Learn from Michelle

The Making of a "Perfect" Score


The “perfect” score.

I use quotes because the reality is — 100 does not mean perfection.  100 means that an image exemplifies exceptional application of the 12 elements and therefore has scored at the top of the exceptional category. 

A 100 scoring image can have “mistakes”.

I don’t know that any image ever created has ever been 100% perfect so when you consider the 100 score — remove the idea of perfection from your mind.  

It is always an incredible honor to be awarded this score.  

"He Loves Me Not"
PPA Score: 100

What's involved in making a print that scores 100 in PPA's International Photographic Competition?

For this particular image... a LOT.

I started with a blank white canvas.  Just as an oil painter would do, the first task was to tone the canvas.  When working in oils, I'd thin some paint with solvent and wipe it on with a rag.  This is a difficult look to achieve digitally, but working with a few of my custom made tools, I was able to achieve a similar look.

Step 1: add a solid color

Step 2: build up lots of texture with custom made tools.

Step 3: I took one of my oil painting canvases and made a texture out of it so that I could finalize the authentic look of my digital base.

I typically don't encourage adding canvas texture to a digital painting.  It can look really odd, especially if the entry is submitted digitally.  However, I knew the end goal was to print on canvas and this extra step would help pull everything together. 

Misconception About Freehand Work

Photoshop painting gives us the ability to skip the drawing step that is typically required for painters by using cloning techniques.  Why would I choose NOT to utilize this technology since it's readily available and significantly simplifies the painting process?

Because I have the skills and if you don't use 'em, you lose 'em.  I have spent a good bit of my life drawing and I'd like to keep those skills so an occasional challenge of this nature is actually VERY good for me.

And isn’t that the purpose of entering competition? 

Challenging one's self? 

Advancing one’s skills?

Pushing what one is capable of to the absolute limits?

That’s always been my take on it. 🤷‍♀️

When I say that I've drawn an image freehand, people seem to assume it is 100% made up out of my brain.  That can absolutely be the case sometimes, but with a human form... I guess I'm just not that good. 😔

99% of the time, I use a visual reference.  

I've posted several timelapse videos on Facebook of images I've drawn freehand.  To see an example of this, click HERE. You can see the visual reference on the side, but everything done is freehand (keep in mind this particular one was a 1.5 hour time limit).

For "He Loves Me Not", I used this stock photograph as my visual reference.  Let me emphasize VISUAL.  I did NOT clone from the photograph. I looked at the photograph and used it as the reference for my sketch, building up the skin tones, etcetera, while making the necessary alterations to fit my vision.  

There are significantly more than 1.5 hours in the completed piece 😂

The next step was to create a rough sketch.  I had a pretty good idea of where I was going with this piece so this was a pretty straight forward.  I used a custom made sketching tool for this process.

Since my background is in oil paint, those skills tend to take over even in the digital world.  I typically paint from the background to the foreground of my images. Here you can see I blocked in the background colors. 

The next step was to block in the major values of my subject.  This stage isn't meant to be "pretty".  It's part of my visual process to get the basic composition correct.

I did a VERY long paint session where I got on a roll with the color build-up and didn't do any saves of the stages.  Oops!  When I get in the zone, I get hyperfocused, sometimes that happens!  (Sometimes I start pre-sunrise and don't even realize it's gotten dark I'm so in the zone!)

As you can see, the skin and hair are still pretty flat and lacking the "umph" needed for the final piece.  And that poor little flower has been reduced to just a stem 😂

At this point, I started making some pretty big choices about the hair and the background.  Oil painters will often take a rag and "wipe out" paint from the canvas.  I did a digital rendition of that on the background at this stage -- again, with a purpose-built, custom Photoshop tool that I made.

In the next stage, I revisited the skin tones again.  She seemed a bit pale so I added a good bit of color to her cheeks.  I also addressed the stem of the flower.

I chose to scrap a good bit of the background "wipe out" stage as I felt it wasn't working as well as it could.  As you can see, there's another visual reference here.  I am so heavily inspired by Phillip de Laszlo's work.  I loved the brushwork that made up the dress on his painting and I wanted to incorporate a similar technique into this image.  

I started by "wiping out" the dress that I had previously painted in so that I could change the brushwork.

I'm still no Laszlo, but I'm happy with the progress I've made on creating unique brushwork in fabric based on my study of his work.

I spent a long, LONG time working on the skin, building up color, considering the warmth of the highlights and the cool tones in the shadows.  The build-up of color is one of the things that makes freehand work so satisfying for me.

A few final tweaks and adding in the flying flower petals brings the whole piece together.

Here are some close crops of the final painting...

One final close up look at the face.  Every single brush used to create this entire painting I custom made using oil paint.  It's a labor of love to create brushes in this manner, but the end results speak for themselves.  It was worth every ounce of effort!

The initial score on this painting was 87.  It was immediately challenged.  At the rebuttal, the challenger had this to say...

“I’m just taken aback by this and I had to get up and look one more time.  Look, there’s that tear that’s just coming down her cheek. Yes, it’s lighter in the top left, but it brings my eye right to her and then down. If you look at it you’ve got even transitions in the skin tones from warmer to cooler across the scene.  And again — yanno — it’s SO well done when you look at where she started. The maker is showing you how they went from blank canvas to a sketch to part of the painting to the final piece.  I’m not finding anything I personally dislike, I’m going to take my score to 100.”

My heart literally leaped with joy with these comments!   

On the rescore, the image landed at a 97 with an automatic challenge which required a challenger to be assigned by the jury chairman.  These were the comments by the second challenger…

“I'm at 100. As we looked at this and discussed it we’ve pretty much gone up and down with it.  To me when you talk about the artist category, starting from scratch and creating that…  I would be proud of this image if I started with a portrait and ended up with that.  But the fact that that was created from scratch I don’t know how you can miss any of the 12 elements in the artist category.”

Another juror that totally gets me 🙌

Painting in Photoshop is a skill that can be learned -- especially when you skip the freehand part 🤣

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