Thoughts and tips on digital painting and painting in general

This tutorial is actually more a collection of useful tips about digital painting which, I believe, all people starting out in this area should know.. It's based on my old tutorial but highly expanded and with many more tips and pictures. I used the same picture to show the progress although not because it's perfect but because it's got some flaws, correction of which is an important part of this text.. I hope you'll find it all useful :)

First things first. Idea and reference pictures. I use them whenever I try to paint something more realistic or something I never painted before, just to make sure all the proportions, lights and such are okay.. Lately I actually don't use any direct references, I only look up certain parts of things I need (for example a photo of some specific kind of flower or the way feet may look from some angle) but in this case I'm using an older artwork to show the creative use of a whole photo as a reference.

And here's the tricky part - do NOT paint ON the pictures.. The result may seem better at first but it won't teach you anything.. Not to mention it's usually very easy to tell the picture was over painted or traced, especially when you're fairly new to digital art (and nobody likes cheaters ;)).. Most of the time I rarely look at the reference photo's but when I do, I'm just checking if everything looks all right.. Some of them, like this girl's pic here, I'm putting in a small version on a different layer. In this case I needed that to base the shading on something.. Smaller version are better - stops the urge to paint on the picture ;) and you can move it to the place you need to focus on..

Another tricky part is - never try to copy the picture very closely.. There's no reason to do it, it will just look as you were painting on it. Make a sketch while looking at the photo, but never directly on it. I'm using all my references exactly as.. well.. references.. Look at the photos and my pic - it doesn't look like a photo manipulation.. Which is good.. unless you want to make a photo manipulation, but in this case you chose the wrong tutorial ;) Although while looking at this artwork now I can tell that I followed some of the lights on the reference pictures too blindly and left the general lighting of the image too unspecified in many place

As for choosing the photos.. I do it before and when I'm painting.. Just because I never really have a strict concept.. The ideas come and go while I'm painting. My magical source of photos is ;).. In this case I typed various words like: "swamp, moon, moon sky, dusk, water lily". I've ran through thousands of photos which is handy as it also taught me a lot about colours and how they mix together.. A good idea is to open some pics in Photoshop (or some other program) and check colours with the eye dropper tool.. You'd be surprised how different colours make a good colour scheme.. Or how similair colours give you big contrasts.

And now for something about the program in which you're going to paint the picture in. I painted this one in Open Canvas, using watercolor (with various settings of opacity and flow) and the pen tool, but it can be done, exactly the same way, in Photoshop and Painter (right now I'm actually using Painter 7 and have been for many months, doing some minor touch up's in Photoshop later, so I can guarantee it's not THAT important which program you're using). If you're painting in Photoshop the matching tools will be some standard brush with settings changed depending on what you're painting.. For details it'll be a small brush, with high opacity and flow, for painting the body and the background it'll be a big brush with small opacity (like ~30%) and small flow.. It's not like you can paint a picture using only one brush.. You have to keep changing the size of it often in any program you use (doesn't matter if it's Photoshop, Painter or Open canvas).. NEVER use dodge & burn tools to paint your pictures.. this is a common newbie mistake because it's so easy and looks so nice at first but look- you're not really painting with it, you're just making only ONE colour darker or lighter and there's no such thing in nature that consists of only one shade. Remember that digital painting is PAINTING, not using some magical tricks and brushes ;)

Also - a tablet. It's not necessary, it doesn't do anything more but its just more comfortable then using a mouse. A mouse makes painting faster because of its pen pressure - means you don't need to change the size of the brush so often and a pen itself is more comfortable to hold in hand than mouse.. but other than that - it does nothing more. I have to admit that if you're seriously thinking about digital painting it'd be really hard to do it without a proper tablet, but don't ever believe that the quality of the artwork itself has anything to do with that. Another very helpful thing you should remember are the shortcuts common to most programs (I tested them in Photoshop 7 and Painter 7). While having a brush selected holding it with left ALT will switch it to eyedropper tool, with left CTRL you can move current active layer, with these two [ ] you change the size of your brush and also holding SPACE let's you move the whole picture (very useful when zoomed), CTRL +/- zooms in and out.. using all of these makes your work 100% faster and you can focus on painting only.

Another thing you need to do is to choose a general colour scheme or just some background colour.. Check the image with skintones and background samples pasted previously to see how big difference the background makes. It won't be needed if you're colouring the comic drawing, but when you're painting with many colours it will be more or less transparent and also you have to make sure all of them match together. The sketch can be terribly messy, it won't be used for nothing more than just guidelines later. After placing some basice shades and shapes in colours there comes the hardest part - refining the shades.

Compare these two.

It looks simple, but took quite a lot of time of painting over and over, blending colours of different shades to make it look good. There are no tricks here - you just have to have some patience and blend all of it together, mix colours and shades until you're satisfied

And here's another tip - paint on a big canvas size in big resolution (200-300dpi). Bigger than you plan the pic to be. Why? Because if the resolution is high the picture will have a higher quality and, can be printed later (300dpi is a setting for printing pics in magazines and books, it's the amount of pixels you get per inch.. so 72dpi is enough for your website portfolio, but being such low amount, it would look really bad when printed). Also if the picture is bigger you can approach it in a similar way to a full size traditional drawing - with lots of lines and dots which create better effects than blurring and smudging colours on the small pic. Look at the close-ups.. This is how it looks in 100%, but when you see it in 80% it looks good, yet not blurred

Basically all you do now is painting over and over.. Refining the shades.. Do not use too many shades of colours though.. That's what I do often and the painting looks "too finished", so I often have to paint some colour
on to it, to make it look smoother.

Another important thing is - don't use black. Black is the color which doesn't exist in nature, looks good in the comic drawing, but not in the painting which is a mixture of various shades of one colour.. If some parts are so dark that they look black I'll add it later. In general I'm using very dark shades of colours which look almost black, but still has their own saturation.

The next step is to paint some background, it'd be smarter to paint some of it at the beginning and just refine it later but as this was one of my first paintings I was still thinking too much in lines not shapes about it. I decided she'll be sitting in the swamp, so I just painted lots of brown-green lines, then I refined them with some smaller lines and painted "shadows" of plants. Then I added some colours to the outlines of plants. Remember that the brush you're using must be partly transparent so the colours can mix together like with traditional brushes.

Then I'm painting the rest of the background - look at the reference pics I've pasted at the top of this tutorial. They're different, but you can see how I've been using them to see how looks the line of the coast etc. I try not to use too many layers, because with too many you can easily loose the trace of the picture.. When I paint something detailed I use up to 3 - 4 layers to get it right and experiment but after that I merge them, so all the time I have max. 5 - 6 layers..

When painting the sky, I looked at the colours from the reference pic, but added more greens and painted it in warmer shades, also a bit less contrast and darker so it matches the mood of the picture. I'm painting not the reference image. If it'd be exactly like on the reference pic it'd look too artificial. Also I painted more clouds too make it look more dreamy. Then I painted the moon. Basically it was just a round shape on which I painted darker dots and then erased most of it with low opacity eraser. This is also the moment when I add some details like water lily and change / refine some other.

And here's the last part - highlights and colour check. As you can see the source of light in this picture comes from different angles, so I added small but really visible lights on the "edges" of the woman and the plants. I usually paint lights on a new layer. Don't forget that the colour of lights is NOT white, same as the colour of the shadows is NOT black. Never. In this case I used some orange. For better effects change the mode of the layer from normal to soft light or screen (just experiment with it to find the best effect)..

After you think it's all done it's really useful to check how it looks in greyscale mode.. Why? Because it shows you which places need more lights and which are too dark. While you don't see all the colours you can just focus on the intensity of shades.. Another useful trick are Photohop levels.. Try SHIFT + CTRL + L for auto levels (or play with levels - CTRL + L) in Photoshop.. it will probably give you a strange result, definitely too contrasty, but you'll see what kind of levels would be good for a photograph with such colours and might give you the idea how to change them some more if needed

Also flip your image horizontally at least once - it will show you mistakes which you wouldn't notice without it. The best thing to do is to do it with the first sketch you have and check colours in greyscale mode in the very early stage of the colouring progress.. The very first thing you'll have to learn when painting is to SEE what you paint. It's not that easy as it sounds. Usually people can see other's mistakes but not their own. The moment I started seeing how many I make (some time after this old swamp lady picture here) was the one when I made the biggest progress. When some time will pass you'll notice (just as I noticed) that flipping or changing the mode of the image will be just a bit helpful not irritating that you didn't notice all of that before..

I hope you found all of that useful and good luck with your paintings!

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