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Digital Painting Basics – Simple Forms to Complex Paintings

November 5, 20204 Comments

Special thanks to Wacom for sponsoring this episode! If you’re looking for a gift this holiday season for you or an artist in your life check out Wacom One tablet. There are links to it below along with other excellent tablets from Wacom.

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Hi guys! My name is Tayler Olivas. I am a landscape painter, concept artist, and educator currently working in the game industry, most recently at Tar Pit Studios with Scott Flanders as some of you guys might already be familiar with. I would like to share with you some of the shortcuts I use for my own digital painting process.

taylers art 1

Coming from a traditional background, I have had to make adjustments in my workflow when it comes to creating evocative images in a digital format, and I’ve found several “shortcuts” that I use in my own workflow today. I will show how to think simply with basic forms, then compound that to create a convincing image!

Thankfully, Wacom has sponsored this video and has gifted me with the Wacom One pen display. If you’re in the market for a new tablet, Wacom’s tablets have always been a favorite of mine, and the Wacom One is great for someone whose just starting their digital game or wants to make art on the go!

I think it’s important to consider that a tool only works as well as the person using it. In all, having good fundamental skills should allow you to thrive regardless of the media you choose. In the book Alla Prima, Richard Schmidt said that if Michelangelo had only been equipped with a broom and a bucket of mud, the Sistine Chapel would have still been the master piece that it is today. Frazetta has also been known to use cheap Mickey Mouse watercolor sets ; however, it is easier to paint the Sistine chapel or barbarians with a proper brush and paints.

Alright, so let’s dive into it!

Again, I understand some of the frustrations that come with creating a painting from scratch in a digital format. Some of the first pieces of artwork that I’ve actually made have been through acrylic, watercolor, oil, and charcoal. Finding a way to ease myself into this new medium took many years, so hopefully these simple steps will help to make you more comfortable in this workspace.

Setting up your workspace for the first time

Personally, I hate dealing with tons of menus in my workspace impeding my ability to create. If you are completely new to photoshop and you are using the Wacom One, when you first start up Photoshop your user interface will have a lot of menus automatically open. To me this is way too cluttered of a space to work in, and some of these menus I honestly never even touch. When I paint I only navigate through certain panels. So I’ll show how I set up mine .

Simple is good!

The first step is to create a “New Workspace” by clicking on the Workspace icon in the top right corner.

Once you’ve done that you can arrange your panels for optimal performance.

  1. Dock the “Layers” panel on the left hand side and the “Color” panel on the right.
  2. The last panel you need is the “Brushes” panel. To get this or any other panel simply click on the Window tab at the top of the screen and find the panel you want. Now that your “Brushes” panel is on your workspace, simply click and drag it to the bottom of your “Color” panel.


Now that we’ve got a workspace that’s comfortable for us to work in I’d like to overview some of the tools I use.

Selection: A lot of my process revolves around me finding ways to create strong graphic shapes from the very start. The best way that I have found to achieve that is to use different selection tools within Photoshop. The four primary selection tools I use are the Lasso, Polygonal Lasso, Rectangular Marquee, Elliptical Marquee. The next thing you’ll want to do is assign each of those selection tools keyboard shortcuts. Make sure when you set these up you choose keys that are close to where your hand rests on your keyboard so they are easily accessible. Just like in computer games, the closer your keyboard shortcuts are to your hand, the more efficient you will be.

Move Canvas: Another great tool I use is “Move Canvas”. You can easily use this tool just by holding your space bar while you click and drag your canvas.

Move selection: Use the shortcut “V” to move selections. If you have multiple layers you can turn on “Auto-Select” in the top left of your screen and now you will be able to move which ever layer is connected to the pixels you click on.

Transform: This tool is used to manipulate selections. Here are a couple good shortcuts to remember.

  • Hold Alt while dragging to scale from center point.
  • Hold Ctrl while dragging to skew selected point.

Demo 1:

Combining tools together to create a convincing sphere

  1. Use your selection tool to create a basic circle
  2. Add a new layer. To do this, right click on the layer and select “Create Clipping Mask”. This will make sure any pixels painted on the top layer will adhere to the shape on the bottom.
  3. Now we want to add a Layer Mask to your Clipping Mask layer. To do this, select the layer and click the “Add Layer Mask” button at the bottom of your layers panel. This will make it so you are working non destructivly.
  4. Now we want to create a drop shadow. To do this, make a copy of your circle by holding your Alt key then clicking and dragging on your circle. Now you can use the Transform tool to skew your shape. Now jsut add another Clipping Mask layer to create an Ambient Occlusion.

By keeping everything separated on different layers you can easily go back and make iterations to different parts of your painting. Which helps a lot when you start working on large concepts with a lot of different subject matter.

There’s so many different methods of describing form and I think it’s a fun exercise to look at some of the masters who bend the rules a bit to arrive at their own stylistic interpretations of light and shadow.


Another helpful trick is to create your own brushes. A lot of what I use when working in digital is actual traditional scans from some of my own painting. They tend to give me a bit of chaos to work in and if you think about happy accident, this is where that starts to occur.

In the back of my mind I am thinking about how I can use these types of textures to describe different things in nature. This could be rocks, clouds, skin, freckles or just about anything. I am always thinking about different ways to use these brushes in the future. I definitely recommend trying this out for yourself and seeing how far you can take your own brushes.

Demo 2:

Creating a landscape

Now we can apply some of what we learned to create an actual environment. The point of this exercise is to create something that is little more exaggerated. Hopefully I can capture the essence of actually being at that location and infuse something from that moment of time into this piece that the photograph did not capture.

  1. I start out with very gestural movements. My goal is to create something that feels similarly balanced yet simple. Its okay to get a little more complex after you are happy with your gesture. This will serve as a sort of roadmap on where I want to go.
  2. A good trick to create perspective is to use your “Perspective Crop” tool to warp parts off into the background as if they are going off into the vanishing point.
  3. Im now focusing on creating big masses of shape. Making sure I have a silhouette that is clear and convincing. A good trick is to study the negative shape relatioships.
  4. Open a “levels Adjustment Layer” and this will let you work on top of the values underneath with creating a different value key. Basically shifting the tones and values underneath. Working in-tandem with the mask to make sure I can come back and iterate if needed in the future.
  5. Im also always making sure my lighting is consistent which will help create a conniving painting. To help give a sense of perspective I am creating larger shapes in foreground and making sure they get smaller as they go back and overlapping shapes of light and dark
  6. Now that I have all my lights and darks in place and a simple composition, I will throw in some color to establish a cool atmosphere for the sky and some warms for the rocks.
  7. I’m using complementary colors of purple and yellows and then playing with some of the grays that exist within those color grouping.
  8. Even with the introduction of color, my overall light and dark composition has not changed at all. My values and overall structure has remained the consistent.
  9. Now I can start directly painting over some of those layers and step away from the non destructive method of working. While still thinking about what each layer is doing for me and knowing I can go back and effect these layers is going to be super helpful.
  10. Using textural elements to create a sense of material for the rocks. Paying close attention to where the terminator exists, I make sure to put a lot of texture between light and dark which helps convey that these are rocks.
  11. By creating more overlap, its helping to reinforce that perspective a little bit more too. The rocks in the background getting hit with light helps show that things are going off in the distance.
  12. At this stage in the painting I can start to really experiment with my brushes. I’m trying to figure out what are the main decisions I am going to be making. Like where do the biggest strokes need to be made at this point and should I have most of the detail in my shadows or my lights. Prioritizing for one or the other makes the painting more effective and believable.
  13. The painting is pretty much done now. The last thing I want to do is exaggerate the form a bit more. To achive this i’ll go back to where the lights meet the darks and create a little bit more contrast.
  14. Now that we have a finished painting, you can use the Levels or the Black and White adjustment layers to over expose some of the areas and push some of the brights even more.

So that’s it! I hope this has given you that extra boost you needed to jump into digital painting!. If you want to see more of my work, check out my Instagram and my Art Station! And if you’re interested in a personal mentorship, go shoot me a message. I teach at Laguna College of Art and Design and really enjoy helping my students grow and push themselves to their next level and would be happy to help you out too. See you all next time!

Other Digital Painting Lessons:
How to Make Digital Paintings Look Traditional
Top 7 Digital Painting Mistakes
Digitally Painting like a Sculptor
Digital Shape Carving with Scott Flanders

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Comments (4)

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  1. Bc says:

    Do u teach basic on Procreate ?

  2. Here it is. I was wondering when it was gonna happen! I’m assuming it’s a great video because it has TAYLER OLIVAS as the instructor. Man, I can’t wait to check it out! So HYPED!

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