My foray into digital painting

Header image with paints and drawing tablet

Prologue

I am not a professional artist, but a trained one. I began taking art lessons when I was six years old, and continued training till I was sixteen. By then I mastered using all types of media — pencil sketches, crayons and pastels, water colour, mixed media (water colour + pastels, water colour + pencil/pen), acrylic and oil paint. I had to discontinue formal training after sixteen as I became super busy with higher studies, but did not get disconnected with my first love — though the frequency with which I picked up pencils and paintbrushes became few and far between.

Discovering digital art

Don’t get me wrong — I knew that digital art existed, but in my mind it only existed as a professional medium, for use in advertisements and similar purposes. The notion that digital art can also be popular as a hobby came much later in life when I started using a personal computer. Downloading attractive desktop wallpapers was a craze back then (even with snail-paced dial-up connections), which is how I discovered great pieces of digital paintings and promptly downloaded them for displaying in my desktop. A few years later, when I was studying masters, I was able to utilize the high-speed internet connection of my institute to explore the world. This is the time when I came around this amazing website called “DeviantArt”, and suddenly the frog found itself outside of its tiny well. I started going through works of amateurs and professionals, and started admiring their compositions and techniques. From the immaculate emulation of brushstrokes to the endless possibilities of using the plethora of available tools — everything pushed me to take a leap towards digital art.

The conundrum of choices

I wanted to begin quickly, and in the process made the mistake of looking at YouTube for guidance. Tutorials are good for learning techniques and getting inspiration, but should never be recommended when making choices.

At first, I started looking at videos to buy a drawing tablet, but soon got overloaded with information about the different choices available, their features and prices. After ruminating on the suggestions for a really long time, I decided not to get anything too expensive and packed with features, rather to try something simple and within my budget. I decided to go with Wacom, as it was a well-trusted brand compared to other options such as Huion or XP-Pen. I bought the cheapest option available back then — a Wacom One CTL-471. The tablet did not offer too many options, but was simple and good enough for a beginner. It was a great buy, and I am still using the same one.

Even more confusing was the choice of software to use. I had no intention of buying a professional software, which narrowed down my options significantly. Among the available free softwares the one that was highly recommended was Krita, but I found it to be too feature-packed for a beginner. There were simpler alternatives like Medibang Paint, Autodesk Sketchbook, or even GIMP — but trying and testing all of these took a lot of effort and time. Finally I settled for Krita. I was able to customize its interface to my liking, selected a few brushes of my choice, and stuck to it as I was switching to Linux from Windows and it was available cross-platform.

Getting used to

The first problem beginners encounter with graphic tablets is the time required to learn hand-eye coordination. While working with traditional media, you are directly looking at the surface where you are drawing. The same is true for touchscreen interfaces such as tablets or laptops with touchscreen, or for high-end graphic tablets with embedded LCD screens. One does not have this luxury while using the traditional graphic tablets, such as the one which I use. You stare at the screen of your computer while drawing in the tablet kept on the table. This immediately poses a problem because your brain needs to be trained enough to know in which direction your hand needs to move. Another layer of complexity comes with the fact that the styluses that come with graphic tablets are pressure sensitive. This pressure sensitivity can be used to control the opacity of strokes, or the width of strokes, or both. This is a really useful feature used by all digital artists, and can be tweaked to one’s liking and ease. The complexity arises due to the fact that your brain now needs to learn how much pressure is needed to generate the stroke you want while looking away from the surface you are drawing at. Getting the required hand-eye coordination takes some time, but is not difficult to get used to. I was able to start drawing perfectly smooth strokes with the adequate amount of thickness/opacity by mastering the handling over the stylus within a couple of days.

The second problem comes with getting used to the software. This can potentially be a nuisance if you are trying out many different softwares to find out the perfect one — as there is no such thing — but is less of a problem if you stick to one. One needs to first get used to the interface and the tools available. There are many fancy tools in each software — but you only need to primarily use the brush/eraser tool, rest is optional. Learn simple shortcuts to control this single tool, and just start drawing/painting. In Krita, pressing “E” key switches between paintbrush and eraser, and the “[“ and “]” keys control the radius of the brush/eraser. Often you also need to pan the canvas by holding down spacebar and moving the mouse/stylus, or zoom in or out by pressing “+” or “-” keys. These things are all you need to learn, really. If other tools are required, one can learn them later — the most important thing is to get started and getting into the habit of using a graphic tablet and a computer screen to create art.

You have to keep some things in mind before you begin. The canvas, which you are drawing at, is digital; and unless you are working with vector graphics (more on that later), is based on specified number of pixels. If you create your canvas too small, the final image will look too low-resolution. If the canvas size is too big, your computer may use too much resources and you may end up getting lags while drawing (But it depends on the specifications of your computer; if it is a high-end one with the best in class CPU, GPU and copious amounts of RAM, then no need to worry!). Its best to decide first what is the purpose of your art. If it is going to be printed, it is best to set the DPI of the file to 300 or more, and is best to keep the size of the canvas to whatever size it is going to get printed at. If it is going to be put into the web, then keep the DPI between 72–100. If you are not too familiar with what DPI and resolution is, refer to this link.

Next, I will talk about two neat features of working with digital media. The first feature is layers. You can think of layers as transparent sheets stacked on top of each other. You draw different things in each layer, which when combined, give the complete picture. When we work with traditional media, we apply the same technique. When painting a landscape, the background layers are painted first — such as the sky or distant buildings and trees. Then the foreground or the object of interest is painted. We apply finer details at the end. This is emulated in digital painting using layers. To learn more about layers, refer to this link.

The second feature is zooming in and out while painting. This is a boon for digital artists. For applying finer details in your painting, you can zoom in as much as you want, which lets you apply as fine a brushstroke or paint as small an area as you want. This gives you great control over your painting. The same is not possible with traditional media without years of practice to get your hand as steady and trained as possible; but with digital art even beginners can make very detailed and intricate paintings.

Last but not the least, I want to talk about a topic which beginners obsess over, but is not really that much useful — Brushes. Every software comes with a default set of brushes, and for a beginner they are more than enough. But majority of tutorials by seasoned artists showcase custom brushes they use, and this both attracts and confuses beginners. We fall in love with the way an artwork looks, and keep on searching for custom brushes and trying them out to emulate the exact look in our own painting. The important thing to remember is that no matter which custom brush you are using and no matter how much you have paid for it, your artwork will not be good unless you have become skilled enough. Therefore, stick to the default sets of brushes at the beginning. Pick some brushes you like from the default set, and get going. For sketching, use the pencil/pen/default round brush with small radius. For painting, use the same round brush, along with flat brushes and airbrush. If you want to bring some texture to your painting, use watercolour, oil and dry brushes. For pencil sketches, use the default pencils and charcoal brushes. There is no need for you to search the web and download/buy custom brushes at the beginning — do that only when you are experienced enough and want to try experimenting with the look of your paintings, otherwise you are going to waste a lot of time and effort.

My journey

After getting my hands steady with some rough work, I wanted to try my hand at doing some real paintings. I wanted to start small, and so decided to paint a bird. I looked for reference images on the internet, and found a photograph of a nice looking bird called cedar waxwing. It took a lot longer than anticipated — I worked on the painting for many hours, but the end result turned out to be pretty nice. The one gripe I have with this work is that the resolution of the canvas was not high enough, so when you zoom into the image you can see the broad brushstrokes.

Painting of a Cedar Waxwing (Copyright: Author)

For this painting, most of my time was spent bringing out the details of the feathers and the various colours on the body of the bird. For my next venture, I decided to take a more painterly approach and bring out less details. A friend and colleague of mine showed me a photograph of a great hornbill that he took, and I immediately began painting the bird with his permission. This painting did take a lot less time, but I was much more satisfied with the end result. The tree on which the bird is sitting looks bad though, which is because I was working on it last and finished it in a hurry.

great hornbill painting
great hornbill painting
Painting of a Great Hornbill (Copyright: Author)

I have always loved working with pencil sketches, and I decided to try making one next. I chose a simple subject — a dead tree, and used the default pencil and charcoal brushes in Krita. The painting turned out fine, and I was able to recreate the pencil and charcoal effect to some extent, but it made me realise that i need to gain a lot more control over my hands to create finer details. The smaller branches on the top of the tree looks bad, and is possibly due to the fact that I lost patience at the end. Working with a graphic tablets is strenuous on both eyes and hands, thus I may have hurried to some extent while finishing the work.

dead tree
dead tree
Painting of a dead tree (Copyright: Author)

By this time, I came around a lot of vector illustrations by different artists, which made me interested in creating them. For the people who do not know what vector illustrations are — they are simply images which are created using mathematical equations rather than pixels, thus retain its quality no matter how much you zoom into, and you can print the image in as large a canvas as you want. To understand vector formats in a greater detail, refer to this link. In any case, for creating vector illustrations, you do not paint strokes with a brush; rather you create geometric shapes and fill them with colour. Inkscape and Gravit Designer are both great free vector editors.

The first vector illustration I tried was that of a pikachu, a famous Pokemon character. The image clearly shows my lack of experience with vector illustration, and could have been much better if I tried creating it again after gaining some experience.

pikachu painting
pikachu painting
Painting of Pikachu (Copyright: Author)

For my next vector illustration, I again went back to birds. I chose a reference image of a common kingfisher, and started creating the artwork. As I was more experienced this time, it turned out to be much better than the previous one.

Painting of a Common Kingfisher (Copyright: Author)

Since the start, I wanted to make a portrait using digital media. I finally felt that I was comfortable enough with a graphic tablet to take up this daunting task. I chose to do a portrait of one of my favourite character in television — Dr. Gregory House from the show “House, M.D”. As it turned out, the painting took a lot less time than I expected, and the end result turned out to be fantastic. I was able to bring out the character, and the portrait resembled the actor greatly. I was also able to use the brushstrokes of my liking to bring out the texture I imagined.

Portrait of Dr. House
Portrait of Dr. House
Portrait of Dr. Gregory House (Copyright: Author)

I would consider myself to still be a beginner. There is a lot more to learn, and a lot more experience to gain by experimenting and creating more artwork. But I am happy with the little progress that I have made, as it has hooked me on to creating more digital painting and to share them with the world.

All of the paintings showcased in this post are available at my DeviantArt gallery: https://www.deviantart.com/bishwaruppaul/gallery/76479554/paintings-and-sketches

Epilogue

The “getting used to” section was a compilation of things I learned during my brief stint with digital art. A lot of mistakes that I have asked you to avoid are the same ones I made during my journey. Hope my experience will help you avoid unnecessary mistakes and will ease your journey of mastering digital art. Before leaving, I would again like to stress upon some points to keep in mind while starting:

  1. Do not stress over decisions like which graphic tablet to buy or which software to use. To start with, buy a cheap but reliable device, and stick to free software. You can always upgrade to better equipment when you are seasoned and confident enough.
  2. Do not start playing with different softwares and custom brushes at the beginning. Stick with one software and a few default brushes. I would recommend Krita — it is one of the best among the free options, with a good set of default brushes.
  3. Do not start copying the style of others or recreate their artwork. The most important thing for an artist is to create their own style and original work. Admire others’ work and get inspired, but keep on practicing and creating your own work. With enough experience and mastery over your hand, you will develop your own style.
  4. Do not hesitate to show your work to the world. Getting feedback from other artists and audience is crucial to boost your confidence and to polish your skills.

Hope the experiences I gained in the brief journey of creating digital art will be of use to beginners, or may inspire others to start their own journey.

A nature-enthusiast appreciating technology, and a technology-obsessed exploring nature.

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