The Anatomy of a Piece of Art

On Wednesday, I finished my first large digital art project, using Gimp. For those who don’t know, Gimp is a free open-source Photoshop-like application. I’ve used Gimp in the past for photo manipulation and creating web art for my previous website. It’s got a steep learning curve, but there are tons of videos out on YouTube that can help the beginning user get comfortable with it. Up until now though, I’d never used it for art (though I also wasn’t doing any art until recently), and seeing some videos on how to draw and paint with it got me motivated to give it a try.

I did some messing around with custom brushes to create some starry backgrounds, with plans of eventually doing an illustration of my short story “Night Bird Soaring”, but without a graphic tablet, I felt good quality work was out of my reach. So I bought a graphic tablet, and while I was waiting for it to arrive, I decided to do some just straight-up painting, to get a feel for using the brushes and stuff.

I took a photograph of my dog Lily and decided I wanted to make a painting out of it. She’s got a diverse coloration, and I love this particular photo of her and had been making drawings off of it.


I didn’t like any of my drawings of it though, so I decided to scrap those and work directly off the photograph. It was large and of good enough quality to do so. I cropped it down so then did some photo manipulation on it; basically I followed the instructions on a video I found about how to make a photo look like a drawing, and I ended up with this:

Manipulated Photo

As part of the process, I made it transparent as well, so I could put whatever color background I wanted behind it (a necessity given that I was going to be working on large portions of white.). After that I started adding layers to it, one for each major body color then ones for the different facial features; eyes, mouth, tongue, nose, and the collar. I later also added an extra layer for the white shading part, since it became clear right after starting on the white portions that it would be easier to have a base white layer and a separate shading layer.

To get proper coloration, I used the color dropper feature, to let Gimp pick the closest approximation of the actual colors of the photograph. I started off using the blending tool, to get a fading into other color, but scrapped that idea after doing the tongue in a purely block-color fashion; I liked the look that the hard edges between the colors gave, sort of like paint by numbers. So I went back and deleted the bit of work I’d done using the blending tool and started over again, keeping to the block style this time.

I started the project back on September 30th and I spent a couple hours each night working on it, one layer at a time. I finally finished it this last Wednesday, October 12th, after spending about 6 hours that day to get it wrapped up. I opted not to do a painted background on it because I thought it would be too busy if I did it, and so decided to do a transparent gradient background with the light coming from the same direction as the light in the photo was coming from. Below you can see the various layers I used to create the finished product:

The different layers

Click for better detail

And here is the completed project:

Portrait of Lily

I do want to note that I did all this with the mouse, none with the tablet. After experimenting with the tablet, I found it would be difficult to get the colors consistent due to the pressure sensativity, so I opted for finishing it up with the mouse even though the mouse is less precise. The tablet pen will be good for doing a different kind of painting than what I was doing here. I’m looking forward to see what I can do with it.