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Getting into digital painting can be a bit overwhelming at the beginning, so we’ve put together this simple guide to help get you started out on the right foot.
What is digital painting?
Digital painting is very similar to traditional drawing and painting - making marks on a flat surface to create a picture - but instead of using a pencil and paper, or brush and canvas, you use a tablet, computer and some art software.
The basic skills used in digital painting are the same ones needed for traditional drawing and painting, but digital also has many conveniences that can make the process easier:
Digital painting is less messy - no tubes of paint, no water, no cleaning!
Digital painting is usually more compact - you dont need a large studio space or lots of storage for canvases and paints for digital painting, just some desk space.
Digital painting is usually faster - you don’t have to mix your own colors, prime your canvas, wait for paint to dry, varnish the art, clean up afterwards…. not to mention, digital tools like undo and layers can help speed up the painting process.
Digital Painting can be much more portable - if portability is important to you, it’s pretty easy to create artwork on something small and light like an iPad or a laptop.
It still takes time and practice to become good at digital painting, just like traditional painting and drawing.
While going digital removes some of the difficulty from things like mixing paint, to make good digital art still requires the very same fundamental art skills, like knowledge of perspective, anatomy, lighting, color theory etc.
Digital Painting is very cheap to start, but there are also more expensive professional solutions available for those who want them.
If you want to start painting digitally, the first thing you’ll need is a tablet:
There are 3 main types of tablet for digital painting
Graphic Tablets - also called screenless tablets, drawing tablets and pen tablets.
Display Tablets - also called screen tablets or pen displays.
Tablet computers - all-in-one, standalone tablets that don't need a separate computer, such as the iPad or the Microsoft Surface Pro.
1. Graphic Tablets
Graphic tablets are the cheapest type of tablet, and what most beginner digital artists start with - that's not to say that they are only for beginners; many professionals prefer to use a graphic tablet instead of screen tablets.
Graphic tablets are flat slates with a drawing surface on one side; some have buttons and dials along one edge, some have touch and gesture functionality on the drawing surface, some are bluetooth enabled.
They all come with a stylus which you use to draw on their surface, while looking up at your computer monitor, similar to when you use a mouse.
Graphic Tablet advantages:
Simple functionality but good enough to do professional work with
Usually very sturdy and durable as they have few delicate parts
Most are lightweight and small enough to be very portable
It’s much easier to find a healthy sitting posture when using a graphics tablet
Graphic Tablet disadvantages:
Drawing on the tablet while looking up at your monitor takes time to get used to
Line drawing is less accurate on a graphics tablet compared to a screen tablet
Really small graphics tablets can cause wrist problems over time, as they can be too small for you to draw lines with your elbow and shoulder
Intuos Pro Large is about as big as graphics tablets come - if you need to make large, sweeping arm movements, this is one of the only tablets that is big enough to do it.
2. Display/Screen Tablets
Display tablets are screens that also act as a drawing surface, so you can draw directly onto your digital canvas. It feels closer to traditional drawing and painting than using a screenless tablet does.
Display Tablet advantages:
Drawing on a screen feels more natural than drawing on a tablet without a screen, as it’s almost like you are drawing on a digital piece of paper.
Because there is a tiny disconnect between where you draw and where a line is created, it is much easier to draw accurate linework on a screen tablet than a screenless one.
Can act as a monitor when not used for art.
Display Tablet disadvantages:
Much more expensive than screenless tablets
Less durable than a screenless tablet, as they have more moving and delicate parts
Not very portable; only the smallest screen tablets are remotely portable, and must be paired with some sort of computer too.
It’s hard to maintain a good posture when working at a screen tablet, and if you aren't careful find yourself hunching and developing back and wrist problems
The Cintiq Pro 24 is the perfect size to maximize screen space - most would struggle to reach and use the extra space on something bigger.
3. Tablet Computers
Tablet computers are standalone, all in one solutions in which the tablet and computer are in one device - the iPad is the best example of this, but also includes some other devices like the Microsoft Surface Pro and the Wacom Mobile Studio Pro.
I personally prefer using this kind of tablet and have used them for most of the last decade, due to the extreme portability they provide.
Tablet Computer advantages:
Just like with a screen tablet, drawing on a tablet computer’s screen feels similar to traditional art
Very portable and lightweight enough to carry with you all day
Tablet Computer disadvantages:
Extremely expensive and poor value for money compared to other setups
The iPad has limited software compared to a Windows pc, and even a Surface Pro or Mobile Studio might not be suitable for all windows tasks, due to their limited hardware specifications, small screen size etc.
Very delicate and many working parts, meaning they are prone to eventual damage or failure, especially if you take advantage of its portability
You could also include the Galaxy Note series of phones, as you can paint on them quite well. They are obviously highly portable, but have a worse painting experience than something like an iPad; they also have limited software and hardware.
Desktop or Laptop
If you’re buying a graphics tablet or display tablet, and not a tablet computer, you’ll need a pc or laptop to hook it up to and run your art software on.
Any computer will work really, as long as it is at least good enough to install your art software on it, but if you are using an old and slow computer it will run the software slowly - you might be limited in how big your paintings can be, how big your brushes can be, that sort of thing.
If you want a smoother painting experience I would recommend a desktop or laptop with at least 8GB of RAM, something like an Intel i5 processor and at least 50gb of free hard disk space for the software, scratch disk and your art files.
If you’ll be painting at a specific desk for the foreseeable future, a desktop PC will get you more power for the same amount of money, but since I like portability I’d personally get a laptop.
There are also a few other things you might consider getting hold of eventually, to make your painting experience a bit more comfortable:
A painting glove is a common purchase, especially when using tablets that can get warm. They stop residue and sweat from your hand from getting onto the tablet, and help keep it clean. They also help your hand glide smoothly over the surface of the tablet.
I didn't need a glove on my screenless graphics tablet or on my iPad pro, but it was necessary with my Wacom and Huion screen tablets, as they would both get warm and cause my hand to sweat, which would quickly dirty up the screen without a glove.
A stand might also be useful, to help you keep a more healthy and comfortable posture while painting. I have a particular set up when I'm using my iPad Pro at a desk, that involves 2 different kinds of portable stand used together to give me a good range of height and angle.
Instead of stands you might consider something like an Ergotron arm, which a lot of artists use and gives them a lot of control over the positioning of their screen tablet.
Once you have a tablet and computer to paint with, the last thing you’ll need is some digital painting software!
Desktop and Laptop Software
If you are using a desktop PC, laptop or a Windows tablet computer, these are my recommendation:
Clip Studio Paint Pro - $49.99, often on offer for $25 - this is identical to the iPad version that I currently use, and I’m a big fan.
Adobe Photoshop - $10 a month - this is a professional tool that has been around for a long time, and software that I used for many years until I got my iPad. There are loads of Photoshop tutorials online.
Krita - free - this software is very similar to painting in Photoshop, and is completely sufficient for creating professional art work. The biggest drawback is the lack of tutorial content on the internet for it.
All 3 of these software work very similarly, with reasonably similar UI and functionality. All 3 are good enough to make professional work. The biggest difference between them is in finding tutorials online - there are lots of Photoshop tutorials out there, a decent number of Clip Studio tutorials, and not very many Krita tutorials.
There’s also ArtRage for $79 and Corel Painter for $379 that both specialize in making digital art more like traditional painting and drawing, but I don’t personally have much experience with either of them.
If you have an iPad, your choice of apps is a little different:
Procreate - $25 - this software is super popular now, as it’s well optimized for touch controls on the iPad; if you don't want to use a keyboard with your iPad or want to paint when you are out and about, this might be the best bet.
Clip Studio Paint Pro - $5 a month, but often on offer for $2.50 a month - this is what I use and is exactly the same as the Windows version; it’s great if you work with a keyboard, as you get access to a full suite of desktop functionality and tools.
ArtStudio Pro - $11.99 - this is kind of a mid point between Clip Studio and Procreate, with lots of desktop-style functionality but also good touch and gesture control. I’ve only limited experience with it, but if you wanted a single software that you could use both with a keyboard at a desk and no keyboard when you are out and about, this software might be the one.
Now that you’ve sorted out your tablet and your painting software, you’ve got everything you need to begin painting!
Basics of Painting
For the basic skills of digital painting, the only things you need to understand in your software are how to use basic layers, the basics of the brush tool, and how to use the eydropper tool to color pick - these 3 are the foundations of digital painting.
Everything else just expands upon these basic ideas.
To begin with, I recommend you lay out your software’s palettes like mine, or as similar as you can in your software. This is everything you need to paint digitally:
Once you’ve grasped the very basics of making a new layer, picking colors, changing brush size and applying strokes to the canvas, you’re ready to begin this long and exciting journey of improvement!
If you are looking for places to learn, I would recommend Skillshare for absolute beginners, as they have a large range of beginner content at an affordable monthly rate.
If you want a walkthrough of the basics of your specific software, there are perfect videos on Skillshare for each. All of these links come with a 2 week free trial of Skillshare Premium, so you can watch them for free:
You'll get 1 month of Skillshare for free - watch the class you're interested in, and easily have spare time to watch a couple more.
If you are on a tight budget, there’s plenty of fantastic free content on Youtube, such as the channels Proko, Marco Bucci and Marc Cubebrush guy, and also on Ctrl-Paint.
For intermediate and advanced artists, Artstation Learning, Schoolism and New Masters Academy would be my top recommendations for educational content.
Hey, I'm Christopher
I started making digital art in 2009, and became a full-time freelance artist in 2016, able to work on my own schedule from anywhere in the world. I created this blog to help young artists make the same journey.
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