How to Add Texture to Enliven a Painting

My latest painting, “Zombie Hunter” has been on the back burner for a bit longer than I would prefer. The above image is a work in progress – she’s almost there! August has been a really busy month with tons of client work so I’ve only been able to jump back to Hunter with an odd hour here and there between projects. I also started studying human anatomy with a new daily practice regime so that’s another spinning plate.

One positive side effect of this piece taking longer than usual is that I’ve been able to look at it more critically every time I return to it. I’ve been studying the work of other digital painters and one thing that occurred to me is that I could be more thoughtful about my use of texture.

I’ve been using an all over canvas texture for a while now. As an oil painter, I’ve always been in love with the rough feel of paints on canvas. It’s one of the first tricks that I discovered that really got me interested in digital painting and it’s covered very well in this Muddy Colors article by Micah Epstein.

Micah’s technique is what I would describe as “surface” texture because it replicates the feeling of a traditional ground very well; so a “paper” texture, or a “canvas” texture works quite nicely with his method. But, there’s so much more you can do with texture so I really have been wanting to push myself further!

For an example of what I mean, take a look at this painting by illustrator David Grove. Grove was a master at utilizing texture to give feeling and emotions to his work. Often associated with the well known 1970’s and 80’s illustrator Bernie Fuchs, Grove was, in my opinion, more subtle and masterful in his use of texture.

Grove is not only using his surface texture but also the strange and wonderful brushstrokes, dots, speckles and blotches of his water based media to give an incredible layered feeling to his work. I want that!

So, I decided to start a texture collection library. It’s actually a lot of fun! I broke out an old brush, some cheap acrylic paint and started messing around on a piece of scrap watercolor paper.

There’s no limit to the strange effects a brush will produce and it can go a really long way towards enlivening digital work. Digital painting is a strange beast in that it essentially starts with texture at a perfect “zero.” Imagine a blank Photoshop document – there is nothing, nada, zilch going on, so we have no texture. A blank canvas, on the other hand, starts with a weave of cotton or linen threads so there is texture before any paint is even applied.

By photographing these spatter and brushstroke samples, it’s possible to inject that texture and life back into the digital work, allowing it to breathe just as much as one of Grove’s masterpieces.

I’m just getting my feet wet with these texture experiments and thus far I’m happy with the results! There are a ton of ways to utilize these textures in your own work but the method is always pretty simple. Adding the texture as a new layer and selecting “Multiply” or “Overlay” as the layer style pretty much does the trick.

Grove’s work tends to prioritize texture to a degree that he discards entire areas of detail in favor of an interesting passage of paint. My own style is a bit more detail oriented, but the same lessons of texture apply. As with all things digital, it opens up a Pandora’s box of adjustments and tweaking, so I highly recommend setting aside a significant block of time for experimentation. I fell into a wormhole for about 4 hours just messing around with these new textures, but it was time well spent!