Sarah Kate Cummins

Sarah Kate Cummins has been exploring the realms of digital painting since she first came into contact with the technique. Her portraits capture the essence of her subjects, bringing them to life in a display of colour and emotion without a brush or pencil ever touching paper. She gives us some insight into her techniques and why she’s leaving our sunny shores for Ireland.


DIY: What sparked your journey into digital painting? is it as time-consuming as it seems? If so, how do you combat the inevitable fatigue when you are nearing the completion of a detailed piece? 

Sarah: I used to paint traditionally but not as much as I would have liked, simply because the process is so time consuming… which kind of hinders your growth as an artist if you don’t paint often enough. When I found out about digital painting I got really excited because all you need is a PC and a tablet.  No priming canvases, or mixing paint or waiting for it to dry. You open a painting program and start. I guess that makes me a bit lazy but when you have a full time job the last thing you want to do it set up all your painting paraphernalia. So the great thing about digital painting is the freedom it gives you, it takes painting to a whole other level. You can paint faster and fix mistakes easier. So to answer that question, it’s probably not as time-consuming as one would think, comparing it to traditional painting. You can finish a portrait in a couple hours as opposed to days.

But you do still get the feeling of frustration and impatience when you are nearly finished and you start to rush just to finish it, but when that happens I just stop and take a break by staring at some amazing works by artists that inspire me and I get amped again and carry on until I’m happy with it. Details are important to me.

 In a digital format you can paint more freely and allow accidents to happen and fix them later

DIY: In a field that can be at times quite monotonous you’ve managed to craft your own look and feel about your work. Did that look and feel come naturally to you or was it something you worked at? Experimenting with different methods/styles and theories on how to tackle a digital painting?

Sarah: I think it came quite naturally as I can’t seem to get away from my own “style”. I’ve tried to change it and leave the photo-realism look, but I don’t seem to be able to.  When I do something different I usually don’t like it at all. I don’t think people can really choose their style I think it just happens.



DIY: Can you take us through the process in creating one of your pieces please.

Sarah: Before I start I decide what kind of feel I want in the image. In this case I wanted it to be very soft with very subtle ‘glowy’ light, like those old film portraits you find in your granny’s photo albums. I obviously need some photo reference and in this case my sister was easy to get hold of, so I could pose her exactly as I wanted her. I also included her pet rat to make the painting more interesting. This is the process I went through painting Robyn and Skunk.


First I do a rough sketch straight into Photoshop with my tablet. Some people like to sketch on paper and scan it in, but I don’t have patience for that so I do it quickly on computer, using a soft brush with pressure sensitivity. Using a flat solid brush, I blocked in the base colours which is usually a mid tone, but in this case, I did the hair and the rat in the darkest colours I’ll be using and the skin is the mid tone colour.



I start painting the tones in her face and clothing by roughly adding a shadow colour. And I added some highlight to the rat’s fur. I like concentrating on small areas at a time, instead of the overall image like some might prefer. So I focus on adding details to the eyes. Then I added some soft light colour to the highlight areas. I then slowly move away from the eyes and add more tones and blend the colours to make it smoother and softer.



I add more small details to the face before I move on the other areas. Next I paint little Skunk and add lots of texture to make her look furry.



I end off quickly finishing her clothes and painting the highlights in her hair. I also blurred the edges of her hair by using a soft eraser brush, so that the hair details don’t detract from the details of her face. I kept the background simple because I wanted it to be a kind of modern version of a classic portrait.


DIY: Do you ever paint on canvas or are you strictly digital? What principles/rules are key when creating the work you do? Is it the same theory as painting on canvas or it’s own beast, so to speak?

Sarah: I do when I have the time and the patience, and when I’m in the mood for it. I find it quite tedious these days because I know there’s a quicker way. Traditional painting is really therapeutic, unless I have other work that needs to be done. When deadlines loom I can’t concentrate.  I usually paint with Kev’s mom at their house in Mtunzini because it is so far removed from work. It is very different to painting on canvas, in the way that you have to think really hard about what you’re going to do before you do it, because in a digital format you can paint more freely and allow accidents to happen and fix them later. It’s still the same process I guess: find reference, sketch it out, paint a base colour, and add some shadows and highlights… everybody has their own system. I approach digital painting much the same as I do with traditional paintings, because that’s where I started.



DIY: When you are commissioned to do a portrait of someone, where do you place your focus when trying to capture their essence? Is it important to meet them face to face?

Sarah: I try to be accurate in making them look almost exactly how they look in photographs. The people who know the subject well (and usually then commission the painting) are so familiar with the subject’s face that it takes a lot of preparation to get to grips with a person on that type of level. I usually get the client to send me a bunch of photos or I facebook stalk them until I get a real idea of how their face looks, what their prominent features are and what their personalities are like. I then draw from that. For commissions I mostly work from photos clients send me because they are quite specific in what they want, but you still have to try and study the characters somehow.



DIY: Outside of other digital painters (and painters in general really), who (or what) would you say your influences are?

Sarah: I think I’m really just fascinated with people and the way they look. Which is probably why I paint a lot of portraits. Some might find it really boring; always painting portraits, but my favourite subject matter is people. Photography is also a big influence on the way I work and think, particularly photographic lighting. Understanding light is really important when you draw or paint, and if you’re interested in creating a realistic painting it helps if you understand lighting from a photographic point of view.



DIY: You list being a ‘fashion/garment/t-shirt illustrator/graphic designer for Kingsley Heath.’ as the kinda day-job/real life. Is it tempting to try and resolve projects for the day job with a digital painting or do you try and keep the two completely separate? If so, why?

Sarah: I finished at Kingsley two days ago as a full time employee as I’m moving to Ireland but I’m hoping to still do work for them on a freelance basis. I was actually really fortunate to be able to use digital painting in the fashion industry. It was something I really, really loved about my job. I was pretty much free to create the end product any way I pleased as long as it tied in with the brand. I used a lot of different techniques and styles for tees because people like variety and different customers want different things. So it was really fun being allowed the freedom to play around with styles and ideas. I tried to incorporate digital painting whenever I could: you can recreate almost any traditional medium within the format of digital art.



DIY: How important have online communities, such as DeviantArt, been in growing the popularity of digital orientated artwork? In your view, do you think communities and forums like DeviantArt are as popular today as they were 6 or so years ago? If not, what do you think has affected that popularity it had?

Sarah: I think DeviantArt (being the most popular) has helped a lot in making digital art a legitimate art-form over the years. I think there has been a lot of debate about whether digital art can gain the same kind of respect as traditional art, and I think thanks to these communities we’re getting there.
Obviously there’s a lot of crap on DeviantArt but when you find those few artists who have been there since the beginning and you see their work and popularity in the community, it is evident that DA and similar sites have been a huge knee-up for the great digital artists we respect and admire so much today.  I think DeviantArt is far too crowded nowadays, but there are other options.



DIY: Slightly off-topic but at the recent Pecha Kucha talk Wesley Van Eeden brought up a valid point about Durban not having an Art Centre. In your opinion, why do you think the artist’s role in society, whether it be a musician, artist, sculptor, dancer etc, always seems to be marginalized and regarded as almost ‘unimportant’ in terms of government/municipal funding and development?

Sarah: I think it’s probably because artists were never really seen as legitimate money-makers. The idea of studying art or any kind of art-form was often considered as a very unstable way to go if you wanted to make a decent living. That mind-set has probably changed now but it still needs to be recognised more as a very promising career path, and supported by the government.


DIY: Finally,  going on from the above, you are off to Ireland with your boyfriend, Kevin Goss-Ross, in a few days.  Is this trip partly because of the above question? That lack of real support for young artists in our city, and by large, country or was it always planned? What have you personally got planned when you are over there? Will you still be accepting commissions?

Sarah: I think there is plenty support for us in this city, but we’re setting up camp overseas for a lot of reasons. We have always wanted to do this but we never had the funds. Personally… I really just want to experience life outside South Africa. I think we are so far removed from the big wide world out there, and we don’t see what the other options are. I also don’t think my dream of working solely as a digital painter will ever be met in this country because nobody even knows what it is. Some people think it’s a Photoshop filter. I’m tired of it. And yes I will still be accepting commissions whilst in Ireland. And I suppose that that’s probably the best aspect of digital painting. Saves on postage.


You can find Sarah and more of her work on Behance  and Deviant Art.

3 Responses to “Sarah Kate Cummins”
  1. Van says:

    Sweet interview 🙂 Good luck in Ireland lady!

  2. Urb-Ski says:

    Skills. All the best, look forward to seeing what you two get up to over there. Enjoy!

  3. Samora says:

    I love the Big Raheem piece!

    And the Purity love piece…. and the tea party:)

    Safe travels to the both of you.

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