Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

We love having company drop by, and guest bloggers are no exception.  Illustrator Will Terry joins us to talk about digital painting, Photoshop, and hitting the undo button. (And no, we did not ask him to put in a good word for us — though we thank him for the shout-out.)

When I was a boy attending elementary school in Maryland my teachers used to say, “stop day dreaming, sit up straight, pay attention, and stop drawing!” That  was a time in my life when I thought drawing was bad. Were my teachers right? Would I really amount to nothing if I kept drawing all the time? How could something so fun cause so many of my teachers to freak out? I started to hide my drawings under my desk. I’d pretend to really be into the lesson so I could throw them off the scent of my almost finished fire dragon. I even remember one of them saying, “you’ll never earn a living drawing goofy characters.” Over thirty years later, 2000 freelance jobs, and 20 children’s books I think I’ve finally proved to myself that it’s possible to dream big, work hard, and find success and happiness drawing goofy pictures.

I began my illustration career in 1992 and at that time I used acrylic paint on paper to create all of my images. I found my style through much frustration with the medium. Half or more of the paintings I started were disastrous but 4-5 years later I had figured out how to turn most of my drawings in to successful paintings. For the next 14 years I was on auto-pilot with my acrylic paintings and I didn’t want to be bothered with the constant bombardment from friends, colleagues, students, and my audience to use the computer for my work rather than paintbrush and paper. The overwhelming chorus was, “Why don’t you paint on the computer?” or “When are you going to switch over to photoshop?” Don’t get me wrong — I knew there were many advantages to working digitally, but hey, I’m an old dog and those guys were wanting me to learn a new trick. My reply was always the same, “show me how to copy my style/texture and I would love to make the switch” — even though I was terrified of having to learn how to use photoshop. Saying this always put a halt to the conversation because nobody could show me how to mimic my style and this tactic worked until one of my former students took on the challenge.


Jed Henry said, “I don’t really think it will be too hard to get it right.” I was polite to his face but inside I was thinking, “MWAAA HAA HAA…yeah, sure.” And then he proceeded to show me exactly how I could get “my look.” It was almost scary how he had me pegged – figured out – deconstructed. So I started playing with my wacom tablet and photoshop and was amazed at all of the benefits working digitally provided. Here they are in order of importance:

1. Zoom: I can get a better finished piece because I can now zoom into my painting and work on the smallest of details. This might seem like a small detail (yuck yuck) but if you’ve ever tried to paint an expression on a face the size of a penny you’ll understand how significant it is. I used to avoid showing characters in the middle ground and if they were in the background I’d try to make them so small that their head was too small to show their facial features. Now I don’t have to hide them anymore.

2. In a word: Undo. Ever wanted to have a bad decision in your life back so you could go down the other path? Painting digitally is like never having to suffer the consequences of a bad decision — EVER! Don’t like the mouth on that kid? Undo. That apple not red enough? Undo. Too many grass blades covering that bunny? Undo. Ate one too many slices of pizza? Well, there are some limits to photoshop.

3. Layers: Painting in layers allows me to try new effects as well as applying the finishing touches that may or may not turn out the way I intended. In the old days of acrylic paint I had to hold my breath and carefully build up the last few details – one wrong move and I had to start that area from scratch, repainting each layer.

4. Speed: I realize that art and speed might be at odds with each other, but in the freelance illustration world unfortunately time is money. With photoshop, I can change the brush size with a few keystrokes; change the flow of paint, color, opacity, and texture; grab an eraser and knock back heavy paint a little or a lot– without ever having to rinse a brush, change stale water, or hunt for the perfect brush. There are no more unscheduled inconvenient trips to the art store (sorry art store) for more cadmium red or arches 140 lb hot press.

5. Money: Painting on the computer saves me money. I no longer have to buy supplies. Gone are the days of paying for my paintings to be scanned at a color house and for Fed Ex shipping bills. The finished product is already in printable format and I can send my paintings via the internet.

I Just finished my fifth book with Albert Whitman (by the way, they’re great to work with) and it’s titled The Three Bully Goats by Leslie Kimmelman. This is my first book where all of the images were created completely using photoshop — 100% digital. If you’ve ever looked at my other books I think you’ll agree that the bully goat images look really similar to my traditional acrylic paintings.


So I guess you can train an old dog to do some new tricks…you never know — I might even learn how to do dishes too.

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Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks