I recently began taking Sebastian Michaels’ new course, on Fine-Art Grunge Photoshop, and am already very impressed. When I started taking the course, I was expecting to see a series of simple how-to videos, but the course goes beyond that. I asked Michaels to talk about his approach, and the approach he wants his students to adopt while taking this course.
EV: You encourage your students to think of themselves as artists, and you go into this in depth in the course introduction. Why is this important?
SM: Too often, when we learn how to use a program like Photoshop, we fall into the inevitable trap of thinking of it as a tool for “fixing” or correcting an image. We might eventually broaden our view and see it as our means of improving an image or making it “look cool,” but that is where most photographers stop.
My belief is that Photoshop (or even a simpler version, like Elements) shouldn’t be consigned to activities that you could pretty much pull off with nothing more than Lightroom or Aperture. Not when you could do so much more with it. I see Photoshop as a tool for creating larger, more dramatic, more elaborate artistic compositions; true canvases, something you could commit to a fine art print and frame. And when people see it, they won’t just think, “Wow. Great photo.” Instead, it will stop them in their tracks. They’ll say: “Damn , that’s amazing.”
But you don’t create sophisticated, intricately layered works of art if you’re only thinking of Photoshop as a tool to fix red eye or to crop and sharpen a photo. Waking up to your deeper artistic side is central to my approach. Pushing beyond the photo. Taking it further. And to do that first requires learning to see yourself as a serious artist.
EV: One of your recommendations is to get away from the computer every now and then, and another is to carry a small paper journal. For a guy like me — I’m kind of ‘old-school’ — these were refreshing things to hear. So, why is a Photoshop art guru telling people they should do these things?
SM: Much as I love Photoshop (and I’m crazy about it), I’ve found that it can be far too easy to entomb ourselves in front of our monitors and forget where our best art comes from. Quite often we grow as artists the most when we get away from all that and actually go out into the world and make ourselves really see what’s out there. Everything truly important to your development as an artist is “out there.” It’s sure as hell not tucked away neatly on your tool bar.
What I’m talking about here is going out with your camera and a journal, walking twenty city blocks (or striding half a day in the country), and just taking it all in. Capturing images and ideas. Framing compositions in your mind. Thinking through your vision of a new canvas. All while perhaps gathering up stray objects (a stained scrap of newsprint, a busted watch, a flower) to take back with you to scan into your image library. Snapping a photo of a rusted stairwell while lying on your back in the middle of a crowded sidewalk, or risking falling headfirst into a creek just so you can climb out along a fallen tree and get a photo of some rocks you can’t bear to leave behind.
You need to be willing to work for your art and take some chances. I urge my students to carry a journal everywhere, all the time. There’s something extraordinary about putting pen to paper. You might sketch out an idea for a composition while sitting there having coffee at some unimaginable hour. You might turn literary and write up some ideas for a sequence of images (or scenes) you intend to bring together and unify along some particular theme — when a sudden fragment of poetry inspires an entirely new direction for an exhibition you now see taking shape in your mind. That’s when you close your journal and you get back to your computer as fast as you can and hurl yourself headlong into Photoshop.
The white hot flurry of creation rarely descends on us when we are doing the same things we always do, sitting at the same desk we always sit at. That’s why you have to get away now and then. See things and place them on a canvas in your mind or jot it down in your journal. Take some risks and shake things up — so when you get back to your computer you’re not quite the same person anymore.
EV: “Grunge” is a word that makes me think of rusted out, dirty, torn-down visuals — or maybe a rock band from the early 90′s. But a lot of what you teach is how to make beautiful imagery that doesn’t feel at all “grungy” to me. So, what’s with the title of the course?
SM: I deliberately chose the word “Grunge” because I think, as photographers (and as artists) we tend to play things a little too safe. Everything we do is just a little too pretty. And we can get trapped in that; in our perfect little pretty photographs.
But there is something tremendously liberating in allowing yourself to step outside of those restrictions. In allowing yourself to take chances you normally wouldn’t permit yourself. I have this notion in my mind that, as artists, we should be working in a frenzy and getting some paint in our hair. It’s not quite as messy with Photoshop, of course. But the point is, if you can truly learn to throw yourself into your work with real abandon — fearless, passionate, creative — it can be absolutely exhilarating. And that is where real art happens. When we get out of our own damn way and let ourselves create. You can always pull it back some if you go too far. But I want you to get in there and get your hands dirty.
EV: What do you think are the most important things a photographer should bring to the table before getting started on this type of course?
SM: I think it’s important for photographers (especially very talented ones) to allow themselves to step away from their gear. It’s very easy to pin your photographic sense of identity on that 5D Mark III and your 50mm f/1.2L USM lens, and your remote flash triggers, umbrellas, and all the rest. But you don’t need all of that. A great artist can create extraordinary canvases with nothing more than the camera on his iPhone and a 15-minute shopping trip to the local art supply store.
Even when it comes to sitting down at the computer, too often photographers want to keep everything so “safe.” Pristine, tack-sharp, immaculate — you’ve gotta be willing to shake that off. Much of the photo-composite process involves throwing layers on top of each other, shuffling them around, playing with blend modes and laboring over your layer masks, tossing in texture layers or scanned found-objects, running filters and importing your own scanned watercolor washes or ink splatters, working with vector images and shape layers, and manhandling typography as if it were an art form unto itself (which it is, in fact, or can be). That kind of creative process is not something you can capture with the perfect flash setting and the right f-stop.
EV: I’m big on photographic technique — lighting, composition, etc. With everything you do in Photoshop, is good photography still important?
SM: You would think from my answer to your last question that I am here telling you it’s all about Photoshop and the photography doesn’t much matter. But in reality, we all know the best photo art comes from great photos, and from the minds of great photographers, who know how to compose within a visual medium. The better the images you bring to the canvas, the better your canvases turn out.
Of course, “better” depends on what you are trying to accomplish. And you can get away with imperfections in your photography when you are layering any number of other things on top of it and masking in various lighting effects and so forth. When you are taking a more artistic approach to your work, your photography needn’t be “perfect” — but it should be interesting. That is where the real strength of a composition is going to be found. A strong, compelling, powerful image. A deep, poignant, exquisite image. An intriguing, unexpected, alarming image. A photograph — or composite of photographs — that stirs emotion and moves us. That is where you want to put your attention if you are going to create powerful art. And that’s actually not as easy as framing the same perfect, predictable photo everyone else is framing. I would urge you to bring everything you have to the table as a photographer. And then push yourself further.
EV: What should people expect from your course?
SM: With nearly 1,300 students in the course so far worldwide, the recurring theme I hear from everyone is that it’s just flat out fun! It’s liberating (and addictive). People are just wildly enthusiastic. A course like this is going to open up a whole new world to you, and it’s going to push you to stretch in ways you never have before.
The course is just huge (over 60 videos, and tons of resources), covering dozens of artistic approaches within Photoshop. But it’s so much fun doing this stuff — learning these techniques and using them to transform your photos into serious art — you end up flying through it. You can’t stop. A course like this is going to reignite your passion for photography and push everything you do to a new level. You are going to see the world differently after this course. And your portfolio is going to be more amazing than you have ever imagined it could be. I’d say that’s what you can expect.
Learn more about it here: Photoshop Fine-Art Grunge Course
Note: If you signup for this course through my links, you’re also helping me to produce my free newsletters, videos, and blog posts as the course producers generously credit me as an affiliate for each new student who enrolls. Thank you.