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My painting "secrets".

Now that I've been painting digitally using a tablet since early 2003 (five years! holy cow! :o ), I have developed my own methods to increase my workflow (=achieving more in less time) and to get the picture down the way I want it. Okay, there is no such thing as secrets. But I've always been browsing for tutorials and information about how my idols paint, and tried out their methods, and some of them worked for me too! And I'm still learning.
Nevertheless, I always have received so much input from online art communities that I feel I want to give something back. So I tried to assemble all my "secrets". It's not supposed to be the ultimative painting guide, since it's only my methods, but perhaps some of my "tricks" will work for other artists too and help them. Just like many pro artists have helped me a lot by sharing their methods with the communities out there.

So here we go... How I make a digital painting:

I have found that I make the best pictures when I've already sketched them in my mind. When I start a painting without any idea about how I want colors, composition, etc. to be, it gets frustrating because I try out many things without knowing what I want. It's better to have a clear idea of your painting in your head, so you only have to "copy" that picture. It's mostly the color scheme and mood I'm imagining first.
Looking at other people's art has helped me tremendously being able to paint pictures in my mind. When you look at pictures often, you will have a big "vocabulary" that can help you make your own, unique phrases - in this case, pictures.

I always start with a colored canvas. The color of the canvas will be one that dominates the picture's color scheme or contrasts with it (both can yield nice results).
This is better than starting with a white or black canvas, because it helps you choosing the right colors for your scene, and because you can paint both darker and lighter on it. So this is actually very important!
On that colored canvas, I make a sketch of everything - mostly a small concept sketch, no wider than 500 pixels. In that concept sketch, I try out my idea. I want to test if it actually works - composition, light, shadow, color, everything has to be there because this determinates the picture's final outcome. Just very roughly sketched in.

(Had I lived in the 19th century, I'd have been a follower of Delacroix and his "color-is-most-important"-dogma, as opposed to Ingres who was convinced that line and drawing were crucial XD It's a very old debate about what's more important in a painting, line or color).

As soon as I feel it's working, I make a quite exact line drawing on a bigger canvas (about 2000-3000 pixels wide) of the same color. The line drawing is done partly from reference photos and partly freehand; I try to get proportions and anatomy as correct as possible.
On a new layer, I block in all colors, light and shadow. Here in this very early sketchy stage I already try to determine all light and shadow and color composition, because as mentioned, they are very important! They cannot be taken care of too early.

To illustrate this: Some years back, I used to paint midtones only, then add highlights and shadows until the picture was finished. Now, on the contrary, I sketch all of those in at once, and everything else is simply refining and adding detail. I can spend a lot of time on that, because "shading and highlighting" have been done already.
Here is one painting in its very early stage:… As you can see, almost everything's there already. Many artists do it a similar way.
This requires of course some careful planning, especially in terms of light, shadow and composition. But in the end you will have saved time, because you've decided on those things beforehand.

Well, now everything is but refining and detailing. Folds in clothing, facial details, the background, clothes patterns... everything is worked out. Gradients are made more smooth, harsh edges of sketched-in shadows are broken up and dissolved where necessary. Touches of colors are added whereever they can enhance another color (especially when it comes to skintones). Anatomy and proportion errors are corrected - it still happens often enough that I don't detect them in the early stages. I often repaint some parts, big or small, when I think they don't work the way they should.

I always paint with the brush size and opacity set to the pen pressure of my graphics tablet (otherwise there would be no point in having a tablet). The three brushes I use most are: hard round, soft round and a bristle brush.
I have a ton of other brushes too but those are not used often; only if I want to experiment with some ways how to make grungy or oil-painting-like surfaces or textures. Some I made myself, some are from other artists (Enayla, Tascha, Peachysticks and kayness).
Opacity is always set to 100%, the flow is mostly between 25% and 100%.
Sometimes I set the brush to the "soft light" mode; this will make the color darker and more saturated. But this shouldn't be overused.
Generally I can say that I paint with a rather light hand and often paint over the same area several times until I get the color I want. This also adds texture to a painting, as does erasing in a similar way.

The initial line drawing I erase more and more, as the painting advances. In the end, there will be no lines left - either they've been erased or painted over. Form has evolved from the lines through the means of color.

- I always have two windows opened in Photoshop 7 while painting: on the left, one window with a very big (original size) canvas - I can only see part of it, since it's bigger than my monitor. On the right, I can see the whole canvas in a smaller view. This is great since it saves me the trouble of having to zoom in and out all the time. In Photoshop, you can open a new window of your painting if you select "Windows"-->"Document"--->"New Window" (my PS7 is German, but it should be the same for English versions)
- I always have my finger over the "Alt" key while painting, because this gets you the color picker, much faster than having to click on it. I always need the color picker so I press on that "Alt" key pretty often.
- If you want to make soft gradients, you have to use more than just two colors! Paint the gradient color in between also - use the color picker to pick the color at the transition you're trying to paint. Linda Bergkvist's tutorial illustrates this point very well:…
- I try to use as few layers as possible, since too many of them will make my computer go crazy. As for layers, less is more.
- Use reference. I can't stress the importance of that enough: if you have problems drawing something from your imagination so that it looks real and convincing, chances are it'll be messed up. So if something seems not to work, or if you don't know how to make it look real... or if you cannot draw figures like Andrew Loomis (almost nobody can)... go get some reference. You can find a great many reference photos among the Deviantart stock artists (always check their rules) but it's best to use your own ones. For some stock artists are so famous, or some stock photos are used so often that they're easily recognizable. Example: I see a photomanip where a stock image of lockstock has been used... and my first impression is "Oh, it's lockstock!", before or/instead of "oh, how beautiful". (Dear lockstock, please forgive me for using your name as an example... I've used your photos for reference too)
- Read the workshops at . There are some kick ass tutorials, totally free.

Let me know if that was helpful in any way, and if you have questions about painting technique and such, you can always ask me :D
  • Listening to: janis joplin - summertime
  • Reading: "oil painting techniques" by harold spee
  • Eating: noodles with spinach
  • Drinking: water
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bolsterstone Featured By Owner Feb 23, 2008   General Artist
I just wanted to say thanks for this bit of insight. It makes tremendous sense to me -- and though I don't share all your points, I think it will be of tremendous use to me (during my next bit of experimenting) and for many aspiring artists here.

The only thing I will note is that as one who is 'wrong-handed' when I use my tablet, I find that when I use the alt key as you suggest, I find that I end up crossing my arms to use my tablet -- much to the amusement of those watching me at work. :-)

Anyway, once again, thanks for the valuable input.
First-Fantasy Featured By Owner Feb 21, 2008  Hobbyist General Artist
I really can't thank you enough for this. Even though I use painter mostly right now this is still wonderfully helpful and making me think about switching over to photoshop. I've really been trying to push myself in the direction of more realistic art, and learning how other people to it is so helpful. You and peachysticks are like, my art idols. I just can't get enough of your work, and this is just very exciting for me. It's very encouraging to read you supporting reference pictures, and references in general because it always feels like I'm cheating when I use them. (Weird, I know, but whatever)

Anyways. Thank you for this, and thank you for posting your works online to inspire me, and all other aspiring artists.
KristinaGehrmann Featured By Owner Feb 22, 2008  Professional Digital Artist
I'm so glad it's of use to you :hug:
Seyreene Featured By Owner Feb 20, 2008  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Das ist doch mal ein schöner Bericht! Ich finde es wirklich interessant, wie andere Maler arbeiten, und du hast das wirklich gut beschrieben.

Ich muss dir rechtgeben damit, dass es gut ist, das Bild quasi schon im Kopf zu haben, bevor es ans skizzieren geht. Anders fällt es (zumindest mir) doch ziemlich schwer, ein Bild zu gestalten. Es muss einfach schon mal was da sein. (Wonach man ja auch Referenzfotos schießen kann, die man wiederum als Vorlagen verwendet etc...)
Das mit dem frühen Festlegen von Licht und Schatten auch im Bild selbst (nicht nur in der Skizze) finde ich interessant. Klingt auf jeden Fall ausprobierenswert!

Vielen Dank auch für den! ^_^
KristinaGehrmann Featured By Owner Feb 21, 2008  Professional Digital Artist
Das freut mich, dass du was damit anfangen kannst :D Vielen Dank!
Seyreene Featured By Owner Feb 24, 2008  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Elitha Featured By Owner Feb 9, 2008
Thank you for sharing :hug:
vitalia Featured By Owner Feb 8, 2008
Thanks soo much, that was very, very helpful! I'm going to go paint now! ;)
take care! :D
cockrocket Featured By Owner Feb 7, 2008

This is like, the biggest news since they found out the world was round. Augh. Man. I've been using photoshop for like 8 years and never knew I could do that. It was always something I thought would be nice to have but never thought it was possible.

This is some serious news right there. Oh my god. Im... this... just... augh. This news just blew my mind :XD:
NiAlexanderArt Featured By Owner Feb 7, 2008  Hobbyist Digital Artist
thank you so much for the helpful tips! ^__^ much appreciated.
jhubert Featured By Owner Feb 7, 2008  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Added to the Art Tutorials Wiki.
slippeddee Featured By Owner Feb 7, 2008  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
sehr hilfreich, muss ich sagen ;D ein paar Tipps werde ich sicherlich gebrauchen können, finde es toll, dass du das weiter vermittelst ^3^ Man lernt halt nie aus ;D *anfeuer* go go go! XD
sauronthedark Featured By Owner Feb 6, 2008
Excellent piece Maidith, think you should post this on ImagineFX forums also, think it would go down well.
feeshseagullmine Featured By Owner Feb 6, 2008  Hobbyist Digital Artist
tips like this help amateur artists like me grow. thank you x3 and happy lunar new year!
Dorothy-T-Rose Featured By Owner Feb 6, 2008  Professional Digital Artist
Since I've been painting for about 5 yrs as well, I'm pretty set in my ways. However, there are a few ideas here that I may have to try. For instance, I usually start with a pencil sketch and paint under it, slowly deleting sections that I'm done with...or not deleting them, depending on the look I want. This whole concept of sketching in Photoshop is scarey! lol. Also, I usually keep the opacity pen control turned off and, instead, keep the brush opacity at 50% And...I use the airbrush brushes a LOT! I need to make one that's size 9. >_> Like you, I keep my hand over the Alt button. It's funny, since I'm left-handed and my keyboard is on the left, I'm almost always painting with my arms crossed. lol. You're very right about photo references. There's nothing so dissapointing as to see one image, like it, and then see another image with the same element and suddenly realise that the element came from stock. Doesn't make it a bad element by any means...but still. -_- This is why I try to use the mirror, my little brother, and my own camera as often as possible.

AmandaRobbins Featured By Owner Feb 6, 2008  Professional
I've been thinking about doing digital work again, I've found this very helpful! Thanks for posting this!
algenpfleger Featured By Owner Feb 6, 2008  Professional Digital Artist
tl;dr aber ich finds sehr toll von dir dass du dein wissen weitergibst :#1:
KristinaGehrmann Featured By Owner Feb 6, 2008  Professional Digital Artist
ich versuchs :D
algenpfleger Featured By Owner Feb 6, 2008  Professional Digital Artist
ich geh grad an der mentoring-sektion von ca fest. so viel wissen! mal sehn ob ich den mut haben werd mir auch nen mentor zu suchen, im moment bin ich nur am lurken...
the-wandering-artist Featured By Owner Feb 6, 2008   Digital Artist
the tips are much appreciated, I will try them myself to see if they work for me as well my friend... :)
KristinaGehrmann Featured By Owner Feb 6, 2008  Professional Digital Artist
Try out everything :D I'm still watching your work, and I think you're improving.
the-wandering-artist Featured By Owner Feb 6, 2008   Digital Artist
Danke Danke, I try not to disappoint my friend... :)
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