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Tips on Becoming A Successful Digital Artist

The Internet has made digital art very popular. Just look around to see all these realistic dragons, fantastic landscapes, creatures and places made real by the imagination of an artist. If you have such an imagination, it may be tempting to try your luck at this form of art. In theory, all you need is a computer and some software. In practice, you may have noticed that it’s not really enough. So, what do you need to know to become a good digital artist? Read on to discover our tips on how to become a successful digital artist.

The Right Tools Make a Difference… With Practice and Skill

Generally, digital art is art made with a computer, but this definition is too simple. Having a computer is not enough to create the type of digital painting we’re about to show you. Eventually, you will require an additional tool to tell the computer what part of the canvas you want to affect. The classic pointing tool, a mouse, is good only for “mathematical” art—for clicking, moving, and dragging. So if you want to create vector art, a mouse is fine.

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Vector art doesn’t need to be purely geometrical—although the process has nothing to do with drawing or painting, the end result may look pretty similar.

But if you want to draw or paint, you need to utilize the whole precision of your hand. Using a mouse doesn’t allow this level of accuracy.

Beautiful, dynamic lines are created with a delicate motion that a mouse isn’t capable of transferring. You can’t use a lighter or stronger pressure with this tool—you can either click (draw) or not click (not draw). The traditional pencil will let you draw a better line than even the most expensive mouse.

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To draw on your computer as you would on paper, you need a special tool—a graphics tablet. It’s a pad with a stylus that transfers your motion and pressure to the computer. This data is then interpreted by your software and turned into something visual. It can be displayed on your monitor or on a screen built into the tablet. The latter is more similar to normal drawing experience, but the former isn’t as bad a solution as it would seem—you just need more time to get used to it.

Wacom is the most popular brand of graphics tablets, but today they’re no longer the monopolists—there are many other brands producing both screen and non-screen tablets, some offered at a more affordable price than Wacom. Graphics tablets have various sizes and numbers of pressure sensitivity levels, but even the smallest one with a basic pressure sensitivity will be infinitely better than any mouse.

The Types of Programs You Can Use

As mentioned, the tablet registers your strokes, but it’s the software that interprets them and turns them into something you can see. There are free programs (Krita, Fire Alpaca, MyPaint), cheap ones (Autodesk SketchBook Pro, Paint Tool Sai, Manga Studio), and expensive ones (Adobe Photoshop, Corel Painter), but all of them do basically the same—they add color and texture to your strokes.

Adobe’s famous Photoshop is often chosen by digital artists because it offers many options normally used for photo manipulation (for example filters and advanced selection methods), but it’s not really meant for painting.

The truth is you can produce great art in any software that recognizes pen pressure. Filters and adjustments can be a cherry on top of the cake that is your artwork, but the cake must be baked by you first.

To sum it up, you’ll need a tablet and some software to begin digital art. Expensive, advanced tools you see most professionals use are not necessarily better, just more convenient. You can get a bigger workspace, a screen under your stylus, more pressure sensitivity levels (that you won’t even notice), various bells and whistles, but in the end, 95% of the artwork is still produced with your drawing skill.

A Digital Artist is Still an Artist

Creating art on a computer may seem like magic, with the Undo command working better than any eraser, the layers that let you paint underneath something already painted, and all these options that let you adjust any part of the artwork at any point. But all this digital magic can only change what’s already been created; it creates nothing on its own.

As humans in this fast-paced digital era, we’ve grown used to computer programs that do various things for us, but we wouldn’t really want digital art software to produce art for us.

Where’s the fun in that?

If we’re to call an artwork ours, we need to produce it ourselves. So a digital art program, no matter how advanced, is basically a digital canvas with digital brushes simulating a real canvas with real brushes.

What does it mean?

To put it simply, if you can’t draw with a traditional pencil, drawing with a digital pencil probably won’t make much of a difference. Sure, there are technical differences—digital paint might flow in a more predictable way, and it doesn’t need time to dry, for example—but most of the basic artistic skills are the same for traditional and digital artists. Buying a fancy graphics tablet doesn’t have any effect on them.

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A graphics tablet’s stylus works the same as a pencil—it creates the marks as you draw them.

For drawing, these skills would be precision, perspective, gesture, shading, human and animal anatomy, and other details of the subjects you want to draw. In painting, we can talk about: value, color, light and shadow, materials, textures, light effects, and composition.

Your computer doesn’t know about any of those, neither does Photoshop nor the most expensive graphics tablet you can find. You, the user, must bring this knowledge with you to produce good digital art.

The tools don’t make the artist. Practice always makes perfect.

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Animal anatomy principles stay the same for both traditional and digital artists.

Let Your Mistakes Show You the Way

One of the reasons why digital art strongly appeals to beginners is because it allows you to remove your mistakes without a trace.

If you draw a wolf with too short legs, removing them will not make the wolf look correct. What you need to do is to draw the legs with a correct length, and this is something that can’t be done with any amount of smashing the Undo button.

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You do the thing (A) and the program erases it (B). Removing something wrong doesn’t automatically makes the rest right.

Sure, you can erase, and try again, and erase, and try again… Until you end up with something that’s roughly what you intended it to be. But such guesswork is not only frustrating and time-consuming—it also means you might need more practice to achieve that perfect shape or outline.

Our Secret to Overcoming This Problem

Avoid the biggest comfort that digital art has to offer—and stop using the Undo command.

Honed skill doesn’t come from blindly doing the same thing over and over again, waiting for a proper result to materialize before your eyes. It comes from understanding what you’ve done wrong and searching for a way to do it right. Mistakes—made, unerased mistakes—are a perfect indicator of the areas you need to work on. Erasing them won’t change the fact that you’ve made them in the first place. Even when they disappear, you are still left with the capability to do the same the next time.

Draw the whole thing without erasing/undoing anything, to be able to tell the current state of your skill.

Look at it as objectively as you can, and try to discern right from wrong. What do you like about it? What would you change? If you can see that the legs of your wolf look bad in some way, do some research—Google images of wolves and compare them to your depiction.

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And then, try again.

If you don’t want to waste time, practice only the areas you find yourself weak in. Such a practice focused on one subject is called a study, and artists do them all the time—because even professionals are in a state of constant learning.

As a beginner, you simply have more of such areas, so you should spend more time on studies than on creating finished artworks.

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Studies are about understanding the subject, not about creating a pretty picture. If you draw them with an intention to impress others, the fear of failure will stop you from learning anything.

Which brings us to the next question: “What’s the Undo command for, then?”

Technically, it’s for small mistakes and for experimenting. And the eraser is good for little mistakes visible only after the artwork is finished. Try not to overuse both these tools to remove something that you can’t do right. Draw it, see what works, and use this information to practice more.

Decide What Type of Artist You Want to Be

Digital art has many faces.

Some areas differ in techniques, like vector art, digital painting, matte painting, and photo-manipulation. Others differ in subject, like character design, environment design, portraits, and abstract art.

To become a good digital artist you need to choose your specialization. If you constantly switch from realistic humans to cartoon dragons, from fantasy environments to manga characters, your improvement will be painfully slow. It’s like spending your RPG points on many various skills in a game, thus making little progress at all of them.

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You can’t be a good healer-warrior-rogue-mage all at the same time. Focus on one profession and master it!

But how do you decide what type of artist you want to be if you haven’t even started yet? Start from the beginning and figure out why you want to become an artist in the first place.

Do you want to amaze others with your art? Choose the type of art that amazes you the most.

Or maybe, you want to show people the crazy ideas you have? Choose one of the design areas, depending on what interests you the most: creatures, characters, vehicles, environments.

Perhaps you want to show people a story in a visual way, or present a funny/interesting concept? Choose something that can be simplified easily, like a manga or a cartoon style.

Once you choose your area, you can start learning in a more focused way, without wasting time on something you don’t really need to be good at. Create a list of things an artist of your specialization should know.

For example, a creature designer is able to draw unreal animals from imagination, which includes:

  1. Drawing with confident, dynamic lines

  2. Drawing objects in a three dimensional way

  3. Capturing ideas quickly with sketches

  4. Knowing the anatomy of real animals

  5. Understanding of ecosystems and evolution

  6. Ability to translate someone else’s idea into a visual form

  7. Shading and coloring a drawing in a simple, yet complete way

All these sub-skills can and must be learned if you want to become a creature designer. You can create your own way of learning them or find tutorials/courses of professionals to learn from them. What’s most important, such a list creates a clear path right in front of you. You just need to walk it, step by step, to achieve your goal!

Don’t Shy Away from Critique

When you just start your adventure with digital art or any art in general, you may feel very self-conscious about your artwork. For some reason, many people believe that you can only draw if you can draw well. Which is, technically, absurd, because everyone started from somewhere, not by having a miraculous moment where one picks up a paintbrush and turns into Da Vinci.

No matter how much natural talent you may have, no one was born with the ability to draw anything perfectly on the first try.

Art is subjective, and the same goes for all design. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as they say. And in that sense, critique from someone, is, all in all, just one person’s feedback. With that said, there’s no reason to feel ashamed when you receive a critique.

We know this feeling doesn’t go away so easily. If someone can see us drawing, we immediately feel the need to prove ourselves to them. And if we can’t, we make sure to show how embarrassed we feel about this fact:

“I know it doesn’t look that good…”

“It’s just something rough I came up with, not the real thing…”

We feel you.

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You’re no longer a child drawing for your parents’ approval. You draw for yourself. Go forth and hone your artistic abilities!

Constructive Criticism

It takes time to grow a healthy attitude towards your own art, but it’s worth it. It’s all about perspective and knowing that your art does not define your self-worth. At times, others can look at your art and provide you good constructive criticism. These people are worth listening to—they may know something that will help you improve!

Constructive critique is about things you would like to change, but don’t know how until you hear from a different perspective. Comments like “Wolves should have long legs”, “These eyes should be smaller, they’re unproportionate” can get a little hurtful, if your intention was to draw a wolf that looks like a real wolf. But no matter how the comment was phrased, these are helpful remarks: now you know what makes your wolf look unrealistic—you just need to make the legs longer and the eyes smaller.

Some mistakes in artwork may become obvious only after someone points them out. That’s why you should encourage critique, even if it hurts to hear that you haven’t succeeded in making your art look great. It’s better to learn from a mistake and fix it than believe the piece is absolutely perfect and continue making the same invisible mistake in other artwork.

Make the Best of Social Media

Not so long ago, the only way to show your art to a larger audience was to have it accepted by an art gallery. Today you no longer have to wait for someone to assent your work as “good enough”—you can simply go and upload it to Facebook. And while traditional art can lose some of its appeal when getting digitized, a digital artwork is digital already—it’s simply meant for being seen on the screen!

Social media are a great way to start your career. You don’t need to build a portfolio and anxiously wait for others to approve it. You can simply post your works as an artist-in-making, get comments and learn from them, and not care about being great as long as there are some people who like what you do already. Yes, it would be great to have thousands of fans, but every Instagram star has started somewhere. No need to hurry, you’ll go there too, just keep walking!

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You gotta admit, traditional art galleries are way more intimidating than your Facebook wall.

Posting your art on various social media allows you to earn your first money as an artist, from commissions that come from requests people might make. Someone may want you to draw their dog in your art style. Someone else might pay you for sketching out an idea they have. You show your skills through the artwork you post, and the more people see it, the higher the chance to get commissioned.

This is the safest, simplest way to become a professional digital artist. First, you post your amateur art and get a lot of critiques, and you can use these comments to get better. As you get better, you gain more recognition, and this, in turn, boosts your potential clientele. Who knows? Once you get good enough, you could even become a full-time artist!


Today, working as an artist is no longer a mystical job for the elite. If you can craft something perfectly, the money will come. Social media brings people closer, not only friends but also fans and clients. Just remember—it takes time to get good and be recognized for your work. Don’t expect your followers’ count to rise to the moon right after you buy a graphics tablet and post something cool. There are years of hard work before you, and a lot of time invested in practicing your skills and growing your fan base.

But if you really are passionate about being a digital artist, it will be worth it!

Images © 123RF, Monika Zagrobelna

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