...or, how to hide an appalling lack of artistic talent with the help of image editing software


Poignant Autobiographical Introduction

As an odd but mostly happy schoolchild, I enjoyed drawing airplanes.  The specimens of "aviation art" that I produced (in what I like to call my "eighth-grade" period) had two common attributes.  First, they portrayed naval aircraft with the maximum level of technical fidelity that a youngster in junior high school could manage, with particular attention to accurate aircraft markings.  I would sooner forget to draw a wing than place an incorrect tail code on my drawings.  (This sort of compulsive obsession with military minutia manifested itself quite early in life, and in retrospect I wonder why I wasn't the recipient of more after-school beatings.)

The second characteristic attribute of my winged masterpieces was that without exception, they were all very poor.  Notwithstanding a dogged attention to detail, my compositions utterly lacked technique, a sense of visual proportion, consistent perspective, and any understanding of lighting.  They were completely bereft of drama and emotion, and even my most daring compositions could only be described as banal.  Moreover, I couldn't "draw," and in fact was only marginally better at "erasing" (although the results of the latter were usually less jarring to the eye).  Eventually I gave up on drawing airplanes in favor of building plastic scale airplane models (which is a whole separate tale of woe and spillage).  My early creative life in the visual arts was a kaleidoscope of tortured artistic vision, superlatively flawed execution, and very, very ugly airplanes.

I would like to tell you that as I matured, I came to terms with my artistic deficiencies and embraced my essential worth as a human being despite my genuine but ultimately meaningless flaws.  But, while this would arguably provide an uplifting and quite valuable life lesson to boys and girls everywhere, it would not be very interesting.  So instead, today I am going to tell you about one application of what has become an extremely important theme in my life:  using technological gimmicks (in this case, image-editing software) to divert attention from personal inadequacy.

A Different Kind of Airport Profiling

Aviation "profile art" consists of a well-lit side view of the aircraft, often against a plain white background.  The airplane is portrayed outside of its natural environment, which to some may seem to be a rather flat portrayal of an object so often associated with free motion -- sort of like a mug shot to the rest of aviation art's fashion shoots (though profile art usually yields more flattering results than The Smoking Gun's typical fare).  Profile art is excellent for displaying colors and markings, and seems to be popular among scale modelers.  Because the perspective is fixed, it also is very good for the talentless novice, who does not need to worry too much about "foreshortening" and other complicated things like that.  There is, of course, the wing, which juts out in the face of the viewer.  But remember: wings are thin, so when in doubt, sketch something vaguely thin-like and shade vigorously.  (If that fails, see if you can't bluff your way past with some kind of wingtip store that obstructs the whole mess.  I'm partial to Sidewinder missiles.)

Fig. 2.  Northrop F-5E Tiger II, in the desert adversary colors of VFC-13, the Fighting Saints.

Above is a finished profile of one of my favorite little jets, the F-5E (also known to fans of Top Gun as the "MiG-28").  I like the F-5 because of its clean, simple lines, which provide only minimal opportunity for me to inadvertently do something unattractive.  The wings are very thin, and more often than not they're obscured in profile by a bright orange telemetry pod (in technical artistic terms, a "lightning rod of ugly").  You also don't typically see F-5s with a lot of oddly-shaped external stores, which again reduces opportunities for blunder.  Finally, in American service, the F-5 is used exclusively in the adversary training role (the Air Force calls them "aggressors," but as a lawyer I like the ring of "adversary").  Adversary pilots, being rather strange people, enjoy painting their airplanes in unusual colors, rather than the drab light grays and dark grays and medium grays that abound in the modern tactical aviation inventory.  Pretty colors distract the viewer from the utter simplicity of the overall composition, and make the drawing look much cooler than it really is.  A fundamental compositional principle for the talentless (which actually has many useful applications outside the art world) is to distract the viewer with shiny and/or colorful objects.

Faking Artistic Talent with Software Tools

Modern digital image editing software offers the novice easy access to artistic tools that, in a non-digital medium, would require the mastery of many different techniques and skills, most of which promise trouble for the clumsy or the accident-prone.  For instance, the color blending and light gradations that give the F-5E above the illusion of depth might require an airbrush (and if you've ever had a horrible accident involving an airbrush, paint thinner, and the cat, you know of what I speak).  Software allows you to achieve a very similar effect through the use of transparent layers, digital blurring, and masking -- all of which are invoked using a standard mouse with minimal risk of traumatizing your housepets.  I happen to use Corel PHOTO-PAINT 11, which offers a robust set of features at a more reasonable price than Adobe Photoshop.  There are other packages that offer similar functionality, such as Paint Shop Pro, which has received great reviews and is now selling for well under $100.

At any rate, the main software features that I rely upon to compensate for my artistic shortcomings are:

  • Automatic "undo."  Without a doubt, the most valuable tool of all.  When it comes to drawing, "oops" is my most-often-used word that can be reprinted on a family-oriented website.  Corel offers many levels of "undo," which means that even after I have committed a particularly elaborate and prolonged series of errors, I can almost always back up, step-by-step.  I also tend to save my progress in multiple versions. 

  • Variable magnification.  To my frequent regret, real life occurs at a zoom level of 1x.  (Sometimes you can try to use a magnifying glass or binoculars, but more often than not you end up either setting something on fire or running away from someone with a bad attitude and a baseball bat.)  Aviation art involves the rendering of a lot of fine details, and being able to work at pixel-by-pixel at an 800% magnification removes the deadly effects of an unsteady hand.  The corollary to this is that software also allows you to freely shrink any object, which permits you to paint on a large scale and position on a small scale.

  • Masking.  Related to the whole "unsteady hand" thing, the software allows me to designate arbitrary areas to which the effects of my paintbrush, eraser tool, or color blender will be restricted.  This is the digital equivalent of applying masking tape before spray-painting something, except that this tape is infinitely flexible, can be placed in any number of perfect geometric shapes or "painted on" freehand, can be inverted at will, and can be set to apply to some objects but not to others.

  • Transparent layers.  The presence of transparent layers is probably the most critical structural tool for creating sophisticated images.  It is the equivalent of digital watercolor painting, which allows you to divide up your image into a series of overlapping layers (Corel calls them "objects") that are independently manipulable.  Imagine painting different parts of your image on a series of overlapping overhead transparencies, and you'll begin to understand the profound flexibility this offers.  You can freely and instantly resequence your layers, combine them, apply your paintbrush to just one layer without affecting any of the others, alter the transparency of individual layers, and move individual layers in relation to the others.  Shadows and light can be applied to the object as overlapping "layers," and modified in real time until the right "look" is achieved.  Until I figured out how layers worked, I never could draw anything in Corel.

  • Digital blending.  "Blurring", "blending", and "smoothing" are all different ways of taking two areas of color and introducing a gradient between them, so that they appear to blend into one another.  This is critical for portraying natural-looking objects.  Look again at the camouflage paint scheme on the F-5 above.  Even though the dark brown and the tan areas appear to be distinct, some smoothing had to be applied between them in order to avoid a jagged-looking artificial contrast.  You can also see the effects of blurring in the underside shadows, the canopy color, and the faint reflection of light along the top of the nose.

Next:  Digital Aviation Profiles in Seven Easy Steps

February 29, 2004  ||  Return to Vulture's Row  ||  Return to Home Page  ||  E-mail
Copyright 2004 Robin J. Lee <robin.lee@aya.yale.edu>.  All rights reserved.