Colors are quite important to an artist, digital or traditional. They enable you to express things that you wouldn’t be able to with simple words. With colors, you can evoke whatever feelings you want in the observer. You also have full control over which details the observer notices easily and which ones are subtler.
The ability to manage colors is, therefore, a powerful skill to master, and can take your digital art to a whole new level.
In this article, we won’t dwell too much on the complex theory behind colors. There are plenty of resources on the World Wide Web for that. Instead, we will focus on practical tips you can use to improve your use of colors. By the end, you should have a better intuition for what to do to bring out exactly the effect you intend.
And now, without further ado, let’s get (digital) painting!
Tips for Digital Coloring and Shading
The first step, before you dive into the colors of a digital painting, is to get the resolution right. There isn’t really a best size, but going for a high resolution from the outset gives you more wiggle room with the size of your canvas if and when you choose to print the painting. I personally like to use 300 PPI (pixels per inch).
When working in a drawing app, the most fundamental unit is the pixel. The more pixels, the more detailed you can make your painting. 300 pixels per inch allows you to add quite a bit of detail to your work.
Besides, when you’re done with the painting, you can make the resolution smaller for uploading to social media and other websites. It’s much easier to go from a high resolution to a low one than the other way round.
Avoid using pure black
From a scientific perspective, pure black and pure white aren’t really colors. White is what you get when you mix all the colors on the spectrum in equal parts. That’s why, when you spin a symmetrical color wheel really fast, it turns white. Black, on the other hand, is the absence of light.
In that sense, darkness isn’t really a thing. It doesn’t exist, since it’s defined as the absence of something.
Pure black is actually pretty rare in the real world. The blackest things in the world are black holes, as they don’t let even light escape. You don’t see those every day, do you? Even nights aren’t ever pitch black, as there’s always some light coming from somewhere.
Most of the black things we see, like black fabric, or black coats of fur, are really a mix of dark shades from different colors.
This is important to your art, since you will often be trying to draw things that actually exist. Whenever you have black elements in your drawings, they won’t be pure black. In fact, they’ll often be affected by their environment. Black hair is warm brown in the morning light and takes on a blue hue on a moonlit night.
The only time you can wantonly use black is when you’re doing a black and white drawing. Otherwise, even the deepest darkest shadow will look more realistic when it’s a mix of the dark shades of other colors in its immediate environment.
Use colors to display emotions
As mentioned in the introduction, colors are a great way to communicate something with your art. You can use them to set whatever mood you want, as long as you do it right. You can make a drawing look sunny and upbeat, or gloomy and melancholic. We see this in our everyday language, actually.
We associate dark colors with a gloomy mood, and bright ones with a sunny mood. Perhaps it has something to do with the way we think about day and night. So perverse is this meme, in fact, that scary, evil things are often said to come out at night. Not many monsters come out at noon. Even vampires are terrified of the light!
The color palette of a painting can use these deeply embedded biases in our thinking to give our brains a certain impression of a painting, long before we take a closer look at the details.
If you want to go for a tranquil and dreamy vibe, consider a pastel color palette. If you’re drawing a battle scene, you will need to communicate the energy and antagonism by going for more energetic colors and strokes, as well as lots of contrast.
This might all seem obvious, depending on your level of skill, but you would be surprised how many artists out there use the same color palette for everything. Sure, it does define your style, and make your works look more congruent, but can do that at a great cost: all your drawings will tend to evoke the same emotions.
There are special circumstances, such as when the client explicitly tells you which color palette to use. However, if you ever have any leeway, take advantage of it, and make sure to use colors appropriately to evoke the right emotions in your audience.
Add contrast and accents with color
Almost every drawing you will work on will have details with varying levels of importance. You can use colors to emphasize some details while downplaying others. You can add accents to make these details pop. Contrast is your friend, as it can help you express deep recurring themes in your work.
Most people think of black against white when they think of contrast. But the juxtaposition of dark and light is only one of the different kinds of contrast that exist. The contrast between dark and light colors is value contrast.
We also have saturation contrast, where we set saturated colors against dull ones, and hue contrast, where we set complementary colors against each other.
Use all the different kinds of contrast in your work. Experiment with them to see what works best for the particular project you’re working on. If you use contrast just right, it can act as a sort of tour guide for the observer, taking them first to the most important details of your work, and then the less important ones later.
Environmental light, or ambient light, is a powerful factor in how something appears. Do you remember the raging debate on the internet a few years back about a certain dress? That’s how powerful a factor environmental light can be on colors. The environment determines how bright the colors will be, what temperature the highlights will be, the state of the shadows, and the overall atmosphere of the artwork.
Most artists first work on the characters before working on the background. With modern digital painting, you can be a lot more flexible with this, and add background layers much later.
However, if you want your drawing to look natural, you need to take the background into account, as it forms the environment for your work, and will determine how your characters and props look.
For example, depending on whether the time of day is morning, day, or night, a yellow jacket will look different. In fact, even the state of the atmosphere, such as whether it’s foggy or clear, can affect how colors appear.
This is a good argument for why you should think about the background before you think about anything in the foreground.
Sometimes your art has a deeper character. You might want to emulate the style of a certain era, or a certain artist even. You might want your work to look like a European vintage travel poster, or something out of the Renaissance. Whatever it is, your choice of colors will be a significant factor in the success of your work.
This is a potentially deep topic, worthy of a full article, so we won’t dig too deep into it here. Our advice is that you do your advice. Dig deep into the history of a particular stylization before using it.
You will find out a lot of interesting things about the way different cultures and eras used colors, or how the culture of a time determined which palettes were used in most artwork. Every era has its own palette!
Most artists have come across the color wheel at some point or other. It is the starting point for any serious foray into color theory. We won’t dive too deep into it, but the idea is that colors have interesting relationships, which we can take advantage of when mixing and manipulating them.
Below are a few of these interesting relationships:
- Colors on the right side of the wheel (yellow, orange, indigo) are considered warm colors, and are interpreted by the brain as brighter and more active. Colors on the left side of the wheel (violet, blue, green) are considered cool colors, and are interpreted by the brain as darker and calmer.
- Colors sitting next to each other on the wheel, such as green and yellow, are considered harmonious, and are perfect for highlights and shading. They can add life to your work.
- Colors sitting on opposite sides of the wheel, such as red and blue, make for good contrast. If you’re going to use these, you need to be very careful. A good rule of thumb is to make one of them dominant. So, for example, if using blue and red, you could make blue the main color, then use red to highlight important details or as an accent. You could soften the contrast by playing with saturation or using red-harmonious colors (like orange) instead.
The tips about the color wheel above were a lot to take in, and they’re just the tip of the iceberg! That should give you an idea of just how complex color theory can be, and how difficult it can be to master them.
It will take lots of time, effort, and experimentation on your side, and some people find it harder to learn than others, but you can still learn it.
For now, try to keep things as simple as you can. For example, limit your color palette to just 2 or 3 colors, or even just black and white. This will help you practice with simpler parameters before you get adventurous with larger palettes.
When you don’t have to think too hard about what to color a character or element in the scene, you free up your brain cycles to focus on other parts of your art, like the details and composition. Interestingly enough, many of the most sophisticated paintings also have the most limited color palettes.
You will give your work the opportunity to shine without having to get a Phd in color theory. You’ll also get to train your intuition for balance and contrast, and can further apply them to larger color palettes later on.
Bounced light is another important consideration to make when doing your art. Say you draw a character that’s standing over a swimming pool. The sun’s shining high above, and some of its light bounces off the pool’s surface and hits the character’s chin.
Since the pool is blue, the character’s chin takes on a blue hue, regardless of his own skin complexion. Even when you walk into a room on a bright day, and hold your hand above a surface, you’ll notice that some of the surface’s color is bounced back to your hand.
A bounced light effect can help your drawings look more natural by creating consistency in the lighting of the drawing. You can add different hues to the natural colors of objects to show the kind of light being reflected off of them, especially if there is a lot of ambient light.
Ambient occlusion is more common in computer generated imagery, though it’s also important if you make 3D art. It can add a lot of realism and character to your artwork if you do it just right. The basic idea is that, when objects are closer together, they make deeper shadows.
Think about it: shadows are darker in the corners of a room, where the walls meet. It’s almost as if light has a harder time squeezing into corners and crevices. This will take some practice, and will require you to use multiple layers when working with drawing apps like Photoshop, but it can help your artwork pop out of the page.
Keep Brushes to a minimum
One of the traps traditional artists fall into when transitioning to digital art is having too many brushes. It’s understandable, since the number of brushes you can have when doing traditional art is necessarily limited. On Photoshop, however, there’s no real limit.
Such boundlessness is both a boon and a curse, depending on how you use it. Using too many brushes, especially when you’re still learning to paint digitally, can actually set you back.
You will make more mess than beauty, and might end up spending way too much looking for the perfect brush, rather than bringing your artwork into existence.
Try to stick to simpler brushes with simpler strokes, unless you really need a particular effect and you can’t achieve it with the brushes you have at your disposal.
By limiting the number of brushes you use, you will learn better, as you will be forced to use different techniques to achieve your intended effect with what you currently have.
We’ve already largely talked about backgrounds in the section on environmental light, but we’ll touch lightly on it again here. When you’re starting out as an artist, a good rule of thumb is to have a grey, mid-tone background.
White backgrounds will severely inhibit what you can do on the foreground in terms of colors. White makes all colors look brighter, and sort of fixes the mood. It will also make dark colors look even darker, and neutralize the effect of highlights. Mid-tone grey is neutral, making it easier to convey a certain mood in the foreground.
Of course, don’t forget to take the background into account as well if you’re going to color it later on. The colors on your foreground should look different, depending on the colors in your background.
Contrast is your friend, but you should use it judiciously. The thing about contrast is that it’s much easier to add contrast than it is to take it away, so it’s a good idea to start with very slight changes, and then you can think about whether you want to add them later on.
For example, let’s say you want to paint a face for a portrait. You should limit the number of shades you use. If the face is, say, blue in color, you should use 3 or 4 shades of blue: Darker blues for the shadows, lighter blues for the highlights, and a neutral blue as the base color.
This will make for a subtler contrast than using completely opposite colors (or worse, pure black and pure white for the shadows and highlights).
As your painting starts to come around, you can add a bit of white or black to create accents in key areas. Choose the colors you’ll use before you start painting, and then use subtle contrasts to bring out the effect you want.
How can I color my digital art better?
Start by limiting the number of colors you use in your drawing. This not only makes your drawings look more sophisticated, but also gives you the opportunity to learn to create balance and other important aspects of color in a simpler setting. You can then use the skills you learn when working with larger color palettes.
What are the 4 types of shading?
- Smooth: This type of shading involves placing your pencil at a low tilt and waving it rapidly over the canvas, with very little grain in the shading, so it appears smooth.
- Slinky: This technique is very similar to smooth shading, except there’s a lot more graininess, and the lines in your shading are more distinct.
- Cross-hatching: This technique builds on slinky shading. It’s basically slinky shading, but your lines go in different directions, rather than just one.
- Stipple: Stipple shading is done by poking at the paper or canvas so the shading looks like many small dots huddled close together.
How do you realistically color digital art?
While the article contains the bulk of tips you’ll need, below are a few additional tips you can use in your own work, especially when using Photoshop:
- Use photo textures to help your work look more realistic;
- Alternatively, consider using texture brushes to achieve realism;
- Use ambient occlusion to make your work look more three-dimensional;
- Use natural color palettes;
- Have multiple light sources, rather than just one, in your work;
And with that we come to the end of our article. Learning to color your digital art like a master will take time and practice, but a few tips and heuristics will help you get there faster.
The tips above, including the ones in the FAQs, should help you a great deal, provided you actually apply them in your own work. Don’t expect to produce a masterpiece straight away, though.
Just try one technique and perfect it, then move on to the next. You’ll be painting like the greats, or even better, in no time. Until next time, happy drawing!