Posts Tagged ‘ballpoint pen’

I’ve been meaning to recycle this article for a while, and I had a few minutes to work on it lately.  It’s more or less a copy/paste of an art tutorial I wrote up for the player forums for YoHoHo Puzzle Pirates!, a game that I still think well of, even if it’s in its sunset years.

I tend to sketch with ballpoint pens, and paint in Photoshop.  This tutorial covers taking what I think of as a rough sketch, and turning it into a 150×150 pixel “avatar”, but some of the techniques work elsewhere.  I do seem to be missing some of the original art, sadly, but the original article is still up on the YPP! forums over here:

Silveransom’s Avatar Tech

For a “Reader’s Digest Condensed Version”, please continue, and as always, I’m happy to answer questions.  I’ve added a few asides here and there, always in italics.


It’s come up a few times, and I’ve wanted to do a Photoshop tutorial since before my YPP days, so here’s a whirlwind tour of my methodology of avatar art. It’s actually a bit generalized, but this is how I wind up doing most of my avatar art.

1. Draw something cool in my sketchbook. I do this with a ballpoint pen, most of the time. It’s personal preference… as is the definition of “cool”. This particular monkey is actually a component of an avatar I did for Phillite. He works as a standalone critter, though, so I’m reusing him for this project. (Which also means that, as might be expected, I ask that the art in this thread not be used elsewhere.)

2. Scan it in to Photoshop, usually at 600 dpi. This gives me room to play with effects. I usually shrink it down once it’s all painted the way I like it, but I like working big. It gives me more freedom to try big, sweeping brushstrokes, and more precision in tweaking. I bought a cheap Memorex scanner on sale for $40 years ago, and it’s been fantastic.
By the way, if you’re serious about computer art, do yourself a favor and get a tablet. Wacom Bamboo tablets are a great entry level product. The software doesn’t matter all that much, since paint.net, GIMP and ArtRage are free and will suffice (Clip Studio Paint and Affinity work as fairly low cost powerful single-purchase alternatives as well), and some tablets come with software. I use Photoshop Elements 2 because it’s what I have handy. I also use Painter on occasion, but that’s an indulgence. The tablet, though… that’s almost essential.


3. Use Photoshop’s Levels modifier to clean up the sketch. I make a duplicate of the scanned layer, just in case I need the original for some reason, and apply Levels (Ctrl-L) to the duplicate. Pulling in both end knots a wee bit cleans up most of the static that came from the scan.


4. Since my sketches tend to be a little rough, I need to do some Rubber Stamp surgery to clean up a bit. The Rubber Stamp tool takes data from a source part of the image, and replicates it elsewhere. You Alt-click to define the source, and then “paint” the duplicate, winding up with this sort of effect, here duplicating the alternate arm’s thumb:


5. Rubber Stamp to clean the drawing, like this, cloning in the blank paper/background into the areas that should be clean on the drawing… it may take a bit of work and several clone source points, chosen each time with the Alt-Click:


6. I then make a new level (on which I’ll be painting), and move the clean sketch to the top of the stack, and set the level blending type to Multiply. This lets me treat it as an outline, and paint the color in underneath.


7. Start painting on a layer underneath the drawing. I don’t paint on the drawing layer. All coloring takes place on layers between the drawing and the white background layer I’ve set up. This gives me the ability to tweak the painting independent of the background and the sketch. This use of layers is one of the huge strengths of Photoshop (or any program that uses layers), and why working digitally can be a very different animal from traditional art.


8. The base color for the monkey is in, carefully covering his space. Now, it’s time for another layer for the shadowing.


9. The shadow layer is just a bit of paint that’s darker than the base color. It’s painted in a bit roughly at first…


10. Then the Gaussian Blur filter gets applied, to soften it up (I usually do this, as illustrated, on a copy of the shadow painting layer, just in case I need to go back a step and tweak it):


11. This makes for a nice rounding effect, and even gives a nice “reflected lighting” subtlety to the larger areas, like the monkey’s torso. (The dark side of most objects in real space is tempered a bit by reflected light, which this neatly simulates.)



12. The Gaussian Blur pretty much obliterates the subtle shadows in the hair, so I make a new layer, and start painting in new, detailed shadows. These are brushstrokes, like the main shadow layer, but I don’t use the Gaussian Blur on these. I just use the Smudge tool to push things around the way I like them. Here’s a close shot on the hair in progress:


and the tail:


and I sharpen up the cast shadow under the chin with a few additive strokes:


13. Erase around the edges of both shadow layers. It’s a subtle thing, but this shows how the Gaussian Blur pushed the color out of the outlines. I prefer to keep things clean, so I erase the blurred bit.  Of further note, looking at this from 2019, this edge cleanup can also be accomplished by putting all of the color layers into a layer group, and adding a layer mask to that group that simply masks off anything not inside of where you want colors.  This lets you create the edge cleanup for all of the color layers with a single operation, which is a great update to the workflow.  Photoshop Elements 2 had neither layer masks nor layer groups, so this is a bare-bones tutorial.  The fuller releases of Photoshop give more tools to work with, including “Smart Objects”, which I’ll revisit in a different tutorial.


14. Now for a highlight layer. I do this the same way I did the shadow layer, just with a different color, and from a different direction. In other words, paint,




and make a secondary highlight layer for detail work, then erase around the edges to be clean:


15. Since monkeys in YPP have a two tone look to them, with the belly, feet, hands and face a different color, I make a new layer to try to get this effect.


16. Paint the relevant parts in a lighter color, then change the layer Blending options to get the desired effect. I settled on Soft Light. This allows me to paint in a second color tone, without losing the shading and hair effects I’ve made so far.  I’m using a subtle secondary tone here, and you can do more with color shifting by using a different paint color and layer compositing effects like Hue (instead of Soft Light) that shifts the color underneath while maintaining the shading:



17. Close to being done, it’s time for little tuning. I decided that the monkey’s belly needed a bit more dimension, so I added a bit to the shadows:


18. Finish by painting the sword on a few new layers, using similar effects for shading:


Add a layer for his eyes and nose…
aaand he’s done!


Since this was done at 600 dpi, it’s not really ready for an avatar. It comes out to be this big, useful for seeing detail:



After rescaling the resolution, a middle sized version looks like this:


And the avatar might look like this:


It loses a lot of detail at that scale, so this methodology isn’t always appropriate. It’s how I work because I like to have my art around at high resolution if I need it for my portfolio, especially if I need to print it out. Working high and reducing as necessary winds up looking a lot better than working small and magnifying it if necessary.

I would also usually go back and flatten some layers, erase the edges, throw in a background and/or a border… but that’s about it.

Thanks for stopping by! I’m happy to answer any questions.


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Ballpoint Pen Art

Most of my art starts with a sketch in my sketchbook (if you look at the Buccateer, you can see the pen drawing), and almost all of them are done with ballpoint pens.  You can see other pen drawings over in my old mini portfolio thisaway, and interspersed here and there on the blog.

I find that drawing with pens makes me simultaneously more careful and more fluid, as well as faster and more accurate.  When I’m drawing with pens, I have to either get it right the first time or learn to incorporate my mistakes.  Once I made the switch from pencils (sadly, once I hit college… I wish I’d switched in high school or earlier), my line quality went up, my control over pressure was greatly improved, my ability to draw smooth curves and straight lines increased, and I learned to see what I was trying to draw better (especially figure drawings), as I needed to get it right, not relying on “fixing it in post“, as it were.

Dwarven Tinkerer, pure pen

I do sometimes sketch things out and then scan them into the computer, there to be cleaned up a little and/or painted under, making things like this… which was originally two sketches (the book was separate and I spliced it in) and a bit of Photoshop paint underneath.  I describe the process over thisaway, on the Puzzle Pirate forums (I really need to make one of those posts here, too, just to keep it in house).

Vargas the Not Yet Mad

To be sure, working with conte or charcoal helped as well, as those mediums are conducive to quick, loose drawings with a minimum of corrections.  I’ve done figure drawings with conte, charcoal, pencil and paint, and my best work wound up being with the nearly uncorrected conte.  (Yes, it’s nothing great as far as figure drawings go, but it’s my most presentable one.)

Male Seated Back

I think something similar would happen if I finally picked up oil painting.  I’ve done my fair share of watercolor painting, and I’ve learned to make them work fairly well for a variety of effects, but I hated them in junior high.  I pushed through it and tried a variety of techniques, and eventually wound up at least vaguely competent with them, but I’ve never done much with oils.  I’m a little intimidated by them and their appearance of being unforgiving.  (OK, their high cost doesn’t help.)  I know that I could learn control and develop skill with them, even though they can be tricky… I just haven’t put in the time yet.

Anyway, snippets of art wisdom aside, I’m mentioning all this mostly to point out this fascinating and very well-wrought series of pieces done entirely in ballpoint pen from a Mr. Samuel Silva.  His work puts my piddling little sketches to shame.

Ballpoint Pen Art by Samuel Silva

And the best part?  He’s a lawyer by day.  I really have to wonder, what would his art look like if he made a career out of it.  A big part of me thinks that it might suffer, actually, in accordance to what I noted earlier about work vs. hobbies, and doing what you do for love or for money.  Mr. Silva doesn’t do these pieces to make ends meet.  He does them because he can and because he wants to.  It seems to me that it worked out really well.

Sometimes the best art is art you do simply because you need to do it.  (Though sometimes, it’s perhaps best to… forbear some artistry.)

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