How to make your digital artwork sexy & unique

Combining digital and hand-painted elements

I love creating digital artworks. Especially such that later serve as album covers. Years ago I would create everything by just using Photoshop and other digital software. However, pure digital collages never gave me 100% pleasure because, even though I’m not a pro at painting, since I was very little I always had great fun drawing, doodling and sketching.

So, that’s why I started combining both digital and hand-painted elements such as textures, paint-splats and whatever comes in handy for each piece that I am currently working on. I know it’s way easier to use pre-made stuff, stock photos, vectors and such. However, to me that’s not unique or fun enough. :)

Alright! For this example I will use a CD-cover artwork that I created for a local metal band. You can find the finished product (booklet, etc.) by visiting this project in my portfolio.

And even though eventually the band and the label did not decide exactly on this one for the front cover, it’s the one that best demonstrates the use of hand-painted elements.

I started with a simple collage to have my background ready.

Those are stock photos of a floor, a mountain + the clouds above and a texture.

To give that a little more dimension, I blurred the most distant parts, so we got this:

And here comes the fun part. The paint drips. My favorite material to use as a canvas is watercolor cardboard. The reason is the texture it has because the paint doesn’t soak into the paper surface entirely — it’s just that it has those small pores in it.

A closeup of watercolor cardboard’s surface

The paint I use is anything from watercolor, latex or acrylic — in other words, the cheapest stuff you can get from industrial stores. I like thick brushes but I also use sponges and torn pieces of cloth. Regarding the paint… Well, if you want to look fancy, you can always visit a local art shop for a small tube of acrylic… but I’ve found that for half the price you can get a fat bucket of black, red or white if you just disgrace your bohemian nature a little bit and pretend you’re working in construction business. Plus, hey, in the end — no-one will know where you actually bought your stuff from.

So, here’s my amazing and completely ingenious piece of art:

I usually hang my paper vertically and have a well-watered brush, so that the paint can drip down with a little help from the phenomenon we call gravity.

Another way of doing this is by using a damp piece of cloth, then dip it in some paint, squeeze it a little bit so that it’s not completely soakedand then press it against the surface of our canvas and let the paint go its way down. I recently had a fun with a small painting and it’s a good example of the results you get when you use that method, look:

OK. Let’s put the dripping paint texture we already have on top of the background we made. We will use the help of some PS layer blending modes and a bit of masking:

Nice, huh?

Because I already knew what my composition was going to be, I put those two backdrops with a little symbol that I made out of the band’s logo. I just wanted to have them ready and for now I would turn the Phostoshop layers/folder containing those off.

Time to get busy with the main figures in the composition. Since I didn’t have a camera back then, I was mostly loving to use the stock photos of Marcus Ranum on Deviant Art. Anyway… here’s what I got after the cutouts combined with my background:

And, when I say hand-painted elements I also mean that I have a graphic tablet. And an awesome tool called Corel Painter. It gets you some nice textures, canvases and almost any medium you’d usually use as your hardware if you were a painter yourself, only that this time it’s digitally emulated. Here’s the same thing we have above with a little hand-drawn twist in Corel Painter:

Notice the difference? Anyway, after that it was time for some custom elements which we’ll not discuss here because they were added digitally using mainly photos of different objects like gear parts and… stuff from the butcher shop.

One of the things I did myself was the candles at the top. I love painting at candlelight, so I decided to take pictures of my candles. Here’s one:

The the result so far:

Maybe you wonder why we lost the tits, right? Well, I like my art to be a bit more rough and provocative. But the band, who are really cool guys (and love tits too), decided that this didn’t match the concept of their brand new album, so we decided to give the Goddess of our front cover some decency.

And here was the time for a little bit more of that Corel Painter magic.

Yet another little trick that I have is this: when I’ve got my digital composition ready, I do some extra brush strokes around my figures. I try to cut my piece of paper in a size that proportionally matches my digital canvas.

And, since this was an artwork for a CD cover, the task is easy because it’s a square.

This way it’s easy to figure out where the figures/objects are.

Here’s an example of what I tried for this one:

In this case, when I was blending that I decided that it’s an almost unnecessary element. It just didn’t enhance my artwork in any spectacular way. Trial & error, right? But, if you look closely, you might notice that it’s actually in there. It’s just that it’s opacity is very close to zero. However, it contributed to the process of darkening the digital canvas’ edges in very nice and organic way.

Initially, I even had a more bloodier version:

I want to focus your attention on the paint that’s dripping from our angels’ faces:

Face paint shed (closeup)

For that I used some red paint-shed on black watercolor cardboard:

Original file

This is kinda logical, but I have a golden rule when painting elements like this:

If I need black paint, I use it on white paper so that in Photoshop I can use blending modes such as Darken or Multiply to isolate the parts that I want to use. And, whenever I need white or red paint, I use black paper and then blend it using the Lighten or Screen blending modes.

As you may have noticed, the one you see above has a small ‘bump’ at its top. This is because it was initially created for another artwork I had before. There, I needed to achieve the effect of blood coming out of a persons mouth and the bump was intended to emulate the model’s lower lip. This was achieved by using Plasticine and sticking that to the canvas and then letting some thick layer of paint naturally shed over that.

And, as you see, the beauty of hand-painted elements is that they can be used multiple times for many different purposes.

A note on canvas printing:

You can achieve the same, even if not better and more unique, results by first printing your digital artwork on canvas and then paint your splatters, paint-drips and other elements directly on top of it. It sounds even more fun. I once asked the great Seth Siro Anton about how he does this because he’s using a lot of hand-painted stuff. He advised me that I keep doing it the way I was used to because printing on canvas and painting on it can bring you to the point where you may not be happy with the result.
And, indeed, if you think about it — you can’t just ctrl+z it once you’ve done it. Creating your hand-crafted stuff separately is much safer in that sense. And… it’s cheaper. Printing on canvas is an expensive service and unless you very well know what you’re doing with your brush, cloth, sponge, whatever (and I’m usually not), you better avoid that.

Here are some other artworks where I used the techniques described above. Unfortunately, it was a long time ago and I think I don’t keep the original textures or other painted stuff from that period but I’m pretty sure you’ll notice where such elements were used.

Artworks for Seven Witches “Call Upon The Wicked” booklet

Those are interior artworks I made for American band Seven Witches. The painted elements here contain not only paint, but also some glue. You can view the entire project here.

And here’s another one, this time I used self-made watercolor textures:

Silverdollar - “Morte” (booklet interior artwork)

It was made for the Swedish band Silverdollar. You can view the entire project here.

If you enjoyed this article, please visit my website where you can subscribe for a weekly newsletter that includes free hand-painted textures in hi-res format, that you can use for your projects.