My Digital Decalcomania Process

It’s Not Really Decalcomania

Faces, a detail, digital decalcomania, July 2011

Faces, a detail, digital decalcomania, July 2011

The term decalcomania refers to the transfer of a crazed image from one surface to another as used in faux furniture and other decorative techniques, and by surrealist painters, such as Max Ernst, who used the crazed surfaces to excite their imaginations.

I refer to my process as digital decalcomania because traditional decalcomania was the process I used for more than 20 years when I could still work with media such as acrylics and oils. The digital process I am using now is very similar: allowing random textures to excite my imagination, giving form to what I see, while retaining as much of the essence of the original random texture as possible.

In those days, I would cover canvases large and small with liquid decalcomania, stare at the results sometimes for hours, even days, until I decided which of the many images I was seeing would be locked in. I am doing the same thing now only with pixels instead of pigments.

The word decalcomania, as I am using it here, refers to the entire process of making a creative response to a found texture, in any medium, by using the found textures to excite the imagination resulting in the creation of new and hopefully surprising images.

Here is the random source image I prepared to use as inspiration for the digital painting “Faces.” By carefully comparing it to the finished version of “Faces” below, you can see some shapes and figures in the finished version that are almost exactly as they appeared in the source image, while others have been enhanced to varying degrees, and some are entirely new.

Source Image for the painting "Faces"

Source Image for the painting "Faces"

Below is the completed digital decalcomania painting titled “Faces.” It was one of the first projects in the recent series and was completed in July, 2011.

Faces, a digital decalcomania painting

"Faces:" The first digital decalcomania project, completed in July, 2011.

When I finished the grayscale drawing phase of this project, done in a separate layer directly above the prepared random image, I added color “glazes” in separate layers to liven up the composition.  I printed it to see how it looked off the computer monitor and immediately disliked the color version. I then added an additional overall “glaze” layer consisting of a very transparent yellow ochre. Now it had the mood I was looking for.

Preparing Digital Decalcomania Images

Below is an overview of the techniques and tools I use to create the digital decalcomania source images in my process. Topics include:

  • Random Textures with Photoshop Filters
  • Creating Variety and Surprises with Liquify and Masking
  • Blending Modes and Edit > Transform
  • Grayscale vs. Color
  • Painter Tools
  • Creation is Destruction – Locking in a Likeness

I start by creating a New Image in Photoshop setting the resolution, usually to 300 or 360, and set the document or print dimensions large enough to be able to make big prints without pixelation. I like knowing that I will have the option later to print hard copies of my images even if I mainly view them on computer monitors. Converting old color photos into black and white is another way I have started digital decalcomania projects.

Random Textures with Photoshop Filters

I begin by using various Photoshop filters such as:

  • Filter > Render > Difference Clouds
  • Filter > Pixelate > Crystallize
  • Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur (softens hard edges of the random imagery, when needed)
  • Filter > Liquify   (there is a vast world of possibilities with this amazing tool)
  • Filter > Noise > Add Noise

There are many, many other amazing filters and effects built into Photoshop as well as some great third party effects. The above list presents the filters I have worked with in this recent bunch of digital drawings and paintings and so far are the main tools I use to achieve random textures.

Creating Variety and Surprises with Liquify and Masking

It is fun to play with any image in Photoshop’s Liquify filter. It is like watching a surreal, psychedelic movie. I like the way it disturbs the overall sameness that some of the other filters can create in an image.

Masking sections of a random image before applying a filter makes it possible to restrict the effect of a filter to specific areas of the image instead of an overall application. Liquify includes masking possibilities within its own set of tools.

I use the above filters on new empty layers or in existing images and photos. Sometimes I just quickly slop some black and white marks on a new layer to get things started.

Blending Modes, Opacities, and Edit >Transform

I sometimes copy a layer of randomness that I like, put it above an existing layer, then play with Photoshop’s Layer Blending Modes and Opacities. I will then flatten the image and start to destroy it again in Edit > Transform by flipping layers, or portions of layers, vertically and horizontally then adjusting the blending modes and opacities until something neat happens.

Grayscale vs. Color

I use black and white or grayscale images most of the time knowing that I can add color later. The visual hallucinating that is part of the decalcomania process seems to work best for me with black, white and gray (or with a full range of values of a single dark color). Colors tend to create mental labels and thereby can limit the interpretation of an image fragment. When there is only one color in all its values or just the black-to-white range of values, my mind has an easier time seeing things in the random textures and patterns.

I keep messing around, trying not to think very much until I have a rich, but random image of darks and lights, and a variety of textures and shapes. Sometimes I am tempted to stop at this stage of the process with the final result being abstract – no hallucinated figures, no identified objects, or named symbols – just texture, form, rhythm, pattern, and possibly color. However, my restless mind always spots something in the random image and once I start giving form to it I do not stop until the entire surface has been activated, touched, modified, and integrated. For me, in the struggle between abstraction and figurative, the figurative approach almost always wins out.

I have also used similar sequences of filters, etc. on photos that I have taken of random textures such as stains, old linoleum, flaking and chipped paint, torn weathered signage, and other random surfaces.

Painter Tools

The final images of faces and body parts and other recognizable structures were all created in Painter primarily by using its “Just Add Water” brush and various “Airbrushes.” I also love Painter’s “Blender Stump” brushes. The “Just Add Water” and “Blender Stump” brushes are amazing for pushing pixels around and softly mushing them into each other as if the pixels were made of wet paint or soft pastels.

Creation is Destruction – Locking In a Likeness

Picasso once said something like: Every act of creation is an act of destruction. In my experience this is especially true when working in the decalcomania process. The hardest part of this process for me is in deciding what to destroy in order to create a form that I can be fairly sure my viewers will see as I see it.

My next few posts will feature other completed digital decalcomania paintings with very little related technical information.


About bobcomings

Visual artist working in wide variety of media and forms including painting, drawing , sculpture, digital drawing and painting, digital animation, and sound exploration for almost 60 years.
This entry was posted in Digital Drawing & Painting, Visual. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to My Digital Decalcomania Process

  1. SK says:

    Thanks for breaking it down, seems a familiar process from memories of your compass directional canvases, be it digital. That process was always intriguing. Nice to see it in a new digital home without losing an organic aesthetic. On a side note it the does give me renewed interest in checking out what creative tools are available on the computer software hardware side. Thanks for that especially.

  2. tputter says:

    I am so happy to know somebody found all that explanation on technique somewhat useful! I thought it might be boring overload for most readers, but I do get a kick out of describing the creative processes. The tools are better now than ever before. I hope you will be able try some out for yourself.

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