Love-inspired Art: Digital Painting a Family Photograph
Artistry has a way of bringing to light the starkest of contrasts.
When the markets were financing the loss-making WeWork, Kristyna Zapletal, a personal and business coach and writer, chose to invest in my work. While WeWork’s CEO Adam Neumann famously claimed his goal wasn’t merely to make money or rent office space but to "change the world," I humbly claimed I could paint Kristyna’s late grandparents with love.
It’s not hard to imagine a future world where machines will replace creative people, of all skill levels, who don’t put their souls in their works. I had that in mind when I offered to create this work for Kristyna. My proposal went beyond just my experience or my ability to deliver the job; I was declaring “I’m not a robot.”
I don’t know the logic behind the algorithm that suggested a Jordanian engineer in the Saudi desert was the best fit to paint a commissioned digital piece for a European family. Nevertheless, I found myself in a situation only possible in the 21st century, and after some contemplation, I couldn’t ignore this subtle nudge from the universe; it was an opportunity not to be missed. I felt drawn to the work and was compelled to give it my all.
Trouble with the drafts
My private painting of Tameem, my eldest son, was my ticket for admission. The painting was done using copic markers with pencils and pens on toned paper. Kristyna wanted a digital gift in the same traditional look and feeling—a high-definition artwork to be printed on a large framed canvas for the family home.
My first drafts for the piece were rejected and tensions surfaced. Three days evaporated. Kristyna reminded me about the short deadline, that she wanted a digital drawing unrecognizable from a handmade one, and that she wanted to feel the warmth and the likeness in the piece. Obviously, I wasn’t hitting the mark!
I was following a mundane layer-by-layer approach to construct the painting and after the less-than-happy feedback, I decided to start anew. Now I had to curate the right digital markers, pencils, and pens to work my magic on a single layer of toned digital paper.
For this I decided to visit a good old friend: Sketchbook Pro, a free app by Autodesk. Sketchbook offers digital copic markers that perfectly mimic the ones I use, but with the below-300-DPI canvas, the lackluster welcome back, and some technical limitations, I knew the quality of the printed artwork wouldn’t satisfy my patron, who was still disappointed from a previous experience with a different freelancer.
Nevertheless, I continued.
Drawing the answers
The style was the How, and the love I promised was the What and the Why, with all their complexities. With the stylistic problem resolved, gradually uncovering the answers to these questions became part of the journey.
Art is subjective and what moves the patron is usually recognized by the artist, though not altogether understood. Short of concrete references, I knew my job was to reconstruct the details, brought to life more from Kristyna's memories than from the old reference photo she shared. And equipped with everything I’ve learned about dealing with upset customers (I work in telecommunications 😅), I had to read the expectations behind her words and translate them into digital paint strokes—a lot of them.
After I made my initial statement in Sketchbook I moved to Procreate, a subscription-free app by Savage and my top companion for professional digital painting (this is not a paid endorsement. 😄.) With Procreate I drew the answers: I first used a digital canvas of 300 DPI to meet the printing demands, I filled the empty spaces, fixed the values, added pencil-and-pen details, lit up the highlights, and found the roots of the warmth-and-likeness equation Kristyna seeked.
With this, the conversation took a positive turn that included several progressive revisions and ultimately feedback that ended with: “The image looks great. You’ve done an excellent job.”
As the journey came to an end I had acquired a story to tell about the power of little acts of frustration, I decided to do more digital art in the same style, which I never would have approached naturally, and I had to bid farewell to Kristyna’s lovely babička and dědeček whom I never met, but came to know vividly.
Each stroke and every highlight illuminated more to me than the art itself. I wouldn't claim to have "changed the world," just my small piece of it.
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