In Photoshop I am presented with a series of small problems to solve when creating a work of digital art. Right now, for instance, I’m working on a fantasy sea lion; combining a regal, male lion’s head with a sea lion’s body. I’ll put in a background and bits of scenery to suit. This process of combining images is called photoshopping. Really, you can no longer believe any photograph that you see since anything can be pasted, believably on anything. This digital editing of photos is a favourite hobby of mine and I belong to several online forums devoted to the pastime of photoshopping.

I’m learning to use the tools and a series of shortcuts, Alt key this and Shift key that, or the ‘V’ letter key to pick the Move tool, or any number of other alphabet keys and combinations. These are tricky at first but once memorized they save a LOT of time. When working with a brush, for example, I can hit the left or right Bracket keys to make the brush head smaller or larger which is a lot better than switching back and forth to little drop-down menus.

The work I do is progressing much faster with these aids. When I wrote this I was focusing my attention on Artist Trading Cards. Artist Trading Cards, or ATCs for short, are 3 1/2 inches high and 2 1/2 inches wide, or visa versa. On this small canvas a miniature piece of art is created as a collage. Photoshop is often about collage and the Internet is full of public domain clip art of various sorts. If the graphic was created before 1923, chances are the pictures are in the public domain and can be used freely.

This fixation on before-1923 has produced a groundswell of digital-collage artists. Some do paste up with real paper and special glues and bits of whimsy and ephemera. Ah, ephemera! That can be anything from an old black and white photo, to actual old ads and paper material from long ago. Some - and alas I am not one of these - can actually draw or paint art upon the card and are thus freed from glorifying silent movie stars and the like. I am drawn to digital paste-up and that means Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro or any one of several fractal-generating programs.

I am working my way through various levels of learning. I have found to my delight that there are a fairly large number of short video tutorials I can access on the Internet. These give me an introduction to using the Tools and some fine points in the Settings. This helps to build pathways in the mind, so I can see and remember that I go here to Distort, or there to Fade, and so forth.

On eBay, from a British supplier, I bought two fully packed collections of Actions aimed especially at Photographic work. Actions in Photoshop are a series of machine-memorized steps that allow you to do some pretty fancy footwork automatically. An example would be the two Actions I created myself for my eBay listings. One would take my scan of an item such as a dress pattern front cover and reduce it to the smaller, thumbnail-size shown at the top of an eBay listing The other Action would create the properly-sized larger shot for displaying further down in the listing. Actions save time and make you look smarter than you are.
Then there are Plugins, which are more elaborate than Actions, almost like little programs. I have one called Flood, from a company called Flaming Pear, which I used extensively in the series of 6 Artist Trading Cards on the theme of ‘Bathing Beauties’. The Flood plugin allowed me to add a convincing layer of rippling water at the feet of my aquatic beauties with a realistic reflection to boot. Some of the ladies in these Artist Trading Card ‘Bathing Beauties’ swap were rather prim, pre-1923 semi-nudes.

When someone, like the publishing house Dover, pulls together a collection of public-domain clip art the collection is copyrighted but individual items, as many as 10, can be used in a single, composite work of art. I know you really wanted to hear that.

I should mention that the Cards I’m rattling on about are produced with the intention of trading them with other card makers in a series of swaps. Typically, this could be a named theme. A fixed number of cards are sent in before a deadline date. In due course 6 cards, each by a different artist, will come in the mail to be added to an ever-expanding Collection. This trading is global in nature and the artist of one may be in Kansas and of another in Australia or even France. Trades are usually organized in Internet messaging forums. I keep my cards, thus received, in 9-card plastic binder pages or in individual sleeves which are widely available since they are used by the Sports Trading Card bunch.

I’ve been mounting my completed Cards on the web at http://www.flickr.com/photos/soniabrock/ which is a good graphics hosting site. ATCs are a niche group and there are a multitude of such special interest groups on Flickr.

I print out my cards, still at 2 1/2 by 3 1/2 inches, but at a higher resolution of 300 dpi (dots per inch) on glossy 8” x 10”, photo card stock. I get, therefore, 9 cards to a page and cut them up carefully with scissors for post processing. I add a few baubles and beads, bits of lace or trim, and other suitably flat, lightweight paste-up ornamentation. This makes them more tactilely interesting and more appealing to the paste-up crowd. Paste-up ATCs are close in technique to the current Scrapbooking and Cardmaking hobbies. The digital Artist Trading Cards are closer to the computer graphics and photo enhancing hobbies.

When I’m working on a specific theme for a group swap, such as The Arrival of Spring or St. Patrick’s Day, it focuses my mind and I produce more. I’m starting now to work on personal themes. My current works in that area illustrate folk songs such as Tom Dooley or the playing card sung about in the ditty Jack of Diamonds. You have to figure out how best to capture the idea visually from all the various bits and pieces that make up the composite canvas. On the web what you often see is a small picture or thumbnail, which you click on to see a larger picture. The placement of the various objects in the card are such that even when seen in the small form, it attracts the eye in and makes you want to see more. This element of composition is another interesting problem.

I’ve almost stopped on-line war gaming. Oh, I drop in every now and then to keep my account active but for the most part I no longer play there, because I’m too busy learning and using Photoshop.

Another thing I’m busy with is collecting the various artistic bits and pieces. This is done either through purchase or on some wonderful sites that have collections of public domain ephemera. There’s a great group on Flickr that does this. <http://www.flickr.com/groups/collageimages/>

I’m building a library of images, so chances are, whatever it is I have to do, I can reach into this digital library and retrieve something relevant. Then again, each new challenge asks for different things. I never thought I’d need a sea lion, for instance, or a Confederate Army uniform for Tom Dooley.

In other words, I’ve got myself a brand new hobby for as long as it lasts. I hope it lasts a while because it’s really interesting. I’m a little old, right now, for it to turn into a job This what usually happens with my hobbies – but one never knows ...

Podcast © Sonia Fricker Brock March 2008

I can be reached on the web at    http://www.soniabrock.com

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