Shop Mobile More Submit  Join Login

Do's and Dont's of Digital Painting

Tue Jul 23, 2013, 7:05 AM

Do's and Don'ts of Digital Painting

    The possibilities of digital painting and digital art in general are almost infinite. There is basically nothing you cannot do as long as you just know how to approach it. Yet an abundance of programs and tools has both advantages and disadvantages. Knowing what to favour and what to avoid can be both a huge time saver and help you sidestep frustration.
    What we will focus on in this article are some basic tools and techniques of digital painting; we'll try to root out pitfalls and see how to avoid them. Mind that all of the points mentioned below aren't rules carved in stone; there are always cases where breaking the rules can be much more fruitful for a certain effect than following them too strictly. With time and practice you will gain good judgment over when to follow the guidelines and when to leave them aside.

Note: Names of certain tools might vary depending on the art program you use.

:thumbsdown: White Backgrounds

    While a clean white background can be just fine for a simple line sketch, it is not advisable to leave the canvas colour on default in cases where a certain mood needs to be set and for general works with background. Plain white will 'distort' your colours in a way that otherwise light colours seem too dark and washed out. Compare the impact of the interior colour on the left and on the right side in Img1.

:thumbsup: Remedy: Instead think about the atmospheric aspect of the image you have planned and floodfill the background with the predominant colour or even better a manual gradient of several of the main colours.

Img1 - Colour perception depending on background colour.

:thumbsdown: Blending with the Smudge Tool

    On first glance the smudge tool seems like such an easy and comfortable way to blend colours, particularly for beginners. Personally I believe however that this is the tool that needs to be avoided like nothing else when starting out with digital painting. On one hand blending colours with the smudge tool easily creates a very dirty and hard-on-the-eye effect and on the other hand it is thrice as time consuming as other blending methods.
    The main problem with the smudge tool is the fact that it doesn't so much blend the colours as it just pulls them into each other in a mostly very irregular way that can take a long time to clean up. That also touches on the problem that the amount of colour shades you are using will stay at a minimum and thus make your painting appear bland and flat.

:thumbsup: Remedy: The most effective, time saving and visually most satisfying way to blend colours is a combination of eyedropper tool and airbrushes. Colour A and Colour B can easily be blended by eyedropping A and applying it with a low opacity airbrush (soft or hard depending on the desired outcome) on the border between A and B, then eyedropping B and applying it on the same border. Keep eyedropping the colour blend you create and applying it to the border. Rinse repeat.
PS Hint: Holding down Alt while having the brush tool selected gives you quick access to the eyedropper tool.

Img2 - Comparison of airbrush and smudge tool blending.

:thumbsdown: Shading with Black and White

    Choosing colours when shading should never be done by shifting them straight towards black or white. Natural lighting will always create a variety of hues even on a monochrome object and shadows are hardly ever clean black or grey. Ignoring that fact will result in unrealistic and flat looking objects.

:thumbsup: Remedy:
Use hue shifts of varying degrees to shade. For instance highlights on a red object could go over into yellow, shadows on a blue object into green,...
An easy rule of thumb would be to use the next warm colour in the colour diagram for highlights, the next cold one for shadows. Keep in mind though that depending on the prevalent lighting this could easily change. If in doubt don't hesitate to look at objects under different lighting in real life if available or make use of reference photos otherwise.

Img3 - Shading with and without hue shifts.

:thumbsdown: Shading with the Dodge/Burn Tool

    The dodge and burn tools pose a problem not unlike shading exclusively with black and white. Even when making use of the different settings these two tools allow they still tend to mainly blacken and whiten, thus easily washing out vibrant and clean colours and creating the same flat effect as shading with black and white.

:thumbsup: Remedy: Always favour shading with brushes. Airbrushes, basic round brushes, calligraphic brushes, texture brushes,...anything goes depending on the visual impact you are going for. The important thing to remember is that only brushes will give you full control over the colours you lay down while tools like dodge and burn create shades automatically which hardly ever look good.

Img4 - Comparison of brush shading and dodge/burn shading.

Remember that when it comes down to it, you should use what works best for yourself and what YOU feel most comfortable with
but keeping the above guidelines in mind can never hurt. :)


Add a Comment:
starvingbootle Featured By Owner May 17, 2017
Strange, I never be correct as long I think it can do.
evil0verlady Featured By Owner Dec 21, 2016  Hobbyist General Artist
I'm still stuck with doing a white background. It's a hard habit to break. Any advice?
ValaSedai Featured By Owner Dec 22, 2016  Hobbyist General Artist
Is it an image that necessarily needs a white background?
evil0verlady Featured By Owner Dec 22, 2016  Hobbyist General Artist
No. It's just I've always drawn on white, and I don't always draw with colors in mind. What background colors do you recommend?
ValaSedai Featured By Owner Dec 22, 2016  Hobbyist General Artist
If I don't have a specific colour theme in mind yet I simply start with a light grey background. That already makes a big difference when it comes to contrast. :)
evil0verlady Featured By Owner Dec 22, 2016  Hobbyist General Artist
That might be tricky for me. I draw in pencil. I haven't yet mastered pen (paper or digital). Grey might fade out my pencil lines. I suppose I need to learn how to line art first before I can color?
Naughty-Savage Featured By Owner Mar 23, 2017  Hobbyist Digital Artist
The thing is this guide is aimed towards digital painting, not traditional

Traditional art has a different way of going about things than digital, if you're just drawing with pencil using white paper is fine, you draw the picture first in sketch then shade the background.
DubiousTemp Featured By Owner Aug 17, 2016
Nice pointers there!
I might try the rule about going just going one hue up or down to get a nice vibrant look, since I know that although paintings can look bland by shading with just white and black, but they can also look just as bad if an artist doesn't limit their pallette.
ValaSedai Featured By Owner Aug 17, 2016  Hobbyist General Artist
Too much can definitely be a bad thing too. :nod: It's all about how the artist handles it and what fits with the work in question. :)
myruthb Featured By Owner Sep 24, 2015  Hobbyist Digital Artist
What if you have the background be transparent, rather than white so a more complicated background could be added later? 
ValaSedai Featured By Owner Sep 25, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
Well you'd still keep an extra layer as a place holder for the background I assume so not much would change.
JNRedmon Featured By Owner Aug 7, 2013
Should the smudge tool never be used at all? I keep looking at the two examples, and the one that was done with the smudge tool looks much more interesting to me. I haven't done much digital coloring (working on it), but the smudge tool looks like it can create a cloudy effect very well. Would it look different if the picture was larger?
ValaSedai Featured By Owner Aug 8, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
No, like I said in the beginning of the article, you have to learn to judge when to use the mentioned tools and when not. The smudge tool can be great for clouds for instance or smaller touch ups of general blending. :)
JNRedmon Featured By Owner Aug 11, 2013
I'm sorry, I feel like I phrased my question incorrectly. I know that the tool CAN be used for a lot of things. I was just wondering why you encouraged using other tools, because I thought that the example where you used the smudge tool looked more appealing than the example where you didn't. I thought the smudge tool seemed like the better choice. And I was wondering if the smudge tool looks fine on small images/details but becomes a problem when used on a bigger scale.
ValaSedai Featured By Owner Aug 12, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
I encourage it mostly for beginners because it is a tool that takes a lot more time to handle properly even though it seems easier at first glance. Most beginners use it in a way that it rarely looks good so it would be faster and more effective for them to blend with the airbrushes. ^^
JNRedmon Featured By Owner Aug 16, 2013
Ah, ok. Thank you.
Shuira Featured By Owner Aug 2, 2013  Student Artist
I learn something new everyday! Cool tutorial! Now, to implement this new info to good use!
Andrew-Sturges Featured By Owner Aug 1, 2013
Good pointers in there!  I'd learned those in art class, but a couple I evidently needed to be reminded of!  Sweating a little...
DreamFutureAis Featured By Owner Aug 1, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Well, now I know to stop using the blending tool...:XD: Thanks for the tips. ; u ; 
NdM-Art Featured By Owner Jul 31, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
I hope it is okay to use the smudger for hair o_O? The rest is blended with the dropper and brushes.
Shading with black and white. Haha, i did this when I was 10 ^^ glad that I don't do that anymore.
Dodge/Burn tool is great for effects, but not for shading
starhavenstudios Featured By Owner Jul 29, 2013  Student General Artist
Hmm, I didn't think of using warm and cool colors for shading.  This can make a great impact in paintings.
zunishi Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
i never really could use smudge or burn to where it actually looked very good...
next time i draw something, i'll use these tips :D
Ollybird Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thanks for making this!! I have a feeling that this will help me a lot in the future!
Hagaroo Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2013
This is perfect for me. I'm guilty of doing all of these, especially the shading ones, so hopefully my art will improve with these tips! Thanks :) (Smile) 
Belladonnalilie Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
I believe, and I always will, that using the smudge tool to blend is totally fine.
1st i think its just as fast, if not faster than the other blending method, plus, if u take the same time to practice with the smudge tool as the eyedropper/airbrush method, you will have results that are just as good.

That just had to be said, because i hear most of the ppl saying the smudge tool is useless, while they just don't know how to properly use it.
The-Letter-W Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
I tried the Dodge/Burn method way back when I was starting out because somebody told me that was what I should do and I thought it was the most ugliest looking technique that I never did it again. 
I'm assuming this is geared towards Photoshop painting? The Paint Tool Sai Smudge brush in my opinion does a nicer job of blinding colours together, though it won't be quite the same as manual blending still. But it is a nicer effect. 
Bakerdezign Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2013
A nice and informative read.....:pc:.
Juliee-R Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2013  Student Digital Artist
Thanks for tips :)
ciinderellla Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2013  Student Digital Artist
Wow these are amazing <3 
LexiaForna Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2013
Thanks for the tips.. I love it..Nod 
geek96boolean10 Featured By Owner Jul 25, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
thanks for the great tips - I will most definitely keep these things in mind.
Furnami Featured By Owner Jul 24, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
I'm guilty of all of these except for the first one lol.
SilverTetsusaiga Featured By Owner Jul 24, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Thanks for making this. It gives me some ideas to try the next time I try to paint. =)
Colorful--Melody Featured By Owner Jul 24, 2013  Student Traditional Artist
oh my is this for me ;A: lol its just came up in the best timing ever >< i was working on traditional for many years and i have started digital a while ago. i been improving but figuring things about the shading was a pain and still it is. and reading tips here, i figured some things i can try myself. im so used to using those burn and dodge tools but i guess doing it by brushed will look way better. thanks for taking your time to help others improve ;v;
Ayrosia Featured By Owner Jul 24, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
There were some useful tips in here. I tend to usually shade in just black and white tones, so I'll definitely keep in mind shading toward other hues.  Thanks for the tips!
LadyBeelze Featured By Owner Jul 24, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
i don't shade with black and white, but i still get results as in example 3 ._.
Spudfuzz Featured By Owner Jul 24, 2013
I was super guilty of the second two until my painter friend introduced me to colour theory and blending with brushes. I'm so glad she did because I've improved a whole lot since. :crying:
kitatora Featured By Owner Jul 24, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
This is a good tip. Something that took me a while to grasp early on in my digital painting career, but since then, I have seen an upswing in my artwork!

In the case of the burn/dodge tool, it's really how much you use it. I use it in almost all of my artworks, like this contentious-tiger.deviantart.c... because used right in conjunction with manual shading, it can give you a far better finish than just one method or the other could on its own! It's all about the balance.
MangaErudite Featured By Owner Jul 24, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thanks for the heads up. Now my next digital painting will look better than the first!
YippieYaYeeh Featured By Owner Jul 24, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Thank you for this!
TswordZ Featured By Owner Jul 24, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Hmm, very interesting. I'm not yet in digital painting, but it's good to know this before start :-)
Sky-C Featured By Owner Jul 24, 2013  Student General Artist
Haha all the don'ts are things I used to do :p
anim3admir3r Featured By Owner Jul 24, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
I remember when I used to muse the burn tool. It was terrible. And it looked worse on colors like red and yellow. :( But all of this is good advice!
IceCreamBubblegum Featured By Owner Jul 24, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Aww this sounds Beautiful
Cool is this c:
yahk06 Featured By Owner Jul 24, 2013
thank you for this!! it is really helpful!
I am actually using smudge tool for shading..
It is sometimes easy to use but like what you said, it just sometimes ruins the shading! XD
swickly Featured By Owner Jul 24, 2013  Student
I find the best tip that I have for digital shading is to remember how light actually works in the real world. You can't ADD shadows to things, you can only take away light. Light is not just something that affects an object, it adds something completely new to it. Light carries every color wavelength, but typically not in even amounts (the same reason the sky is blue and not purple), so light with a predominantly orange wavelength would wash objects in its path with orange light (like in a sunset).

That's why it's so important to keep in mind your light source(s), what color they are, how bright they are, how concentrated they are, and whether or not that light is going to bounce off other things and reflect back onto your subject matter from a different direction.

i dont study optics but you guys get what im saying
freelymew Featured By Owner Jul 24, 2013  Student General Artist

I use a painter based program, so some stuff here was relevant to me while other tips weren't. Mainly the colors for shading/highlighting were very helpful to me. I use to dodge/burn when I used GIMP, but I don't use that anymore so...

In regards to smudging, the program I use has a finger brush that smears colors (mainly for chalk/charcoal drawings) as you would in real life. When I use different media I blend with the brushes they have there. I recently finished an oil paining on the program and it had a clean brush tool specifically for oil paints. I helped blend my colors together.

For photoshop and such I understand what you're saying. I've only used PS one time, but I've used GIMP before and it's pretty similar.

Though now I don't use either. xD

Your shading guide helped me so much. I wish I had read this before I finished my oil painting. I knew I was shading wrong, but I could never figure out the right way to use my colors.

V3raD Featured By Owner Jul 24, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
This feels more like a digital shading and gradients tutorial. Heh
jmsf-co Featured By Owner Jul 24, 2013
Really interesting, thx.
Xadrea Featured By Owner Jul 24, 2013  Professional Traditional Artist
I've found as long as you're working in different brush opacities, and chromatic shading and arbitrary color, using the smudge tool to help blend isn't really all that bad :D But I totally agree about the shading with black and white, that's a definite no-no even in traditional painting, chromatic whites and blacks are always better :D
Add a Comment:

:iconvalasedai: More from ValaSedai

Featured in Collections

Journals by JDS-photo

Journal Entries by gogospirit

Babbling Blogs by nimbusphoenix

More from DeviantArt


Submitted on
July 23, 2013
Submitted with Writer


625 (who?)