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  1. Design & Illustration
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Design

How to Create Your First Digital Painting Without a Tablet in Adobe Photoshop

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Difficulty:BeginnerLength:LongLanguages:
Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Digital painting is very tempting with all the possibilities it offers. However, the mouse you use for all your digital activities isn't the best tool for it—to replicate the traditional process of painting, you need to get a graphics tablet.

The good news is you don't need to "replicate the traditional process" to create digital paintings. There are other ways, and your mouse will be great for them. As I wrote in Why Mouse Users Should Ditch Photoshop and Draw in Illustrator, you can use a mouse to create beautiful vector art.

But if you don't like vector, here I'll show you how to work "tabletlessly" in Photoshop. I have to warn you—it won't be fast and easy! But if you're really determined to "paint" this way, you're going to love this!

1. Prepare the File

Step 1

The first thing we need is a traditional drawing. Yes, you heard right. Drawing is based on freehand precision, which can't be achieved with a mouse (at least, not easily). Do yourself a favor and create your drawing traditionally, and then scan it or take a photo. If your scan/photo has a low quality, you can fix it with Clean Up Your Traditional Drawings in Photoshop. You can also download my own drawing to follow this tutorial.

If you feel as if it's starting like that tutorial about drawing an owl, I remind you this is a tutorial about digital painting, not drawing. These are two different things! If you don't agree with me, make sure to read Digital Drawing vs. Digital Painting: What the Difference Is and Why You Should Know It. You need to learn how to draw before trying all the possibilities of digital art!

Once you have scanned your drawing, click and drag the file into Photoshop. It will open automatically.

how to draw digital painting
If you want to learn how to create such clean line art traditionally, check section 5 of Drawing for Kids: Draw a Cute Baby Fox

Step 2

We don't need to keep the default proportions of the scan/photo. Let's adjust it to the picture by using the Crop Tool (C). This tool utilizes the rule of thirds, so read about it if you want to know more about using the right proportions.

crop painting

Step 3

Go to Select > All. Then Copy (Control-C) the selection.

Step 4

Go to File > New. When the Preset is set to Clipboard (1), it means that this new file will have the dimensions of the image you have just copied. In my case it's 1900 px (2) x 2248 px (3). This should be big enough. If any of your dimensions are lower than 1500 px, we'll fix it in a moment.

Press OK to create a New File.

new file photoshop how big

Step 5

Paste (Control-V) the copied image. If it's too small, this is the time to fix it. Go to Image > Image Size and change the lower of the values to at least 1500 px. The other one will change proportionally.

photoshop image size how to change

Step 6

Let's save the file to make it ready for changes. Go to File > Save As, choose a proper location and give it a temporary name. Make sure that the format is PSD.

Later, when you want to save the changes, simply use the Control-S shortcut to overwrite the file.

photoshop file how to save

Step 7

Look at the Layers panel now. Each layer is a separate picture, so to draw on one, you must select it by clicking.

photoshop layer panel how to use what are layers

Click the image you have pasted and lower its Opacity to 20%.

photoshop how to change layer opacity

Change its Blend Mode to Multiply to make it see-through.

photoshop how to change blend mode multiply

Finally, Lock the layer to protect it from accidental changes.

photoshop how to lock layer

2. Create the Base for Painting

Step 1

Create a New Layer over the drawing.

photoshop how to create new layer

Step 2

Painting is about translating your intention into an artwork. It's relatively easy when you can use freehand precision, but in digital painting with a mouse this kind of precision is very restricted.

In our method we need to use controlled precision. It lets you achieve the same or better results, but controlling the process is all on you. It takes more time and effort, but you don't really have a choice—either you fight with your mouse trying to do things it's not designed for (freehand precision) and get bad results, or you use it in a more controlled way to get the results you want.

In other words, freehand precision is about drawing a line and checking if it looks as you wanted. Controlled precision is about planning the exact placement of every part of the line.

The tool for controlled precision in Adobe Photoshop is the Pen Tool (P). Here's how to use it.

Start the path by clicking in a corner with the Pen Tool (P).

photoshop how to start path how to draw without tablet

To draw a straight line, click where the imaginary straight line ends.

photoshop straight line path

If you prefer a curved line, hold and drag it after clicking. You'll see how the line curves for you.

photoshop curved line path

When you get the curve you want, release it. Then hold the Alt key and click the last point to lock its curve.

photoshop end path too curved

This is it! You can continue to draw all the outline.

photoshop how to draw digitally without tablet

Of course, it wouldn't be controlled precision if you couldn't adjust what you've already drawn. Use the Direct Selection Tool (A) to select and move the points on the path.

photoshop how to fix path

To finish the outline, simply click the first point of the path.

photoshop how to close path

After long and tedious work, you should end up with something like this. Yes, you could draw it faster if you had a graphics tablet, but for now we're talking about the most effective workaround. A mouse doesn't give you much of a choice: you can either draw quickly and imprecisely, or slowly and accurately.

photoshop drawing without tablet full path

Step 3

To turn the path into a selection, right click the canvas and select Make Selection.

photoshop path to selection

Step 4

Pick a bright, vivid color, but one that's not too hard on the eyes.

photoshop pick color

Step 5

Use the Paint Bucket Tool (G) to fill the selection with the chosen color. Then go to Select > Deselect.

photoshop how to fill selection

Step 6

Drag the colorful layer under the line art and change its name to base.

photoshop change layer name

Step 7

We'll use base as a Clipping Mask. Create a New Layer and clip it to the base by holding Alt and clicking the line between them.

photoshop how to create clipping mask

Every layer clipped to base (there can be more of them, just clip a new layer to the previous clipped layer) will be constrained by its borders. Test it!

photoshop what is clipping mask

Step 8

Use the Pen Tool again to draw the inner elements of the body. This time you can be more careless, as base takes care of everything happening past its borders.

photoshop nested clipping masks

Use a different color for every element/set of elements. Try to use as few sets as possible, and keep each on a separate layer. The areas of one color shouldn't touch each other!

photoshop nested clipping masks complete

Step 9

We're going to use these layers to constrain our imprecise painting, but we still need to clean them. First, let's cut the parts of them that are covered by the Clipping Mask.

Create a selection of base by clicking it while holding Control.

photoshop make selection from layer

Make a Layer Mask out of this selection by clicking this icon at the bottom of the panel:

photoshop how to create layer mask out of selection

Copy the mask to all the other layers by holding Alt and dragging it to another layer. Then right click every mask and select Apply Layer Mask. Now, even if you release the Clipping Mask, it will not change anything.

photoshop copy layer mask

Step 10

There's one more thing to clean. The elements overlap, so if you Control-click one of these layers, you'll get a disturbed shape. Hide one of the layers to see what I mean.

photoshop clean clipping masks

We can fix it in a similar way as before. Select one layer by Control-clicking it. Then go to Select > Inverse. Create a Layer Mask out of this selection.

photoshop clean clipping masks selection

Drag the mask to another layer, and then copy it (Alt-drag) to the others. Only the original layer should stay without a mask.

photoshop copy layer mask apply

As before, right click every layer and Apply Layer Mask. If you hide the layer now, you'll see its shape has been cut off the others.

photoshop all clipping masks

Do the same with every layer. In the end, every layer should cover its own area without overlapping any other.

photoshop how to cretae nested multiple clipping masks

Step 11

The base will be needed from time to time, but generally it will make a mess on our Layers panel. We can use a trick to hide them and bring them back whenever we need.

Hold Shift to select base with all its clipped layers. Right click and select Red.

photoshop how to filter layers

Create a New Layer under the line art (unclip it, if needed).

photoshop filter layers how it work

Select Color as the layer filter.

photoshop filter layer layes diasppear

Now you can easily switch the view between the base and the actual painting layers. Keep in mind it doesn't change the visibility of the layers, but rather hides them on the list.

You can use this trick whenever you feel it may be useful. You don't need to wait for me to tell you!

photoshop filter layers by color presentation

3. Add the Color and Light

Step 1

This was a heck of a job! And it's just the beginning! Be prepared, because I'm going to increase the pace now—if you don't know how to do something and I don't tell you in detail, feel free to return to the previous sections—it's probably already been explained.

Let's color our painting on that new layer colored as "none". This is how to do it:

  1. Switch to Red view.
  2. Take a selection of the area you want to color (Control-click its thumbnail).
  3. Switch to None view.
  4. Select the layer.
  5. Fill the area with the Paint Bucket Tool (G).
photoshop how to add colors separately

Use bright colors, as if there were no shadow in the scene.

In my case, I had to use the proper colors based on real caracals. You may find the following photos useful for this purpose:

photoshop paintign colored sharp borders

Step 2

Use a soft brush to paint the areas of non-solid color. If you want to have greater control over this, Zoom in.

photoshop colored soft borders

Step 3

Create a New Layer. Create a selection of base and Fill it with 50% gray.

photoshop how to add shadow layer

Step 4

Change the Blend Mode to Multiply. This is our shadow.

photoshop shadow layer multiply

Step 5

Create a New Layer and clip it. Add a Layer Mask and paint on it with white using a soft brush. Your goal is to leave a bit of the shadow between the elements. Don't forget to use the selections!

photoshop how to reveal light
photoshop light revealed

Step 6

Go to Filter > Noise and add a bit of noise to this layer. This will make it less smooth.

photoshop noise texture

4. Render the Fur

Creating realistic fur is hard and time-consuming even with a tablet. My method certainly requires much effort, but the effect will be worth it—trust me!

Step 1

Create a New Layer, make a selection of base and fill it with 50% gray. Set the Blend Mode to Multiply again. Add the noise, but this time make it thick and visible. Name the layer fur.

Create a New Layer and clip it to fur.

photoshop how to create fur noise layer

Step 2

Listen carefully now, because this will be complicated. Go into Quick Mask Mode (Q). In this mode you can paint a selection with a chosen brush. Imagine the fur you want to paint, and select the area where it grows in a single direction. You can use selections of the base layers to constrain painting.

photoshop how to create fur select quick mask

Step 3

Go out of the mode and go to Select > Inverse. The selection will be created. You can hide it for a moment with the shortcut Control-H.

Now go to Filter > Blur > Motion Blur. Adjust the Angle to the direction of your imagined fur. You can also play with the Distance to simulate the perspective of the hairs (dot-like hair = hair seen from the top).

photoshop how to create fur motion blur

Step 4

Continue on both legs. The more directions you take into account, the more realistic it will be. Remember: Photoshop can't read your mind. You need to tell it what you want!

photoshop how to create fur motion blur angles

Step 5

Use the same method to add short hair on the face.

photoshop how to create fur short fur

Step 6

For larger tufts of fur, we need to add another trick. Select it just like before, but this time, right before adding the blur, go to Filter > Pixelate > Crystallize. The larger the hair tufts, the bigger the Cell Size should be.

If this is far too tedious for your liking, you can use a more traditional approach instead. You can use ready-made textures of fur and simply adjust them to the shape. Just be careful—if they are too realistic, you'll have to make the rest of the painting as realistic, too! Here are a few examples of the textures you can use:

photoshop how to create fur long fur
photoshop how to create fur rough example

Step 7

Select All (Control-A) and copy the layer. Open Window > Channels. Create a New Channel...

photoshop how to separate black from white

... and paste your image.

photoshop how to create alpha channel

Step 8

Load channel as selection by clicking the first icon in the row. Then click RGB channel to return to normal view.

photoshop how to make selection alpha channel

Step 9

Create a New Layer and clip it to fur. Name it texture. Fill the selection with white. Then Select > Deselect and hide the previous layer.

photoshop how to create fur slight texture

Step 10

Create a New Layer (don't clip it) and create a selection to fill it with white just like a moment ago. Make a selection of base, Inverse it, and cut the redundant parts. Change the Blend Mode to Overlay.

photoshop how to create fur light

Step 11

Add a Layer Mask, and fill it with black. Then use a soft brush to paint the light back with white. This is a chance for you to sculpt the fur of the character.

photoshop how to create fur shade

5. Add the Details

Step 1

Create a New Layer and clip it to fur. Use the selection of the face details to paint the shadow on them.

photoshop digital painting no tablet shadow details

Step 2

Create a New Layer on the top of others (don't clip it). Make a selection of base and fill it with the Radial Gradient.

photoshop digital painting no tablet focus light

Step 3

Change its Blend Mode to Multiply and its Opacity to 55%. This darkening will place focus on the face.

photoshop digital painting no tablet focus multiply

Step 4

Create a New Layer. Make a selection of the dark elements of the face and fill it with black. Then go to Filter > Pixelate > Mosaic.

photoshop digital painting no tablet how to paint irregular edges

Duplicate the layer a few times (Control-J), and then select them while holding Shift, right click and Merge Layers.

photoshop digital painting no tablet more irregular edges

Step 5

Now go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. This will make the coloring less sharp and more natural.

photoshop digital painting no tablet blending

Don't forget to cut the shadow out of the eyes with a proper selection.

photoshop digital painting no tablet clean eyes

Step 6

Let's work on the eyes. Create a New Layer and paint a shadow on the bottom (use a selection for this).

photoshop digital painting no tablet eyes shadow

Add a blue stroke with a hard brush.

photoshop digital painting no tablet eyes blue dot

Cover it with a white stroke.

photoshop digital painting no tablet eyes white dot

Use the Eraser Tool (E) to create a reflection in the eyes.

photoshop digital painting no tablet eyes reflection

You can soften the reflection by adding a Layer Mask and painting on it with soft brush.

photoshop digital painting no tablet eyes soft reflection

Step 7

Select the eyes and go to Select > Modify > Contract. Contract by 3 px.

photoshop digital painting no tablet eyes glow select

Create a New Layer. Use a soft brush to paint a glow on the bottom.

photoshop digital painting no tablet eyes glow paint

Change the Blend Mode to Soft Light.

photoshop digital painting no tablet eyes glow fix

Step 8

To make the nose more detailed, first paint on it with a hard brush.

photoshop digital painting no tablet nose details

Then switch to a soft brush and slightly cover the details to smoothen them. Because a mouse doesn't have pressure sensitivity, we can simulate it by lowering the Opacity of the brush. Then, instead of pressing harder, you can simply use multiple clicks.

photoshop digital painting no tablet pressure with mouse

Step 9

Use the same technique to finish the other details.

photoshop digital painting no tablet details

6. Finish the Painting

Step 1

The painting is almost done, but we can make it even prettier! These tricks are more advanced, but they're also optional: don't worry if you can't do one of them.

First, add some kind of background. It will help us adjust the character to the scene.

photoshop digital painting no tablet background

Step 2

Double click texture to open the Blending Options. Check Bevel & Emboss, and then play with the settings to achieve an effect of 3D fur. The exact values will depend on how your fur looks.

photoshop digital painting no tablet fur texture blending options
photoshop digital painting no tablet fur texture added

Step 3

Shift-click all the layers building the character (without the base layers) and Merge them. Then select one area (using the base layers) and go to Filter > Blur > Smart Blur. Use it to make the fur more fluffy.

photoshop digital painting no tablet smoothen details
photoshop digital painting no tablet smoothened face

Do the same for every area:

photoshop digital painting no tablet smoothened fur

Step 4

Use the Quick Mask (Q) to select the edges of the character.

photoshop digital painting no tablet select outline

Step 5

With the edges selected, go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. Use it to add a feeling of distance to them, creating depth.

photoshop digital painting no tablet depth

Step 6

Don't deselect yet! Open the Window > Adjustments panel and select Hue/Saturation.

photoshop digital painting no tablet add adjustment

You can now adjust the color and brightness of the selected area.

photoshop digital painting no tablet adjust colors

Step 7

Let's ruffle the fur a bit. Locate an area that looks too sharp. Use the Quick Mask to select it.

photoshop digital painting no tablet how to create fur select quick mask

If necessary, use a selection of the base layers to cut redundant parts.

photoshop digital painting no tablet how to create fur cut mask

Create a selection, and then duplicate it (Control-J). You can now use Motion Blur on that part separately, without affecting the rest of the picture.

photoshop digital painting no tablet how to create fur copy paste

Duplicate the layer once again and use Edit > Free Transform to adjust it to the rest of the fur. You can make this part wavy by using the Warp Mode.

photoshop digital painting no tablet how to create fur warp

You can use this trick on the whole body.

photoshop digital painting no tablet how to create fur realistic

Step 8

Make a selection of the main layer. Create a New Layer and add a Radial Gradient to that selection. Then create a New Layer below and fill it with black. Merge both layers.

Copy this layer and use it as an Alpha Channel to create a selection.

photoshop digital painting no tablet focus shadow

Inverse the selection, and then add Hue/Saturation adjustment. You can now make the area more saturated.

photoshop digital painting no tablet focus color

Step 9

Let's create whiskers! Create a New Layer. Take a hard brush, hold Shift and draw a white line with it.

photoshop digital painting no tablet whiskers white line

Use the Free Transform Tool (Control-T) to "sharpen" the line. (You can also use the Polygon Tool to create a long triangle.)

photoshop digital painting no tablet whiskers triangle

Go to Edit > Puppet Warp. Add three pins: two on the sides and one in the middle. Then move that in the middle up to create an arch.

photoshop digital painting no tablet whiskers arch

Duplicate the whisker and modify it with the Free Transform Tool to create a whole set of whiskers.

photoshop digital painting no tablet whiskers done

Merge all the whiskers, and then lower their Opacity to make this effect less apparent.

photoshop digital painting no tablet whiskers subtle

Step 10

When it seems done, look at it once again and see if you can fix something.

photoshop digital painting no tablet caracal kitten

We Did It!

And here's our caracal kitten, "painted" completely with a mouse. Could it be created faster with a tablet? Not really. The process I've shown you is based on constructing a work of art by building it out of various elements. This is something that a mouse is good at, and a tablet pen isn't made for this.

If you want to create without a tablet, this is the workflow you should utilize. It's not very intuitive, it's time-consuming and tedious sometimes, but it lets you control every part of the creation process. And, in the end, you certainly have something to boast about!

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