5 years ago

Basic Digital Painting Tutorial

Tutorial by Lauren Leslie

I take a fine art approach to digital painting and work with a Mac, Photoshop CS4, and a Wacom Tablet. I completed this painting in roughly 2 hours. The basics will be explained, and I’ll give you a general understanding of my methods when painting digitally.

1. Start with a sketch


This time, I’ll be creating a still life painting. The initial sketch doesn’t have to be detailed – it’s just a guide. Sometimes it helps to add shading, to help you understand your light source, but in this case I’ve just left it at the line work.

  1. After opening the sketch in Photoshop, make sure your settings are set to CYMK by going to Image > Mode > check CMYK. This is especially important if you are considering printing your work.
  2. Then make sure your image resolution is set at 300dpi by going to Image > Image Size. Again, this is important if you’re considering printing and remember that if you don’t want to print your work yourself, you can opt for online printing at MyCreativeShop.
  3. Save your Photoshop file! Save every 10–30 minutes.

I like to have the Swatches, History, and Layers panel open on the right hand side of my screen.

2. Create a gradient layer


This will help you when dealing with the light source and the overall colour atmosphere of the image.

  1. Click the New Layer icon at the bottom of your Layers panel and fill the layer with any colour (I chose white).
  2. Right click the new layer and select Blending Options. Select Gradient Overlay and create a gradient based on your light source going from dark to light.
  3. Double click the gradient to adjust the colours and angle for your chosen light source and atmosphere.
  4. Change the layer opacity in your Layers panel to 30–40% in order to see the sketch underneath.

3. Create a new layer for painting objects


This layer named Layer 2 will strictly be used for painting the objects. For the sake of simplicity, I’m not going to worry about drawing everything in the photograph.

  1. Set your round brush to 25% opacity, 100% hardness, 40–70px diameter, 100% flow, and quickly start filling in the base colours of the objects in the foreground. For more complex images I like to use layer masks to make sure the paint stays only within the pixels on that layer, but since this still life is relatively simple I’m just sticking with one layer to paint all of the objects in the foreground.

I recommend keeping your finger next to the alt key for quick colour sampling with the eyedropper tool as the image progresses.

4. Build your colours


  1. Continue to sample colours from the original image using the alt key. Bring in additional colours from swatches if your artwork starts looking murky and washed-out. Your painting will go through an odd-looking, blotchy phase as the colours get layered over each other. Keep in mind that at this point you are building the form and lighting of the objects.
  2. Set your gradient layer (Layer 1) to 100% opacity once you feel that you don’t need to see the sketch layer underneath anymore.
  3. Pause and step back to make sure the proportions of objects in the foreground are correct. You don’t want to start painting details later and realise your proportions are off.

Don’t panic if your proportions are a little off. This can be easily fixed at this stage by rebuilding that item using colours to mould it into the correct shape.

TIP! Remember that the strokes you use with your hand while painting become the foundation for the object’s texture. Paint with the gesture of the object in mind. Notice the difference in my brush stroke motions between the turtle shell and the vase to the right of it.

5. Get Detailed!


I like to work counter-clockwise, moving from area to area when painting the details. Remember your light source and pay attention to how the objects interact with each other.

  1. When making soft lines, or smooth gradients within objects, I like to set my brush to about 15–20% opacity. Sample colours using the alt key when painting values from dark to light.
  2. For sharper lines (like the frame of the sunglasses) I bump my brush opacity up to around 60–80% opacity.
  3. I created the turtle shell texture by finding a rough brush in my brush palette at the top. Make sure the brush is set to around 25–35% opacity, and simply dab blotches on the surface of the shell with pale yellows and greens that are darker than the white shell.

6. Add the background


I’m using the shaggy texture in the photo as my background.

  1. Select the round brush and set it to 30% opacity, 100% hardness.
  2. Create a new layer (I named it BACKGROUND) and move it underneath the painted objects in Layer 2. This way you don’t have to worry about accidently screwing up your foreground. Make short quick lines with your pen and layer different browns to get the shaggy texture.
  3. I duplicated Layer 1 to make the objects in the foreground more opaque so that the BACKGROUND layer doesn’t show through the objects.

7. Apply finishing touches.

At this stage I might make some adjustments to the contrast or overall colour of my layers by going to Image > Adjustments and using a few of the options available.

  1. Adjust the contrast of your objects in the new layer you made (Layer 2 copy) to the right balance, or use the Brightness and Contrast for a simpler method. Keep in mind, using Curves gives you more control but is a little more difficult to use.