How to Make Your Digital Paint More “Real”

How to Make Your Digital Paint More Real

I like painting on the computer. I think the Layers palette and the Undo button are the greatest inventions in the world. However, I don’t like to create digital-looking artwork.

By “digital”, I am referring to artwork that’s utilizes flat color, precise shapes and curves, and calculated effects. There are plenty of artists out there with this style, and some of them are pretty darn good at it, but I am simply a painter. I like all the playful messiness that it involves. You would probably understand why I don’t like working in Adobe Illustrator that much; I only use it to create some occasional line work. But the advantages of the computer are too great to ignore (not to mention there is a significant lack of clean-up time).

I am constantly working to make my digital paintings look better, richer, and more interesting. Here is a small list of tips that I’ve come up with on my continuing journey.

Digital Problems

It is extremely hard to make a good traditional-looking painting on the computer. If you don’t get it just right, it will often come out terrible. I look at some of my own paintings and know they fall short of my expectations. Paintings like this often have similar qualities:

  • The color is too flat.
  • The edges are too precise.
  • It looks too filter-y.

Take this image from my picture book Elfis, for example. I painted it digitally, and I think it shows. The color is pretty flat in places, there is obvious computer-generated effects (check out those sparkles), and there is not very much texture.

Elfis Digital Painting

Computers are neat and clean; paint is sloppy. I think the key to creating painterly artwork in the digital world is learning to introduce some variation, and trying to find the right balance between order and chaos. In other words, you have to learn how to “mess up” your painting, without taking it too far.

5 Ways to “Mess Up” Your Digital Painting

  1. Add texture.

    This is probably the quickest and most effective way to create some more visual interest in your painting. Overlay textures onto your backgrounds and create your own textured brushes so the color doesn’t end up so flat.

    Add texture
  2. Put variety in your color.

    Do this by blending your colors as your painting. Lower the opacity of your brush to let the base color show through your stroke. Avoid the temptation to just pick a color on your palette and filling in your entire shape with it.

    Variety of color
  3. Paint in layers.

    When you are painting traditionally, you will often build up the painting gradually using layers and layers of paint. Use the same philosophy on the computer – start with a base color; work dark to light or light to dark and gradually build up your color, rather than painting it solid. Let each layer show through the next, and be mindful of the direction and shape of your brushstrokes. This will create a more random surface that will make your painting more interesting.

    Paint in layers
  4. Keep it sketchy.

    On the computer, it’s really easy to make a nice and neat painting, with straight lines, solid colors, and nice hard edges. If you wanted to, you can zoom in on your painting to the nth degree and make sure every pixel was in its proper place. But if you want to create a more traditional feel, you can’t be afraid to be a bit messy. Give your edges some texture. Paint outside the lines. Avoid the temptation to paint away every imperfection until the painting feels bland.

    Keep it sketchy Keep it sketchy Keep it sketchy
  5. When at all possible, just paint it.

    Gradients make it really easy to overlay a color over your sunlit sky. You can use a filter to create a number of quick painterly effects. However, these shortcuts will often leave your image looking just like what it is – computer-generated. So, before you use a nifty computer trick in your painting, consider how much aesthetic appeal you are sacrificing for the convenience. If you need to put a light source in your painting, the spotlight filter just looks too fake; if you want to put some value into your face, you will lose a lot of color variation if you rely on the dodge and burn tools; and when you are blocking in a color, the magic wand is not always the right answer. Paint it in yourself.

    Just Paint It

I am still learning new things every day as I continue to paint on the computer. It is a continuing process that is always evolving. So, next time you sit down with your Wacom tablet, don’t let your traditional skills fly out the window…really think about what makes paint interesting and infuse your digital work with these qualities.

Questions or comments? Be sure to leave feedback on if you have anything to add.