10 Digital Art Skills You Must Master

digital art skills

The term digital artist can be applied to any person who uses digital image editing software and drawing programs to design and manipulate images. These images may be hand drawn or created on a computer, so digital artists need non-digital skills as well as being proficient with software.

No matter which digital medium you work in, it will greatly improve your art if you have the following skills.

10. Sketching

drawing tablet digital art skills

One of the foundations of digital art isn’t actually digital at all, but it’s an imperative skill if you want to be a well-rounded artist.

It’s up to you what you sketch, and your chosen subject matter will probably be closely linked to your individual style of art. But, try and incorporate the basics into your practice, such as drawing figures and faces. Get into the habit of taking your sketchbook out with you and drawing passersby or the cityscape outside your office. Any practice is good practice.

Trivia:

It’s so important, in fact, that Disney actually send their animators to life drawing classes!

It’s also a good idea to practice sketching with a stylus and tablet. It’s essentially the same skill set as with a pencil and paper, but you’ll need practice to get the pressure right for accurate shading.

9. Character drawing

We’ve listed character drawing separately from general sketching, as this skill is often a large part of what makes up digital art.

As with anything, getting good at this will take a lot of practice and hard work, but there are a few pro-tips that will make the process quicker and easier.

When you start work on a character, just put pencil to paper (or stylus to tablet) and let it flow. 

By Gabrielle Germano

"Red" by Gabrielle Germano

Don’t get caught up in trying to make it perfect: that comes later. Don’t just think about how they look, think about how they’d talk, what their hobbies would be, and who they’d hang out with. A character design that’s well-rounded will work infinitely better in a project than one without a ‘backstory’.

As well as your character’s personality, think about their emotions too. They say that the eyes are the windows to the soul, and this is true for animated characters. Consider position, size, and shape, and play around until you get the expression that you’re looking for.

8. Creating original concepts 

Depending on the agency you work or want to work for, you might be required to contribute to ideas for artwork and projects. So, you’ll need to keep your conceptual skills sharp.

  • Take advantage of the online art community and ingest as many tutorials, blogs, and portfolios as possible. It’s no secret that artists are inspired by one another, so do your homework and see what others are creating.

  • Check out the work of artists you admire and experiment with using colors, lines, and textures like they do. And, remember that you can take inspiration from all mediums: watercolor paintings could give you great ideas on color palettes for your digital work.

If you want to create concepts that are fresh and new, step away from these traditional reference points and learn to see inspiration in everything around you. This could be fashion, nature, architecture, or anything else that catches your eye.

We actually wrote an article about the science of creativity which you can check out here: How to be Creative

7. Composition 

red

"Red" by Igor Piwowarczyk

Composition refers to the way in which various elements come together to create a scene, and no matter what art you’re producing, composition is key. Even if you’ve been working or studying in the art sector for some time, it’s worth refreshing your knowledge on the key aspects of composition. These rules include but aren’t limited to the following:

  • Rule of thirds – divide the page with two horizontal and two vertical lines to create nine equal segments, then position your main subject/s on the lines or the line intersections.

  • Leading lines – use lines within your image to draw the viewer’s eye to your main subject. Paths, walls, and patterns are ideal.

  • Rule of odds – in most cases an odd number of subjects is preferable to an even number. Using two subjects can have the effect of splitting the viewer’s attention.

It’s important to know these rules, but it’s also fine to break them. Sometimes amazing art comes from unconventional places, so have fun with the rules and experiment with them as much as possible.

6. Refine your color usage 

Most artists will have a preferred color palette that they go to time and time again, and it’s likely that there are dozens of shades included in that palette. It’s good to have options, but the fact is that most objects will only actually have a limited amount of colors in them. Ask yourself, are you using too many colors in your imagery?

colored pencils

Do an experiment to test this the next time you’re painting an illustration or finishing a 3D model. Choose a limited color palette before you begin and do your best to stick to it. Two main colors and two colors for detail should be enough, then create the following from those four colors:

  • Half-light - darker with a bluish tone

  • Shadow – a darker version of your half-light shade

  • Reflected light – brighter than half-light but less saturated

Then you can use Photoshop (or whichever program you’re working with) to adjust hue and saturation to create shades.

By doing this experiment you should see that you can create realistic and detailed images without needing hundreds of colors at your disposal.

5. Learn 3D

This might seem like a skill that you only need to learn if you’re working specifically in 3D art, but that’s not the case.

Knowing how to use 3D software will broaden your horizons when it comes to anything related to:

  • volume
  • shape
  • light and
  • shadow

Using this software will also give you a better insight into how various surfaces react to light, which can help you master our next point. If you’re a beginner, free software like TinkerCAD will give you the opportunity to play around with shapes and master the basics. But, once you know what you’re doing, animation software like 3ds Max and AutoCAD will give you much more control over your scenes.

4. Shading and lighting

As a student, when you first learn about lighting the lesson is usually to pick your light source.

This gives you a point to focus on when choosing which areas should be lit up and which areas need to be shaded to create darkness.

shading and lighting

But, in real life, there doesn’t tend to be just one single light source, and so the way in which an object is illuminated is slightly more complex.

When you’re creating digital art, think about ambient light. There may be one single light source in your scene, but is it bouncing off other objects or surfaces? Is the light partially blocked by anything? As a general rule, an object is lit with two lights: the main light and the reflected light. Everything in between this is shadow.

When you’re working digitally, it might be helpful to physically paint in your light source and its path to your subject so you can reference where it is at all times. Then, when you’re done, just delete it.

3. Animation

As with 3D, it’s worth understanding the basics of animation no matter which digital art area you work in.

Learning animation will give you a better understanding of the technical limitations of the medium. For example, if you’re creating a new character, you’ll need to know how that character will be able to walk, talk and interact with the scene.

While you’re starting out, try using cheap software like Animate CC, or take advantage of the free trial with the more expensive Toon Boom Harmony.

We actually wrote an article about a few of the great animation blogs out there: 17 Great Animation Blogs

2. Typography

So far, we’ve only discussed images, but words are just as important. This is increasingly true in the digital art industry, and the wrong font has the power to destroy an entire project or a tattoo. There are an infinite amount of typefaces available online, and it’s worth taking some time to do your research and see what’s available.

Even if you don’t currently use text in your day-to-day work, you’ll still benefit from understanding the terminology and being aware of the most loved fonts. Be confident that you know which typeface works best for which kind of project: it’s certain to come up at some point in your career.

1. Don't forget design

Digital art isn’t just about being technically strong and being skilled with software, you’ll also need an eye for design. Even if an artist is excellent with lighting, proportions, and textures, if there’s no style to it then it loses its magic.

Having an eye for design comes naturally for some, but if you’re not one of those people you can still pick up some skills in this area. As is the case with keeping conceptual skills strong, you’ll need to put effort into researching and learning. See how other artists use rhythm and balance to create a cohesive scene and take your time placing each element in your own scenes.

Conclusion

Whether you’re interested in illustration, photography, 3D modeling or any other area of digital design, it will serve you well to master all of the skills in our list. Having these abilities will make you a well-rounded artist and will help elevate your art to the next level.

What are your tips for improving digital art skills? Let us know in the comments.

About the author

John Thatch

John Thatcher is a computer science educated artist. He uses technology to solve artist problems. His friends don't like it when he speaks of himself in the third person. But John does it anyway, because he's a rebel.

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