There are probably a dozen ways to draw a simple circle, so you can imagine the many ways you can learn digital painting in general. Personally, I tend to shift my way of working with almost every picture. But there are basic tools and methods that have been consistent for me and I want to share those with you. I will mostly use Photoshop and a bit of Clip Studio Paint, because these are the ones I have the most experience with. But a lot of these of these tips will be transferable to other software and often the way you do things are very similar.
1. Work with Shortcuts
Before starting a digital artwork, it is helpful to know about the keyboard shortcuts that are available. These will save you an immense amount of time, especially if your tablet has express keys to assign them to. There are lots of different preferences and you might not even know some of these exist. So let me give you a few recommendations that I use:
Ctrl+Z – for undoing things is the most common and should definitely always be on your mind or assigned to one of your expresskeys.
Holding R – allows you to rotate your canvas freely and therefore is also a nice shortcut you might want to keep for an expresskey.
Ctrl+T – which is for the transform tool and helpful if you started to big or too small.
Scale, rotate or distort things with this.
Ctrl- and Ctrl+ is for zooming and especially time-saving so I have them on express keys as well. Of course this becomes obsolete if your touch enabled tablet allows you to pinch to zoom with your fingers.
The Alt key, while in brush mode, activates the color picker as long as you hold it. I use it so frequently that I have it assigned to a button on my stylus. This is incredibly helpful with painting, but more on that later. For the other button on the stylus I usually use the Right-Click, which in Photoshop lets you browse through your brush set and adjust the size of the brush.
2. Pick your Brushes
Early on when I took digital art classes I really got caught up with brushes, playing around and even creating some of my own from photos with really low resolution. I thought that other digital artists were only so good because they had that one specific brush that I would never get my hands on. There are some brushes that are perfect for a highly specific thing like certain textures, clouds or chains. But for most of your drawing and painting process, a simple round brush is often enough. You can change the pen pressure, the hardness and opacity and I learned that this already gives you a lot of options in your hand. But it can also be a lot of fun to try out different brushes, so I will link a few awesome brush sets in the description of this video.
For sketching, I typically use a simple round brush with slightly reduced opacity. Why a lower opacity? When you’re drawing many lines over or along each other, the areas they have in common will come out stronger. This acts as a great guide for when you work on your lineart later. You can of course, experiment with different brushes if you want your sketch to have a certain aesthetic. Make sure to put the sketch on its own layer. That way you can color it if needed. Try not to lose yourself in details too much and rather focus on the overall composition and proportions. When working digitally, you can easily mirror the image, which can quickly expose errors that you might overlook because you get so used to your drawing in its regular orientation.
4. Use the Liquify and transformation tool
When you spot mistakes after drawing for a bit, there are great tools you can use to avoid having to draw everything from scratch again. Two of these are the Liquify and transform tools. As I mentioned, you can mirror the sketch to see any oddities that have gone unnoticed and then use the Liquify tool to push and warp everything to its correct place. I love this tool because you can just play around with it, because sometimes you are not really sure what exactly is wrong with your drawing until you see it corrected. A tool like Liquify can also be found in Krita and Gimp. But another helpful tool that is also included in Clip Studio Paint is the transform tool. There is a bit of a difference between those programs but the application is pretty similar and great to use on details. Use a lasso and circle the area you want to change, the eyes for example. Then use transform to create a grid to warp the subject to your liking. It’s especially helpful when you want to match objects to a certain perspective, like for example add posters to a wall. An important note though: The Liquify or the transformation tool is best used while you are still in the sketching process because they lower the quality of the areas you work on. Lines for example often become noticeably blurry afterwards. With the sketch it usually is no big deal, since it will most likely disappear later in the process anyway. But if you warp your lineart heavily you might notice it.
5. Lineart vs. Painting
Something that you should be aware of once you are satisfied with your sketch is that you can go in basically two different directions from there. You can continue and start working on a lineart which is often the case with manga or cartoon drawings that have significant lineart. Or you can work in a more painterly manner for a rendered look. In that case you want to work with areas and only use the sketch as your guide. If you choose the lineart route, you would first create a new layer on top of your sketch. To set the lineart apart from the sketch in the process, you can either lower the opacity of the underlying sketch layer or you can color it. Either way, doing this will help you distinguish the lineart from the sketch while keeping both visible. Doing the lineart can often be quite exhausting in my experience. A lot of time is wasted on undoing brush strokes which you’re trying to match to the underlying sketch. Unfortunately, there is no real shortcut around this, other than for example copying or mirroring single elements to re-use them wherever possible. For drawing linearts, I recommend using Clip Studio Paint or Paint Tool SAI rather than Photoshop. Clip Studio Paint creates very crisp and sharp, thin lines that look a lot cleaner compared to the ones you can do in Photoshop for example. After years of using both, I always end up feeling that lineart done in Photoshop comes out more rough, sketchy and shaky. But of course you can use whatever you like most. When it comes to architecture or other objects with lots of even, straight lines I can recommend Photoshop. Turn off the pen pressure and hold shift to connect points with a line easily. If you want to go more into realistic rendering, just skip the lineart and move on to the next step which is …
6. Creating a base
First, we want to create a basic layer that helps us stay inside the lines when we color. One way to do it is using the lasso tool to trace the outer line of your drawing. This way you make a selection of the inside that you can then fill on a separate layer. With a tidy and clean lineart that doesn’t have any gaps, the magic wand can save you some time. Select the space outside of our drawing and then invert the selection. This effectively selects the inside of your lineart. Fill it and you have a solid base layer. Once we have that, we want to make sure we only paint on the base and not outside of it. For that, you can lock the layer. Now, you can only paint on the parts of that layer that already have color in them.
7. Clipping layers
If you are scared of making mistakes – like me – and also want to quickly adjust and change things, make sure to try using clipping layers. For that you need to right click on your layer and select “Create clipping mask”. Here you can see me being able to paint everywhere. But as soon as I create a clipping mask, everything outside the area that we defined with our base layer disappears. Only the areas that overlap with the base layer can now be seen. The rest gets clipped. This is super helpful, because now we only have to focus on the area inside the line art. Using this technique, you can create layers for the single purposes like hair, skin, eyes, clothes. Basically as many as you like. Just keep in mind that you will quickly increase the number of layers and navigating hundreds of them can become quite confusing.
8. How to use the Color Picker
The color picker is one of the essential tools for digital painting. As I said previously, I recommend assigning it to a button on your stylus, or at least somewhere easily reachable. The color picker – assists name implies – picks up the visible color so you can use that as follows. Chose the layer you want to paint on and start with a shadow tone for example. Now you can hold the key for the Color Picker, pick up a transition tone, let go of the key and you can immediately keep painting with your brush. Of course this also works with highlights or just to keep a consistent color scheme, because you only use colors that are already present in your painting.
9. Smudging tool is not as bad as it seems
For a long time, I despised the smudging tool because it has such a characteristic look when you try to implement it in your work. But that was because I didn’t know how to use it properly. The smudge tool actually is pretty versatile. You can use different brushes with it, creating different effects. You can use it for textures and interesting transitions. What I love to use it for is to soften edges. For example, I start cell-shading a piece and then just go over the hard edges to soften them to my liking. The brush isn’t standard with Photoshop as far as I know, but you can easily build such a brush for the smudge tool yourself. Pick the smudge tool and open a regular round soft brush. Then open the brush settings and set the spacing to 25%, scatter to 29%, count jitter to 46%, activate transfer and you are done.
10. Layer Blending Styles
Last but not least let’s take a quick look at some of the blending styles for layers that are worth checking out. Multiply is great when you scanned your traditional lineart and want to start coloring. Just put your line art on top and set it on multiply to make the white paper transparent screen is very helpful to create light effects. For example, I took this photo of a sparkler and set the layer to screen which makes all the black tones transparent. It’s like the negative version of Multiply Overlay is best for textures. If you want to give your art a watercolor look you can use textures and overlay them to add them to your painting Color is useful to change colors on individual areas and play around with color schemes. Would the ring look better in silver? Create a layer set to “color” and draw on the area with a grey tone to try it. Last but not least, here is some general advice on your tools.
A bonus tip if you will:
For digital art there are loads of options regarding both software and hardware. From normal drawing tablets to screen tablets, to tablet computers there is a variety of brands, qualities and prices you can choose from. I have noticed that a lot of beginning artists imagine that you can only create good art with a screen tablet but that’s a misconception. Back in 2005 I used a Graphire 4 and Photoshop Elements that came with it. At that point I only occasionally did digital art and I wasn’t sure whether I would be doing it much in the future. Not because it was so weird to not look at the surface you are physically drawing on but simply because learning the program was actually a lot harder. After using the screenless tablets for about 10 years I eventually figured that I wanted to upgrade to a Cintiq. My advice would be to let the tools grow with you. Start with a tablet appropriate to your needs and budget. You don’t want to spend a fortune on a tablet when you do not see yourself working with it for a long time.
For beginners, I highly recommend starting with a classic drawing tablet without a screen on it because they are far more affordable and you won’t hate yourself too much if it starts gathering dust. With practice you will get used to looking at your computer monitor. After all, you can always see where the cursor is on screen. Some people actually use games like OSU to practice their accuracy if they’re not drawing or painting something anyway. For digital art, I think understanding of the software is often times more crucial for your workflow than whether your drawing tablet has a screen built in or not.