Digital art is a zen activity. By this we mean that your greatest challenge is to master yourself, rather than anything outside of yourself. As you will learn, if you haven’t already, overcoming your own quirks, biases and limitations is arguably the hardest thing in the world.
The good news is that once you manage to do it, the world is yours for the taking. The world of digital art, at least. It will take lots of patients, lots of commitment, and lots of strategy, but it very achievable.
In this article we will give you some great strategies to help you. The patience and commitment, however, are things you will have to cultivate yourself.
One thing we have to point out here is that the common notion that practice makes perfect is a myth. Doing the same thing every day doesn’t make you better. Instead, you will have to constantly challenge yourself to get out of your comfort zone, lest you get stuck on a plateau.
In this sense, digital art isn’t that much different than training like an athlete. For starters, in both cases, the really big wins (drawing hyperrealistic models or winning gold at The Olympics) don’t come overnight. And in both cases, you don’t get those big wins by training the same way every day.
You have to make an effort to improve yourself all round, constantly pushing your limits, using the right tools and learning from the right people. Only then, can you really make it into the hall of fame.
So how do you get into the digital art hall of fame? Follow the tips below and you’re assured of it. It will only be a matter of time.
The hard skills that ever beginner digital needs to know…
In this section we’ll explore some more technical aspects of digital art and how you can better improve your process.
1. Assess your strengths and weaknesses
Take a piece of paper or open a text document. Divide it into two sections, one for your strengths and the other for your weaknesses. You’ll have to do plenty of soul searching for this, and be honest with yourself.
List your creative strengths on one side and weaknesses on the other. If you’re having trouble figuring out what these are, you can ask someone who knows you well and whom you trust to offer suggestions.
We’ll give you a personal example. We have no shortage of creative ideas. We can draw inspiration from the most boring of situations. Our problem is execution. It often takes us a very long time to finish a single project.
Can you think of a similar pair of strength and weakness for yourself?
2. What are your most destructive habits?
Continuing with the exercise above, think about the habits that are holding you back from excelling as a digital artist. This one’s a little easier to self-assess, since all you have to do is look at your old drawings. Get a few of them and put them side by side.
Unless you make a conscious effort to get better, chances are you’ll stay in the same place.
With our own work, we used to have a problem with lighting. Many of our paintings looked darker than they really should have. We also hardly varied the position of our portraits. Most of them had the head tilted to one side.
So we actively avoided head-on positions, as we didn’t feel very comfortable with them.
You should really probe yourself for your weaknesses. Know them one by one, and feel comfortable with them. Only when you know your weaknesses better than anyone else can you begin the honest work of trying to improve upon them.
3. Figure out what your goals are
Once you have a clear picture of where your weaknesses lie, you can begin to formulate goals for where you want to go. Don’t try to do everything at once. Keep it simple and manageable. We have always wanted to get better at lighting and switching up angles for our subjects. For a while, those have been our main goals.
Once we get good at those, we will find other things to improve upon.
Challenge yourself by trying new paintings where you try to achieve your goals. The first drafts will likely be terrible, but that’s okay. No one starts out perfect. With time, you will improve and surprise even yourself, and then it will be time to move on to other challenges.
4. Watch process videos to learn different strategies
Artists have all sorts of ways to showcase the process by which they built their digital paintings, ranging from screenshots to whole videos. That’s the beauty of modern technology: never has it been easier to learn from great artists than it is today.
Take advantage of the mercies of your time, and take in all you can. That said, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. With so much information and footage out there, you will have to pick a few artists, and then a few process videos from those artists, depending on what your goals are, and focus on those.
Don’t just watch for the entertainment value. Instead, follow the videos keenly, so you can learn exactly what processes these artists use to build masterpieces. You will also learn how to take full advantage of the tools available in software like Photoshop and Clip Studio.
5. Improve the process by which you develop ideas
Having an idea is one thing; developing it into reality is something else entirely. Often, when we’re inspired, what we really have in our heads is a vague outline, and even that’s stretching it. Most likely we have a few clear elements of an idea, with lots of spaces to bridge – sort of join-the-dots situation.
That’s why you need to work on the way you develop your ideas. One way is to draw mind maps. Start with the main idea in the central circle, and then fill in the details in little circles around it. This will help you flesh the idea out until it’s feasible to work on.
Say you get the idea to draw a warrior with a lion head tattoo on his shoulder. That’s the main idea. Now thing about the details. What is his stance? What weapon is he holding? What armor or clothes is he wearing? What kind of background does he have? What’s his facial expression? What’s the lighting for the scene like?
See what we mean? By the time you’re done thinking about these details, your idea will be ready for the painting.
6. Use photo manipulation to nail composition when starting out
As a beginner, you have a lot to learn. Some of this stuff takes many years of practice to get good at. Take composition, for example. It’s more art than science, so it takes a while to develop the right intuition for it.
A good way to nail it when starting out is to get an image reference and manipulate it in Photoshop, turning it into the artwork you want. You can get a picture of a lion head and a picture of a warrior, then get the lion head onto the warrior’s arm, making it a rather realistic tattoo.
Don’t get too addicted to this hack though. Over time, you should seek to create your own composition, no matter how terrible it looks in the beginning, until you get better at it.
7. Improve the quality of your lines and sketches
Let’s build on our little painting of a warrior with a lion head tattoo. We did some cool photo manipulation already, so the sketching should be easier now. You don’t have to think too much about the composition and lighting, so you can play more to other strengths of yours now.
You may need to do many passes before you get things right, but that’s okay. Start off rough, looking to understand how the details are placed at first. Once you have that done, lower the opacity and, on a new layer, do a cleaner version of the sketch.
The secret to doing beautiful line work is to make very deliberate, very fluid strokes. Whenever the stroke seems to go askew, or doesn’t quite fit in well with the rest of your sketch, start it over until you get it right. You will have to get used to repetition if you’re going to get good at this.
8. Try to improve your speed
Speed is of significance when you’re doing digital art. You want to get the rough work out of the way so you have plenty of time to spend on the details. One way to do this is to convert your initial sketch into a few thumbnails, then practice different coloring schemes on each to see which one fits best.
This practice is very good for you. For one, it slowly trains your muscles. With better muscle memory, your work will feel a lot less mechanical and a lot more natural. You won’t have to think as much about what you’re doing.
Another advantage is that it allows you to test different layouts before you commit to any particular one. Sure, it’s extra work, but it’s worth it for the learning opportunity it offers, and it will save you time in the future, as you will be doing most of this stuff off the top of your head.
9. The devil is in the details
Now, while we encourage you to get faster, it’s still important that you pay attention to the details. If your painting has novel details, that is, ones that you’ve never done before, you will have to take some time away from it to study those details.
Create little studies where you understand the texture, color, and lighting of those details. In our example above, a lion has fur, and a magnificent mane, so we’ll have to take time to study that.
The warrior might also have hair, so we’ll have to study that to get good at it. Only when we have mastered these can we come back and continue with our drawing.
10. Codify your process
Even when you finish your painting, you’re not out of the woods yet. Learning means documenting your process, including any improvements you’ve made over what you did earlier. Try to break your painting process down into a formula so you can recreate it in the future. Below are some examples of things you should consider:
- What is the first step before you start painting? In this case, we assessed our strengths and weaknesses, developed targeted goals, and did some photo manipulations to help with composition.
- What do you do while painting? In this case, we focused on improving our line work, used thumbnails to experiment with different lighting schemes, and did studies to better understand the different textures involved in our work.
- What do you do to finalize your work? In this case, we might want to add some final touches, make some adjustments, and tweak our work to perfect it. This is usually where you add a bit of your own style so your painting has some personality to it.
Having a formula helps you develop a rhythm for your work. Over time, you can scrutinize this formula and figure out where you need to improve, and also where you are getting better. Within no time, you will be doing paintings related to the areas you’re trying to improve very quickly and efficiently.
The soft skills that ever beginner digital needs to know…
In this section we’ll explore soft skills you’ll need to develop to help advance your career as a digital artist.
11. Start on the right path
Experiment as much as possible when you’re starting out, but don’t do it aimlessly. Instead, let it help you home in on the kind of digital artist you want to become in the end. Once you figure it out, stick with it. Over time, you will develop a personal style that will help define you over the course of your career.
12. Join a community
While much of art is a solitary process, you should still strive to be social. Find a community of artists that you feel comfortable in and keep it. They can give you ideas, critique your work, and even refer clients to you. In the age of social media, you don’t have to go it alone.
13. Work on the basics first
It’s easy to get carried away by every new trend that emerges in the art world. And given how much incredible work is being pumped out every day, one can often feel discouraged by how far one has to go to become great. Try to avoid that sentiment, however, and focus on mastering the basics.
Learn to draw before you learn to paint, then learn to paint before you learn to model. Consistency and time are your friends.
14. Learn to use 3D software
Speaking of modeling, 3D modeling software can prove a valuable tool to help you on your path. It will help you intimately understand how shapes, volumes, light, and shadow all work together. Even if you’ll never professionally do 3D art, this practice will help you get better as an artist.
That said, don’t get too hung up on technology. If you’re a successful artist because of the technology you’re using, then something is wrong. Again, master the basics, so that technology is an enhancer, rather than just a crutch.
15. Master design as well
Design is just as important as art. Remember us talking about composition earlier? Well learning design means understanding that sort of stuff. You may be good with line work, and even lighting, but what will truly make your art stand out is the way you play around with forms, proportions, shapes and, of course, composition.
Try to master balance, rhythm, and materials so your artwork has personality to it.
16. Hard work pays
As long as you’re constantly trying to improve and challenge yourself, and you don’t allow yourself to get stuck in a plateau, the harder you work, the better you get. With persistence and consistency, you will become a great artist before you know it.
17. … But don’t be in a hurry
Everything worthwhile takes time. Don’t try to rush the process. Just remain consistent and keep pushing your limits. You don’t need to start off a Da Vinci or Picasso straightaway. Even if you improve by just 1% every day, you’ll be 37 times better by the end of the year. Think about that.
18. Be your own greatest critic
It is important that you remain honest with yourself. Every time you finish a project, ask yourself if you did your best possible work, and constantly scrutinize your results to figure out where you might improve.
That little exercise at the beginning, where you list your strengths and weaknesses, is a powerful one, and will help you improve very quickly.
19. Chase your passions
You will find yourself drawn to certain kinds of art and certain ways of doing things. Sometimes it might seem like you’re swimming upstream when you compare that to whatever is currently popular or trendy in the industry. Don’t get swayed. Stay true to your tastes, constantly working to become the kind of artist you envision yourself as.
This ties into the point at the beginning about starting on the right path. Of course, when working with clients, their tastes and needs will come before your own, but always have an inner compass for what you want to do for yourself. Soon enough, you will be known for it, and that’s what clients will be coming to you for.
20. Never stop creating
Even when you get your dream job, never stop creating. Do personal projects and take the time to improve yourself. It is by diversifying your work like this that you truly grow and become even more marketable. Most importantly, however, constantly engaging the creative process is, in my opinion, the true essence of art.
Don’t lose that essence. Ever.
And with that we come to the end of our article. If you follow the tips above as best as you can, you’ll be surprised how good you’ll get, even in just a year. One final word: you never really become a good digital artist.
At least, there’s no summit to reach, and we’ve never heard of any great artist, digital or otherwise, who thought of themselves as great. It is the mountain that has no peak. The real joy is looking back after you’ve climbed a while, to see how far you’ve come.
Until next time, happy drawing!