How to learn digital painting for beginners

Some of my digital painting work from early to later.

A few years ago I wrote an article about the best digital painting software for beginners. It has proved the most popular article I’ve written here on Medium, so I’ve decided I should write more about the subject.

Digital painting is a huge subject and is very popular these days. Despite this, finding good beginner level tutorials on the subject is still not that easy unless you know where to look. When I started out painting digitally back in 2004 I learned very slowly and randomly on my own by creating personal digital artworks. Before that I had been using traditional mediums like pen and pencil because I’ve always liked to draw.

One of my pre-digital pictures from 2004 in done with fine liner pen

I was into Lord of the Rings, mythology and folklore so elves and fairy’s were my main subject matter back then. I also used to write little stories about a character called Jane the Elf. There used to be a website called Elfwood which was my favorite online art place to go for a while.

Princess Mee (from a poem by Tolkien) in Pastels

Here is some of my early digital work (The three little pigs was my first Photoshop Illustration).

Some of my really early digital work- three little pigs and Jane the Elf

There were not as many resources about learning digital painting back then, but there was ImagineFX magazine from 2006 onward and the CG Society website. I still read ImagineFX from time to time. It is a good magazine to get an overview of digital art. They usually focus on a particular use or industry per edition such as book illustration, game art, animation etc.

My art gradually improved the more I practiced and I saved up with money from a Data Entry job and bought a Wacom Tablet around 2006 which gave me more pressure sensitivity control.

Snail Mail- My brother posed for me for this one.

I also used to visit art community's such as GFX Artist and CGhub, which have long since expired. Occasionally other digital artists would share tips. The Don Seegmiller book on digital painting was one of the first I bought on the subject, although it was a little advanced for me at the time. I didn’t even know what “blocking in” meant let alone anything else in that book, but the pictures were inspiring at the time. I spent a lot of money on art related books through the years…and other than that I practiced whenever I could.

The Aztec Apocalypse (2007)

In the later years I spent more time making studies and practice work rather than full illustrations because I was becoming less inspired by fantasy subjects than I had been. I kept practicing until in 2012 I went cold turkey on digital art for a while. I did an art course later and got my mojo back again eventually.

Eye and lip studies using Corel Painter
Digital painting face studies
Studies in Corel Painter
Studies in Corel Painter

Here are some general tips in no particular order about learning digital painting which I can relate to you from my personal experience, successes and failures. I had to start again with digital painting after a few years of a break from it not that long ago around 2015, so I will share some personal insight as well.

Learn the user interface

When I’m learning new art software the first thing I do is learn the user interface (UI) of the program. I usually explore the menu options, learn the main functions of the software and then try to create something with it. Getting past the technical hurdle of learning software can be time consuming and frustrating, but it is worth it in the long run. I’ve used various digital art software over the years from photo editing, digital painting, vector and even 3D software. Digital painting and photo editing using Photoshop and Corel Painter is something I started to do around 2004, vector art around 2015 and 3D art very recently just in the last year or so.


Different types of software’s have there own particular quirks and learning curves to overcome until you can start being creative and have fun with them. My advice would be to choose one or two programs at maximum and learn them well before trying others. This eliminates possible confusion with the learning process. Once you have learned one digital painting software well, you can usually apply the same skills to other digital painting software.

What I can say from personal experience is do try different software now and then. I used to only use Corel Painter for a long time, but after I tried Photoshop and other programs after my art course finished (end of 2014) I realized what I had been missing.

Nowadays for digital painting I mainly use Photoshop (CS3 version), Krita and Clip Studio Paint. Krita and Clip Studio Paint are lovely to work in, but I have lots of brushes for Photoshop that I still like to use as well. Photoshop is worth having because there are so many resources and brush sets available for it. As a student you may be able to get it at a discount.

Depending on the style I want to achieve I may use more specialized software such as Rebelle, ArtRage or Expresii from time to time. I try not to limit myself too much. I think Krita is great for beginners by the way because it has a great set of brushes which are nice to use from the start. You only need a few basic brushes to start with, don’t get too worried about having the latest or most popular ones, it gets expensive. Ultimately it is not the software or the fancy brushes that will make you a good artist but the hours of focused practice you put in.

Learn the context

At first I wasn’t very focused and I didn’t think too much about things like foundational art skills or whether I could earn a living as an artist. My initial reason for learning digital art was as a creative and fun activity. This in itself is a valid reason to do any form of art including digital painting. It kept me going for some time until I lost inspiration in fairy's at least. You don’t have to accept what I’m going to say in the next paragraph, but I’ll offer it for your consideration here.

After I had been doing digital painting for a few years and started to get better at it I also gained more negative feedback online and offline. I eventually got discouraged with my progress and dissolusioned about art in general and became a lot less inclined to upload my art. I had low confidence about art and illustration in general after being told it was “pie in the sky” by “advisors” at my local job center. My family was not very supportive until much later on during the art course. In short my motivation was lacking.


Due to this experience, I believe learning about what a particular skill can do for you is very important to start with. This information could be useful if you need to justify it to your family or yourself at some point, and as a way to bolster your resolve for learning it in general. It also helps you form a plan of action for learning it in a focused manner that suits your current level rather than wasting your time. I now like to establish early on what the skill is potentially useful for and try to find good beginner level resources until I commit to learning it in any depth. It avoids getting discouraged with overwhelming or complicated information that is more suited to advanced users.

As a side note to this I would also say be wary of early critisism from complete strangers when you are starting something new because it can be more discouraging than helpful for a beginner. Having positive feedback and encouragement from people who have your best interests in mind is better for motivation.

So with that out of the way and off my chest so to speak, you may ask (or your family may ask): what is the point of learning digital painting? This question could have many different answers depending on whom you asked because it is a huge subject and is used in different ways. I think digital painting is a worthwhile skill to develop for the following reasons:

It is useful for texture painting 3D models; concept art; art for computer games; illustrations; digital fine art that you can sell as prints; comics and graphic novels; t-shirt designs and decorated products. It is convenient for making edits, flexible and affordable.

I could probably write a whole article just on this question so I’ll stop there for now in case I want to do that. Type the question into Google or ask some working digital artists, concept designers and illustrators nicely and you will find there are many good reasons for doing it and getting proficient at it.

Find a community and or mentor

I understand this is a good thing to do for motivational and personal reasons. It ties in with the previous section as well. If you can find good role models and other artists to inspire you that can only be a good thing. Even better if they take you under their wing and guide you. Doing a guided course with a tutor who will give you feedback could be a way of achieving this. There are many online artists who offer guidance to groups of beginners via Patreon or Discord servers. If you can’t afford that then buy one of their books, watch their YouTube channels and listen to their podcasts for a while until you can.

Focus on foundational art skills

Learning the foundational art skills will make the process of learning digital painting more focused for you and help you in the long run when you have to draw complicated cityscapes and environments and thousands of angry skeletons attacking a pink cyber dragon or something like that. Developing a tried and tested method or technique for creating digital artwork will also help you (I used to create artwork and then forget how I’d done it). I wrote a short article on the art fundamentals some time ago here:

Digital painting is something you can apply your traditional art skills to, it is only another tool like any art medium. Initially my art tutors were skeptical of my art skills because of their pre-conceptions about digital art (another subject I don’t want to go into right now…).

I went back to practicing with traditional mediums from 2013–2015 and after that I started to focus more on my foundational art skills which has improved my drawing ability and has given me new ideas to apply to my digital work.

Some of my digital paintings from this year (2019)- done using Krita
Digital painting studies from 2018 done in Clip Studio Paint.

Have fun

Another thing that is very important to me when I’m learning a new skill is the fun factor. What kept me going with digital art for so long was not the prospect of earning money one day because I didn’t really think or know about that side of it, but the fun aspect in creating fantasy creatures for my stories which I used to write and sharing art on the internet with like minded people. It helps to cultivate your personal passions and interests and somehow apply them to your learning process. I know lots of people badmouth things like Anime and fan art but for beginners this is often how they started. My twin sister, Katherine certainly did. Who knows, maybe you will get noticed by your art heroes one day like she did.

I now do this in the form of creating personal projects like my Tale of Stone project: a world building project I started in the final year of my Foundation Art Diploma. I used it as a way to get back into digital painting and Illustration and learn 3D software as well.

Digital Illustrations for my final major project in the last year of my art course

Find good resources

Books and online resources are plentiful these days. Just look on Youtube and you will find loads of videos for digital painting techniques. Gumroad is a growing resource of amazing tutorials for concept art and digital painting.

ArtStation now has an online marketplace where working industry level concept artists upload tutorials and resources affordable for most budgets. Udemy and Skillshare are also popular online choices.

However for a complete beginner to the subject this abundance of resources could be far from helpful without a guide or curriculum to follow. It could even slow your progress and waste your time and money if you do courses that are not appropriate for your level or goals.

I’ve listed some resources for beginners to digital painting below which are good starting points to give you a broad idea of the things you will need to study. Be open to different approaches from different people but if something is not working for you be prepared to try a different things until something clicks for you. There is no one way of doing anything… Try to find teachers or resources that offer to teach you in styles that appeal to you and your goals and are not over critical but supportive in their approach.

If you want to make your digital painting look like traditional art for example, you should study traditional art techniques as well. A popular style of digital art is the “handpainted” style which might be a good thing to start your research with.

Online Resources

CTRL +Paint

Created by Matt Kohr this is a free resource for beginners to digital painting. The focus is on techniques using Photoshop, however the techniques can be used in any digital painting software.

Draw a Box

If you want to learn foundational art skills this place is a worthwhile (and free) resource to check out. Drawing skills are useful no matter whether you want to learn digital painting, 3D or vector art.

Phils Design Corner

Philip Dimitriadis is currently head of the Digital Art Department at Fullerton College, supervising the Entertainment Arts Program. He makes very good videos on digital painting and concept art and shares them on his YouTube channel. This is YouTubes best kept secret as far as I’m concerned. Some of the video lectures on this channel are better than paid courses I’ve watched in my opinion.

Here are some paid for courses that I’ve heard are good:

CG Cookie

CG Cookie has beginner level tutorials for digital painting and 3D techniques. It also has a supportive community where you can get feedback on your work. I used CG Cookie to help learn the basics of Blender and I did some of the digital painting exercises as well as a refresher, so I can personally recommend this as a resource.

SVS Learn

SVS Learns focus is on Children’s Illustration and visual storytelling, but it has some great beginner level courses for digital painting and a really supportive community forum and podcast which might help keep you motivated and on track with your learning. A few years back I did some of the courses here and they were useful. I still visit the forum from time to time as well.

I wrote about online schools for doing digital art in an earlier article here as well if you want to have a look:

Aaron Blaise

Aaron Blaise is a very awesome artist who uses digital and traditional mediums. He has a course for digital painting in Photoshop for beginners to advanced users.

Books

Some good books I can recommend are:

How to Render by Scott Robertson

How to Draw by Scott Robertson

Color and Light by James Gurney

Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist by James Gurney

The Skillful Huntsman- a wonderful book on world building and visual development that is always inspiring to read

Any of the Andrew Loomis books

Software specific:

Digital Painting with KRITA 2.9: Learn All of the Tools to Create Your Next Masterpiece by Scott L Petrovic

Practice Make Perfect

This is probably the most important step in learning how to do digital painting or anything else. Watching tutorials and reading books will help you understand the context of what is possible and how to best apply yourself, but making sure you do the practical exercises and practice your skills is essential. Remember to take breaks and be easy on yourself though. When I’m learning something new I tend to have an obsessive approach and I can wear myself out mentally and physically if I’m not careful. Just remember to have fun and don’t forget to talk to your friends and family, wash, exercise and eat something now and then.

Repetitive strain injury, illness and backache is no laughing matter and will impede your progress. I use a standing desk setup nowadays. It also has the added benefit of taking up less room (because I don’t have much). Sitting down hunched over a tablet for years ruined my back and it was expensive and time consuming to fix. You have been warned…

The standing desk…


Disclaimer: This article mentions 3rd party links and resources. I am not being asked, paid or sponsored to write this article, I like to write these articles because it helps me learn about the subject more and I like sharing information if it’s useful. My illustration portfolio website is at thimblefolio.com.