Switching from traditional painting to digital painting – what you need to know

Learn what you need to know for translating your traditional painting skills to the digital realm…

Escudero's Artstation


Something that we need to have in mind is regardless the medium we use the piece we create always will be real art. Computer is only a tool like a pencil. They have their own pros and cons. And can be faster, cleaner, cheaper… whatever, but never will make the work for you.

In this article, we’re going to move as easily as we can from traditional to digital, translating the knowledge we have attained from traditional. I’m going to focus it through Photoshop as a main tool, but it’s only one software and it basically shares the same basic structure with the other software such as Painter or Gimp.

Our workstation

In this text is not necessary introduce deeply in computer features. Looking only for a mid-range PC/Mac and go for a good amount of RAM and a Graphic Card to support all our necessities. At the same time think in a professional monitor better than gamer and a calibrator. Best if you can get a supplementary monitor too.

A big decision finally: Do I buy a Graphic Tablet or Screen Tablet? I’ve using both of them and in overall words the money you pay for a ST is very recompensed. It’s so comfortable to use, giving you more freedom than a GT and finally it’s a good monitor too.

But lot of professional concept artist are still using GT and making awesome pieces. So, It’s only how you adapt to it. Remember the tool never make the piece by itself, only can makes the path easily for you. Play if you can with both and chose which one works better for you.

Ergonomics and Health

You’re going to spend a lot of time in front of your monitor so you have to take care of your body, specially wirst, back and eyes. It’s true that lot of digital artist suffer injuries for not attend on it. Spend time looking for a chair and desk those adapt to your height and take 5min break per hour to streching and look to the distant objects.

Both worlds, one table

Something I’ll never renounce: the sketchbook, charcoals, watercolors, the smell of the materials… Maybe sounds crazy but there are more things than practical possibilities.

The emotions that represents these tools that you've using for a long time becomes part of you and your creative process.

Maybe I can stop to spend money on markers If I almost can do the same on PC, but the freedom to play with the sketchbook, the feeling with the texture of the paper, what remembers and finally some coffee near to you is a very good place to never abandon.

Is for this my desk is analog and digital. It’s like to have a warm place near to cold place and combine them.

The jump

The truth is that fortunately the software tools have improved a lot, especially when we are talking about brushes and speed. We can express our art with very functional tools that can represent very efficiently the brush strokes, stains and what technique we are looking for.

The best way before start is learn as much as you can about the software you are going to use, in this case Photoshop, to feel from the beginning comfortable with it. And finally going deep in your interests.

Start with as much combination as you can, it’s time to discover your new tools

Translate “the analogue knowledge”

This is something with I’ve fought a lot. We need to discover with practice how translate our gestures we’ve previously learnt: the different positions of the brush, the size, pressure, speed… This kind of decisions represent the way you express yourself on the canvas and finally your style.

There are a lot of options and variations. Define a new custom brush and save it in your personal library

Some points to have in mind is:

  • It’s necessary to have a comfortable place to work so spend time in organize the different windows panels.
  • Choose the correct canvas and resolution in pixels and size in cm/inch. And don’t forget the color profile: I recommend Adobe RGB 1998
  • Brushes. Don’t lose your time now with a big library. Take the most recommended basics and some those offer you interesting shapes and textures. Finally practice with all option brushes, opacity, flow, modes...
  • Lasso, eraser, mix and smudge tool. If we combine these and brush strokes we’ll never find any limit. We can create almost each effect we want, sharpened or very lose, awesome textures until to find an almost 3D paint look.
  • Layers. You have to move very deep with the Blending Modes. Attend how each one represent better the traditional way for you. They are organized in Groups for it. Be brave to experiment and mix them through opacity to find transparency and glazing feeling or thick paint in each case. Add photo textures too to discover new possibilities.
  • Color Palette. I recommend use it with HSB sliders, at the beginning is the most familiar way to understand and combine Hue, Saturation and Color Brightness. Combine it with Color Balance and Curves panels to get and awesome control of color temperature.

You can get a traditional look if you know how select the correct tools

See how affect in the same painted piece different colors in different blending modes

Light and Color

We need to understand the difference between how we perceive the colors in a traditional media and how the screen shows them.

This could have severe consequences in the representation of the final piece, the intensity of the white etc… We’ll discover how this powerfull colors on screen lost a lot when they're printed.

Exist some options to represent this change on screen before print, but only to make an idea and possibilities. In this stage have a monitor well calibrated and printer too is the best option.

A quick example where you can discover how go from cold to warm temperature

“CTRL+Z syndrome”

Is something to take in mind when you are a lot of time doing digital stuff. The easy way to correct and improve your work leaves some mechanical movements in your memory, that you'll discover coming back to the traditional sketchbook for example.

So, Don't work with a random use of a brush waiting for the correct stroke appears, think about what you exactly want as much as you can. You have go step by step as always, of course don’t renounce to find happy accidents and go back through layers and history panel too, but have in mind always that little fear to fail that maintain us alert and concentrate.

Final thoughts

Like other fields you'll find pros and cons in the jump to digital way and the difficulties in how translate all as you know, your skills, to one place where you can’t control as much as you want from the beginning.

In this case sometimes you can find the screen as a wall, or feel you have a chain in your wirst that not allow you to move the brush with the best freedom. It’s only about adaptation and make your own experiments. Patience, You’ll discover a lot of possibilities and a new way to improve your art faster. Good Luck!

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