1. Design & Illustration
  2. Design Theory

Digital Painting 101: 4 Things You Should Know Before You Start

Scroll to top
Read Time: 5 min
This post is part of a series called Digital Painting For Beginners.
Digital Painting 101: The Pros and Cons of Painting in Grayscale
6 Easy Tips for Making Realistic Digital Paintings

Great artists are no different than magicians. They spend a lifetime studying their craft to perfect each technique to the best of their ability. As the audience, we merely sit back and watch their work in complete astonishment—often holding onto that one glimmer of hope, that we too can create magic one day.

Well... now you can.

If a pen tablet is your wand, consider Photoshop your magical book of incantations. But even though it holds all the power to create beautiful work, you still need to study certain resources and methods that contribute to the evolution of your art.  

In today's continuation of our Digital Painting 101 series, I'll discuss a couple of quick ideas to get you prepared and in the right mindset before you start your paintings.

As the old saying goes: "Work smarter, not harder."

What You Don't See

Art can be really depressing for beginners. You can stare at your favorite paintings for hours, all the while refusing to imagine that any of those artists actually struggled to complete them. But the truth is we all have weaknesses and even insecurities when it comes to our own art.

What you don't see is that most artists aren't magicians. In fact, they're pretty human. But the reason they seem so magical is that they all started with a game plan.

Have a Game Plan: Prep Your Way to Success

What am I painting? What colors should I use? What's the feeling I want people to have when they look at my art? 

These are all the questions (and many more) that should be floating around your brain as you paint. 

To help you put more thought into your work, here are some quick tips in developing the early stages of a digital painting.

1. Hook an Idea: Using Notes and Diagrams

I first got into digital media through Graphic Design. And if you've ever designed a logo before, you're probably familiar with the process of making web diagrams or throwing down a bunch of notes on paper to pull an idea out of your head.

The process is simple. Create a web diagram of the general concept you have in mind. Then define the details in each new bubble, making sure to use words that help you clearly visualize the scene, characters, lighting, colors, and style. Later down the line when you finally begin painting, you can refer back to these notes to make sure you stay on track.

it's a simple yet effective way to always put more thought into your art.

Use a Web Diagram to Figure Out Your Painting IdeasUse a Web Diagram to Figure Out Your Painting IdeasUse a Web Diagram to Figure Out Your Painting Ideas

2. Get Inspired: Let Photography Guide You 

I know, references feel like cheating sometimes, but there's really no way around this step. You can't possibly know how to draw everything and anything in the world, so let photo references guide you to making better art. 

Before starting any painting, scour the web for photographs of different poses, landscapes, and any other miscellaneous details you want to include in your concept. Don't try to find everything in one perfect reference, or else you run the risk of copying it completely.

You can learn so much by appreciating photography and allowing it to show you how things look in the real world. Study it. Absorb it. And translate it onto the canvas to the best of your ability.

Check out these great sites for all your stock photography needs:

3. Figure It Out: Drawing in Thumbnails

Thumbnail drawings are a quick series of sketches you use to figure out how you want to set up your composition. Use simple lines to carve out the most important shapes and forms for your painting. 

Exactly how much detail for however many thumbnails you decide to draw is strictly up to you. Some artists even use circles or stick figures to position their characters in a scene. What matters here is that you allow yourself room for experimentation so that you can work out the best composition possible.

You can also use thumbnails to experiment with different color schemes. Once you've settled on a thumbnail, Right-Click to make several Duplicates to test out the colors and overall lighting.

Use Adobe Photoshop to Make Thumbnail SketchesUse Adobe Photoshop to Make Thumbnail SketchesUse Adobe Photoshop to Make Thumbnail Sketches

4. Practice Makes Perfect: Your Final Line Art

One more thing to study is the process of creating your final line art. Depending on how you want your painting, you can completely cover the original line art, or have some of it peek through.

If you want to have that look of a comic book illustration, go for a Standard Round Brush to draw clean lines at a small brush size (5-10px). As you paint, try to keep the sketch layer on top of the others so that the original line art stays in place. 

But if you want more of a painterly look, you'll eventually have to ditch the sketch. This means that you don't have to worry about drawing everything perfectly because eventually you'll cover it up with layers of paint. 

Regardless of which route you choose, always go with your best sketch even if that means redrawing it several times. The more familiar you are with the details of your painting, the easier it'll be for it to all come together. 

Preparing Line Art in Photoshop by Melody NievesPreparing Line Art in Photoshop by Melody NievesPreparing Line Art in Photoshop by Melody Nieves


Notice a pattern here? It's almost as if several paintings happen before the actual painting begins, but every decision you make gets you that much closer to a finished masterpiece. 

I really hope these quick tips helped you learn more about the mindset for attacking a digital painting. Solidify ideas and compositions by experimenting ahead of time. Art is not a race, so plan out what you can, and pace yourself for the next steps in improving your work. Good luck!

Did you find this post useful?
Want a weekly email summary?
Subscribe below and we’ll send you a weekly email summary of all new Design & Illustration tutorials. Never miss out on learning about the next big thing.
One subscription. Unlimited Downloads.
Get unlimited downloads