-pass sharpening

Snap-Crackle-Pop through the night

When you live in southwestern Wisconsin -21°F (that’s below) zero is February normal. We expect it; we plan for it. Life doesn’t stop because the temperature plunges. The house cracks like gunfire as it shrinks into midnight, snaps-crackles-pops all through the night, then explodes into morning with the sun. It wakes me for an early run, gets me thinking about images with plans to match what the eye sees to what the camera captures.

Ready, set, shoot!

When it’s bitter cold and you’re passionate about photography, being prepared means more than long underwear, triple layers, and chem-heat. The equipment demands preparation too for the brilliant-bright day. For instance, in a mostly white scene proper exposure benefits from a neutral density filter and knowing what camera settings are most likely to produce the shot. I’m wearing mittens so prepping the Canon means menu-ready with lens and filters in place and settings dialed in. Last week I set a task to learn even more about zone editing in order to get the most from white winter shots. When it’s this cold, I’m willing to sit and even lay in the snow, but adjusting a tripod doesn’t work so these shots are all handheld. My goal was to see details in the snow even when squinting into the brightness behind sunglasses. These accomplished what I wanted. To judge for yourself, click a photo to see the original in a new window.

Sitting in a snowbank at -21°

If you’re a photo nut like me, read in the bezel below each photo for the basics of what worked. For everyone else the pictures speak for themselves, an up-close look at what draws a photographer out of a warm house in the early morning of a frigid day, a string of many such days of this 2015 winter when the temperature never climbed above zero!

Cold Creek

Notice the frost flowers blooming 20 feet below where the spring flows out of warmer ground. A few feet further and there’s no open water.
Canon 5Dm3: 100mm 2.8 L ISO:50, 1/125, IS USM with 8xND filter;
Development from five AEB bracketed shots with Curves adjustments, then mostly hand masking and some clone stamping,

I’m actually laying in the creek for this and the next one. Five minutes later I rushed into the house for coffee and dry clothes. Did I mention that it’s MINUS 21° Farenheit (minus 30 Celsius)?

Click to see the original image in a new window.

Moving closer–and getting wetter as I lay in the creek. Focus on the snow flower bouquets on mossy stones.
Canon 5Dm3: 100mm 2.8 L ISO:50, 1/125, IS USM with 8xND filter;
Development with Lumenzia

Don’t be a little crazy like me . . . stay warm! But do give Lumenzia a try in your  own workflow!

This flight really happened and in just this way, but no camera was there to shoot it! Photoshop to the rescue . . .

Photoshop composite

Off-shore flight near Ft. Pierce, Florida

It took eight separate photos composited with lots of lighting and perspective adjustments along with added elements to create the scene after the fact.

Happy Birthday, Photoshop!

This month Photoshop, the most successful image tool in the world, is 25 years old! Creatives everywhere and in nearly every medium use Photoshop for some part of their workflow. Almost everything visual is touched directly or indirectly by Photoshop. It’s not only changed the way images are created but the way we see the world.

Top 10 reasons to love Photoshop and respect those who use it well
  1. Photoshop provides a safety net for when you miss the shot entirely (see above)
  2. Photoshop can improve the shot when what you took isn’t quite what you wanted
  3. Ten real butterflies can look like a thousand—ditto for flowers or bricks or anything else
  4. A single beauty dish and two Speedlights can emulate a much more extensive and expensive setup
  5. Composites can be made to look like they really happened that way (see above)
  6. Photoshop can bring the imaginary to life, as in “anything you can think of you can create”
  7. Your color palette is more or less infinite
  8. Nothing else can do what Photoshop does; there is no real, effective competitor
  9. If an image is a wreck it’s not Photoshop, it’s the user
  10. Photoshop frees the artist to focus on art like nothing else can and do it faster and less expensively.
Modern tools for darkroom tricks

Photoshop tools are analogous to what early photo masters used to develop their images. Ansel Adams anticipated the digital age, calling it electronic, and believed it would be the next major image-making enhancement. Like the dodge, burn, and sponge tools of 19th to 20th century darkrooms, Photoshop offers synonymous digital processes to deliver even greater control to the digital darkroom. The 90% of creative professionals who use Photoshop daily understand that no software replaces imagination and skill. Yet their work is often lumped together with pretenders who get into visual trouble using Photoshop like a hammer!

Photoshop mishaps

Missing part of left arm


Fingertips missing

A web search of “Photoshop disasters” will turn up many examples of missing body parts, ridiculously enhanced ones, and deeply disturbing body postures. Such mistakes are unfortunately common like Glamour’s November 2011 cover with Kristen Stewart missing part of her left arm to Vogue’s September 2011 Kate Moss wedding layout including this one of her daughter’s fingertips airbrushed away. Throwing the verb photoshop about—as in, “Did you photoshop that?”—without referencing the quality of the actual image is an insult to those who do it so well that you get the enhancement without shouting the tool.

Inventing new ways to work and how we see

If you don’t already know layers and adjustments, healing and warping tools, or filters with smart objects, you’ll be astonished by liquefying content, altering perspectives, relighting and refocusing, rethinking the shot after the fact. And the tech teams at Adobe are always working on wondrous ways to challenge the skill of image artists everywhere.

Anyone can take a photograph but it takes an artful eye to perfect it. If you don’t like the result, blame the artist. It’s time to stop using “photoshop” as a dirty word!

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.


The snowmobile part of the portrait–that is, a far more complex structure to paint than the young college student astride it.

I enjoyed the working session when we talked about his machine and reference photos were taken. It seemed to me that he did as well. In this case it was his smile that captured my attention–not too much, not too little, but just right. I referred to it as his generous smile which equally fit his personality. I like young people, especially the hopeful, ambitious, forward focus of youth engaged in building the future, a credit to their families and a joy to their friends.

In the several months of work on the portrait, I learned a lot more than expected about the physical structure of such a snow machine. No, I’ve never ridden one and it’s a far cry from the airplane I pilot. Great color and curvy lines to appreciate though! Snowmobiling has been a big part of the young man’s life and for him it’s the best thing about winter. In his own words,

“It’s freedom from everything, just being able to go out riding and not really knowing where you’re heading. Finding new places to go is the best part . . . pretty much, snowmobiling is my most favorite hobby.”

Since the machine and the freedom it represents is such a value to the young man I worked hard to get it right.


As for the young man I would call him brave to sit for his portrait with a stranger. Ander is of Scandinavian root and references bravery. His other name suggests fame so perhaps somebday he’ll make a name for himself as a brave man.

Ander’s Son

While emphasizing the rocks, I  missed the ghostly ship moored beyond! The Baths at Devil’s Bay, near Spanish Town on Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands

The Baths and grottos of Devil

Spectral Ship

It’s risky to take expensive camera equipment to the beach, especially when a swim from boat to shore is required followed by a long hike as the main event of the day. In this case I took a pocket Nikon S8100 in a waterproof bag. This was shot at f/3.5, 1/460 sec., ISO 160. Unfortunately, this little camera, with small size and weight as its big advantages (along with the same lovely cmos chip that Canon uses), doesn’t shoot raw images so after-the-fact jpeg editing options were limited compared to what can be done in raw format.

It was only after I printed the image while checking it with my loupe that I “discovered” the phantom ship perfectly framed in the background. And it begged to be enhanced enough to be discovered more easily. What to do?

Before printing I’d already enhanced saturation of the natural colors in the rocks, sharpened their textures ever so slightly, then somewhat darkened the foreground to separate it from a sun-blasted background. So now I re-opened Photoshop CS5 and took the magnetic lasso tool feathered at 15px from the toolbox to isolate the triangle of too bright light which secreted the sailboat. I added a 15px  quick selection tool to refine the shape and jumped it to a new layer (Command/Control-J), added a curves adjustment to affect only the blue color (clipped to just this one layer), and then dragged the curve downward just enough to define the sailboat.

There are always decisions to be made in creating or editing an image. Surely when I was standing among the rocks at Devil’s Bay I saw that sailboat and framed it deliberately in the triangle of rock. I could not have missed the perfect and serendipitous shape of rock mirroring the sailboat beyond. So I can’t really call it a lucky accident. But months later after processing thousands of images from two cameras following the shoot, I had totally forgotten it. Where my first edit was to make the rocks the only subject of the scene, now I saw a greater possibility in allowing others to discover as I did twice that there was more beyond!

I considered several things to draw the eye to the sailboat. Some I accepted and others ignored. But it was a self-aware process always focused on what I wanted the viewer to see. As a result of what I decided was most important, I recropped to put the sailboat at precise photo-center and slightly darkened the foreground rocks to emphasize the brighter triangle. Initially I darkened the sky above the rocks; but no matter how subtle that attempt it looked unnatural which ruled out a dark vignette as well. I did slightly frame a lighter edge across the rocks and foreground water, not enough to pull you out of the frame or distract from the central triangle but hopefully enough to build a tunnel of light to pull you further into the frame. The image is still about the rocks but the sailboat is there to be found.

Does it work for you? Use the “please add your comments” box  or link to Facebook to tell me.

Left-half of Panorama
Left-half of Panorama

Right-half of Panorama

Right-half of Panorama

You’re looking straight down into six feet of water at the fuel dock on Stokkoya, Atlantic coastal Norway. The day was overcast and the water, while clear enough, refracted the light to a milky hue.

I like post production work and have developed my own techniques and strategies for getting the most from pictures like this. Let’s walk through some of the steps to producing a useable, crisp panorama of this startlingly beautiful, even tropical looking seabed scene near the Arctic Circle in the North Atlantic.

So how does one go about turning pictures like those above images into this?

Seabed Panorama, Stokkoya, Norway

Seabed Panorama, Stokkoya, Norway

First you need a good image editing program. I use Photoshop CS5 but have some experience with Paint Shop Pro. Rather than emphasize a specific program, there a few general concepts to consider.

  1. Whenever possible shoot in raw format which preserves editing choices for you, the creative mind behind the lens. Always use the highest resolution your camera is capable of achieving — you never know when you’ll take that “once in a lifetime” shot. Always save copies of your unaltered images in two places, at least until you’ve had a chance to sort out the best. As you acquire more skill over time, you may wish to revisit earlier work and you’ll need a clean original.
  2. I carry a small Nikon in my purse and sometimes that’s the only camera available but it has a small 5 MB range in jpeg only. So if you shoot jpegs, remember that it’s a compression format, great for saving space but not as good at making artful, crisp images. The camera decides how your photo should look and permanently disposes of everything else. That means you lose some of the best or only alternatives for improving your picture and that makes you little more than a bystander to your own process. Any change you save to a jpeg image including simply changing the file name triggers additional compression. You may not notice at first but, after a few such cycles, the image becomes pixelated and chunky. Not a good thing at all!
  3. Once you open your image in the editing program, duplicate the layer so you have an easy retreat. Then be fearless in trying things. Stamp new copies to the top of your layer stack whenever you sense that you’re embarking in a new direction and want to leave an escape. Name your layers; it’s amazing how quickly I sometimes forget what I did ten minutes before. You can always delete effects you don’t like from the layer or history panels.

So what did I actually do to these first two pictures?

  1. First, I used the raw editor that ships with Photoshop to tweak all of the following: raised the blacks from 0 to the 50s, as well as contrast and clarity, and somewhat reduced brightness. I didn’t increase vibrance in the left side but did on the right. Both images were open in the editor at the same time so I could adjust them individually but so they matched in overall tone, color, and contrast.
  2. Next I used the on board Photomerge to create the overlapping panorama. I admit to using a small 10px soft-edged clone brush to make a couple of repairs at the seam.
  3. Then I stamped a new layer and changed the blend mode to Soft Light. I tried Overlay first but it was too dense and harsh.
  4. Finally, I applied a slight High Pass filter effect and added a black layer mask to hide everything that the filter sharpened. Here’s where the sharpening magic happens! To bring out selective details (sharpening) I used a small soft-edged brush and, with white as the foreground color, painted details where I wanted them into the panorama.

Photo editing can be done in many different ways. Each of these steps might have been achieved by other means. But this is part of my regular workflow and it works for me!