Today I’m going to review how and when I use something called ‘flats’ to help colour and shade digital art easily and how that fits perfectly with using the photoshop pen-tool to draw vector curves and paths . I used to use flats all the time because they allow me to accurately control each individual part of the picture when I’m doing the final colouring and shading. The same is true of the pen tool – the level of control this tool gives the artist is amazing. I use both of them much less now – really just for tricky parts of an image because, while they give me good control which is fast to use, they make the final image too tight and clean. I want a loose feel to my digital art. It’s just a personal choice. That said, using flats and the pen-tool is a technique I have found extremely useful at times and can produce some really excellent artwork.
But what are flats?
Well flats are sections of your picture which you can easily select and work on individually. This is done by going over your picture and seperating each part you want to work on seperately by colouring it in a different colour. These don’t have to be colours you’re going to use in the end product, they just need to be different from each other. In a way flatting out a picture is just like making a mask for each part of the image – just like you would if you were using an airbrush to paint in a more traditional way.
(If you still need more info on this try this excellent tutorial: Farlow Studios Tutorial on Flats
Here’s a very simple example I drew a year or so ago using Photoshop 6:
This is my original sketch of a woman wearing a bikini:
So the first thing I did, after scanning the sketch into my machine, was to draw my line art using the Photoshop Pen Tool. This tool is amazing because you can draw completely accurately anything you want, but it takes a bit of practice. Instead of drawing a line you kind of map it out using the controls of the tool. It is quite complicated but I found it well worth learning because it is SO powerful once you get to know it. It’s one of the few things I would import an image into Photoshop for rather than sticking exclusively to Manga Studio. Here is a great guide on how to use the tool:
So here’s my pen-tool line-art:
Although you can see this image as black ink on a white background, the pen lines are actually drawn on a transparent layer in my art software (Photoshop 6) so that I can put colours etc. in a layer below and still see my pen lines.
Now in this picture I only have two basic areas – her body and her bikini. There are two parts to the bikini but they are seperated by by lot of space so I can afford to use the same colour for both parts with out being at risk from accidentally colouring or shading one part while I’m working on the other. While I don’t have to use any particular colour for this I decided here to use something like my final colours to save a bit of time.
So this is what my flats look like:
Notice there are no gaps between colours.
So seeing these flats with the pen lines showing looks like this:
Then I can shade and colour her skin and her bikini seperately and easily. The following image includes the skin shading and highlights but the bikini is still plain:
And this next image is with the Bikini coloured and shaded too which finishes of the picture:
I’m not really sure what professional digital artists do – use flats and the pen tool always, sometimes or never? Maybe it depends on what they’re doing and the final effect they’re trying to acheive? If you are a professional digital artist I would love to know what you preference is with respect to using flats and vector lines in your artwork? 🙂
For me, I think I use them when I feel I need to, or if I was asked to do it that way for a particular project. The only bad thing about both flats and the pen tool is the lack of being spontaneous and natural in your drawing and colouring. These methods tighten up work and make it look kind of professional but they also somehow seem to suck the life out of it if you’re not careful. Generally nowadays I prefer to draw and colour directly wherever I can.
(All Images unless otherwise explicitly stated are © Jo Fox, 2015)