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Getting Started with Digital Art: Do's and Don'ts

Although they both fall under the umbrella of art, digital and traditional mediums are basically treated as two separate worlds. If you’re a traditional artist trying to bridge that gap, or if you want your start to be with a tablet, then here are some pointers to get yourself ahead of that steep learning curve.

Do gear up

Unlike traditional art, you don’t need to buy six different paint brushes, a different canvas for each piece, and a whole palette of colors before you get started. That sadly doesn’t make digital art any cheaper. You’ll need the right hardware and software for your lifestyle, your art style, and your budget since these devices and programs quickly add up in cost. If you need some guidance, check out this overview of what tools you need to get started with digital art.

Don’t try to learn everything at once

Most art programs come with more functions, features, and tools than one person will ever use in their lifetime. You don’t need to know them all, and you definitely shouldn’t try to learn them all before you start drawing. The best way to learn your way around these complicated programs is to just get started, come up with an idea of what you want to do, and then research how to do that one thing. Rinse and repeat as nauseum. There are plenty of online resources available, and you’re definitely already on a computer or tablet so it’s no big deal to look up what you want to do! With practice, you’ll master all of the things you regularly need to know in order to create your art. Someday you’ll even be able to comfortably explore your program’s features and functions on your own!

Do figure out the short-keys

You could waste your time when you scroll up to your top menu, click Layer, hover over New, click Layer, and move your mouse back to the canvas. Or you could just type Ctrl (Command) Shift N and boom you have a new layer without even moving your brush. Every medium has its shortcuts and “cheat codes” which save you time and let you focus on what really matters: creating art. If there’s something you do a lot that has a shortkey, commit it to memory! They’re always conveniently located right next to the command you’re trying to do. Trust me when I say time you’ll save is worth it, plus you’ll really stay in the zone since your brush no longer has to move away from what it’s currently doing.

Don’t give up when it feels weird

Every digital artist that uses a PC and tablet setup goes through at least a few weeks of struggling to match up their hand movements with what their eyes see on screen. Your natural tendency is to look at your hand to see what you’re drawing, but all that’s there is a blank tablet! So frustrating. Understand it will take some time to figure out that hand-eye-coordination, and even longer to really master it. I was at it for over a decade and I still sometimes feel wonky on my Wacom Intuos! (For those of you using a device that lets you draw directly on the screen, relish every second that you didn't have to waste adjusting to a pen tablet.)

Do use digital features to their fullest

When you’re creating on a screen, it opens up a new world of tricks and tools! Your basics include the undo button, various transform tools, and the ability to create layers which can each be edited independently, but there’s plenty more you’ll learn along the way. Take advantage! It’s not cheating to use your medium to its fullest potential and save yourself time with a bit of duplicating, overlaying, or filtering. (But quick pro-tip: shading with the dodge/burn tools is just as bad as mixing black to get a darker value. Not every tool is created equal.)

Don’t rely on those features too heavily

Just to contradict myself a bit, you want to learn the shortcuts that will make your art better but you also don’t want to abuse them so much that your final piece As a quick example, downloading brushes can be super useful for various textures, but seeing your hand show through can be more impactful. It’s a balancing act really.

Do go big

When it comes to traditional art, the size of your piece is a simple metric measurement. Digital art is not so simple! Not only do you customize the exact length and width in pixels, inches, centimeters, or whatever makes sense to you, but you also set the DPI (dots per inch) resolution. Set either of these measurements wrong, and your piece is permanently stuck like that. Even if you try changing the image size, all that will do is stretch the pixels out and blur your work. When in doubt, aim high! 72dpi might work for web, but 150dpi is the minimum for printing your art and 300dpi is the preferred standard. You can always decrease the size of your image if you find it's too large to post on certain websites.

Don’t forget your lessons from traditional media

The basic elements and principles of art still apply even when you’re looking at a screen. Just because you aren’t mixing the colors by hand doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be deliberate about them. You should still be making thumbnails before jumping into a piece, and you should even consider drawing them on paper if you’re still getting used to your tablet. There will be an adjustment period as you find your digital style, but remember that it should still fit nicely in your overall portfolio!

Above all, don't be intimidated by a tablet! Like with any medium, it will just take time and practice to get comfortable with (then eventually master) digital art. You can't expect to be making shiny new art the minute you start just like you wouldn't be able to sculpt a perfect bust your first time using clay. Take your time, but don't wait to get started.

Were these tips helpful? Be sure to comment below with your personal list of do's & don'ts!


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