Conquering Digital Art

Getting Started in Digital Art

Conquering Digital Art
The many disciplines of Digital Art

I regularly write new articles for members of our four wonderful art communities on Facebook, The Artists Exchange, The Artists Directory, The Artist Hangout and The Artists Lounge. This week, we look at getting started in digital art, where do you begin and how do you decide which of the many digital art disciplines is for you!

No PhD required…

Have you ever wanted to create digital art but find that the subject is often wrapped in layers and layers of geeky terminology and you have an inkling that you need a PhD in computer science before you are allowed to join the club? Let’s bust the first myth, a PhD isn’t going to be that useful to you when you create most digital art, maybe even any, and it’s certainly nowhere near the lowest price of admission to get into the business of creating digital art.

Even the creative industry more widely isn’t quite so enamoured as it once was with formal qualifications, today it is all about having a strong portfolio and knowing that you can get the job done. Where formal qualifications are needed, they’re often in other subjects, the tech is the tech, and the tech is also a different industry from being a creative, that being said, if you work for yourself it will more than likely be you who not only has to create but also has to fix the tech when it all goes a bit wonky!

That said, it can’t be overstated anywhere near enough that digital art requires you to have a broadly similar skill set to a traditional artist with the added need to fathom out things like DPI and whether or not that two-year-old, one-time powerhouse of a computer sitting in the corner of your room can still handle whatever you throw at it.

There is another myth we might need to bust before we move too far on, and that’s the one that digital art is really easy. The mere fact that the word ‘art’ appears at all in that sentence should indicate that it isn’t necessarily easy. I don’t think I have come across anything related to art that by default is ever easy, but equally, digital is a lot more forgiving than painting using a traditional medium, sometimes.

There are other times when it is a case of hand me a brush and let’s all get back to analogue, especially when a rogue software update decides to add its own touches to your work, or worse, deletes it just because the software and the hardware can play with your mind in ways you would never have thought remotely possible. I have lost count of the dodgy updates sent out by seemingly brilliant development teams that have meant me having to take some drastic action to recover the computer let alone the work.

Don’t let any of that put you off having a go though. Digital art is one of the most fulfilling disciplines and mediums of art that you could ever hope to find. It can be really difficult, complicated, challenging, or it can be very simple. It all depends on what you want to produce and how patient you are while you learn the rest. One word of warning, once it sucks you in, it becomes one very long and winding rabbit hole that is difficult to escape from. 

Ring Tailed Lemur by Mark Taylor
My Ring-Tailed Lemur artwork available here!

We need to be clear on what digital art is and isn’t too, often it is seen as something as simple as having some kind of painting program or app installed on a computer or phone and it can be, but it can also be much more than that. Whenever I speak to artists and non-artists who have never tried creating digitally and who don’t really pay too much attention to the technology, they’re often bewildered by the multitude of disciplines that come under this broad umbrella, we call digital art and many are surprised to find that there is no single magic button that reads your mind and reproduces whatever you are thinking and turning it into a masterpiece at the same time. Technology is getting better but we are nowhere close to where some people think we are.

I am purposely not going to cover every application you might want to use, each app or platform merits its own post to cover the upsides and downsides, I will do that in the coming weeks though so you can quickly find the app or program you need to create what you want to create. There really is little point in spending a heap of money only to find out that what you purchased isn't going to help you create what you have in mind. What I have done is provide a screenshot from some of the iPad apps I consistently use and I have placed each screenshot next to the style of art the app is most suitable for. Believe me when I say I have spent many years trying them all!

Do you know your voxels from your vectors?

Digital art encompasses so many different disciplines and most of these disciplines need the artist to have at least some level of understanding of the basic principles of creating art. Colour theory, perspective, shading, mixing, and drawing and sketching skills are useful too. When you decide on the style of art you want to create, you need to think carefully about what you need in order to reproduce that style in a digital format. You also need to think carefully about budgets too, on the surface it might appear that you can create millions of pieces of art forever more for free, in practice, that couldn’t be further from the truth and the further, you dive in, the more traditional art supplies start to look like a bargain.   

Selecting your tool of choice…

Not every digital art program will do the same sorts of things. Some apps and programs are developed to focus on only a very limited range of styles and there isn’t a single app or program that does absolutely everything in terms of creating digital art. My own process usually entails using as many as a dozen or so different applications to create a piece of art, equally, I might just use a single app or program depending on what the finished piece needs to be and what it will be used for.

It’s worth checking out a few styles before you get started and commit to creating digital work, the last thing you want is to invest time and money in any kind of technology and apps only to find out that the style of art you wanted to produce just isn’t going to be possible on your device of choice using software that was designed to create art in an entirely different style.

Time to bust another myth right about here, if you are looking for a program that will do everything for you, perhaps just by loading a photograph or hitting a button called create, we’re a step-or three away from what digital art really is. Those kinds of apps and programs do exist and some of them will produce some amazingly artistic and even at times, even sellable results, although the quality they produce for printing often leaves a lot to be desired, some are perfect for screen displays but can be too compressed for professional printing. 

Those kinds of apps are fun, they might spark a wider interest in digital art even if they are a little limited and they will keep you entertained at least for a while, but I’m not sure we can get close to calling them tools for digital artists in the truest sense. That’s not always the fault of the app, the developers have to create something that fits within the limits of the device and for a specific audience who don't really care much about the differences between a voxel and a pixel!

One of the most common myths is that even today, there is a smaller cohort of people who believe that digital art is super-easy and requires little in the way of artistic skill, and thanks to the one or two button-press creator apps, it can be. Some disciplines of digital art are easier to get to grips with than others, but there are also disciplines that require a seriously high level of technical and artistic skill that might take years of experience and skills-building to fully master. So what are they?

Disciplines of digital art…

Computational Art – This is really how I cut my teeth in digital art back in the early eighties, although for some it’s relatively new terminology, the basis of it though has existed for many years. Art is an open set of ways of acting inventively in culture and when combined with computers in a systematic way it becomes computational art. Yes, it’s a thing and yes, you can even partake in a degree program which will still only provide you with a foundation. At its core, computational art is about creating the computer code that generates an artwork, although you can use computational art to produce complex art installations and not just pretty pictures.

computational art by Mark Taylor
Some of my computational art from around six years ago! This piece was commissioned as a demonstration work!

If you fancy going down this route then expect to have to learn about Open Source programming environments such as processing OpenFrameworks, P5.js and Arduino and learning computer languages such as C++, Java, and JavaScript.  

Is it easy? It’s certainly not for the faint of heart. Tackling coding is essential and you will either have some kind of leaning towards this kind of creativity or you won’t, it’s not something that can be mastered in minutes or hours, but certainly over the space of a couple of years you would become highly proficient, the rest will be down to gaining experience. Computational art doesn’t always involve the use of computers and screens, some artworks are produced using 3D printers, laser cutters, robotics, wearable technologies, and Virtual Reality, and learning Computational art usually involves learning about paint, sculpture and textiles too.

My very first digital art was created on a Sinclair ZX81 (sold as the Timex Sinclair 1000 – TS1000 in The USA) and that was back in 1981 and I programmed it in a language called BASIC. Those who once owned one of the first home computers in the late seventies and the early eighties will remember it with fondness. Today, BASIC isn’t really used outside of hobbyists and those with a nostalgic interest in retro tech, so I was surprised last year when I was asked to check some BASIC code on a system that was still being used some thirty-something years after it had been installed, I was even more surprised that I could remember how to use it!

Mathematical based art – 

We’re certainly getting the difficult ones out of the way at the beginning. Mathematical art is another discipline of digital art that takes a special kind of person who really loves playing around with lots of numbers and decimal points. If you are anything like me, it’s probably not for you but it is really interesting. Honestly. I’m just not into numbers and I am hopeless at math that involves the use of many letters.

Whilst there are plenty of apps and programs that will produce things like fractal art relatively easily, at its core, mathematical art encompasses many different disciplines and is another branch of computational art so some of the same principles apply and the results are often some beautifully chaotic images. The good news for those of us who don’t really like crunching numbers is that many of today’s digital art programs utilise technologies that produce similar (but definitely not the same) kinds of results through the use of procedural and particle brushes which are based on a similar but not quite the same as, concept.

Tessellation and Kaleidoscopic art – 

Things start to become a little simpler with these disciplines but with that said, the bar for simple has been set by the two earlier entries above. Radial, Mandala, mirror, symmetry, are all disciplines of tessellation and kaleidoscopic art forms and many digital art packages will have some flavour of tool that allows a simple way to generate pretty great results. There are more specialist applications that focus firmly on these two areas and these are much more adept at creating tessellations and produce significantly better results than you would get from using a more casual feature in a broader digital arts program or app, but the learning curves can generally fall between difficult and dang near vertical with the specialist apps.

Thankfully, more apps such as iOrnament Pro and Amaziograph make it easier if you are using an iPad Pro, anything less than a Pro might produce some erratic results, and even here, it helps if you have at least a basic understanding of symmetry, spatial awareness, and colour theory and maybe a little knowledge of maths, totally necessary, no, but useful when you are creating symmetrical artworks.  

iOrnament Pro iPad app
iOrnament Pro - make sure to get the Pro version - available in the App Store

Vector-based art – 

this is where things begin to get a little easier, to understand at least a little more quickly. Vector-based applications are really about scale and they’re ideal for those who can’t quite make their mind up when selecting a starting size and they’re useful for many other situations too. Whenever you need to produce an image that doesn’t lose quality or produce pixelated edges (jagged lines and blocks) when increasing or decreasing the image size, they’re the only way to go to get good results. Vectors are especially useful for typographic work, leaflets, flyers, logos, posters, and they’re especially suited for design.

Most of the vector-based apps tend to work in a similar way to applications such as Photoshop, often sharing similar tools and terminology and you don’t always need the heavy-hitting equipment that you would when creating pure computational art. That said, you will still need something with slightly more raw processing power than the Apollo moon landings had. That’s not overly difficult, most calculators have more power than we had to send humans to the moon, but you will need something that is at least a mid-spec reasonably modern PC, tablet or Mac. It will depend once again on what you are creating but the great thing about vectors is that the image will scale so you don’t necessarily need to have large canvases on the device you create the work on.  

Vector-based art is a good all-rounder but it does have some limitations. It’s difficult to produce painterly effects and fades, and vectors are made up from paths rather than pixels that you would find in a raster-based application. Vectors are also less forgiving because the images are so crisp, any imperfections become exponentially obvious when you start to scale up. File sizes tend to be much smaller than raster-based files, the file simply contains information about geometric primitives, points and lines, scaling doesn’t increase the file size because there will always be the exact same number of primitives. This is very different from a raster-file, where a 300x300 pixel image will be created from 90,000 pixels, so file sizes increase as more pixels are needed. File formats between raster and vectors are very different too.

Affinity Designer iPad PC and Mac
Affinity Designer - Available on iPad Pro, PC and Mac - I use this more than Illustrator!

How do you decide between vector and raster? If you need a clean image or one that needs to be scaled, vectors are the way to go. However, vectors really don’t handle detail very well, they’re just lines and points. If you are working on detailed work, raster’s are the way to go, although with some apps you can create pixel layers alongside the vector layer and this produces some fantastic results.

Raster based art – 

Most popular graphic applications are raster-based, the crucial difference from vectors is that whilst vectors are paths, rasters are pixels and the file formats are probably formats you have heard of such as png, jpg, bmp, gif and a multitude of others depending on the export options of the app.

In terms of ease, raster-based programs and apps tend to be much more user friendly, it’s a slightly easier format to learn and it is a good all-rounder but it also has its downsides. Scaling falls somewhere between difficult and impossible, pixelation can happen just as much by reducing the image size as it does by increasing it, so you have to be a little more exact from the off.

In terms of function, raster-based applications are much better at allowing you to produce a myriad of different effects. Painterly effects are a breeze and if you have a decent application, you can usually import your own brushes or brushes from Photoshop. Creating your own brushes is becoming easier all the time, apps such as Procreate (iOS, iPadOS) allow you to create in the brush studio and Adobe Capture allows you to turn a simple sketch into a brush which you can then import.

Procreate iPad art
Procreate is my go-to application for raster-based art, looks simple and hides a heap of features. This is without doubt best in class.

Voxel-Based Art – 

Imagine virtual Lego or the game of Minecraft and suddenly you know exactly what a voxel is. Essentially, it is 3D pixel art and can be used to create anything from artworks to 3D models. The downside is that it is blocky, but it is also perhaps the entry-point to the world of pure-bred 3D modelling. You can get some quite unique creations out of using it and it isn’t overly challenging to learn. Its use is fairly limited but it will have its place in some design works and it is exceptionally useful in the creation of video game graphics.

Can it produce marketable art, yes. There are collectors of voxel art and there is a lucrative market that has plenty of opportunities for those who want to get into designing graphics for video games but if you are thinking of creating what I would term as really useful 3D, software such as Blender and Maya are going to bear more fruit. The downside with both of those is that the learning curve once again varies between vertical and stupendously difficult at times, at least until you begin to understand the basics. Form, light, reflection, shading and texture will at that point become essential skills that you will need in your skillset.

Pixel art – 

I mentioned pixel art briefly when I wrote about voxels, pixels are the 2D versions and perhaps the easiest of concepts to learn. However, learning the concept is one thing, assembling tiny squares so that they make visual sense is another.

For those of you who remember the good old days of the original personal home computers, the Atari VCS, the Commodore 64, VIC-20, and video games such as the original Pac Man (which is 40-years old this year – just to make you feel really old), then you will be familiar with pixel-based art. Honestly, I could talk to you for about three-years straight on this subject, where I cut my coding teeth in computational art, I cut my digital art teeth in pixel art. I still create pixel art today, and at one time, I produced graphics for games on the old home computers such as the Sinclair ZX Spectrum which was one of the best computers at the time.

Mona Lisa recreated on a Commodore Amiga
Mona Lisa recreated on a Commodore Amiga last year!

Is pixel art easy to learn, yes, but if you are expecting to create realistic digital art or painterly effects, forget it. It’s also extremely difficult to replicate without a dedicated pixel editor or a lot of messing around with modern digital art packages. It is most authentic when you create the work on the original home computers, using the same technology that you are attempting to recreate. I have an attic full of my old home computers for this very reason, the reason I hang on to them will be self-explanatory within the next couple of paragraphs.

Pixel art is seeing a significant resurgence, more and more we look to the past through a lens of nostalgia and if there is one thing that really sells art, it is a sense of nostalgia. Pixel art appeals to those who remember the golden days of video games, there’s a significant market and plenty of artists creating nothing but. That said, there is an art in creating something today that looks like it was created 30-40 years ago, colour palettes have advanced and many younger pixel artists completely get colour wrong. Back in the day, we had maybe eight colours to work with, sixteen if we were posh and our parents could afford a great home computer. Today I often see hundreds of colours in a piece of pixel art, and it just looks a little too modern for my retro tastes. If I was a purist in any art form, pixel art is it, don’t mess around with the sprites and where’s the colour clash my young child? Authentic pixel art has to contain the glitches and constraints that were around at the time.

Seriously, if you ever need a truly authentic pixel art experience, ask an old guy or gal who spent way too much time and money feeding coins into Space Invaders on the day it first came out. Those who are serious about retro authenticity can spot the difference between old and new at a hundred paces and if you thought fine art critics could be a nightmare, good luck. This my friends is retro hallowed ground, please don’t touch it unless you absolutely know what you are doing because retro art critics can be brutal.

Atari Paddle Controller art
Atari Paddle Game Controller artwork recreated on an Atari 800 Home Computer

Digital Painting – 

This is my default and about as close to traditional art as you can get. The only differences are that you use a screen rather than paper or canvas and you use a stylus instead of a brush.

The process of digital painting is often misrepresented. It’s not about applying some painterly filter over a photo, it is literally about sketching, blocking out colour, shading, and every skill that you have in your traditional artist skillset, it can be slightly more forgiving, you can undo and erase, but almost anything that can be created on canvas can be done on the screen. There are exceptions, impasto for example is very difficult to replicate, although with shading you can build depth and texture as an effect and you also don’t have a physical, hold it in your hands, product at the end of the process unless you print it out.

Autodesk Sketchbook
Autodesk Sketchbook is now free and full-featured. Great perspective tools, can extract lines from paper sketches too through the camera!

Knowing about layers, layer locks, alpha lock, merging, and blending, are essential, and as with any digital art app, if the intention is to ultimately print the creation out you have to know about size, colour profiles and dots or pixels per inch.

Adobe Fresco
Adobe Fresco - I use this whenever I need a realistic brush effect - The downside, it is expensive and relies on a subscription but is included with the Photoshop subscription on the App Store on iOS. Also included with many other Creative Cloud subscriptions, the free version has limited tools.

Where most newcomers fall flat with digital painting when they try it out is that they rely too much on the provided functions and tools to do the work. They spend hours pushing buttons and making adjustments when the approach that is needed in the beginning is to focus on creating the art and limiting the number of tools and even the number of colours that you use.

MediBang Paint Pro on iPad
MediBang Paint (iPad) is another desktop-class app, often used for comics and an impressive range of tools. Price from free with ads, small IAP to remove ads and gain some additional services. Great for extracting lines.

As you develop, those tools will become increasingly useful, adding in a textured overlay to give the appearance of painting on canvas can be achieved with the right texture image and setting the blending option to overlay, as can using an alpha lock to make sure you don’t spread colour outside of the area you are working on. The best way of learning is to just create a canvas and paint, the clever stuff comes later. Take your time and take your time reading any instructions and watching tutorials, practice as you go through tutorials and before too long everything will suddenly click into place. Getting used to digital painting takes time, you need to get used to the feel of glass, and many who try it out initially try with the wrong tools or the wrong package, often attempting to create something using a mouse which doesn’t really provide enough accuracy.

paintstorm iPad app
Paintstorm iPad app - full-function desktop-class - works best on iPad Pro with a larger screen, yes you can mix paint too!

Some of my traditional artist friends have tried digital and just haven’t got on with it at all. It is different from painting on a canvas, glass is slippery, or it becomes difficult to draw with your hand on the desk while keeping an eye on the brush on the screen, you do get used to these things but it takes time. The urge to use those bells and whistles are what usually confounds the issue, my advice, limit yourself to a single layer, choose no more than a dozen colours, select a regular brush, (in the Procreate app, use something like the small hard airbrush) and maybe just use a single colour and sketch. After that, it is simply a case of practice, practice and more practice and before you know it, you will be making fewer trips to stock up on paint.

Sketch Club iPad app
Sketch Club on iPad allows Procedural sketching which is a nice touch!

Photo editing and manipulation – this is essentially what Photoshop was originally designed to do. There is a skill set that is needed for Photoshop and with practice, some astoundingly beautiful images can be created. It is the go-to default for creatives around the world and many of the top studios use it, although that’s something that is beginning to change as costs become increasingly important.

Using Photoshop or any of its close rivals is reasonably simple, mastering them completely is really difficult. Most users will probably default to using around 20% of the application's functionality, at which point, save yourself some money and purchase something a little simpler. As regular readers will know, I am a huge fan of Affinity Photo (and Affinity Designer, Affinity Publisher), and while the costs of these are pennies on the dollar of the ongoing cost of running Adobe’s Creative Suite, they’re about 90% full of what Photoshop is full of and perfect for most people’s needs. They’re not necessarily simpler, they're a tad easier in places and somewhat more challenging in others, and there will be tools that are missing when a like for like comparison is done, but the tools that count are all there. The question is, why keep paying for what you never use unless you actually use it?

Photoshop on the iPad
Photoshop on the iPad Pro - nowhere close to Affinity Photo or desktop Photoshop just yet, give it time!

I use Affinity in professional projects and I use Adobe’s Creative Suite including Photoshop and Illustrator too. I’m too dependent on some of Adobe’s other offerings that get bundled with their subscription to completely make the switch, but I haven’t fired Adobe Illustrator up for months, instead preferring Affinity Designer, and I use Affinity Publisher instead of InDesign.

Affinity Photo on iPad
Affinity Photo on iPad - Full feature set and in a desktop-class for photo editing on the go. Also available on PC and Mac.

Photo editing is just that, it is digital art but is yet another discipline. Choosing how you edit photos is once again dependent on what results you want to achieve, there are some basic apps that provide pre-prescribed template filters that produce good results but if you are a professional photographer or need something a little more bespoke, a professional photo editor such as Adobe Lightroom combined with Photoshop or Affinity Photo will give you a much greater degree of control.

There are photo manipulation apps, PicsArt, Enlight’s PhotoFox, amongst others, but these are often based on subscription-based models and are relatively limited when compared to the costs of the cheaper subscriptions for the mainstream offerings. The beauty of the dedicated photo apps are that they are much simpler to use than something like Photoshop, the downside is that they offer much less control overall, and some of these single-function apps are quite expensive. Photoshop becomes much more affordable when taken as a single app subscription and you get other bundled benefits, and with Affinity, you pay once and use forever.

The other upside of the single function apps are that they work really well on mobile devices and don’t usually need you to have the latest model. A desktop-class version of Photoshop is now available for the iPad Pro and comes bundled with an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription or can be subscribed to from within the app, but it is nowhere near the full-blown version of Photoshop just yet. I’ve been using it since the day it was released and it is getting closer with every update but if you are thinking of jumping into Photoshop via the app only route on mobile, I would have to say, don’t, at least not yet.

The downside with any app or program that goes beyond the basics is that there will be a learning curve and it is this learning curve that will put many people off and if you are already an artist and making sales, you are probably going to be way too busy to find anywhere near enough hours in the day to sit down and learn something completely new. I always suggest spending at least thirty minutes a day on learning apps as a minimum and spending another 30-minutes watching some of the thousands of tutorials that have been released on YouTube. You don’t have to learn everything on your own, other people have gone through the pain and they’re generally eager to share tips, and by doing it this way, you get to cherry-pick exactly what you need to know just in time for when you need to know it.

Picking your path…

When you step onto the digital art path you have to choose wisely. There is no point in going out and spending three kidneys and a limb on a high-end, high-spec PC or Mac if all you want to do is test the water. Your phone is more than capable of giving you a taste as will any reasonably priced budget tablet. If you want to create something a little more advanced, then yes, you do have to bite the bullet and pay out some cold hard cash to get on the ladder.

How much? That really depends on what you want to do. 3D modelling is going to cost approximately a couple of limbs if you are using high-end software such as blender or Maya, but 3D modelling is also doable on iPad Pro with apps such as Forger. There is a heap of difference in the output but as with Photoshop, will you really use all of the features, will you commit to learning enough to actually get the best value out of the software and the hardware, if the answer is no then don’t spend big bucks, look towards the alternatives and see if they will provide you with the tools you actually need.

Do you want to sell what you create? It is possible to create sellable art with not very much tech and some low-level specs, at least initially. Eventually, you will outgrow it, and as your skills and confidence develop and the digital bug begins to bite, it also begins to ramp up significantly in the costs you need to cover. That assumption that creating digital art is free is way off the mark, it’s not free, there is a cost per piece, and the fewer pieces you make, the higher the costs per piece are. If digital artists sat down and really dived into the costs of producing each work and took into account things like subscriptions, replacing and upgrading, technical time, learning about new functionality, the power to keep devices charged, the costs start to spiral quite quickly. I think in some cases as a digital artist, it’s sometimes better not to know exactly how much the true cost of producing a single work can be, it’s certainly better for those who collect it!

At some point, you will need some tools beyond a powerful enough computer or a high-end tablet, you might need graphics pads, display tablets, 5K or even 8K screens, and you might want to consider going all-in with a dye-sublimation wide format printer so that you don’t have to rely on external printers to produce your work. Like I said earlier, the rabbit hole is long and deep the more you venture down it. Deciding on the kind of art you want to create before spending a heap of money on the equipment to create it is simply a must, and you also have to be mindful of one very important thing, tools do not an artist make.

While it is possible to create some form or discipline of digital art cost-effectively, and at every price point in between low and stupendously insane, the overall costs should never be underestimated, and neither should the ongoing costs. Just like traditional art, you will still need supplies, they’re just a different kind of supply that can either be equipment or services, or even the costs to use a font you can use commercially. Digital art is accessible at every level, but there will be certain disciplines within this broad arena that will be slightly more or slightly less out of reach at least at the start.

I haven’t covered every discipline in digital art, we didn’t touch on some of the whizzy interactive art installations and virtual reality that is now becoming popular, those are the disciplines that you really can’t dive into without having some experience in the format, and without thinking about what you really need not just in terms of skills but equipment too.

There is nothing at all that says that you should even stick to a single discipline. Combining disciplines is something that you might have to do with certain pieces, I regularly create traditional artwork and then use the original work within a digital image, work sometimes has to be a hybrid of disciplines that come together to produce the finished piece. One of my recent Bigfoot works used an entire library of assets I had created and a number of elements I first put down on canvas.

Drip art by Mark Taylor
Drip - one of my unreleased works, currently hanging in my studio and produced with at least six different software packages!

Learning the art of digital art…

In terms of learning, whatever software or app you use there will often be some similarities. I touched on the differences between Photoshop and Affinity Photo earlier, and much of the time it is more about learning the differences in terminology.

Just as we might buy a new car with four wheels, the difference between the models of a car might be in the name or one might have a cup holder where the other one doesn’t. Most apps and software work on what I call the principle of, file, open, save, and edit, what hides behind the drop-down options is often the same names for each of the tools with slightly different outcomes. Thankfully, most apps and programs share at least some consistency, crop is usually a square icon, you’ll know it when you see it, print is usually a printer, and many of the other tools are similar between platforms too, it’s good UI design and one of the few consistencies in some of these applications.

It becomes exponentially easier the more you use any piece of software to then adapt to using other software that does a completely different thing. I can never stress enough just how important it is to just play around and explore an app, yes, it eats into creative time but so does frustration and if you can spend ten-minutes learning about things like alpha-lock or masking, that could in itself save hours of work on every piece from there on in, most of your learning outcomes in using digital creative tools really are down to simply playing around, having fun, and stumbling across the cup holder.  

The digital art community in whatever discipline is usually keen to support and offer advice, YouTube has become an academy of tutorials of late, and there are platforms such as Behance where everyone is generally supportive and will take time out to help a fellow artist. You do though have to learn to ask for help when you get a little stuck.

I’m in – where do I go from here?

Once you have decided on your starting discipline, you will begin to get some idea of the tools that you will need. What you might already have in terms of technology might force you into a discipline, don’t worry. When you are comfortable with the concept and format, your discipline can change and you might find that you will need multiple skill sets anyway.

If you decide on digital painting, your first step is to invest in either a graphics pad which uses either a pressure-sensitive Bluetooth stylus or a passive non-connected stylus on a mat, or a graphics tablet. The differences are huge, a graphics tablet usually has a screen on which you draw and will come at a premium although there are some budget models that perform well if you can’t afford something like a Cintiq or Wacom, but make sure that the surface area is at least five to six inches, otherwise it feels like painting on a stamp.

Alternatively, if you are using a tablet device, invest in a good quality stylus with pressure sensitivity, but don’t be fooled by styluses that claim to be a tenth of the price of something like the Apple Pencil, they’re usually only a tenth as good. Some claim pressure sensitivity but you find out that they don’t connect via Bluetooth and any pressure sensitivity then have to be controlled within the app manually. You need an active, rather than a passive stylus.

I am purposely avoiding covering software in full, today, not all software is equal and the choice will be dependent on the work, you want to produce, but look for applications that are well supported by both the developers and those which have a strong community of users behind them. Those I have provided screenshots for today, all have vibrant communities, perhaps none more so than Procreate and Photoshop. 

Bigfoots big day out by Mark Taylor
Bigfoot's Big Day Out - My latest artwork available here!

Getting to grips with the tools…

I get it, you are excited to start, a little too busy to spend too much time diving into books and instruction manuals, and you have a head full of ideas. The world is suddenly your oyster of creativity and you have everything set up and ready to go. Hold on, I mentioned the frustration of not figuring out the basics a little earlier and I can’t stress this enough.

If you are playing around and exploring, jump right in, when it comes to creating production-ready work, at least take a driving lesson first. Even if you are only using a fifty-buck graphics pad and some Open Source software, there are some basic tools that will negate some of the frustration and save you a heap of time.

Learn about canvas sizes, especially when using raster-based applications. This is just the same as choosing a traditional canvas, you need to think about how big you want the final work to be, and the quality that you need for whatever you want to do with it. If you are printing the work, any dpi from 300 and above will be the correct setting, and you may have the option to select a colour profile. Which one you select will depend on what your printer or printing service supports so this is something that will be different for everyone. Some apps and platforms will allow you to load in your own profiles, and again, this is something that you need to check.

If the intention is not to print the work, anything between 72 dpi/PPI through to 100 dpi/PPI will be fine, but if you decide to print it later, you will run into problems because there just won’t be enough pixels in each inch of work.

When I start out drawing, I tend to set up a colour pallet before I put down the first stroke, and I make a note of the colour hex codes which means that I can recreate the pallet again, and I save it as a pallet – pallets usually have a very specific file format but this depends on the software you use.

Whether you are using a tablet or a PC, many modern apps and programs will also have a set of keyboard shortcuts and these do tend to be quite different between apps, but if you are using something like Procreate on the iPad, attaching a keyboard via Bluetooth and pressing the command key will present a pop-up window with the keyboard shortcuts listed.

Brushes are something that can confuse, some brushes are really just stamps and don’t offer the same kind of control that you might find with another brush, they will set down a pattern or image rather than a continuous repetition of the base image. Most of the time I will stick with a single brush, certainly when I am sketching out the work and laying down the colour blocks, and I find using something simple and clean is usually, all that is needed. I use Procreate on the iPad Pro for a majority of my work these days and there is a really great stock brush, the small, airbrush hard, which gives almost vector quality lines, and although it is an airbrush, it is probably the most adaptable brush that comes bundled with the app. In Photoshop or when using Affinity, I use something similar, usually one of the supplied wider round pen brushes.

Blending is perhaps the next useful tool, in some apps it’s also called the smudge tool, and this is a fantastic way to soften edges, blend in colour and create a more realistic 3D effect.

Layers are also a must. Just as you first paint the background in traditional artworks and then add the foreground later, it’s worth playing around with them. Some apps will restrict the number of layers and the number available is usually dependent on the size of the canvas and any limitations of the device, newer devices tend to offer more layers, and if you are using a computer rather than a tablet, memory is the biggest barrier, too many layers and everything will slow down eventually to a crawl.

Layers offer lots of other functionality, not only can you switch the display order around, you can do things like set alpha lock which I mentioned earlier, or you can blend layers to create different effects. I tend to use the overlay setting quite a lot, if I need a texture on the work this is about the easiest way to do it, and you can usually set the layer transparency too.

If you need a transparent image, setting the background to transparent is vital, otherwise the background will appear in whatever colour it is set at, but if you are designing a T-shirt or logo, a transparent background is a must. Just remember to export the image as a transparent png file at the end.   

Glow over a Dry Stone Wall by Mark Taylor
Glow over a Dry Stone Wall by Mark Taylor - This is a digital painting and it is available here!

Have fun…

Digital art might be a broad church to describe multiple disciplines and mediums and it might appear to be overly technical and a little too geeky for some, it’s not, or certainly not in all disciplines, mostly it is accessible. Digital art can be whatever you make it but above all, it should always be fun, it is stops being fun, stop doing it, you might very well be on the wrong digital path.

My advice to anyone is to give it a try, and also give it time. The transition from traditional to digital is easier for some people, others really do find that technology becomes the struggle and I get that, I have been using technology since the early eighties to create art and I don’t think I have ever come across a piece of technology that doesn’t create some sort of challenge or limitation. I often scratch my head wondering why this app or that device doesn’t do this or that, but overall, using digital can dramatically improve your creative output. Technology really shouldn't define what you do, it is always better to decide on the technology after you decide what it is that you want it to do. 

Not that it is always faster, I can paint artwork on canvas in 20-minutes or twenty-hours, it’s the same with digital, although with digital there are things that you can do to speed some processes up, you don’t have to wait for the paint to dry but if you are using 3D modelling, you might have to wait while the image renders. One of the very few commissions I took on last year needed three-days of processing to render the models used in the work together with more than seventy hours of painstaking detail work, the other commission I took on took four hours from start to finish. As artists we care about time, buyers generally don’t, my point here is that digital neither means quick nor easy, it’s just another medium in which we can create our work.

For those of you that own an iPad, I published an article last year on creating art using my all-time favourite device which you can read right here

If you have tried digital before, how did you get on? Do you find it easier than creating traditional art and how well did you make the transition? I would love to find out so as always, feel free to leave a comment below!

Until next time, stay safe, stay well, and happy creating!


About Mark…

I am an artist and blogger and live in Staffordshire, England. You can purchase my art through my Fine Art America store or my Pixels site here.   

 Any art sold through Fine Art America and Pixels contributes to the ongoing costs of running and developing this website and making sure that I can bring you independent writing every time and without any need to sign up to anything! You can also view my portfolio website here

 You can also follow me on Facebook here,  where you will also, find regular free reference photos of interesting subjects and places I visit along with free colouring sheets to keep you entertained. You can also follow me on Twitter @beechhouseart and on Pinterest right here

If you would like to support the upkeep of this site or maybe just buy me a coffee, you can do so at my new Go Fund Me link right here

Any donations received will be used to ensure I can continue writing independently for independent artists as my art sales via Pixels and Fine Art America and donations via Go Fund Me are the only way I monetise these pages so I don’t have to fill them with irrelevant ads or ask you to sign up via a paywall!


  1. Right down my digital alley Mark. I now have the Affinity suite which I have yet to learn. Thank you for another excellent post.

    1. Thank you Colleen, and you are more than welcome! If you get stuck with Affinity, just give me a shout! Their offices are about an hour away from me and next door to another company I visit regularly, if I don’t have the answers, I’m sure they will! Hope all is well xx


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