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How to Make Digital Paintings Look Traditional

March 28, 20194 Comments

Digital painting apps and graphics tablets, like those made by Wacom, come together to form an art medium that can do pretty much anything. Any look or style can be achieved with the right tools and knowledge. In this lesson, we’re going to learn how to use digital tools to get the look of a traditional oil painting on canvas.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a digital painting that has clear signs of being created on a computer. Some of my favorite artists are those who make really slick digital illustrations like Craig Mullins, Loish and Sergey Kolesov, to name a few. But if you want to achieve the look of a traditional painting on a canvas there are a few things you can do and core concepts you should be aware of.

TIP 1: Follow a Traditional Process

The first thing you can do – and this is a major thing – is to follow the same procedure and steps as you do when working with real paints on a canvas. Especially in the beginning stages. When working with oil paints, I’ll usually start by staining the whole canvas a neutral or warm color. Then, I do a quick gesture line drawing before I scrub in additional washes of local colors to block in the big forms or to act as contrast to the colors I’ll use later in the painting.

Doing similar layers of undertone in a digital painting can help set you up for success later on because those colors often show through in the final painting, adding unique interplays of the colors and giving an illusion of more texture or color vibration than would be there otherwise. Now, your traditional process might be different from mine. Maybe you don’t have a linear stage and you go directly into blocking in the forms after the stain, and that’s fine.

tint washingdoggy layer wash
But just remember that when you work with traditional paints you learn a lot about the craft of painting in general and eventually develop a distinctive personal style. That’s why I always recommend students play with real paints first before going to digital.

Dog paint

TIP 2: Textures!

One of the things that helps make a digital painting look like it’s done with real materials is when there is visible canvas weave or paper grain. When painting with real brushes on a rough surface, the paint will catch and stick to the surface in inconsistent ways. These imperfections in the strokes are part of what give a painting character and a feeling of being made by physical interactions. And that’s really easy to replicate in programs like Photoshop, where you can apply a canvas texture to any brush in your toolbox. Photoshop now includes a lot of great natural-looking brush sets designed by Kyle Webster.

And other painting apps like Corel or Procreate also have some really good brush options. But you can, and should, learn how to make and customize your own brushes so that you can have more control over the look of your paintings. Here’s a quick tutorial on how I created one of my personal favorite brushes: a streaky textured brush. You can find the tutorial at the 3:57 in the video above.

texture sampletexture custom brush

Just a warning though. If you use the same texture everywhere on every brush stroke, it can become monotonous and repetitive, which will give it away as digital. So experiment with different textures and brushes throughout the same painting.

TIP 3: Limit your layers

Ideally, paint in as few layers as possible. Or even one layer, if you can. When you’re working on a real canvas, you only have one physical surface, or layer, to paint on. Using a bunch of layers throughout a painting is kind of a safety net. Artist often do it because they’re unsure about their process and want to be able to change or delete something. But I think it can hold some artists back from being more adventurous and expressive with their brush work. When you do all or the majority of your painting on one layer, you’ll be thinking and solving problems more like a traditional painter. And when you work more like a traditional painter your paintings tend to look more like traditional mediums.

One layer painting

Now, multiple layers can sometimes be helpful and are often practical necessities of the job, like when you’re working for an art director who may want you to move things around or make revisions later. But try to keep the layers to a minimum and solve visual problems with your brushes. Which leads us to the next tip…

Painting with multiple layers

TIP 4: Avoid special effects

One thing that digital painting allows for is creating special effects, like a soft glow around a light source where the colors become oversaturated using a layer effect like Overlay. Also, mathematically perfect gradients and totally flat fill colors are super easy to do with a single click. But done this way, there is a really artificial digital look. Also, this painting was done with a basic round brush, which can be a great tool. But you can do so much more with digital brushes that mimic real brushes.

digital look vs painterly look

So I start this painting again, beginning with the stains of color under the line drawing. And for this whole piece, instead of a simple round brush, I use a variety of streaky and textured brushes. From start to finish, I don’t do anything with a menu command or shortcuts. I don’t use selections, fills, gradients, multiple layers or automated actions. And when I paint a glow around this flame, I do it with colors selected from the on-screen color picker and different brushes. I keep manipulating the digital paint with careful drawing and edge control.

The luminous effect of the flame is also created through control of my values. By keeping all the surrounding values relatively dark, the candle flame will look much brighter by comparison.

Painterly candle wash

And the highlights on the metal really pop. The difference between these two styles of digital painting should be obvious. When problems are solved with brushes, expressive brushwork and smart color choices, it has a much more traditional look.

Also, when you make a mistake, try not to use the “Undo” command. Just paint over it. You may start to think more carefully about each brush stroke and each value when you’re treating it like a real physical painting.

TIP 5: Use a controlled color palette

Masters temperature reference

Color is a huge subject that I can’t properly cover here. A good way to practice seeing color is to study the works of past masters. Many of my favorite artists used very limited palettes and achieved great color harmonies. You can read about what colors they used for some of the more famous ones or just analyze what you can see in their work and make your best guess. But when looking at your own subject or reference photo, you need to first decide what the color temperature of light is. Like, is it warm or cool. And then what range of colors should you use in the painting. And then I suggest you try working with a limited digital color palette in order to achieve color harmony.

A great way to do that is to pre-select a limited range of colors in advance and put them on your palette before starting. Try to set up all of the major halftone, transition and shadow colors. When working digitally, you can just put the dabs of palette colors right on the canvas you’re working on. Just keep them off to the side and as you paint, use the eyedropper tool to pick a color from your palette when needed.

traditional color palette
You can lighten or darken the palette colors too. But try not to add new colors as you go along. And most importantly, don’t sample colors directly from the photo. That’s cheating and you won’t learn as much. The more you engage your brain in this process the better you’ll eventually get at choosing colors intuitively. Remember, to be a realistic painter, you don’t have to reproduce the colors in the photo with perfect accuracy. You should just try to make a compelling painting that’s a reflection of your own artistic sensibilities. You have a lot of leeway with colors in a painting, as long as your values of light and dark are convincing.

digital color palette

TIP 6: Stay back!

When painting on a canvas, good oil painters tend to stand as far back as possible. And great oil painters stand even farther back! This isn’t something you can really do when painting digitally. But what you can do is stay zoomed out on your work as much as possible. Try to keep the whole painting in view while working on it, as much as you can. That will simulate what oil painters do when standing at their easels.

Distance painting

You’ll probably need to zoom in sometimes of course, depending on the subject matter. But if you zoom in on small areas too much, it will tempt you to overwork the details increasing the chances that you’ll sacrifice the unity of the composition. The farther away you are from the painting while working, the more impressionistic and painterly your work will be. And seeing the whole painting while working helps you see how the values and colors relate to each other throughout the composition which helps with the color harmony.

TIP 7: Forget the lines. It’s all about edges.

When you start painting on top of a detailed line drawing, you may be hesitant to cover up those lines with paint and lose the drawing. But when working with real wet and juicy paint on a canvas, the reality is that you eventually have to cover up the lines and work shapes back and forth into each other in order to manipulate the edges in interesting ways.

In fact, edge variation is one of the most overlooked and underused techniques in digital painting. And it’s probably the single most important trait of an artist’s style, other than color, that distinguishes you from other artists. You’ll get a variety of edges by painting back and forth over the line drawing, pushing, pulling and smudging the digital paint. Real oil and acrylic paints mix on the surface, colors overlap and cross contaminate with each other.

The more variety you add to your edges in your digital work, the more “artsy” and “painterly” your work can look. To soften and blend edges, look for brushes that have broken or streaky footprints and then use a light touch. There are even some great digital smudging tools in Photoshop that create broken edges. But you should use smudging tools sparingly. And don’t forget, for visual contrast, there should be plenty of hard crisp edges in a painting as well if you want a realistic look.

painting the edges on the dogpainting the sky edgesblur tool

As a general rule, a good place to soften or even lose an edge entirely is when the values of two adjacent shapes are really similar.

In Conclusion

So you may have noticed a pattern. The recurring theme here is to try to mimic the procedures of a traditional painter and to limit your digital tools a bit to reflect the limitations of traditional materials. If you do that, your digital work will be more a reflection of you and your skills, rather than the software.

Court Jones Self Portrait Caricature

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Comments (4)

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  1. Astral Signs says:

    I like the helpful info you supply for your articles. Thanks for sharing a smart thought.

  2. Jefferson says:

    Thanks for reminding us the real traditional ways of painting and apply them digitally!

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