Smudge Painting: Where Photography Meets Oil Painting, Somewhere in Indonesia

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smudge painting tutorial

People make crazy things with our app. And we notice. You bet we do. We’re always thumbing through Instagram to spot trends in drawing and painting, and one trend has been puzzling us for the last year or more. It’s called smudge painting. Just as we did not too long ago with What the Heck is Grime Art and Why Are People Making It, we want to try and understand where this style of creating art is coming from. And, if it turns out this kind of art is something you would enjoy making, we have some tips for how to make better smudge art and a speedpaint video to show you how it’s done.

From Whence Does Smudge Come?

Some people can’t stand smudge painting. The SketchBook team members are strongly divided on it as a legitimate art form, and I feel conflicted about it myself. It can feel like cheating because it is about as close to tracing as you can get. Then again, there clearly is some kind of trend going on here. Smudge paintings have a real, discernible style to them, and there are a lot of people making them. Look at them in aggregate on Instagram, and you will see what I mean.

Notice a trend here? Why are so many Muslim Indonesian women getting smudge portraits made?

Notice something important about all these smudge paintings? They are almost all portraits of women. More to the point, they are almost all headscarf-clad young women located in Malaysia. In fact, if you dig into Google Trends, you can see that almost all people searching for the term “smudge painting” are from Indonesia. That’s one seriously localized art trend!

Smudge Follows the Coloring Trend

Smudge is in some ways analogous to the trend around adult coloring books, which exploded in 2015 and continues to draw new adherents. The adult coloring trend is easy to understand. It’s part nostalgia for the time before judgement and rules around art, when you could lose yourself in crayons and achieve the kind of creative flow that makes people feel good inside. Coloring is also a bulwark against the demands of an always-on, Internet-connected life, allowing you to reclaim your time doing something that at least feels more productive than liking and sharing. Most important, it doesn’t depend on your skill. Anyone can color, and most people can do it reasonably well. It’s a creative task that’s perfect for non-artists who are also art lovers.

Smudge painting isn’t so different. It takes a little bit of skill to lay down the brush strokes, but not much. You are not really working up the tones in a drawing or applying complex artistic thought to the work. Those tones already exist. You’re just blurring them, really, so as long as you understand the difference between highlights and shadows, you should be able to “stay in your lane” and not smear or smudge in the wrong way. Besides, you have infinite undo at your disposal, so any wrong stroke you make can be tried again and again until you get it right.

Just as with coloring, smudge painting can be done well or not so well. If you’re good at drawing and painting to begin with and have a strong grasp of how to build tones when drawing, you’ll probably be an amazing smudge painter. But if you’re just starting out and have no real art background, you may find that your lack of experience with tone or shading will result in some bad smudge painting. Until you get better at it, of course. And it’s not that hard to get better at it. All it takes is time. (Make no mistake all good drawing takes time.)

Some smudge art goes for a more illustrated, flat look. Less work in the long run.

Where Would Smudge Fit in a Museum?

If you grant Smudge with a capital S a place in the pantheon of art styles (which I would never do), I would say it sits somewhere between illustration and photography — almost in the same place where photorealism sits next to hyperrealism. Photorealism was an attempt at creating art by hand that’s designed to make the viewer wonder if it is a painting or a photograph. Hyperrealism goes a step further to make sure viewers know it’s a painting. Hyperrealists don’t just try to mimic a photo. They add emotion or a point of view or something to make sure you realize this moment that is captured was never really a moment at all. It’s a completely made-up simulacrum based on an imaginary point in time. So, in its own way, is smudge. A smudge “artist” (if you will allow that term) paints over a photograph and airbrushes out all the imperfections, but the goal isn’t to try to make the work more technical or more detailed. In fact, the process of airbrushing out the tones in the photo actually removes data from the photograph. It’s not shooting for a faithful reproduction at all. Its goal is to make an idealized, prettified portrait of a person. Ultimately, it’s just a way to make a faux oil painting. You could do it with a photo filter, but doing it by hand makes it look a lot more authentic.

People will make you a smudge painting to celebrate anything you want — your boyfriend, graduation, you name it.

Why People Use SketchBook for Smudge

You can use all kinds of apps for making smudge art, but most people use SketchBook. I think there are a few reasons why:

  • It’s not as expensive as Photoshop. If you’re not a professional photographer or graphic designer, it’s hard to plunk down a hefty subscription fee for what is essentially a hobbyist task.
  • You’re not limited to a smudge “finger” tool that you move with a mouse. SketchBook has dedicated smudge brushes that give you a lot more control and options. And, you can customize your smudge brushes in tons of different ways.
  • You can use a stylus. Besides more control, when you use a stylus you experience the feeling of painting. It feels more like creating art and less like editing a photo.
  • You can add Layer Styles to add a “glow” to your work or just to specific areas that you want to emphasize.
  • You can record your work. People who love smudge art love to watch speedpaint videos about it, too.
  • You can do this on your phone while sitting on the toilet. iOS or Android. That kind of convenience can’t be overstated.

Ultimately, by using a tool that is layer-based and designed specifically for drawing, you can make a truly superior smudge painting. With all those tools at your disposal, your final artwork can have the soft glow of a religious painting, like a portrait of Jesus or Mary hanging on the wall of a Catholic church. In fact, that is what you should shoot for when making smudge art. There is a lot of strength in religious iconography. Leverage it and make it work for you.

Preparing Your Photo for Smudging

Doing a little bit of photo editing ahead of time will make your final product look a lot better:

  • Start with a good photo. Obviously. Lighting is incredibly important, and your framing or composition choice needs to be carefully considered. If you’re taking a photo of someone and you plan on turning that photo into a smudge painting, take that photo outdoors with natural light and tilt your camera (or phone) at an angle to make the portrait more interesting. The typical straight-ahead head shot is mostly boring as a photo; why would it be any different for an illustrated painting?
  • Improve the photo: You might want to prep your image to sharpen — literally use the Sharpen tool in any photo editor (e.g., Pixlr Editor; SketchBook for Desktop actually has a Sharpen brush that you can use for this purpose.) Also, you might want to add an HDR option if your photo editor offers that. This will bring out the fine lines in the photo and add some texture to the detailed lines in the image. Have you ever noticed that when you over-Sharpen an image it adds all kinds of artifacts and imperfections? Those kinds of Sharpen artifacts aren’t necessarily bad for smudge painting. It might even be good because you’re going to blend all those lines and textures.
  • If the background in your original photo is uninteresting, get rid of it. Instead, use a background that adds to the unreal look of your smudge painting. Try a tropical sunset. Or add a halo-like flat circle back there. Splashes of blurred out color work fine, too. But don’t settle for a boring background with everyday signs or power poles intruding on your scene. This is a vanity piece of art, so go big on the vanity.
Some of the best smudge art knocks out the background and adds a lot of paint splatters. Doesn’t hurt to use a photo of a model!

Speaking of which, vanity is at the heart of this trend. Smudge painting probably wouldn’t exist if selfies didn’t exist or Instagram didn’t exist. Smudge is yet another outgrowth of Internet narcissism that seems to infect everyone at some point. So don’t apologize for your smudge painting. Instead, make it the best it can be.

How to Get Better at Smudge

There is a bit of trial and error until you get the hang of it, but try to follow these tips as you learn how smudging works:

  1. Isolate the foreground, so when you’re smudging you don’t pull in color from the background. You can do this by selecting an area to work on and copying it to a new layer. Note that pulling from the outside edge of the isolated foreground will erase some of those pixels, as opposed to adding paint.
  2. Start your smudge stroke from the color of shade that you want to highlight the most.
  3. Starting your stroke in a darker color will more easily cover light colors or shades. A lighter color will take a bit more work to pop over a darker color.
  4. The larger the brush, the more detail you will cover up with a smudge. This is great for smoothing out blemished skin, but may not be ideal for fabric folds with more depth.
  5. Pay attention to lighting. Use a smaller brush to maintain both highlights and shadows throughout the image.
  6. If you want to add paint or make a correction, use a synthetic paint brush as well as the color picker to select a color from the image to keep everything consistent. The synthetic paint will blend the color with the existing pixels, so it won’t look like a globbed-on afterthought.
  7. Take advantage of your zoom to get into tighter spaces where smudge needs to have a more subtle effect.

But Why Southeast Asia?

I’d like to say that I understand smudge painting on a deep, cultural level, but there is something about it that I don’t (yet) fully understand. I’ve asked friends IRL and Internet pals who hail from Indonesia and the Phillippines (the second most popular place for smudge painting behind Indonesia) why this type of art is so popular in Southeast Asian cultures. One woman I asked about smudge responded by saying she has multiple smudge paintings on the wall of her Jakarta home!

You can go further and make your photo look even more like a painting with a combined rough/detailed approach like @langlangart did here. Notice how he also uses blur effects to create a spot metering effect.

From asking around, I got a lot of answers that didn’t fully satisfy me but do provide a few clues. Some people I asked said this is a culture that values traditional oil painting, but real oil paintings don’t survive very long in the crushing humidity of equatorial Asia. Others theorized to me that smudge paintings are inexpensive alternatives to having a formal oil painting commissioned, which is paramount for people who don’t have a lot of extra income. Indeed, the culture of commissions for smudge painting is thriving on Instagram and is one of the most interesting aspects of this odd artistic phenomenon. There are countless smudge painting enthusiasts out there who will gladly create a smudge painting out of a photograph of you, of a friend, or of a family member, often for an incredibly reasonable fee. You get to support an artist and get a unique avatar or wall-ready piece of artwork to celebrate a birthday, wedding, or graduation. Everyone’s happy.