Digital Painting: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide

Fancy yourself an artist? Here's the ultimate step-by-step guide to becoming a 21st Century painter!

Do you want to be a digital artist, but don’t know where to start? Perhaps you’ve done a Google search before, but felt overwhelmed by all the information, or intimidated by what the authors assumed you already know.

I’ve realized that there’s not enough beginner-friendly material out there for people who want to try digital painting. That’s why I’ve put together this comprehensive guide to explain everything you need to know to get started. From the tools, software, process, and features–this guide is everything you need to jumpstart your new hobby (or career) ASAP.

Note: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. That means if you buy something, I get a small commission at no extra cost to you, to help support the blog and allows me to continue to make free content. Thanks for your support! 🙂

What Is Digital Painting?

So you might already be familiar with traditional media, such as watercolor, oils, or acrylic – and now you’re wondering.. “what is digital painting?”

Digital painting is a new medium that lets us create beautiful artwork, without the messiness of painting with inks or oils. It still requires many of the same skills and techniques as traditional painting (no, you can’t just create art at the click of a button… yet), but it’s also easier in many ways.

Instead of painting on canvas or paper, digital painting allows you to paint directly onto a computer, which has a number of amazing advantages:

  • It’s a lot less messy, and you can do it in even the smallest spaces – as long as you’ve got space to set up your tablet (and possibly a computer), you’re good to go!
  • It’s a lot faster, as you don’t need to wait for paints to dry
  • It will allow you to work faster and more creatively – you can use powerful digital tools like layers to unlock entirely new ways of working

The only things you need to get started with digital painting are a graphics tablet, and painting software of your choice.

Don’t worry if you’re unsure where to begin – in this guide I’ll walk you through it all step-by-step.

Let’s begin…

What tools do I need to get started with digital painting?

To get started with digital painting, you will need just two things: a tablet, and some painting software.

Choosing Your Hardware

There are three main categories of graphic tablets:

Graphic Tablet

Display Tablet

"All-In-One" Tablet

Graphic Tablets

These are the cheapest models, and what most artists (myself included) start out with.

They generally have just two components: a touch-pad, and a stylus (a digital pen), though fancier models will also have a number of buttons and dials along the side. Because these tablets don’t have screens, you will need a laptop or computer to plug them into (usually via a USB cable)

Pros:

  • Cheapest option, and totally good enough to get started with
  • No batteries or charging necessary
  • No screen to get damaged

Cons:

  • You have to keep your eyes on the computer screen, meaning you can't watch your hands as you paint - this can take some getting used to
  • Require a computer

Most popular models:

  • Wacom Intuos (highly recommended beginner's tablet!)
  • Huion 1060 (also a good beginner's tablet, larger but slightly less precise)
  • Wacom Intuos Pro (if you have the budget, invest in this - it's the higher-end version of the Wacom Intuos)

Pro-Tip: I would recommend you get a tablet that has a drawing area of at least 6″ x 3.7″. You’ll need this to create fluid, dynamic strokes.

Display Tablets

Got a little extra budget? Consider investing in a display tablet!

Display tablets function like graphic tablets, but with a built-in monitor. You can draw directly onto a screen, which feels more intuitive (especially when you’re used to painting on paper or canvas).

Pros:

  • Drawing on a screen feels more natural than a touch-pad
  • Allow you to work more accurately

Cons:

  • More expensive
  • May develop 'dead pixels' over time
  • Require a computer

Most popular models:

  • Huion Kamvas Pro 13 (nearly half the price of other similar models - best value for money)
  • Wacom Cintiq Pro 13" (cheaper, more portable version of the full-sized Cintiq)
  • Wacom Cintiq 22HD (one of the best tablets currently available, this is a professional tool, but unfortunately also at a professional price)

"All-In-One" Tablets

These include popular tablets like the iPad Pro or Microsoft Surface Pro. The big advantage is that you won’t need an extra laptop or computer to plug your tablet into – these are essentially a tablet and computer 2-in-1. This makes them very portable – you can take them with you wherever you go. The downside is that they are more expensive, and you have a very limited selection of software available to you. Important: If you choose to use an Apple iPad, you will also need a stylus with pressure sensitivity. The Apple Pencil has built in pressure sensitivity, but it only works with the iPad Pro – if you are using a regular iPad there are options like the Adonit Pixel Stylus.

Pros:

  • Drawing on a screen feels more natural than a touch-pad
  • Portable, no need to bring a laptop with you

Cons:

  • Fairly expensive
  • Limited software options

Most popular models:

  • iPad Pro (rapidly becoming one of the most popular tools for digital illustrators, as it allows you to use the Procreate app)
  • Microsoft Surface Pro (amazingly, you can actually run the full version of Photoshop on this tablet)
  • Wacom Mobile Studio Pro (essentially a portable Cintiq, very powerful but prohibitively expensive for most beginners)

Digital Painting Software

There are a lot of different programs available for digital painting, so to make your life easier I would suggest you get one of these three:

Adobe Photoshop

Krita

Procreate

If you’re using an iPad Pro, use Procreate. For all other devices, I’d recommend Adobe Photoshop or Krita.

Adobe Photoshop

Price: $9.99/month (on the Creative Cloud “Photography” Plan)

If you want to get serious about digital painting, I highly recommend Adobe Photoshop. It’s the most powerful software available for painting, and because it’s become the industry standard you’ll find the most training & lessons on it.

> Click HERE For a Free 30-Day Trial

Krita

Price: Free!

Krita is a free and open-source alternative to Adobe Photoshop. It’s not quite as powerful, though it’s certainly good enough to get started if you’re on a limited budget. Just be aware that you won’t find as much training on it online, and if you want to one day work professionally in an in-house studio or agency, you may need to eventually switch to Adobe Photoshop.

> Click HERE to download for free

Procreate

Price: $9.99 (one-time payment)

Procreate has been taking the art world by storm in the last few years. It’s very light-weight and easy to use, and while it’s lacking some of Photoshops features, more are being added to it all the time. Unfortunately it’s currently only available for iPad.

> Click HERE to Get Procreate

Other Software

While I recommend you stick to one of the 3 programs above, there are other options available to you. Other popular painting programs include:

Pro-Tip: At the end of the day, picking your software is a matter of preference. With enough practice you’ll be able to create professional looking artwork in any software. Based on my experiences I would recommend you pick one of 3 programs I listed above, but if you’d prefer to use another app, then go for it!

Overwhelmed? Here's What I'd Recommend...

It can be easy to get overwhelmed with the amount of choices available, and get lost down a rabbit hole of trying to find the perfect set up. My advice to you is this: don’t overcomplicate it! At the end of the day, the tools don’t make an artist, and you won’t notice a huge difference between entry-level and professional-level tablets as a beginner. Start simple! The Wacom Intuos is an inexpensive and very reliable tablet (I still use it to this day!). Pair it with Adobe Photoshop – or Krita if you’re on a budget – and you’re good to go!

Understanding Your Tools & Software

In this video, I’m going to walk you through the software interface, so you know how all of the tools work!

I’ll be using Adobe Photoshop, but you can follow along in most software – many of the tools look & behave similarly.

Note: I’ve summarised some of the most important concepts from the video, but make sure to watch the video above as there are many more lessons in it!

Canvas and Documents

The very first step of digital painting is to create a new document.
 
In Adobe Photoshop, you can do this by going to File > New Document, or by using the keyboard shortcut CTRL/CMD + N
 
Depending on your version of Photoshop, you’ll see a window with the following options:
The most important settings to remember are:
 
  • Width & Height: Use this to set the size of your canvas, in either Centimetres or Inches
  • Resolution: If you’re planning to print your artwork, use 300 Pixels/Inch. If you’re not planning to print it, use 72 Pixels/Inch – this will keep your file sizes smaller and make your computer run faster
  • Color Mode: Always start in RGB. If you want to print your artwork, you can switch this to CMYK later on.

The Software Interface

The 3 most important part of the Photoshop software interface to remember are:

  1. The Toolboxthis contains all of the tools you’ll need, like the brush, eraser, selection tools, etc.
  2. The Options Baras you select tools in the toolbox, you’ll see that the bar at the top of the window changes, giving you different options for each tool
  3. Panelsyou can mix and match the panels that you find most useful for your own workflow. For now, I recommend you start with the Brushes, Layers, and Color panels

Keyboard Shortcuts

To speed up your workflow, you should start to get familiar with using keyboard shortcuts.

Here are some of the most important Photoshop shortcuts to remember:

  • B – Select the Brush Tool
  • E – Select the Eraser Tool
  • Z – Select the Zoom Tool
  • M – Select the Marquee Tool
  • Ctrl/Cmd + T – Use the Free-Transform Tool

When you have the Brush Tool (shortcut: B) selected, there are a number of shortcuts you can access by holding the following keys:

  • Spacebar– Temporarily select Move Tool
  • Spacebar + CMD/CTRL– Temporarily select Zoom Tool
  • CMD/CTRL  – Temporarily select Eyedropper Tool

You can download a list of other useful Photoshop keyboard shortcuts here.

Making Your First Marks:

Now that you understand the interface, let’s take a look at the most important tools & concepts…

Note: I’ve summarised some of the most important concepts from the video, but make sure to watch the video above as there are many more lessons in it!

Layers

Layers can be one of the most useful features of digital painting, if you know how to use them.

By using layers, you can keep different elements of your painting separate. Whether it’s an object, a body part, a highlight or a shadow–painting them on different layers will give you the ability to tweak each element without risking the rest of your work.

The most important thing to remember about layers is this: the order that layers are listed in your Layers panel is the order they will show up on your canvas. Layers that are higher up will be placed on top of layers underneath them. You can drag and drop layers to change their order in an instant.

More resources on using layers:

Brushes & Erasers

As in traditional media, brushes & erasers are tools used to add and remove color, respectively.

The varieties of brushes used in digital painting are unlimited. In Photoshop, a unique brush stroke can be created by simply changing the brush tip, size, softness, shape, and even the pressure applied. If you miss the texture of traditional media, you can even use brushes that are designed to look like oil or watercolor!

As for erasers, they can be configured in the same way as brushes in terms of size, shape, and softness. The only difference is that they remove color instead of adding them.

More resources on using brushes:

Blending

Blending colors is essential in creating a smooth, three-dimensional effect.

There are many ways to create a blended effect in Photoshop: soft edge brush, smudge tool, and mixer brush being the most common tools. Of course, you should choose your technique based on the effect you are trying to achieve. We suggest you start by trying out various blending tools to see for yourself what fits your process and personal painting style.

To learn more about blending, take a look at this guide we’ve put together for you!

Putting It All Together: Painting Your First Masterpiece!

If you’ve made it this far, then congrats! You’re ready to start painting your very first digital masterpiece:

In this step-by-step video, you’ll learn all of the most important digital painting techniques, and use them to create a prickly painting of your own! Don’t forget to download the free exercise sheet above so you can follow along yourself.

Next Steps

Congratulations, you’ve taken the first (and most difficult) step as an artist… getting started!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this free guide, and I hope you’re feeling fired up about digital painting! If you’d like to keep learning and improving, take a look at the following resources:

  1. Browse our blog for more free tutorials, guides, and inspiration
  2. Or if you’d like to really take your paintings to the next level, check out the Digital Painting Academy!

The Academy is your one-stop-shop for mastering digital painting – full of step-by-step lessons, resources, an amazing community, and even the ability to get help and support from a seasoned instructor.

It’s the most affordable alternative to Art School – so come take a look!

Happy painting!

Subscribe to our YouTube channel for more digital painting tips, tricks and tutorials:
Leave Your Thoughts:

3 thoughts on “Digital Painting: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide”

  1. I am interested in learning how to watercolour paint digitally and wonder if this is something that is covered in the courses.

    • Hi Lois, we don’t cover digital watercolor specifically yet, sorry! Though there are a lot of watercolor brushes that you can download and install online, and many of the concepts are pretty similar 🙂

Leave a Comment



Recent Posts on Paintable:

Where Can We Send Your Free Exercise Sheet?

Join Our Newsletter And Get the Free Exercise Sheet for Our ULTIMATE Guide to Digital Painting 🎁

Your privacy is our top priority, and we promise to keep your email safe! For more information, please see our privacy policy.