What is Digital Painting?

An Introduction to the Tools and Techniques
Date Updated: 
December 1, 2023
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A concise introduction to digital painting, including tools, software, the process of creating a digital painting, and even how viable it is as a career.
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Put simply, digital painting uses the same process as painting traditionally, with something like oil or acrylic paints, but done using a computer, a graphics tablet and digital painting software instead, leading it to sometimes be called electronic painting.

Digital painting is very similar to traditional painting, just within a virtual, electronic setting. You use a selection of brushes, a colour palette and a canvas - you pick a brush, pick a colour from the palette, and then place brushstrokes down on the canvas.

However, there are many conveniences and advantages as well as some disadvantages, that come with digital painting.

What tools does Digital Painting use?

Digital painting relies on 3 central tools I mentioned earlier - a drawing tablet (also known as a graphics tablet, digital tablet or digitizer among other things), a digital painting software, and some sort of computer to run the two on. 

You can also combine the need for a drawing tablet and computer into a single device, and get a tablet PC like an iPad.

Technically, you could even swap out the tablet for a typical computer mouse, but it's not advisable as it makes the whole experience much less enjoyable and harder to control. 

Tablets come in many different shapes, sizes and price tags, though they all do very similar things.

Software is the same too, mostly providing similar tools to varying degrees, and also having a large range of price tags

There are also secondary tools and software that can help, but aren't central to digital painting, such as painting gloves and keypads.

Check out this article for a long form explanation of all the equipment and tools.

More about digital painting software

Digital painting software is kind of like a virtual paint box. All of them emulate traditional tools on some level, particularly the paintbrush and canvas. Some softwares try to emulate specific types of traditional art more deliberately than others, such as Artrage providing textured canvases designed to look like watercolour paper, smooth bristol, stretched canvas etc, as well as oil painting tools, palette knives, watercolour brushes and water droppers etc. 

Users can make their own brushes, altering texture, shape, many other elements of the brush. This allows a lot of experimentation for the user, and the ability to emulate many kinds of traditional art, and to paint in recognised styles such as realism, impressionism, abstract etc.

How do you use them to produce a painting?

The drawing tablet plugs into the PC, and will have a drawing surface, either with its own screen or mapped to your computer's screen.

The software installed on a PC acts as a kind of virtual painting experience.

When you move the stylus over the drawing tablet, it moves the mouse cursor. When you press the stylus down to the tablet surface, it clicks the mouse button, but what is key is that drawing tablets worth their salt are pressure sensitive (don't buy one that isn't tbh)  and basically, the lighter or harder you push down with the stylus, the lighter or harder it will 'click' the mouse.  

Digital painting softwares are programmed to pick on this sensitivity (again, don't bother with a digital painting software that can't detect pressure sensitivity to be honest). It's this pressure sensitive interaction between a stylus on a tablet and some software on a PC that enables you to control your brushstrokes and paint a lot like you would with a real brush

And then, just like real painting, you pick a colour to go on your digital brush, and put down strokes to make marks on your canvas.

The rest comes down to fundamental art skills!  Composition, anatomy, perspective, volume and light, colour theory, etc. This is not a shortcut past all of that.  It doesn't make the fundamentals more convenient, but it does make a lot of the rest of the process more convenient.

Why choose digital instead of traditional?

Traditional painting has inherent inconveniences. Storing tools and supplies, buying new supplies, mixing paints, storing mixed paints, storing a drying canvas, posting a piece of art, etc. A whole lot of inconveniences due to it being a physical medium

Convenience is the name of the game for digital painting. All of the advantages of digital painting come down to convenience. 

Traditional painting normally has to be a very linear process as the mediums are pretty unforgiving - planning the painting first in pencil thoroughly before you begin painting for example.

Digital painting is non-linear, less messy, takes up small space, set up and packaway is fast,and you don't have to wait for paint to dry! Removes some of the tedium etc. so you can focus on the creativity.

Theoretically you can have an almost infinite sizes canvas, infinite different brushes, nearly infinite colours in your palette, as well as loads of other conveniences that come with a digital medium.

Firstly getting started is very convenient, if you already have access to a computer of some sort, you ⅓ of the necessary equipment to paint digitally. Now all you need is a drawing tablet, most of which are pretty portable, and some digital software, plenty of which is free.

During digital painting, conveniences are everywhere.

Nearly infinite canvas size, change the size of the canvas mid painting, move elements around the canvas in seconds, resize elements and objects in seconds, use layers and masks to keep elements of the painting separately editable/not affect each other/non destructive process, liquify, copy and paste, infinite brushes, pencils, mark making tools etc, nearly infinite color palette. Undo and history

The list is insanely big. 

After painting, storing the painting is a breeze. It's a digital file, you can store thousands of them on your computer.  You can even store them on the cloud storage like I do, and download/upload them at your convenience. Potentially millions of paintings easily accessible, all taking up 0 space.

You can email it to others instantly, you can upload it to websites and galleries without having to try to take decent photos of it.

Not to mention...

Digital painting is cheaper, though can still get into thousands of $ when you get professional.  For amateurs just $30 is enough if you already have a PC, and pro work can be done with it.

My personal favourite advantage of being a digital painter is that I can do it from anywhere in the world.  My painting process only requires a tablet and a laptop to do my job, and with that I am able to travel around the world and still work conveniently.

The downsides of digital painting

The big one - you don't get an original piece of art out of it. 

This doesn't mean you can't make money, you can do everything except selling the original, which is still plenty of ways. Time saved during painting creation may make up for lack of original piece. 

Digital artists also run into choice paralysis and 'everything and the kitchen sink' syndrome.

Digital painting has essentially infinite possibilities, and this can lead to being unable to settle on a specific decision, or trying to put too much into your work. 

If you want to hear me talk about it more in depth - check out the pros and cons article. 

Can Digital Art be a career?

Digital painting is used extensively in production art for the entertainment industries.

Especially concept art and design for video games, films, television, board games, RPG games, fiction… Nearly all companies in these fields prefer digital art over traditional / physical / analogue.

Due to its flexible and immediate nature, it is preferred in any industry that requires fast turnaround, quick execution, speedy changes and refinements etc, or anything with a lot of back and forth and changes needed. 

More and more private commissions are preferred to be digital art as well, as it's easy to request changes and for the client and artist to work back and forth on the commission. 

The convenience I talked about earlier is at the heart of this shift toward digital art in commercial settings. 

Variations / subsets of Digital Painting

Digital painting is often combined with many other skills.

It's extremely common practice to combine digital painting with photographs and 3D models, using the models and photos as a base to paint on top of, or using them as a way to add texture and detail on top of painted elements. Matte painting, photo bashing, photomanipulation are all names for different forms of this discipline.

The lines between something being a digital painting, a photobash and a matte painting are extremely blurry. 

It's also common for artists to begin pieces traditionally, and finish them digitally, often doing pencil drawings or even oil paintings and scanning them into their computer to keep working on the piece using digital painting. 

Peter Mohrbacher is a good example of an artist that does pencil sketches first, then bringing them to Photoshop. 

Lastly, with the rise of virtual reality, VR digital painting is starting to be explored in things like Tiltbrush, CoolPaintrVR, and others. The boundaries between painting and sculpting blur here, as the strokes are 2D but exist in 3D digital space. 

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.

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