Digital Imaging

Week 4: Painting from Observation

Lesson Objectives

At the end of this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Use a digital tool to express the traditional visual art technique of painting.
  • Paint realistic images
  • Express three-dimensional volume and surface characteristics in a two-dimensional image
  • Observe physical objects critically
  • Determine appropriate colors and brushes for creating realistic images
  • Explore using Adobe Photoshop beyond simple photo manipulations


This week we will be painting from observation. Although there are many professional-level software options for painting, we will primarily be using Photoshop for this exercise. If you would like to use different professional software, like Corel Paint or Procreate for the iPad, please contact me before you get started. Do not use apps that are on your phone or that will create the painting for you – those are fun but not professional. This lesson is about getting used to using your stylus as a painting tool, working on multiple layers to create an original artwork by hand.

Observation Connects Life

There are two important things emphasized over and over throughout this semester: Observation and Breaking-down.

Observation is about looking at the world around us, things in front of us very carefully and understanding how things look. This leads us to be able to figure out how things should look.   Analyzing our expectations of how things look is the key to realistic and also stylized visual representations.  One key component to what makes a good artwork is originality and uniqueness, which can be achieved through observation even if the same subject matter is used by many.

Also, practicing painting through observation allows us to be deliberate at other times with details beyond our imagination as well to forge the connection between painter and viewer. If you want to paint concept art, what would a realistic dragon look like exactly or what does it look like to be in a battle in a tower?

2017s Best video Game Concept Art –

Through careful observation, we can start the process of understanding the visual elements we are looking at and then deliberately focus on how to communicate what we see so when we work from our imagination, the representation we make will flow easier and be more successful. Thinking about what we see in terms of careful description can be helpful.

“I wish you could see what I see out the window,’ Georgia O’Keeffe wrote to her friend Arthur Dove in 1942. “The earth pink and yellow cliffs to the north–the full pale moon about to go down in an early morning lavender sky behind a very long beautiful tree covered mesa to the west–pink and purple hills in front and the scrubby fine dull green cedars–and a feeling of much space–It is a very beautiful world.’

"My Front Yard" by Georgia O'Keefe
“My Front Yard”, Georgia O’Keeffe, 1941, from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Collection

The world around us is very complicated, so understanding it visually can be overwhelming. Deconstructing  it  into smaller elements and tackling them one by one makes understanding and representing your process easier and helps you communicate with the viewer.

“But in a still life, there is no end to our looking, which has become allied with the gaze of the painter; we look in and in, to the world of things, in their ambiance of cool or warm light, in and in, as long as we can stand to look, as long as we take pleasure in looking.’ Mark Doty, poet.

We’ll work on these two points in the first exercise, by observing and representing everyday objects, like an apple and spoon, and breaking them down into different aspects, like shapes, colors, shading and lights, and paying attention and paint them on separated layers one by one.

Selecting your subject

What we are doing this week is visually communicating that you observed an apple and a spoon.   So, when you are working on the exercise this week, choose an ordinary apple that has some variation to the surface color and texture like a Braeburn or Fuji   (not Granny Smith or Red Delicious because they are evenly colored). Also, choose a very simple metal spoon, not one that is highly decorated or unusual.


If you are unable to find an apple, if you are in rural Alaska for example, you can use something else that is round but not complicated, like a ball with multiple colors.

Composing your Still Life



Painting Process

In this video I demo and narrate the process for painting. I had to speed it up quite a bit and annotated where necessary. You may want to pause to read in a couple places.

Here is another example by someone else without narration but more careful detail work.

This is an actual painting but it also shows the process of layering color, shading and light, and shine. The process is very similar to digital painting. (You can speed up the video to twice as fast if you click on the cog icon at the bottom of the video.)


For Further Reference - Creating Your Own Brushes

Most professional painting software allows us to create or refine our brushes, which can give us ultimate control over our painting experience. It’s not required for this week but it’s super great to know you can do this when you want to. So, let’s learn some more about it!

Sometimes you can find great free resources like at the Adobe CC Marketplace. Check out this article on free PS brushes.  While you’re there, you can subscribe to the Adobe Create Magazine if you like.

Create a New Brush in Photoshop

Adobe Capture App

Create a New Brush using the super groovy (and free) Adobe Capture App on your mobile camera.





Step 1:  Watch the video lectures for this week

Step 2:  Arrange an apple* and a simple shiny and reflective object, like a metal spoon, near your computer.

You might want to adjust the lighting or change the location in order to get lighting you like. Shining light from one side or placing the subjects by a sunny window might make observation of light and shadows easier. Very ambient lighting, like inside of a large office with multiple florescent lights from above, would make the lighting on subjects very flat.

Step 3:  Start Adobe Photoshop and create a new image. Set the image size to 2400 x 1800 pixels.

Step 4:  Use your drawing tablet and Photoshop to paint the apple and the shiny object. Try to capture the shape (contour lines) and the curve and volume of the surface. Pay attention to colors on the surface and highlights.

You are asked to paint the apple and the shiny object from observation. DO NOT USE PHOTOGRAPHS (we’ll use photos in next week, so don’t worry, please try painting from looking at the actual objects).

Step 5:  Paint the background and the surface the subjects are on. Also, probably you need to paint shadows under the subject.

Step 6: Save it as a PSD (Photoshop) file format on your computer – with a title of Exercise-W4-original.psd – this image is yours to keep as reference for later.

Step 7:  Resize your image to 800×600 pixels. This creates a smaller version of your image.

Step 8:  Discard, unnecessary empty or hidden layers.

Step 9:  Save your file as PSD (Photoshop) file with a different name, like “Lastname-apple-small.psd’.

Step 10:  Upload the smaller PSD file to your Google Drive folder for class.

Step 11:  Save your image as JPEG file format, this is for the “Journal’ (see blow)

*if you cannot purchase an apple (for example, you live in a remote village), find a round object with pattern or texture on the surface

If you don’t have much experience painting, don’t worry! Take time to carefully observe the details of color variation, shadows, highlights, contour lines, and shading on the surfaces and try to express what you observe through the painting. Decide on the placement of the objects carefully.


The following awesome examples were provided, with permission, from previous students.

by Garrett Wilson
by Garrett Wilson
By Scott Fronzuto
By Scott Fronzuto
by Josh Guerrero
by Josh Guerrero
by Sarita Spindler
by Sarita Spindler

Journal - Blog Post

  1. Create a new post  on the course website and  give it the category ‘Week 4’.
  2. Upload the JPG image you created in this Exercise
  3. Write a short reflection on the processes you used to create your image. Was this easier or harder than using a photograph to start with? What do you like about your image? How would you improve it? What were your challenges?

Oral Presentation #2 Script

It’s time to do another oral presentation. You all did a great job on the first one so I have full confidence you will again and I look forward to hearing about your process.   This is a requirement for the oral intensive component of this course.

Next week you will record a video of yourself, 2-5 minutes length to talk about your creative process. This is pretty open, as long as you focus on your process. If you are an artist or filmmaker, focus on your visually creative endeavors. If your focus is more on communication or a different discipline, focus on the creative elements of your profession and the process involved. You can also talk about creative process for this course specifically.

Please center your presentation on creative process on these three elements:

  1. Communication of story –  What is your process for creating the story you want to tell? How do you come up with visual ideas? Is planning – like making an outline, storyboarding or sketching –   something you enjoy or maybe don’t take the time for?
  2. Logistics – Do you work on projects consistently during the week or put them off until the last minute and feel short on time? Are you someone who thrives on a deadline?
    Most importantly, how do these factors influence how happy you are with the final result?
  3. Technology –  refers to methods, systems, and devices which are the result of scientific knowledge being used for practical purposes. So, ‘technology’ can mean lots of things – pencil and paper are technologies, for example. What approach do you take when you run into trouble figuring something out with the technologies you use for creative process?

What’s due this week:

Please write your script based on the creative process prompts above (view Oral Presentation #2 instructions here).   Use a Google Doc inside your folder for this class and title it ‘Oral Presentation #2 Script’.   Start with an outline of what you want to talk about and then fill it in as you go along. Read it out loud to yourself and time it to make sure you are within the 2-5 minute mark.


First, view other students’ posts from last week and comment freely.

Then, post a reply to my post question for this week.