Learning digital art: tools and practice

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This digital portrait depicts a person with feminine features. They have long wavy hair, long lashes, and are wearing a fitted dress.
Who’s ready for a night out? Will Bright

Pick up a new hobby, and learn to do it right from the start

In the last several years, digital art has been on the rise. Lots of artists are switching from traditional mediums to learn digital skills. Starting digital art can be daunting. Sometimes it can feel like starting from the beginning of your art journey. Fret not, artists, I’m here to help you start on your journey to become a digital artist. Whether you’ve been doing traditional art for years, months, weeks, or you’re brand new to art, this article is here to help you.  

 If you watch lots of YouTube videos of digital artists, they normally use a Wacom Cintiq drawing tablet; it’s the big one with a huge screen. Non-screen tablets are better for beginners, and they aren’t nearly as pricey. My first tablet was the Wacom Intuos which cost around $90. As a beginner, I really loved this tablet. It was small so it was easy to carry around, there were four programmable buttons for me to change to my liking, and it came with a few free programs.  

If you’re looking for more buttons and around the same price, I’d get the Huion H1060P. It has 12 buttons and is roughly the same size as the Wacom Intuos and a similar price at $80. If you’re looking for something cheaper, I’d check out the Gaomon S620. It has four buttons, like the Wacom, and costs $60. 

The biggest learning curve with a no-screen tablet is the lack of screen. Using it requires good hand-eye coordination, because whenever your hand is holding the pen and tracing along the tablet, it’s going to show up on your computer screen. You have to look at whatever screen the tablet is connected to instead of the tablet. It takes some time getting used to this, but I got the hang of it in about a week and most people say the same.  

The next most popular question is what program you should use to draw. There are lots of different art programs out there, and what works for one person might not work for you. If you already have an iPad, get ProCreate. It’s $10 on the App Store and it’s one of the best programs I’ve ever used for drawing. You pay the $10 fee once, and then you have the app forever, no more payments. It’s incredibly simple to use and it’s a great program.  

My first program was Corel’s Painter Essentials, which came free with my Wacom but otherwise costs around $65. This was a great beginner program for me and is highly recommended for beginners. The brushes were simple to use, very organized, the hot-keys were easy to find and understand, and it allowed me to learn a lot about digital art. 

If you’re looking for something free, I’ve heard great things about Krita, but I’ve never used it myself. It’s known as the best free art program out there.  

If you want to drop a little something on a program not for beginners, I use Clip Studio Paint. I adore Clip Studio Paint. It’s very organized, not too difficult to understand, and has some great features. Photoshop is the industry standard, but I wouldn’t start with it. It’s expensive, has a steep learning curve, and it’s just not that good compared to options like ProCreate and Clip Studio.  

Getting back to the tablet learning curve – once you have a tablet and a program, you can start drawing. But it’s not that simple. You’ll find that, as soon as you start using the program, your art doesn’t look like it usually does on paper. That’s okay, mine didn’t either. It’s going to feel strange not seeing your hands as you draw. Start with some warm-ups every time you use the tablet. Draw some shapes until your hands feel more comfortable with it. If you want to overcome the learning curve quickly, I recommend doing math or writing with the tablet. Learn to write words and letters first like you would on paper. Once you get the hang of that, you can start drawing and it’ll feel easier than trying to draw right away.  

In my other art articles, I’ve emphasized using references, and I’m going to again. If you’re a beginner trying out a medium for the first time, don’t draw from memory. Odds are you’re going to get frustrated and want to give up – but don’t. If you’re a portrait artist like me, go to @theheadshotbox or @andybrown.photography on Instagram. Both of these accounts are UK-based headshot photographers, mainly for actors. It’s a gold mine of pictures of tons of different people with different angles, outfits, and faces. If you don’t want to start with any intense drawings of characters you know and love, try drawing some random people from these accounts. Get your feet wet by sketching people in different styles and ways until you find what you’re comfortable with. 

While we’re on the topic of references, start doing some studies – hair studies, eye studies, nose studies, body studies, any sort of study you want. Bring a picture of a person (head back to those Instagram pages if you want) into your drawing program and trace. When you’re making your art later on, avoid tracing – especially if you want to sell your art – but it’s okay now because you’re studying and learning. If you’re doing a hair study, trace out the hair from the reference. See how it feels to use that as a guideline with your new tablet and program. It also allows you to try out some of the new tools in your new program. It’s a stakes-free way to learn new things about drawing and digital art.  

If you started art traditionally like I did, use that to help you with your digital art. Take a picture of your linework for a piece, upload it to your program, trace the linework on a new layer, and delete the original layer. Then, try some things out. This is a good way to learn how to colour, paint, and render in digital art.  

Lastly, be patient with yourself. Digital art can be really frustrating, especially when your art doesn’t look like you want it to. But you’ll learn. It’s just going to take some time, and you’ll grow. The art I made four years ago when I started digital art looks nothing like the art I make now. The art I made a month into digital art didn’t look like the art I made when I first started. The art I made last year doesn’t look like the art I make now. You’ll learn and you’ll grow the more you work on your digital art. Don’t give up. I believe in you. Happy drawing! 

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