Let’s talk about digital paintbrushes! The most common question asked about digital painting is, what brushes are the best to use? With so many options, it’s hard to know which to pick. And once you pick a brush, you then have different sizes and customization settings to choose from.
Brushes will impact the outcome of your digital painting, so it is an important decision. But instead of asking yourself “What brush is the best?”, ask “What am I trying to paint?” Your answer will be your best guide in choosing the right brush for your painting.
So, what can digital paintbrushes do? A lot! They can be used for both sketching and painting. You can fill in large areas with color and create gradients of transition colors. Digital brushes allow you to shade and highlight. And you can even add realistic texture to your painting.
Does the digital brush really matter when making digital art?
Just like real brushes, certain digital brushes don’t guarantee you a certain look or level of quality. You won’t go from being a beginner to a master of arts overnight just by downloading a popular brush set. Even though custom brushes can be great and helpful, they can also be a huge crutch for many. They can mask your weaknesses and hinder you from learning.
Did you know you can still create a masterpiece using only your digital painting software’s default brush?
The majority of digital artists use only one brush – the standard round brush or the “default” brush. You can achieve so many textures and effects with just one brush! You just have to know how to take advantage of the brush’s settings. The settings help make the brush so versatile that it’s basically like having a dozen brushes in one.
Challenge yourself and your skills – use one brush and don’t use any adjustment layers or blend modes. Just straight painting! You’ll find out that you can still create a really great painting. Or you may find out that you rely too heavily on custom brushes. Either way, learning your weaknesses will help you develop and improve your skills.
This will be a sign that you need to go back and spend some time on the fundamentals. There’s no way to avoid the need of building your foundational skills. So, make sure you take the time to understand the basic principles of digital painting.
Going back to the fundamentals of digital painting
When you paint a subject, you analyze a subject. And when you analyze, you probably aren’t specifically worrying about that tone over there or this tone over here. You are making sense of all of it. You aren’t just copying something. You have to understand the painting as a whole.
The first big fundamental is the ability to visualize. Visualizing is essential to the creation process. Visualizing is the most powerful way to think because you can apply it to all the other different ways of thinking as well. You can start by visualizing the structure, and you can then visualize the lighting and color in steps over time.
Think about this: how do you paint something that doesn’t exist? Something that isn’t there to look at? How do you paint something out of your imagination? You have to understand how life works to be able to do this. You have to think about the way you see things in the world. You need the fundamentals.
Use visualization to capture the essence of what you want to paint
Think of caricature or cartoon artists. First, they will imagine a face. And as they sketch, they will pull and stretch many different parts of the facial features. They start with the head and mold it into simplified shades to find out what matches. And then once they see that something matches, they keep moving forward. They visualize all of the different options within the basic shape they started with.
Visualizing on paper is just as important as visualizing on the digital canvas. The paper can be a window that contains your drawing within it. Think about 3-dimensional drawings for example. The first thing you have to think about is the structure. And once you have the structure, then you can really begin to see that what you’re drawing is three dimensional.
By only using the default brush, it puts a handicap on you. It forces you to have to rely on your fundamentals. In the beginning, you might feel lost, and like you don’t know what you’re doing. At first, you may start out with just patches of color that don’t look like anything. It may seem hard to visualize the structure, but don’t fret.
Instead, think of it like this. If you were going to try and make a pencil move with your mind how would you do it? You would stare at it and try to picture it moving. You would see it moving in your mind. The same process applies to the canvas. Stare at it and try to visualize what you want to paint. You can start putting lines down. The more lines you put, the more you will slowly start to see your initial idea come into focus.
The brush isn’t as important as the person holding the tool
Another fundamental of digital painting is learning how to use your brush. Your brush is like an extension of your arm, so you have to understand how it works. You put your skills to use through the brush. It won’t do the work for you.
Understanding a brush’s settings is important. Using a default brush won’t have all kinds of fancy settings. But if you understand how the settings work, you can manipulate them and use them to your advantage. You can use the settings for exactly what you want and need.
You’re also going to want to know your program’s shortcuts. Learn where the hotkeys are. This will help your painting process flow. You don’t want to have to keep stopping to go to the menu. It can take so much time to look for the function you need and really disrupt your work. Get in the habit of using the shortcuts until they become second nature.
Once you have the shortcuts down, you can then type without looking at your keyboard. This will allow you to stay focused on your painting. One of the main things taught in a typing class is that the “J” and “F” keys have little ridges on them. These bumps help users orient themselves to know where the keys are without having to look down.
And last but not least, blend modes and adjustment layers are a digital painting fundamental. Adjustment layers use blend modes, so the two go hand-in-hand (or brush-in-brush). Knowing which of these works best for you can absolutely create giant shortcuts in your painting flow.
Be open to change when you’re painting
Experiment with the settings and options on your default brush. Just like the program’s shortcuts, using the different setting options will become a habit and part of your painting routine. Start with digital sketching to get a feel for it. Most beginners don’t realize that you can sketch on the digital canvas. But this easy option is a great way to practice!
When you’re sketching, avoid using soft lines. They make things blurry and hard to see. You want your lines to be crisp and clear. This is the key to seeing your image come into shape. To achieve clean line art, you need to make fluid and deliberate strokes. Perfecting your lines will clean up your sketch and make it look sharp.
Once you have finished your sketch, you can start filling in the base colors. This will include carving out the shadows and adding tones and highlights. This stage is about getting the paint on the canvas quickly, so don’t worry about blending just yet! This first stage of painting may look harsh, but the blending phase will smooth the details out.
Keep in mind that no painting starts off with incredible detail. Try to remain patient while you work. Patience will help you grow creatively as an artist. You’ll notice as the painting transitions to the second stage, all you really need is a few soft colors and tones. Then you’ll begin to see where you need to add in further details.
Custom brushes do help, but they are not the end-all, be-all. The real core of learning how to paint well is in the fundamentals. Though everyone’s different, and you might have fundamentals that are different from these, finding what works best for you is what will be most useful to your painting flow. Challenge yourself to rely on the fundamentals rather than your custom brushes and you might be surprised at how much your art will improve!