Insights and ideas from John Derry
Combining artistic mediums
If you want to learn a thing or two about digital painting, John Derry is your guy. Derry is a pioneer of digital painting, one of the original authors of Corel Painter, and an Adobe® Photoshop® software Painting Pioneer. He has a master’s degree in painting from Cranbrook Academy of Art, is a practicing artist and photographer, and has two U.S. patents relating to expressive digital mark-making. Derry teaches digital painting workshops and also authors titles on the topic for Lynda.com. So what does he like to do in his free time? Paint, of course! Here, Derry shares his thoughts on blurring the lines between painting and photography.
Photoshop.com: Which piece of equipment couldn’t you live without and why?
John Derry: I love my pressure-sensitive Wacom Intuos4 tablet. Combined with the Art Pen, Photoshop utilizes all six degrees of motion. This input provides all of the expressive fine motor motions that are going on with regard to an artist’s hand, wrist, and arm. The ability to use tablets for mark making is huge for me, but it is only one half of the equation. The second half is how Photoshop handles that data.
Photoshop.com: What role does Photoshop play in your creative process?
John Derry: Every image first starts in your head; only you see it. As I’ve absorbed Photoshop, I’ve developed a conceptual model of Photoshop in my mind. When I’m shooting, I am essentially looking at the world through a Photoshop “lens.” I visualize the image through my lens as if rendered with different brushes. As I’m shooting, I’m constantly asking myself why I want to capture the image and what tools are available to me to accomplish my vision. This gives me the ability to think differently and really understand what my overall process will look like. Just having a camera or just having Photoshop wouldn’t work. It takes both to achieve what I am trying to express.
Photoshop.com: How did you create the result in a particular image?
John Derry: I’m really happy with what I was able to accomplish in my “Holiday Traffic” image (Image 1). By just looking at it, nobody would realize that it all started with a point-and-shoot camera. It was the week before New Year’s and I was on vacation with my family. I was enamored with the lights and reflections in the street. This project demonstrates that you don’t need a high-end camera for a successful expressive interpretation of a photo. The painting tools in Photoshop CS5 give me the malleability to alter a scene. I don’t have to keep true to reality; I can add my own flavor of reality. I sketched in the people crossing the street to add a sense of life and storytelling to the scene.
Photoshop.com: Describe a favorite image you’ve created and what grabs you about it.
John Derry: I painted an image of my friends’ backyard birdhouse that is a whimsical scaled-down fifties mobile home. The finished painting has a surface patina that I’m very happy with (Image 3). One element of my style is to portray the finished image as if it were a photographed physical canvas. To achieve this, I add elements that imbue the image with physical surface effects like canvas texture, varnish, and gesso. I want to provide a sense of physicality to the viewed result.
Photoshop.com: How do you know that a final image is really good?
John Derry: I always try to start with an idea or some sense of direction. I don’t like to just start painting and hope that something comes out of it. As you develop as an artist, in whatever medium you work in, you start to see things in your mind’s eye and hope that you can get it out and others can experience it. When I have my final image I look at it and ask if it is close to what I imagined. Sometimes it can be better, but it usually falls somewhere around what I originally pictured. Serendipity always plays a part in that process too. I might do something that I didn’t originally envision and it becomes an additional element. Other times I will finish and wish I had done something differently. But this is part of what helps me grow as an artist. If there is something I wish I had done differently, I will absorb it into my work the next time.
Photoshop.com: What artist(s)/photographer(s) do you admire?
John Derry: I had an art teacher introduce me to the work of abstract expressionist Robert Rauschenberg. Rather than just relying on expressing on canvas with paint and brushes, he found unique ways to incorporate printed imagery into his work. He would apply a liberal amount of lighter fluid to an area of print-making paper, then place a four-color magazine image on the surface and burnish the back side of the image The applied pressure transferred a reverse of the image to the paper. When the lighter fluid evaporated, the paper would have the photographic elements on it. After the transfer, he had a photo with mark making elements and would then use pencils, paint, and brushes to create a drawing that intermeshed with the photograph.
Photoshop.com: What do you like most about the painting tools in Photoshop CS5?
John Derry: I am always interested in bringing images into a painted environment. The new painting tools in Photoshop CS5 give you the tools to do this. Rather than having to start in a painting program, I can do it all in the same environment, which lets me better combine photography and painting. It is so exciting that a photo can become a wet oil painting, and I can see the colors in the picture come through my brush.
Photoshop.com: What do you prefer, photography or painting?
John Derry: I can’t say I prefer one medium over the other or that I am a purist. I have respect for all mediums. The idea of bringing possibilities together and combining multiple artistic mediums is what I love. Instead of looking at artistic specialties like you would look at the spokes of a bicycle wheel, I like to try to visualize what’s in between the spokes, combining specialties to create something new.
Photoshop.com: How have you evolved as a photographer/artist?
John Derry: I started out in traditional media—paint, canvas, pencils, etc. When I was just out of graduate school I got my first taste of what could be done digitally, and since then my path has been dedicated to pixels. Now what has happened is a confluence of old and new, traditional media and pixels. Regardless of my medium of choice, it always ends up on paper. I’ve used chalks and charcoals to embellish images. Taking the final step of adding paint to prints on canvas is one of my long-term goals.
Photoshop.com: Describe what gives your artwork a recognizable style.
John Derry: I like to work quickly. I like to craft the illusion of spontaneity; I let the brush do what it wants and don’t worry about doing a lot of editing. I like when an image looks like everything just fell together. I find that as soon as you try to make something look unintentional, it doesn’t. Maybe this stems from my background in abstract expressionism; all of my work has an accidental quality that helps make it unique.
Photoshop.com: As an artist, what other artistic possibilities do you wish to explore?
John Derry: I came from background of traditional materials where my main medium was acrylics. Merging tangible items with painting is something I’m very interested in. I want to continue playing with the balance between painting and photograph—finding new ways to experiment with painterly photographs or photorealistic paintings. I like the idea of bringing digital paint in as one layer of an image with other media layers—traditional included.
Photoshop.com: What is the ONE lasting impression you want to leave in your artwork?
John Derry: I think that everything is a remix, based on what we already know and what we’ve seen, whether we’re talking about music, or painting, or photography. It is the remixing of existing ideas that enables you to create something new. I hope when people look at my artwork they see both the familiar and the unexpected. Artistic expression is a prism through which the viewer infuses his own experience. The result is a collaboration of artist and viewer.
John's Tool Presets Sampler