Unlimited PS Actions, graphics, videos & courses! Unlimited asset downloads! From $16.50/m
  1. Design & Illustration
  2. Digital Painting

6 Easy Tips for Making Realistic Digital Paintings

This post is part of a series called Digital Painting For Beginners.
Digital Painting 101: 4 Things You Should Know Before You Start
Digital Painting 101: Thumbnail Drawing for Beginners

To paint art realistically is to make it almost real. Hardly poetic, I know, but for many beginners the journey to realism is full of confusion and disappointment.

Realism is the oxygen of digital art. It breathes life into your work by associating it with things we already know. We connect to it because we see ourselves in it. So it's no wonder that so many artists spend a lifetime trying to master realism in all its beautiful glory.

In today's article, we'll tackle a handful of useful tips to help you incorporate different realistic elements into your digital paintings. Whether you're just starting out or are a little more experienced, have a go at these time-saving techniques for more realistic art.

1. Use Photo Textures in Your Work

One great way to instantly add realism to your digital paintings is to apply textures to them. You can easily do this by incorporating photo textures into your work.

Photo textures are parts of photographs that you warp and manipulate to blend into your painting. This technique is especially great for achieving the perfect texture for clothes, skin, details in nature, and general grit and grunge. 

In this incredible example by Johnson Ting, he creates an Astronaut Illustration that is out of this world. Pay special attention to how he uses small bits of photos to add authentic textures to his piece. 

Astronaut Illustration by Johnson Ting

2. Paint With Texture Brushes

Remember Bob Ross? King of giant afros and "happy trees"? For over a decade he famously painted beautiful oil landscapes on his hit TV show, The Joy of Painting. He achieved incredibly realistic details by using simple materials, including a fan brush to paint all the foliage for his signature trees.

You too can achieve realism by equipping yourself with a wide range of textured brushes in Photoshop. You can find these brushes online or even create your own by following our series of tutorials dedicated to creating Custom Brushes in Photoshop.

Want to see how it's done? Learn how to apply different brushes for realistic texture by following these tutorials below.

Harness the Elements Art by Monika Zagrobelna

3. Apply Ambient Occlusion for Lighting

Studying Ambient Occlusion is like stumbling across the holy grail of techniques. If you're already familiar with painting in grayscale then you probably know this common equation:

One grayscale base + colors set to different blend modes = an almost finished painting.

And what is more frustrating than understanding light and shadow? Sure, there are plenty of close seconds, but the magic is always in the lighting.

We were already impressed by Photoshop's ability to convert gray tonal values to a dynamic colorful piece. But with Ambient Occlusion, you simply apply a universal lighting scenario that cuts your painting time in half. Maybe even more. By the time you're finished converting your black and whites to color, the painting is almost complete. No more relentless tweaking long after you've already applied color. Or making up for holes and mistakes in your original setup.

Many of our instructors here at Tuts+ swear by this technique, including myself. Check out how I used this method to paint a Surreal Ramen Bowl Illustration in Photoshop. Absorb this process, and you'll dramatically change your workflow.

Ramen Bowl Art by Melody Nieves

4. Paint With Natural Color Palettes

If you're not confident in your painting skills, don't worry, they'll grow with time. But one great alternative to achieving realism is to turn your focus to color.

Even though it's tempting to paint with bright, vivid colors, limit your color palettes to colors found in nature. Take swatches from photographs and test these values in your own paintings. Soon you'll see that you don't have to be the best painter in the world to make your art that much more realistic.

You can also study natural color palettes to understand how to paint people. Because of the makeup of our bodies, painting skin for instance is more involved than just using different shades of brown.

In this illustration by Alice Catrinel Ciobotaru, you'll notice how even shades of purple show up in her simple lips tutorial. Study more about the human body to notice these small changes in color, and then try out some natural color palettes for yourself.

Lips Tutorial Art by Alice Catrinel Ciobatru

5. Add a Quick Filter of Noise

If you forgot to paint with different brushes or you can't be bothered with gathering photo references, there's always this one simple fix. Use a quick filter of Noise.

To do this, add a New Layer (Control-Shift-N) and fill it with a light gray color. Go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise and adjust the Amount to 15%.

Set the layer to Overlay and bring down the Opacity to 30%.

This effect allows you to add grit in a matter of seconds. Just make sure you're not too heavy-handed with the noise, because you definitely don't want to ruin your painting efforts.

Add a Noise Filter for Texture

6. Paint Additional Light Sources

Every artist goes through a couple of portrait paintings in their lifetime. Not only are they great for developing technique, but you can also experiment with different lighting setups.

The best way to study light is to study photographs. Do a basic Google search to learn more about different types of lighting including:

  • Rim Lighting
  • Back Lighting
  • Ambient Light
  • Different Combinations of Light

While I was painting this Dapper Cat, I took a moment to experiment with how another light source might bounce around the painting. This additional light, the orange light source, became a magical detail that pushed my portrait forward and gave it more character.

Try out your own studies and discover how this lighting technique adds life to your work. Experiment with different colors and you'll instantly surprise yourself with what works best.

Dapper Cat Tutorial Art by Melody Nieves


As with many things in life, if you crack the simple formulas you can adapt your work for greater success. So the next time you browse the work of your favorite artists, don't just sit there in awe. Study it. Search out their process. Pick it apart―not in critique but for techniques. Notice how they're always the same? Soon enough, you'll see how each artist found the process they liked best and stuck with it.

They've found their formula. So now find yours.

I wish you much success on your digital painting journey. Keep up with Digital Painting 101 for more essential tips and tricks in navigating the waters as a beginner. Good luck!

Looking for something to help kick start your next project?
Envato Market has a range of items for sale to help get you started.