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Digital tools for analogue painting

Cheating vs. one's own aspirations

"A real artist does not use any aids. He or she can easily reproduce perspective, anatomy and faces correctly. After all, the old masters didn't have any aids either". This is probably one of the beliefs of many artists. I was not immune to it myself. But what if this is not true at all? What if everyone actually uses tools and has always done so, and this struggle is imposed on us for no reason at all?

Art history, rewritten

David Hockney, a well-known British artist, has intensively studied paintings from all periods of art history. In the 15th century, there was an enormous leap in "lifelike representation" that no art historian had yet been able to explain. Hockney discovered that this was done with the help of curved mirrors that projected an image of reality onto a canvas. Basically, as if a beamer were showing a live camera stream – but with the simplest technical means. He was able to prove this in numerous experiments.

In this BBC documentary, you can see for yourself why portraits and perspectives suddenly became so much better at this time.

Jan van Eyck (ca. 1390-1441) was probably the first to use the mirror technique. In his famous painting "The Arnolfini Portrait", for example, you can see this very well in the chandelier, which would otherwise have been almost impossible to reproduce so precisely in perspective, including realistically placed highlights and all the trimmings.

About a century later, artists switched from mirrors to lenses because they offered more possibilities. This is particularly easy to reproduce because the accompanying errors often made it into the paintings. For example, there are conspicuously many left-handed people in the paintings from this period – because the pictures were mirrored through the lens. Many distortions were also depicted – legs that were too long, arms that were too big, for example, because they were projected in edge of the lenses and thus optically deformed.

Photography and film

With the rise of photography in the 19th century, counter-movements away from pure depiction developed in art. As David Hockney put it, "awkwardness" returned to painting around 1870. He meant the styles of modern art in which attempts were made to depict more than the correct image (from the perspective of a lens). It was an antithesis to photography, an attempt to represent how we "really see". For example, flickering light, multi-perspectives and surreal compositions found their way into painting.

As far as photography was concerned, it became an art form itself. Moreover, artists could also use photographic models – whether secretly or openly. Francis Bacon, another well-known British painter, folded, rubbed or cut up photographs to obtain different models for his distorted, maltreated depictions of faces. During his lifetime (1909-1992), however, he denied this. In the book "In the mirror of photography" it says: "The reasons for Bacon keeping his engagement with photography out of the critic's eye were manifold. A major factor was photography's long struggle for acceptance in the realm of the fine arts. In 1859, Charles Baudelaire famously argued that photographs were used only by painters of 'too slender talent or too lazy to complete their studies'."


With the technical development of recent years, it has never been easier to find practical and affordable digital tools. Both amateur apps on smartphones and professional applications on computers are constantly improving. Digital painting, illustration with the iPad, image editing with Photoshop, etc. have long been part of everyday life for designers and illustrators.

But it was only through the British tv show "Portrait artist of the year" that I really understood how naturally analogue artists are supported by technology. In the show, the candidates have four hours to paint a portrait and you can follow the process in excerpts. This makes the series very valuable to me, even though it is unfortunately not available outside the UK – except for the episodes that someone puts on Youtube. I was surprised to see that most of the participants rely on tools like digital photos and grid apps – quite openly, in front of huge audiences.

It's not like I didn't do it before, but since then I do it much more naturally and with less "bad conscience". In the following, I present some tools and ways of working that I find useful.

Perspective and resemblance

To depict something as realistically as possible:

1. Grid apps, such as Grid # (iOS App)

I have tested a few and find this one the best so far, as you can have squares created regardless of the ratio of the template image (in other apps then often rectangles, i.e. not to be used). The number, colour and line width can also be set. After creating the grids on the photo, measure a grid with the same divisions on the canvas and then transfer the basic shapes square by square as a preliminary drawing. (Pro-tip for acrylic paintings: Draw the grid with watercolour crayons and then simply wash it off with water. Much cleaner than pencil and erasing). Alternatively, you can also create a grid with guide lines in Photoshop, for example, and even adapt it to the dimensions of the canvas.

Scale Photoshop grid for a self-portrait

2. Adjustment in the image processing programme

This approach is mainly used when I am too lazy for grids and start drawing directly. I often take a photo of my painting and check digitally how close I got. I also think that this procedure trains my eye more, because I can then see where I have misjudged. I use Adobe Photoshop for this, cheap alternatives would be Affinity Designer, Procreate (iOS) – or any other image editing programme. The only important thing is that you can transparently superimpose images on layers.

3. Beamer

I haven't done this yet, but of course it's also a variant: simply project the artwork onto the screen using a beamer – just like the mirrors and lenses used to do.


This is not a plea against practising basics. Knowledge about proportions, muscles etc. makes us faster and we can easier spot mistakes. For this, I can highly recommend Proko's YouTube channel and any videos on the "Loomis Method" for faces. However, the following anatomy apps can help a lot:

In this app, also from Proko, you can freely position a skeleton in space. You can also light the model and use a kind of mannequin look, but you don't have muscles or realistic surfaces. It is a good way to understand how the underlying anatomy behaves in 3D space.

These two apps are basically the same – one male, one female version. You can choose from different body types, hairstyles and hand poses, adjust the pose, light and camera. Priceless, actually!

Left: Skelly, right: ArtPose

The "Back" Button

As the two authors of "Nea Machina - Die Kreativmaschine" also wrote, one should use digital processing above all to always go one step further than analogue. To try out everything that one would not dare to do in analogue for fear of destroying the image. No matter in which software – here we can experiment without consequences, paint over, destroy, duplicate, without fear of breaking something. Therefore, my ultimate digital tool is the "back button".


As already mentioned in the last article on the subject of "Contrasts in pictures", the light-dark contrast is considered to be the most important in the picture when it comes to depicting spatiality and the tension in the composition. In order to better assess the tonal values of an image, I can recommend taking a photo with your smartphone "quick and dirty" and applying a black and white filter directly in the photo app without changing any other settings (contrast or similar). This way you can quickly see whether the picture works or not.

Showing paintings in space

There are various apps around for copying pictures into spatial situations so that they look even better. So far, my experience with them has been rather negative. On the one hand, the real size of the pictures is rarely taken into account, so that pictures are sometimes displayed much larger than they really are. On the other hand, after a few pictures (often with watermarks or limited in size), these apps quickly cost a lot of money. My recommended way would therefore be to look for some nice rooms on Unsplash (images that can be used for commercial and non-commercial purposes (free if not in the Unsplash+ series)) and edit the images yourself with an image editing programme. Estimate how big the images really are and display them in a realistic size.

Photo (without my painting): Lakeisha Bennett, Source: Unsplash

Artificial intelligence

Currently, various AI image generators are flooding the world. The best known are probably Midjourney, Stable Diffusion and apps like "Dream". This is currently still under a great deal of criticism, as the rights to the images have not yet been conclusively clarified. The AIs are fed imagery by artists and designers who have never consented to it, and can often recreate it very well. On the other hand, styles are not protectable. The only advice I can currently give is to see these tools as sources of inspiration with which you can experiment and play. And then pick up the brush and make something of your own ;)

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