As with any other skill, after making digital art for a long time you will discover tips, tricks, techniques and even shortcuts that will help you get the job done a little bit easier, or a little bit faster.
And each time you learn one, you'll wonder how you managed to make art for so long without learning it earlier.
Not every item of the following list will work for everyone - we are all into digital art for slightly different reasons, and have our own preferences around the art we want to make. Nevertheless, hopefully you'll be able to add some new knowledge to your repertoire, and it'll save you a few headaches down the road!
Why we've written this list
There is no doubt that you would figure out your own methods that work for you and make your work easier in time. However, having someone point out things that you could try out is an obvious time saver.
Some of these tips can seem very weird and ask for you to change something in your workflow, that you are really used to doing. However - it's always worth trying things out and giving them enough chance, because in the end, if you catch on with them, you benefit from them immensely, and if not - then now you know, and you can learn about yourself and how you work as you realise that it's not for you.
You'll notice I've tried to list these tips in an order that leads one into the other, hopefully it makes it easier to remember everything!
Let's Get Started
1. Starting a painting without a plan in mind is almost always a huge error
If you don't have a goal, you'll end up messing about too much.
This is not to say that you can't doodle and explore. Doodling, exploring and having fun can lead you to very interesting ideas and concepts that you wouldn't have come up with otherwise. However, when you reach the point where you have the concept in mind for a whole piece, think about it properly and don't forget that that's your goal.
Straying away from your goal holds a risk of the piece being unclear and unable to convey the message correctly.
2. Know what the purpose of the art is going to be when it's finished
Is it gonna be digital, is there a chance you'll want to print it? Is it going to be on a t-shirt? You have to adjust how you make it based on what the purpose of the piece is.
3. Use the correct canvas size
Always know what canvas size you should be working on. Not paying attention can come back to bite you hard.
4. Know the difference between DPI and PPI
Both are closely related to resolution: DPI is dots per inch, and is used in printing - PPI is pixels per inch and is used for screens. Different kinds of screens have a different PPI, and the bigger the PPI a screen has, the smaller an image will look on it.
Computer monitors usually have around 80 PPI, and modern phone screens are 400+ PPI, and only getting denser!
5. Thumbnail, thumbnail, thumbnail!
When you do have the idea in your mind of what you want to do - it's always, always beneficial to do thumbnails before properly starting working on the piece. Thumbnails allow you to plan in advance, and explore different angles and aspects of the ways this piece could potentially be. No matter how cool your first idea is, there is always a chance that a different kind of composition or angle or whatever else will serve the piece better.
6. It's all about the fundamentals
No matter how annoying it is that everyone keeps mentioning this - they mention it for a reason, so I am going to too.
Solid. Fundamentals. Make. Or break. Your art.
Shiny rendering and using colour dodge will not cover the issues with your wonky shapes, and while it's fun to try new brushes, they won't make you a better artist.
So dedicate yourself to fundamentals early.
7. Learn the difference between shape and form (2D and 3D) and practice your ability to think in 3D
This ties in with the point about fundamentals - unless you're going for a specific cartoony or abstract style (but even then you should keep this in mind) - if you want your art to look believable you should be thinking in 3D volumes and figuring out how to properly convey them in a 2D format.
8. Reference will transform your results
This can become a very heated discussion between a lot of artists who come from different walks of life and different beliefs and values about things.
I firmly believe that it's toxic for beginner or even intermediate level artists to refuse to use reference, as that prolongs the time of their study and slows down their progress.
You should strive to be able to convey most things from your imagination through simplifying in shapes etc, HOWEVER, even more experienced artists still rely on reference, and especially when you're starting out and are working on your career in digital art - it's important to use all tools necessary. Reference helps you to understand things way easier, to concentrate on figuring out your workflow and to upgrade your basic fundamental skills without racking your brain, trying to push yourself to imagine how a horse looks when jumping, or how does a halberd look in this one particular angle. If you don't know what something looks like, the fastest way to learn it is to find a reference.
9. Colour picking from reference will hinder your learning
Colour picking from a reference at least generally is just not a good idea, unless you're maybe in some way using it for colour or value studies. Use references, learn from them, but do not colour pick to use those colours in the final art piece.
10. Pay attention to values over colour
No matter how good you are at colour and maybe even conveying shape with line, values are of utmost importance for building a strong composition and ultimately a strong painting.
Having a thorough understanding of values and understanding their importance is one of the signs of an artist who takes themselves seriously and aims to stand amongst the best.
11. Don't begin with a white background
Using white background is generally not a good idea. It's way more handy to use a mid tone background, because it lets you see the values and figure out composition (when it comes to values) more clearly
Easier on your eyes too.
12. Learn how to use contrast properly (be careful of being too weak and too strong)
Contrast is a powerful tool, especially when it comes to conveying the mood of the piece. This bleeds together with the tip of understanding values, but it begs for it's own mention.
13. Use pure black and pure white sparingly
Strong contrast applied correctly, as mentioned previously, is a powerful tool that you can use to strengthen the piece you're working on. However, very rarely you will find a situation where using pure black or pure white will be the right choice. It can happen, but most paintings that feature strong contrast don't use pure black or pure white.
14. Don't get carried away (with brushes, with what you want to paint, with not studying!)
Always make sure that your focus is in the right place and you're moving swiftly towards your goal.
Testing out new brushes and applying them for texture is all good and swell, until you do it too much and make your piece way too busy and crowded. Same thing goes with character art - if your client wants a character piece with a background, don't get carried away with the details of plants etc. no matter how much you like doing them. Try to do what serves the piece and the goal the best.
15. Minimise the amount of Soft brush blending you use
Everyone ends up with their favourite way of work, they develop their workflow, etc. When it comes to blending, while there are different ways to go about it, the soft brush generally is not a good idea.
16. Edges are important
When people talk about edges in art, they talk about the transfer from one colour / value to another. Know at least the basic rules about how hard and soft edges should be applied and where; always consider them, if something feels off in the piece, if things don't seem to mesh together well.
17. Dodge and burn tools are not a substitute for learning how to paint light!
Dodge tool doesn't add light and burn tool doesn't add shadow. You have to properly know how to use them, understand their function correctly, and furthermore, understand that shading and light requires deep knowledge of colour, instead of just adding black and white in correct places.
This however doesn't apply if you're cel shading, as sometimes for cel shaded more cartoony styles dodge and burn tools are working just fine.
18. Aim for balance
Balance in colour. Balance in detail. Balance in everything, when considering the goal of this piece.
The piece will work the best if you'll be paying attention to all of the things you do, and considering how everything works together with the other aspects. If you're making a piece full with neon colours and nothing to balance them out, it will work only in very specific occasions and only with specific mood in mind.
Adding a lot of detail that's oversaturated with colours will make your piece look way too busy and hard to look at.
19. Make Art for yourself, make art for work, and make art for improvement
This is yet again about balance. Obviously, if you work and have deadlines - you don't have much choice but to do them. But beyond that, when it comes to art and studying - always try to push yourself, but also be acutely aware of how you're feeling and where you're at. If you grind studies after all the work is done, and you feel exhausted and start hating art - stop. Take a step back, don't run yourself into a burnout, or even worse - disliking art.
Speaking of studying...
20. Know how you study - make it enjoyable
Knowing yourself and figuring out how you study is very very beneficial even beyond art. But also especially when it comes to art, because it's a very personal process, as are all creative things.
It's good to push yourself to do some boring boxes in perspective exercises, some value studies of master artwork - however, if you push yourself too much, it will backfire and you'll run yourself into a burndown.
Art gives you the ability of making studying it fun for you. Drawing from life - don't do boring fruits in a bowl near a vase if you couldn't care less about them - get your favourite things that are in your house and draw those. You can always choose the object of your study yourself, so make it something that you find cool, that you love looking at.
Don't care about old masters paintings? You'll probably get a lot of flack for that, but it doesn't matter - what matters is that you're getting your skill up. Do a study of an artist that you actually really love and enjoy and look up to.
You get the idea.
21. Analyse what you see around you
Whenever you are doing anything at all, you have the ability to analyse what you see around yourself and look at it from an artist's perspective. Imagine and think about how you would replicate it in an art piece, weather painting or drawing, how would you go about it. Thinking about art helps the progress move along and lets you get better faster.
22. Make art as often as you can, even if it's just a tiny bit per day
There will be days where you just can't make yourself do art. But if you can do even a little bit - try to do it. It doesn't have to be much, it doesn't have to be good, doesn't have to be anything.
It's important to do this because more times than not it's actually going to make you draw more than you thought you would.
But even if it doesn't, you still took your stylus and gave it your best. Having a habit of trying to do art every day will surely pay off in time.
23. Prepare for artblock, so you can defeat it
Artblock is a prominent thing that a lot of artists struggle with at some point in time.
The thing is that artblock, although many people disagree, can be worked on. Nobody says it easy, it genuinely can feel impossible to do, some days it is IS impossible. But it's in the end it's doable. You can work to get through it faster.
The key is understanding why you're in it in the first place.
After that, most times it is about getting yourself out of mental rut and getting inspired. Browse photography of things that get you excited, of places that you want to go to, of scenery that you would love to see in real life one day. Read a book, watch a movie / show, play a game that you know has been very influential to you, to remind you just how much you loved it. Get inspired by other people's art (this however can be dangerous if you're not yet capable of removing yourself from comparing your art to other people's art).
One of the best things you can do to tackle art block is...
24. Tap in to the energy that made you want to make art in the first place
And this isn't important only when talking about art block.
You picked art for a reason. You picked this as a career for a reason. Despite how scary it may seem and how big of a stigma there still is, you still chose art. Remember why. Never forget why. Have the 'why' fuel everything you do.
25. The worst mistake you can make - letting yourself get to a place where you hate making art
Sounds cheesy? It isn't.
I know plenty of artists who stopped enjoying art and now, while they still work as artists, the enjoyment is lost and they might as well be working a boring, soul crushing 9 to 5 job, that they thought they were escaping with picking an art career.
It's the worst thing that can happen to an artist.
26. Learn how to listen to and accept feedback - and learn when to ignore it
Feedback can be a very iffy subject. As people are different and have different values and walks of life, it makes sense that some of them are of the opinion that there should be nothing but just cruel and straightforward critique without sugarcoating.
Matter of fact is that if you're able to handle your work being very harshly scrutinised all the time, the growth will be obvious and faster than that of your average artist. However...
Being able to listen to harsh feedback IS NOT a sign of strength, nor it makes you the better person, as some seem to think. All it means is that your life experiences, no matter what kind, have put you in a place where you're able to accept the harshest feedback 24/7.
As I mentioned before - the worst thing that can happen to an artist is the death of their love for art. And scrutinising, ruthless critique have killed many.
If you're not in a place where you can listen to harsh feedback all the time - leave. Remove yourself. Don't let anyone tell you that you're weaker for it - strength comes from understanding yourself, your abilities and your limitations. Don't let people's foolish opinions kill your love for art.
When you can - learn how to accept feedback, because in the end it's going to be very helpful to you, as long as it doesn't become toxic in your mind.
Also, learn how to GIVE feedback. You have to know your audience. If you've been in the art field for 15 years and come from a walk of life where fist is the only love you know - then please don't give feedback to a young artist who's just started out and is still exploring themselves. You're just going to damage the potential amazing art that this person could eventually create. Unless you learn how to give feedback properly in a way that they will respond to it in a healthy manner, instead of crying and never picking up a pencil again.
27. Mentors are important
I think the importance of mentors is not talked about enough.
Having someone that you look up to, and that can guide you and give you advice when you're having difficulties is extremely valuable. Especially if they have reached a place where you would want to be eventually.
If you're able to, make connections, network, and seek out a mentor. Some people offer paid mentorships too, and they are most certainly worth their price (most cases anyway - make sure you always do your research, and pick a mentor that resembles the kind of artist you'd like to be)
I want to end with this advice: find a community. Find a group of people that you resonate with, that you can learn from and teach things to - great things are built in groups. The right community will change your life.
We have an amazing discord community filled with digital and traditional artists - you can find the invite link for the Self-Employed Artist discord in this article.
I hope to see you in there!
Hey, I’m Christopher
I started making digital art in 2009, became a full-time freelance artist in 2016, and now I’m able to work on my own schedule from anywhere in the world.
I created this blog to help other artists make the same journey.