The journey to becoming a pro digital artist is long and fraught with challenges and mistakes. It is, however, very rewarding. Few things beat the feeling of satisfaction when you look at your works now and compare them with what you did just a few years ago.
That said, it takes work. You need to actively seek to improve and hone your skills in order to make progress. While that can be done by learning new things and building skills, it can also be done by avoiding pitfalls. Quite often, you succeed, not by trying to get things right, but by trying to not get things wrong.
There are many rookie mistakes that beginners make when they start digital painting, and learning the most common ones (as discussed below) and avoiding them can fast track your journey to success.
So below are our top 10 most common beginner mistakes to avoid as a digital artist.
The biggest and most common mistakes beginner digital artists make…
1. Too much contrast
Contrast is pretty important in art, whether you’re working on a traditional or digital medium. You can think of it as one of the building blocks of good art. It is aesthetically pleasing and gives the painting a sense of depth. That said, you need to get contrast just right. You can very easily have too much of it.
When you use too much contrast in your work, it tires the viewer’s eyes, and makes the painting seem inauthentic. When it comes to digital painting, especially in Photoshop, excess contrast is typically caused by the overuse of the burn and dodge tools.
To be sure, these are useful tools. The burn tool darkens colors while the dodge tool brightens them. To a novice, they seem perfect for simulating light and shadow in a painting. The problem comes in when they are used cumulatively. The more times you use the dodge tool on an area, the brighter that area gets. Ditto for the burn tool. This can quickly lead to excessive contrast.
Another problem with these tools is that what they’re actually doing under the hood is adding white or black to the canvas. In the real world, shadow and light aren’t just darker and lighter versions of the original colors. Often, they have different hue and saturation. Dodge and burn tools are even more problematic because they add orange and yellow tones around the edges of your brush strokes, which just detracts from your work.
The solution for beginners is to avoid using these tools altogether, and to be more thoughtful about how you achieve contrast. Be diligent and pick your colors by hand, including light and shadow. Use contrast only in the areas you want the viewer to concentrate on, rather than the whole painting. Of course, there are situations where a lot of contrast will be recommended, such as when creating black and white paintings, but these are exceptions.
2. Too little contrast
On the other end of the spectrum are beginners who have too little contrast in their paintings. As mentioned in the section on too much contrast, it’s a good idea to have most of the contrast in specific places where you want the viewer to look. However, you also need to have enough contrast in your overall drawing, or it will tend to look grayish – even muddy!
There might be contexts in which that is your intended effect, like when you’re drawing a hazy scene set in a swamp. Again, though, these are the exceptions, not the rule.
The best solution for this is to compare your work to that of professional artists who you aspire to be like. Put your work and theirs side by side and judge the differences in contrast. If yours looks grayish, you may want to use more diverse values. You can brighten your light tones and darken your dark ones a little. Be careful, though. You don’t want to swing so far that you end up with too much contrast.
To be entirely fair, getting contrast right is something that takes time and lots of practice. You will get good at it, though, so long as you work at it.
3. Wrong brush size
Beginners often have no idea what the right brush size is, and this can lead to chaos in a painting.
If your brush is too small, your work tends to look more like a sketch than a finished painting. There are numerous little lines and dots all over the painting. Typically, these should be used for adding meaningful details to your painting, but in this case they are useless, and just overwork the viewer’s eyes. It will also take a longer time to paint with a small brush, thanks to the smaller area covered by each stroke.
On the other hand, using too big a brush is bound to make everything look rather hazy and lacking in details. Large brushes are great for blocking colors, but if you want a refined painting with details in the right places, you will have to go smaller.
As you might have guessed, the solution to this problem is to use both large and small brushes in the appropriate contexts. Large brushes are most useful during the early stages of painting. You can use them to quickly paint large areas with base colors which you will refine later. Smaller brushes are more important after you’re done with color blocking. They are used to add little details and refine your work so it looks like a finished product.
A general rule of thumb is to resize your brush relative to the size of the detail you are creating. The larger the detail, the larger the brush, and vice versa.
4. Overuse of soft brushes
Your digital art is going to look bad if you overuse soft brushes and the smudge tool. The smudge tool, in particular, can often seem like the perfect shortcut for quickly and easily shading over an area. But just like the dodge and burn tools, it comes with its own set of consequences.
When you smudge between light and dark areas to create transitions, it tends to make everything look too perfect and soft. When you overuse soft brushes to create your gradients, then your drawing will lack important edges.
The solution to this problem is to first avoid the smudge tool as a beginner. You can get back to it when you have a better understanding of how to create gradients and transitions without it. Second, use a combination of hard and soft brushes to create your gradients and transitions. This gives you the right amount of softness for your transitions while preserving the edges. In fact, you can even use just a hard brush to blend your colors, as demonstrated in this tutorial.
5. Trying to colorize grayscale
Colorizing grayscale sounds easy, but it really isn’t. Beginners get drawn to this little trick, often with disastrous consequences. The idea is simple: you use grayscale to create light and shadow, and then you add base colors to your painting. That way, you don’t have to think about the shading when you’re coloring and vice versa.
The problem is that the conversion doesn’t happen the way it should. The brightness values aren’t the same, for example. For a painting to look good in grayscale, it will need a healthy amount of contrast. The problem is that the light areas will be too light and the dark areas too dark for the colorizing part. Base colors have different brightness than basic black and while. The result is that the colors in colorized grayscale images often look wrong.
There’s also the problem of blending. How do you find the right blending mode when each mode gives you a different result? You may need to pick more or less saturated colors to work with your chosen blending mode. In case you change your mind and decide to use a different blending mode, you’ll have to start all over and pick the right colors for the new mode.
The simple solution is to never colorize a grayscale painting. Sure, it can work, and some professionals do it, but a beginner really shouldn’t until they know what they’re doing. You’re either creating a grayscale painting or a colored one. If you pick a colored one have colors in the mix right out the gate.
Another common mistake among beginners is to use too much saturation in their colors. This often happens when they pick the brightest, most saturated color they can find for bases. They then add white or black to create light and shadow (see point #1 on dodge and burn tools).
This is a shortcut, and not a very helpful one at that. Your work won’t look good, and you’ll never learn much about colors this way. There are nuances to lighting and shading that go beyond simply adding brighter and darker versions of a base color. For example, we actually perceive colors differently depending on the colors that surround them. The same shade of orange will look lighter or darker, depending on whether it is surrounded by yellow or blue, respectively.
The solution is to simply ease up on the saturation. Don’t intensify every color on your drawing. It often leads to too many elements competing for attention. Instead, use saturated colors for the highlights of your painting, the ones that should stand out. Also, look deeper into color nuances and how to bring out the effect you want with composition. Generally, just try to avoid using either very bright or very saturated colors in your paintings.
7. Overusing custom brushes and textures
Excess texture can uglify your painting. One of the advantages of digital painting is also one of its greatest pitfalls: everything can be done so easily. To a beginner, the ability to quickly and easily add a texture to a painting can easily be overused.
When you apply texture in moderation, your painting will look good. More often than not, beginners overuse it and the end result loses its authenticity. The same goes for custom brushes. They are great to have, and can be quite powerful, but they can also easily add too much detail to a painting, which distract the viewer from what matters.
The solution is to focus on lighting, shading, color, composition, and other basics to create your textures by hand. This will help you learn how to do it before you go for any fancy tools, and it will also prevent you from overdoing it. Sure, you can use textures and custom brushes, but do it sparingly, and only after you’ve learned to create textures by hand.
8. Too many layers
It might seem counterintuitive, but you can overuse layers. Beginners find layers very convenient. They help you separate your work so it’s easy to discard what you don’t like. That said, they can also negatively impact your painting process. When you have too many layers, the elements fail to integrate organically into the painting, and they probably all have edges that are too perfect.
As a beginner, try to start by painting everything on one layer. This might see daunting, but remember that this is exactly what many traditional artists do. Mess up a bit, learn to clean up that mess, and produce good work in a single layer before you start to add layers. When you do start to add layers, do it sparingly.
You’ll know when you have too many layers when you have to think about which layer you’re on before you even make a stroke, or when you feel like you’ve ruined your painting because you did something on the wrong layer. That’s a sign you need to have fewer layers.
9. Too small canvas
This is an easier problem, since it’s more technical than procedural. If you zoom in a step or two and your painting looks pixelated, then your canvas is too small. The best size and resolution for your canvas depends on what you want to do with the final product. If you want to use it digitally, then full HD (1920 x 1080 p) or 4K (3840 x 2160 p) should be perfect. If you want to print it, then 300 dpi at a minimum should be fine.
10. Shiny object syndrome
This is really a summary of all the mistakes outlined above. As you might have noticed, most of the mistakes beginners make when doing digital art have to do with overusing tools and treating them as quick fixes. If you want to really excel as a digital artist, take the time to learn the basics of sketching, painting, light and shadow, composition, and so on. By mastering these, you won’t need the shiny objects on digital painting apps. And when you do use them, you’ll do it more effectively.
Hopefully you feel a lot more confident about the do’s and don’ts of digital painting by now. As you can see it all boils down to investing time in learning the basics. That’s an investment that will pay massive dividends as your career progresses. Until next time, happy drawing!