Idiot’s guide to digital drawing

For another image I was drawing, I needed to draw a person’s hands. I kept stuffing it up, and ended up drawing my own hand. In doing so, I made one of the mistakes I mention below.

I’ve had my Bamboo pad for a while, and here are some things I wished I’d realised when I started out, things I’m learning through trial and error while fiddling with digital art in Photoshop.

You know how Photoshop has layers?

Yeah, like onions. USE THEM! In fact, put everything on layers, and leave the canvas that Photoshop creates when you start a new file blank. Make a layer for every object. For example, the arch with the space ship I posted a few days back has the following layers: the arch, the tiled floor, the people, the sky, the ship, the shadows of the arch, and the shadows of the people. It is especially important that you create separate layers for light effects. Do not draw these onto the image itself. The reason? You can change that layer’s opacity, erase shadows that don’t work, or hide the layer, without having to touch the object onto which you want to project the light effects. You can also change the order of the layers (which one goes on top of which) without having to re-draw anything.

You know how the brushes in Photoshop have opacity settings?

Leave them alone, and draw the outline and main body of your objects in 100% opacity. Is this colour too dark? Add white. Also, you can change the opacity of the entire layer layer. You can take opacity away, but you can’t add it.


Digital painting is a back-to-front operation, like painting acrylics. This means that you have to lay down your background first and paint everything else over the top. This is where you can use lower opacity settings on the brushes. Remember the layers?

You cannot make your initial outline/background of your objects too bright or too colour saturated. It is much, much, MUCH easier to tone down the saturation of an object (remember the layers?) than it is to brighten it up. I’ve made this mistake a lot, and have to keep reminding me: USE BOLD COLOURS FIRST. It does not work if you have to add saturation later.

3 comments on “Idiot’s guide to digital drawing

  1. Just one comment – you can add opacity (and draw back to front) if you change the brush mode to ‘behind’. It’s brilliant for blocking in areas of colour behind your ‘pencil’ sketch, because it leaves all the detail.

  2. And another one comment 😉 Remember you can pick a darker colour and change the brush to ‘saturation’ instead of normal. You can also create an effect layer, fill it with solid colour, set it to ‘saturation’ and then use the eraser on it to cut away all the bits you don’t want to affect in the layers below.

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