Digital Painting – An Overview


In this article I’ll be trying to describe the steps that are necessary to create a painting that is digitally drawn with a computer. It is a very basic introduction to digital painting which includes some thoughts about the process in general.

Although there are quite a few German digital artists, its’s still a very small community here and there isn’t a lot of German tutorial literature on that topic on the market. A German edition of an American magazine called “2D-Artist” was shut down because there weren’t enough readers. It seems that this art form is looked upon as flawed because it is no “real” art, you can undo things easily and you can cheat. Traditional handcraft? No. Again and again people have been asking me: “Do you also paint… real pictures? I mean with brushes and stuff?”

Traditional painting has always been a kind of pain(ting) in the a** for me. When I studied art and had to paint with ouils and acrylics, there were usually two results: either the images were too colorful or too flat. I’ve always liked drawing more, because there are only greyscales, light and dark. Colors and hues add whole new complicated worlds that have to be conquered. When I discovered digital painting I was immediately drawn (!) to it because it  gave me a greater freedom of trial and error, I could undo things I didn’t like, it was quicker because the paint didn’t have to dry first, it doesn’t smell of turpentine and you don’t need a studio and daylight. Still, the workflow is comparable to traditional painting.

A decent work always starts with a sketch, if needed I use reference images and models. The sketch can be done directly on the computer or with a pencil on paper (which I prefer). After that, the sketch has to be scanned and painted over. I do that in Photoshop and I use a Wacom Intuos graphics tablet. I don’t think that there are any serious competitors to Wacom, but that’s just my personal opinion. With a pen, called stylus, you can imitate all kinds of brushes, chalk, water color – you name it…

The background of the sketch is primed first because usually a pure white background messes with your color perception. The different parts of the image are then filled with base colors and then dark and light areas are blended in. Here is another advantage of digital painting: You can use different layers which you can use for the parts of your painting. One layer has only base colors on it, the next one is the shadow layer etc. There are purists, though, wo totally avoid working with layers to be more authentic. I’d simply call them arty masochists.

The major work on a painting is made up by mixing and blending of colors and working on details. This takes as much time as traditional painting minus drying time.As with traditional paintings, it’s helpful to add a break in between and return to you image after some time with fresh eyes. A simple trick which works fantastic is to mirror the image horizontally or vertically. You can see flaws in the composition at once. Again, a good painting takes time, perseverance and patience. Even though there are keyboard shortcuts, there aren’t any quality shortcuts. Youtube tutorials often give you the impression that it is quick and beginners don’t take that into consideration. The only quick thing is the editing of the video.

Despite all the enthusiasm for painting digitally there are a few drawbacks (unintended pun!). There is always the possibility of simply using a “technique”. If you google digital paintings there are a million technically perfect pieces online – but many of them don’t seem to have a soul. The digital art scene usually circles around the following three motifs: (1) women with big swords or guns (ask Sigmund Freud for a valid interpretation on that), (2) anatomically exaggerated fantasy/sci-fi monsters/heroes who are fighting/eating/threatening some opponent and (3) Elves with fancy leaves/butterflies/glitter/henna-tattoos close to their eyes/temples. Beautifully drawn pictures, no doubt, but also a lot of artistry and no depth. there is no accounting for taste, though, so don’t take that too seriously.

The biggest weakness of digital painting for me is the missing feel of a real object. There is no tangible physical presence of my work while drawing. The image has to be printed in some form or another to become “present”. Like most digital photos, these paintings remain on a hard drive or are shared digitally via social networks like facebook or in my online-gallery. I balance that by often drawing with a pencil on paper. That’s like going back to the roots.