/  artwork   /  The Ins and Outs of Digital Painting

As someone who’s been doing digital painting for a long LONG time, and who feels like she’s only very recently gotten good at it. I thought I’d write a bit about how I got here and the process of learning how to paint without any formal training in school or otherwise.

I started learning photoshop when I was about fourteen years old, and I was instantly hooked. However I had no idea how to use the real tools available and was far more interested in painting something and then adding one million lens flares and other effects and then calling it good. This was not the right way to approach painting or making decent artwork.

See example below of OLD stuff I did. There are a lot of problems with how I used to approach painting in this single image. It’s blurry, the lighting makes no sense, and I got lazy with any details that exist, the textures on the robots body are odd and scratchy. This is an example of a painting that I remember being frustrated by, but at that time it was the best I could do:


I will stress that using lens flare does nothing to make your composition, color pallets or subject matter stand out. I finally realized this as my teenage years grew to a close and I realized how much more awesome some well established artists were at painting then I was.

I attended art school in Minneapolis and wanted to work as an animator telling the kind of stories I’ve always been interested in. Ones about fantastical worlds and characters. One of my biggest hobbies has been creative writing for science fiction, and one of the other largest hobbies has been the observation of biology and nature in general.

Why does storytelling and observation matter when it comes to painting interesting fantastical creature / character or worlds? It matters quite a lot actually. I always look to nature to inform me on how to structure a creature in my paintings, from general bone structure to the look of skin, hair, scales, feathers and so forth.

Observation is essential for being a good painter. Observation of light, composition, framing, etc are all important and essential things to learn if you’re going to make a painting that really stands out.

The other essential part of good character design or prop design for that matter is a distinct silhouette.


Silhouettes allow you to recognize a character without any really details and they matter a lot with making a character memorable and to stick with an audience.

As an animator I think I have a teeny advantage in that I spent four years in college really studying how things moved and how stories are structured. Your painting by no means needs to tell a story, but being aware of how things move in real life through observation does if your subject is a character or person. But the same goes for landscapes; observation is king. Landscape painting is something I still struggle with but hope to get better at as time goes on.

Sketching and painting real things if you can is the best route towards getting better. That is why figure and observational drawing are so essential to a professional artists foundation. It doesn’t matter if your major in the end involves film with real actors or photography, or sculpture, drawing and observing things are front and center to creating a foundation for artists. I try to take trips to places like the zoo, or just be out in my garden to sketch if I have free time. I do it because I love it, and also because it helps me understand how animals and plants are put together.


A good understanding of anatomy is also essential to doing good work if you’re painting characters. I watch a lot of nature documentaries of things like lions, wolves, deer and other creatures in nature doing things. I watch how their muscles and skin look, how the light hits them and what they look like in motion.

On top of all this, I would say that a good sense of lighting and composition are just as essential for being a good painter. Without an interesting composition their is no reason to look at a photograph or painting. All people will sense this but many of them can’t really articulate why a certain painting, color or arrangement of elements on a physical or digital canvas makes them feel a certain way or why they like it. That’s the magic of good composition. It will compel someone to stay longer, observe harder and appreciate something more because it has a tense, interesting visual language.

Tension is a weird word to use to describe a good composition, but it’s really true. Good, interesting paintings convey tension in how elements are placed, lit, and colored.

Now a little about lighting. Rendering lighting and shadows have been a struggle for me to do accurately and interestingly for years. I struggled with what colors to use on paintings, how much contrast they need, and how a light source impacts the look and feel of a whole composition. Lighting is so important for creating things like atmosphere, depth, and richness in a painting. You must pick a light source and be loyal to it throughout your composition, otherwise things can and will look weird, wonky, distorted and lots of other descriptive terms. Lighting can really be very fun to use once you get a handle on it. But it took me years of practice, frustration and observing things in order to start to get an intuitive sense of these things.

Lastly, I currently paint in Photoshop on my computer. And I cannot emphasize enough what good customized brushes will do for you when it comes to using photoshop.

You can download the Photoshop brushes I currently use by clicking the image here:

I would try and find other brushes you’re interested in or that are posted by some other painters or concept artist you enjoy. Download them and play with what they can do for you. Because all the other things I said matter, but nothing can really replace proper tools.

Good luck and happy painting!