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Top 7 Digital Painting Mistakes

February 14, 20193 Comments

All you kids are trying to get into digital painting nowadays. Make sure you avoid these 7 digital painting mistakes. And big thanks to Wacom for sponsoring this video. Here are links to some of their products I recommend:

13 inch Mobile Studio Pro
16 inch Mobile Studio Pro
Mobile Studio Pro Stand (13&16 inch)
13 inch Cintiq Pro
16 inch Cintiq Pro
24 inch Cintiq Pro
32 inch Cintiq Pro
24&32 Flex Arm


Top 7 Digital Painting Mistakes

The 7 deadly sins of digital painting.

Digital painting apps and graphics tablets can do amazing things. But they’re not magic. They’re not going to do the work for you. And there’s a danger of developing bad habits that can end up hurting your artwork.

This episode is sponsored by Wacom, which also happens to be the brand of tablets that I use and recommend to students all the time. They sent us a new 32i Cintiq, so I’m gonna test it out while I show you 7 bad practices you should avoid when painting digitally.

32i Cintiq

Sin #7 – Carelessness

There are lots of ways that carelessness, or sloppiness, can hurt your painting. But in this case, I’m talking specifically about when artists don’t paint all the way up to the edges of a shape or outline and leave white gaps from the underlying canvas showing through. I don’t know what else to call that besides being careless. When the artist is attempting to make a realistic rendering, those little spots of white make a painting look unfinished and immediately draw my eye to them. The two ways to fix this are to:

1. Be more precise and scrupulous. Paint up to and even over the edge of your shapes to make sure you get total coverage.

Or 2. You can leave gaps in your painting if you work on top of a toned canvas. Preferably something neutral or even a color that is complementary to the overall color harmonies in your painting. Tiny specks of color showing through your paint can create a nice vibration of color and even suggest texture. So even if you do end up having gaps in your paint strokes, it won’t make your painting look unfinished or like you only gave it the minimum effort.

carelessness, and the fixes

Sin #6 – Settling

The next common mistake I see people make is settling for the default brushes that come with your painting program. And this mostly applies to those who paint with Photoshop, like me. Photoshop is a GREAT and powerful program for painting digitally. It’s what I use almost exclusively in the studio. But, for years, the default brushes didn’t exactly lend themselves to painting naturally.

textured brushes
Out of the box, they were kind of sterile or weren’t set up to respond to pressure controlled styluses.

You generally needed to fiddle with brush settings and save them as a new brush preset to make the default brushes more responsive to your artistic will. But I got the best results when I figured out how to make my own custom brushes or downloaded cool brush sets created by others. In other words, I didn’t settle for the standard brush sets because I needed more variety to help better express what I wanted to do. When painting digitally, spend some time learning how the brush mechanics work so you can get them to do your bidding.

textured brushes example

Sin #5 – Impatience

Many artists these days go straight to digital painting before learning to paint with traditional media because they want to do the tricks and the slick renderings. And I think that’s a mistake. Learning to paint with oils, acrylics or watercolors is a time consuming process. Gaining mastery or even just proficiency at them can take years. But if you never pick up a real paint brush, you may never learn the disciplines and practices that go into painting and illustrating. When you learn to paint on canvas or paper, you not only gain skills in those particular mediums, but also form your personal tastes and style as an artist.

Painting traditionally

Those then become habits and inclinations that you’ll bring into the digital world when painting on a computer screen. And as a result, your digital paintings will be more likely to reflect your personal and unique style and sensibility. As an illustrator or fine artist, what people respond to most is the individual style that you bring to the table. I think you can learn and practice both digital and real world paints at the same time. You don’t have to wait years to become a master oil painter. But if you’re impatient and rush into painting digitally without at least experimenting with real world paints, you may never develop a strong personal digital painting style.

Impatience, digital painting

Sin #4 – Laziness

The sin of laziness here is exemplified by a really specific and narrow critique. I see it a lot in artists portrait and caricature paintings, and that’s using the fill tool to color the background. It’s actually good to use the fill tool at the beginning of a painting to cover the whole canvas, but leaving the background that single flat fill color at the end of your painting is the height of laziness. It’s just a weird place to be lazy. Compared to a human head, painting a background is really simple and quick.

If you’re putting in all this effort on the subject of your digital painting, don’t just treat the background as throw-away. For one, it’s jarring to see a realistic rendering up against a flat graphic color. But if you just take some extra time and use a big brush and paint simple gradient, it can add so much to the composition by moving the viewer’s eye to where you want it to go.

Flat color background Rendered background
Vary the hue, color temperature or value a little bit, to contrast the subject so it stands out from the background more. Let your audience know that you cared enough about your work to add a little context around it.

But if you really really don’t want to paint a background manually, my advice would be just to make the background white. It’s usually the safest bet. Even some non digital artists used this technique to a great effect.

White background

Sin #3 – Self-Delusion

Let me just say this as simply as possible. If you think the soft-edged airbrush tool is your friend and will make your paintings look better, more professional or realistic, you are delusional! There are certain places or effects where minimal use of the airbrush might be okay. But going straight for the airbrush and using it for the majority of your painting is one of the best ways to kill it. You may be tempted to believe it’s a good way to blend lights and darks. But a basic airbrush creates a very sterile and artificial look. It prevents you from being able to create hard edges or interesting brush strokes.

Airbrush vs. hard edges

And aside from issues relating to style, you actually can’t render forms convincingly without hard edges. Plus, remember, it’s the flaws, brush strokes and variety of edges that help make an artist’s style look unique. The digital airbrush virtually eliminates any flaws or variety. Don’t attempt perfection in your paintings. Strive for uniqueness and character.

Sin #2 – Monotony

The digital airbrush is probably one of the worst brushes you can use. However, if you use ANY brush too much, you run the risk of getting a monotonous painting, no matter how cool that brush is. When working on any assignment or personal piece, I’m constantly switching between several different digital brushes. Some of which I’ve custom-made, some of which I’ve downloaded from other artists. It’s important to always try new brushes and painting tools when working digitally. It helps to keep you thinking about what you’re doing without going into autopilot mode.

Brush variation

I recommend using a particular brush for a just a little while and then switch to a different brush with different qualities. And keep switching it up as a matter of habit without relying on one single brush too much. You’ll end up with paintings that have a lot more visual interest because of the variety of strokes and textures. As you practice with new brushes you’ll learn their strengths and weaknesses and start developing preferences for when you like using each one. In other words, you’ll develop a style.

Sin #1 – Stealing

So what do you think is the greatest sin in digital painting? The number one thing that all of us have done at some point and is the one habit that will always ruin your painting? Stealing, with the dropper! Using the eyedropper tool to sample, or steal, colors from the reference photo. Photoshop and other apps make it really easy to turn off your brain and have all your color choices made for you.

color picking

If you only do it once in awhile, that’s probably okay. But if you sample every major color from your reference photo as your modus operandi, you are bypassing one of the most important factors in developing your own unique style. And your digital paintings will look like everyone else who steal colors from photos. You see, artists who are competent with color tend to have a consistent look with the palettes they use, whether consciously or unconsciously. If every painting you do has its colors sampled from different reference photos, your portfolio of works will not have that kind of consistency of style . And more importantly when you rely on the reference photo for the majority of your color decisions, you are not learning how to judge and use color and value, which is a critical skill for an artist. You’re just cheating yourself out of a vital and fundamental part of your artistic training. You wont ever come to understand the principles behind what you’re doing. You’ll be just a mindless copying machine.

You may think matching your colors to the photo makes your paintings stronger. The general public, with their untrained eyes may look at your work and be impressed at how real it looks. But other artists who know their stuff, will immediately be able to see the evidence of your color theft. Paintings done this way have a really distinctive and odd look. They usually lack atmosphere and mood. And often, with inexperienced artists, their shapes usually don’t transition well from one color to the next because part of working honestly with color is learning how to paint good transitions and edges.

Color comparison

Also, think about this: When the need arises to paint two or more people together and you’re using two different reference photos that have different color temperatures, contrast and saturation levels, your sin and lack of color knowledge becomes obvious to all. The faces won’t look like they’re in the same environment. You need to be able to observe the reference photos and translate that information into colors and values that harmonize with the rest of your painting. In other words, you need to have the skills to improvise and paint your own colors to make the two subjects look like they’re in the same lighting. The more you paint honestly with color, the more intuitive it becomes to achieve color harmony in your work.

When painting digitally, it’s easy to fall into the traps of convenience, shortcuts and carelessness. And those can lead to bad habits that are really hard to break. The digital tablets available now are extremely refined tools that can help you make anything you imagine real. But you have to put in the hours and do the work honestly before you can create digital art at a professional level.

Today I was using Wacom’s new 32i Cintiq Pro. But if that’s too big for your budget or your desk there’s also the 24i, 16i and 13i models. Links are provided in the intro. I’d like to thank Wacom for sponsoring this episode and for making quality tools for artists. Really… I personally have bought and have used several Wacom tablets over the years, so this was a natural sponsorship that we were happy to accept.

All tablets

Ok, guys those are my top 7 digital painting mistakes. Keep in mind, some artists may be able to get away with doing something that other artists can’t. So I’m not saying that you can NEVER do these things. These are the practices and habits I’ve noticed in my students that create the biggest problems in their digital work, especially when they’re just learning the medium. Let me know in the comments if I missed anything. What do YOU think is the biggest digital painting sin?

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Comments (3)

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  1. Court Jones says:

    Thanks, Eden!

  2. Arizona says:

    I’ve been doing so many of these ;_;

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