An in-depth interview with Photoshop pro Scott Ligon
Digital Art Revolution author Scott Ligon
Name: Scott Ligon
Years experience in Photoshop: 20
Digital Art Revolution book cover featuring artwork by Cindy Jerrell
Photoshop Daily: Digital Art Revolution is your first book. Can you tell us a bit about it and what inspired you to write it?
Scott Ligon: I was trained as a painter and I think that really influences the way that I approach Photoshop and digital art in general. I wanted to write a book from the perspective of a fine artist, about developing a unique voice as a digital artist and using Photoshop’s tools as a means of personal expression.
I’ve worked in Photoshop since the beginning, apparently, but began to use it as a serious art-making tool about eight years ago.
An artist uses the elements of the visual language like line, shape and color, arranges them in a composition and utilizes all these visual ideas in a way that is personal and unique and yet, at the same time, conveys a general quality or emotion to the viewer. That’s how visual art works. It seemed a natural thing to take the elements of visual communication and apply them to the revolutionary new possibilities suggested by digital art. I searched for years trying to find a “how-to” book that approached things from this perspective, but couldn’t find it. I wrote the book that I wished I had when I was starting out. This book is not just a ‘how to’. It’s also a ‘why to’.
A lot of Photoshop books are about shortcuts, or methods used to copy traditional fine art techniques. Photoshop offers powerful and uniquely versatile tools. We can use these tools to create things that the world has never seen before. We can use these tools not only to imitate art history, but to make art history.
Photoshop Daily: Do you think that Photoshop is underrated as a tool for creating fine art?
Scott Ligon: I do. Photoshop is an excellent tool for enhancing photographic images of course, and it’s also a great painting tool. Photoshop also has an unparalleled ability to take materials from drastically different sources and modify and manipulate these materials into something new, unique, and unified. This makes Photoshop an ideal tool for expressive image making. Anything can be transformed into virtually anything else, as if information were wet paint! Photoshop is also an indispensable tool in the workflow for time-based digital art.
Photoshop Daily: What are your essential tools in Photoshop for creating artwork?
Scott Ligon: I’m looking over the Photoshop interface as I type this. Here are a few things I almost always use: the Brush tool, usually using a standard non-blurry round brush with varying opacities, the Layers panel including blending modes and varying opacities, Image adjustments for colour and value (including Replace Color to keep a consistent palette in my composition), the Lasso tools, the Transform controls for resizing and rotating individual elements, the Eraser tool and, of course, the History panel to retrace my steps when my experiments don’t go as planned.
Things I probably don’t use as much as most Photoshop artists: nondestructive techniques for image adjustment, masking and scaling. I’ll create adjustment layers if I’m simply trying to improve a photographic image, for instance, but in most cases my files are simply too large and contain too many layers to apply non destructive adjustment layers in abundance. My documents would quickly become impossible to work with.
In the book, I cover all the ‘nondestructive’ methods, but in my personal work I have enough experience that I’m usually able to work destructively without negative consequences. I tend to have my original source materials saved under other file names just in case I have to replace them. I also frequently save artwork, then “save as” with a different file name so I can explore a tangent and not have to worry about ruining my original file if my exploration doesn’t bear fruit. Many times I’ll drag layers back and forth between different versions of an artwork and combine different aspects of all of them.
I’m wary of using the filters in the Filter Gallery straight out of the box. They can often look a little predictable or impersonal unless they are modified or combined with other techniques.
Also, I find that the specific tools that I use vary all the time, with the needs of a specific project.
I’ve gone for years without using Photoshop Actions very much at all, for instance. My work was painterly instead of realistic. Each piece was too specific to be able to use any kind of batch processing among images. Currently, however, I’m working on a short film that requires specific and consistent image adjustments and modifications across every frame. I’ve been exporting each sequence of frames as a Filmstrip (.flm) using Adobe After Effects. I’ll then import the Filmstrip into Photoshop and begin my work by applying a set of pre-recorded actions to adjust value and color. So I’ve gone from many years of virtually NEVER using Photoshop Actions to using them everyday for hours at a time for several months. I think that demonstrates what a broad and powerful software application that Photoshop truly is. As an artist, every project has different needs. If you can think of something that you want to do, there’s usually a set of Photoshop tools waiting for you to adapt to this purpose.
A spread from Digital Art Revolution featuring Depth Solitude by artist Matthew Hamon
Photoshop Daily: Which digital artists do you think are creating the best examples of digital fine art?
Scott Ligon: I am very fortunate to include some of my favorite digital artists in Digital Art Revolution. Mark Mothersbaugh is in the book. Besides being a successful composer and the singer for DEVO, he’s also a visual artist. I’ve long been a fan of his very expressive photo based works.
Bradley Wester is a New York artist that creates giant vector abstractions that often begin with common stationary store labels as source materials. I have used Josh Rowan’s digital paintings as examples in my class for a couple of years. I was thrilled to have the work of these two artists included in the book.
Davida Kidd and Sally Grizzell Larson are artists that create interesting works that are a hybrid of materials and techniques. Kasumi is a powerful video artist that has played Carnegie Hall among many other venues. These people are all in the book.
Internationally acclaimed photographers Stephen Phillips, Steven Vote, and Steven Parke are featured in the book. Apparently you have to be named Steve to be a great photographer.
Viktor Koen is a very successful illustrator and commercial artists who is featured in the book and certainly does very expressive and original work. Even though fine art is in the title, the idea of creating expressive and powerful work certainly applies to the best commercial artists and designers as well.
I could go on and on. I’m really crazy about virtually everyone in the book. You can view the entire roster of book artists with bios and artwork at:
Also, (not in the book), Blu is an artist that paints on physical environments and then animates/documents them digitally.
Magico Nakamura directed a beautiful and transcendent video for the band “Sour” that uses digital technology to orchestrate an amazing collaboration of people and materials world-wide.
These last two examples demonstrate incredibly innovative ways to integrate the physical and digital worlds and they would be impossible to produce without taking full advantage of both the physical and digital.
Also, although it’s not specifically art, programmer Jane McGonigal is using gaming (and gamers) as a means of addressing real world problems, which is a direct and brilliant use of digital technology and creativity. You can see her “TED” lecture here:
Photoshop Daily: What’s next for you? Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
Scott Ligon: As I mentioned earlier, I’m working on a short film. This is my next project. It’s a short film about my father passing away, called Figure/Ground.
It’s a very ambitious film. We did a three-day shoot in multiple locations with a cast and crew of over 60 people. It is a hybrid of video and animation.
The film stars veteran actor Alan Kulakow. He has been in several movies, including Death by Dawn, Syriana, The Good Shepherd, and HBO’s Something the Lord Made. He appeared as the Joint Chief of Staff on West Wing.
I’m nearly finished and I expect Figure/Ground to be ready in a couple months. I kept a running journal on my blog about creating each sequence of the film, including techniques and aesthetic decisions. You can view this series about the creation of the film by going to:
Incidentally, my first film, Escape Velocity, was picked up for distribution by Shorts International in London. It’s about the connection between A.D.H.D. and creativity. It’s available on iTunes at:
Photoshop Daily: Have you had a chance to look at Photoshop CS5? What do you think of the latest developments?
Scott Ligon: It’s another step in the natural evolution towards ease of use, more aesthetic possibilities and the automation of drudgery. The Content Aware Fill is a big thing. It requires a pretty sophisticated ability on the part of Photoshop to differentiate shapes and make decisions about replacing content. This is one step closer to a truly intelligent software program. In the future, you’ll just explain to Photoshop what you want to do and then Photoshop will argue with you about the best way to do it. The natural media brushes will be an important component for a lot of people. They offer features similar to Corel Painter. I believe that it’s generally beneficial to use the inherent characteristics of your medium rather than emulating physical methods of doing things. However, the natural media brushes do look pretty cool, so maybe they’ll win me over.I’m very excited about 64 bit processing on the Mac. As I mentioned, I work with absolutely huge files all the time and I expects this to really speed up my workflow.