Starting your journey as a digital artist, things you need to know
Starting our as a digital artist, what is really important? What do you need to know? And what are good habits to have? Oke so, in this article we won’t discuss art techniques that much, we will get more into the nitty-gritty and the technical side of being an artist in this day and age.
As I mentioned before, I would overthink things that were completely irrelevant or important when I just started out as an artist. Because of this I only made 4 drawings in my first year as a digital artist. I would research everything and I would be asking questions people more often than not didn’t understand. Not because they were stupid questions, but simply because they were irrelevant, wrongly formatted, or not a thing in the beginner stage I was at.
If you’re anything like me: This article is for you. Let me guide you through the many questions I had and what the answers were. I hope this will give you a shortcut and a good feel for what the field encompasses. Let us get started!
What program should I use?
Any that suits you. Photoshop is the absolute market leader at the moment, It has frequent updates and bug fixes and is subscription-based. This means you can easily start using it for a decent fee per month or per year. It’s absolutely not the cheapest option, but it has one of the best troubleshooting systems behind it, most professionals work with Photoshop and there are many (And I mean MANY) tutorials out there for you to get used to Photoshop. Another plus is that many very useful addons and brushes are built for Photoshop specifically and Adobe itself, the company behind Photoshop also offers a lot of freebies for you to get started with.
Photoshop is and always has been my go-to and this counts for many other artists.
As this is an informative article: I need to add the notion that I’m a bit biased regarding Photoshop. Although all things mentioned above are true: I rarely use other programs. The biggest downside of Photoshop in my opinion is that: Because it has such frequent updates, it also frequently has bugs popping up that can’t always be resolved quickly. They are small bugs, but can sometimes mess up your workflow a lot. Another is the recurring price.
But, good news: There are many good alternatives to Photoshop, I will list them below. As I don’t really work with this I recommend you do some research on them yourself to see what you like most if you choose not to go for Photoshop.
Payed Photoshop alternatives
- Procreate (iPad, iPhone)
- Corel Painter (Windows and OS) -Been around longer than Photoshop-
- Rebelle (Windows and OS)
- ArtRage (Windows and OS)
- Autodesk sketchbook pro (Windows and OS) -Tends to work better for technical art)
- Clip studio paint (Windows and OS)
Free Photoshop alternatives
- Krita (Windows and Linux) -!Recommended for artists!-
- GIMP (Windows, OS, Linux) -!Nice alternative for art and Photo-editing capabilities!-
- Paint.net (Windows)
- SumoPaint (Browser based)
You need to understand that the program won’t make you a good artist. At best it will only help you out on that journey. Any program will do, it’s up to you to see which one will fit you best. If you’re only starting out and want to see if digital art is for you? I highly recommend trying Krita first or use a trial version of Photoshop, Procreate or Corel Painter.
Which tablet is the right one for me?
Tablets can be divided in two groups: Display tablets and drawing tablets without a display. From here on I will refer to the last as ‘drawing tablets’.
If you’re only starting out you’re absolutely fine with a 70 dollar regular drawing tablet from Wacom or Huion for example. They usually work on any system with any program, It takes a bit getting used to drawing on the tablet while watching your art take shape on your screen, but within hours you will be used to that. So, if you’re unsure whether digital art is your thing: You will be absolutely fine with a drawing tablet.
The benefits of a display tablet vs a drawing tablet
This topic is heavily debated by some: Some people will tell you that the regular tablet is more than enough to make the best art pieces. They even prefer it over a display tablet. This for a variety of reasons:
- Display tablets can be very expensive, especially when they’re larger. Why go for a display tablet when you can work with a drawing tablet and your already present screen?
- Display tablets can have an unpleasant texture for some. Drawing tablets tend to have a more rough surface. This is an effort to give you the feeling of drawing on paper.
- Display tablets take up a lot of space, while a drawing tablet can be the size of your mouse pad and can even replace your mouse.
And there are many more arguments vouching for a drawing tablet over a display tablet. And they’re all legit reasons. Although I do recommend starting out with a drawing tablet: I also recommend you at least try a display tablet before ruling those out. In my personal opinion, you can get into way more detail on a display tablet and it’s more intuitive than a drawing tablet. Which is really beneficial if you have a realistic style. If you’re into a more stylized style, like you see in manga, working from a drawing tablet can be better defended than when you have a very realistic style.
Drawing tablet brands
There are many out there, but the absolute leader in the market is Wacom. It’s also the least affordable of all. But you don’t pay for brand name only, not in this case. The quality of these tablets are so high that they are absolutely worth their money. It’s not only in the hardware, which tends to work fabulously and is well-thought-through, but their software is also rock-solid which makes the drawing experience so much better. But do you need to start with a Wacom to become a good artist? No.
You can easily start with alternatives like Huion. If you have a mac, don’t hesitate to use their iPad Pro. Other, less known brands are Xp-Pen and Microsoft Surface Book, but these do very well still. Any other brands I wouldn’t recommend at this time as they cannot be found in top 10 lists of any renowned technically oriented website.
Make sure you have a good look at the tablets possibilities and price and make your pick. Start small and work your way up. Every brand and even every model you pick may have its own pro’s and con’s so make sure you are well informed.
Things to keep an eye on when buying a tablet
There are some things you want to keep an eye on when you pick your first tablet. I mentioned some before, but here is some more:
- Pick your brand with caution. Although more expensive is also better when it comes to tablets, it doesn’t mean you have to start with it.
- Decide if you want a drawing tablet or a display tablet.
- Do you want express keys on your tablet? Not everybody uses them, but it can significantly increase your workflow.
- The higher the resolution of a display tablet the better, especially when your screen is big.
- What is included? Is there a pen? (Apple iPad pro for example comes without one), does it have a stand, what cords are included, is there a battery for portable use?
- How important is the surface texture for you?
- Does the tablet have enough pen pressure sensitivity levels? (It’s okay to start with 1,024, but recommended it at least 2.048. Most are 8192 and up).
- How solid is the software?
- Are there any known problems with the hardware?
- You might want to make sure that the surface is NOT reflective if you want to buy a display tablet.
- Surface area. Bigger is not always better, but especially with a display tablet, you might not want to go smaller than 13 inch.
- Want wireless connection or not?
- Do you want touch support?
- You want the color gamut to be as high as possible.
- An ergonomic pen might be worth considering
RGB vs CMYK, what should I pick?
First and foremost it’s VERY important to understand the difference between RGB and CMYK. RGB is based on light. A computer screen is based on light. And light has a larger color range than the average printer can print. CMYK is pure color, based on what the average CMYK printer in your household and probably even your local repro shop can print. But there are printers out there that can get (close to) the RGB color range while also including the CMYK color range. However, many of these printers have trouble printing in the yellow and green spectrum because they are powder based printers. Such printers work with electric charges, which discolor the lighter pigments.
Because RGB is the computer-average it’s best to work from this profile to begin with.If you start in CMYK and want to have brighter colors, this is more problematic, because converting it to RGB won’t enhance the colors you used. You will have to add the missing colors by hand. If you work from RGB you will have more colors to work from. When you convert to CMYK later, some of your colors will disappear and be replaced by colors within the CMYK range. This of course a problem that can’t be helped, but modern-day software can make this process fairly painless. Most of the time you need to know it to notice it.
So, when should I use what?
ALWAYS start in RGB, because you have more and you can make that less when you need to. That won’t work the other way around. Also: RGB is the standard for anything your art will be displayed on that comes from light. So: Any TV screen, any computer screen, any display billboard, any mobile phone. If your work is meant for appliances like these you NEED to work from RGB, else your work will look dull.
The ONLY reason why you might want to opt for CMYK is when your work needs to be printed for whatever reason. Most print shops will ask you to deliver work in CMYK and they won’t accept anything else. This is because printers can’t print light. There is nothing illuminating the pigments from behind and this limits its color range. Having the file formatted as a CMYK makes the computers and printers at a print shop understand what’s going on in your artwork and understand how to print it. You can see it as a different language. If color really is key in your artwork and you want to have it printed ánd work for you online, just save the RGB file, make a copy in CMYK and edit the CMYK for optimal printing quality. But know that few artists do that.
And how about Pantone, LAB and other color profiles?
Don’t use them. Just don’t. As an artist you don’t need them, you are perfectly fine with RGB and CMYK and understanding what they do for you. All other profiles and colors are more complex to use, which takes away the intuitive part of your artwork, or are meant for very specific processes. Again: You don’t need them. The only exception is when your client asks you to use them. The fact your client knows they exists will very likely ensure you that he or she can explain to you WHY they need it and how it should be applied. Just don’t touch it as long as you’re not asked to do so.
How large and what dimensions is my canvas supposed to be?
Well, this is a very simple one: Any. Any size and dimension you like or need for your artwork. Sizes and dimensions only become a thing when you have a client that needs a specific size or specific dimensions (height x width) or you are at a stage where you want to start selling your art at drop shippers like Displate or RedBubble. You can easily look up the right sizes and dimensions you need to deliver your art.
Your computer might be able to handle only so much, but unless you work on some simple two-tone logo practice for example, work at A4 size at the least. Don’t go smaller if you don’t need to, because especially with higher detailed work, there won’t be nice flows between colors and your edges may start looking jagged. Else: The bigger the better as long as your computer can handle it.
What about the DPI and PPI?
DPI stands for Dots Per Inch. It tells mainly printers how many dots of colors are supposed to be dropped into that one inch. The higher the DPI the more beautiful color gradients will be and the more crips edges are. For most printing jobs 300 to 400 DPI is enough. It’s not needed to go any higher unless your client wants you to. It’s good to know though that the higher the DPI, the harder it will be for your computer to handle. If you’re asked to make something like a billboard that will be viewed from a distance: Ask if it’s okay to work on a lower resolution. People will only notice it when they’re right on top of the image: Which of course they won’t.
DPI vs PPI
PPI on the other hand refers to Pixels Per Inch. It’s used interchangeably with DPI and usually called DPI as well, but PPI it refers to digital screens. The PPI of a screen decides for you how much pixels of the image you drew you will actually see on that particular screen. In the mid-80’s this was 72 PPI. These days it goes way up over 800 on some TV’s. The PPI of your image doesn’t matter at all when you display it on a screen. It can’t be too low, because there will be little information to fill when you only have a few pixels to work from, But it can’t really be too high either. The only thing it will affect is the download size and whether or not someone can print that image in a decent quality and size.
As you’re most likely an artist reading this: Take this from me. Although 72 DPI or PPI isn’t a ‘thing’ anymore in the 21st century, you might want to set your images on 72 DPI anyway for three reasons:
- It saves space on your website
- It causes a lower loading time for said website
- Even when people download the file and attempt to steal it: It will be useless for print.
What file formats should I work from?
There are many file formats for different uses. But the ones used most commonly that are NOT art-program specific are:
- JPEG (jpg)
These are the ones you will most likely be using.
PDF is a file format often required for work that will be printed. It saves the color range and settings one on one, and unless the company that will print this work converts the file: It will stay true to its original color. It’s easy to use for presentations as well or online brochures. The file will stay exactly the way you formatted it.
The most commonly used format. It stems from the 80’s when disk space was still limited and is to this day very useful for use on websites because it takes little space (However, there are addons that automatically format images to even smaller files without losing quality). It’s also quick to send, even in areas with bad internet connections. But: Because it’s so small, information and quality do get lost. Most of the time this is no problem at all, but it might be worth considering not to send a JPEG file for prints. Rather use the BMP file, or even better: PDF.
PNG is your go-to when you have a file with a transparent background. Like tiff, PNG allows transparent backgrounds to exist.
BMP is known as ‘Device Independent Bitmap’, In other words: It saves the native information of the image and won’t be converted into something else. Much like PDF. Although PDF seems to be mainstream these days: Using BMP is perfectly fine if you’re only sending an image to someone. PDF allows for saving text as actual text instead of an image, unlike BMP. So, if you send an image to someone: You’re good with PDF and BMP. Is there text involved: Use PDF.
Tiff is the cousin of PNG. But unlike PNG, it’s meant for prints. It allows for transparent areas and is properly converted for prints. PDF will do this job for you too, but some companies may still ask for Tiff files. Which is perfectly fine as long as you don’t need to use text.
There are many more file formats. Few artists ever need to use them and when you’re a beginning artist you are perfectly fine with the original program related file (like PSD is for Photoshop) and a JPEG for online display of your work. If you want to print your art: Just go for a PDF unless stated otherwise.
How do I use layers effectively
Not too many, not too few. Work with as few layers as you can, but use as much as you need. Overtime you will notice that you need less and less layers, which will significantly increase your workflow. A simple animal, say, a cat, without a background, can be around 10 to 15 layers. and you’re good. Some work with less layers, but that leaves less room for error.
When you’re working for a client, it’s worth it to keep your layers where they are until you get the go-ahead. Like that you can easily target and edit problematic layers. You might from time to time come across a client that keeps changing up things, this is why layers are very important to keep. But make sure that beforehand you make clear to your client that, when you get past the initial concept stage: Big changes can’t be made anymore.
I personally recommend to keep the background on one layer, the foreground on another, in the case of an animal, the animal on yet another layer, and the eyes, nose, and whiskers on a 4th. A 5th (or more) may be added to add specific details, like fur that somewhat covers the eyes, specific light effects or directions, etc. These layers may of course include sub-layers. Name your layers as much as you need to and you’ll be able to find the correct layers anytime you need them.
What are bleeds
Bleeds are extra space around your image that actually contains your image. A bleed is used for printing. Cutting machines and printers aren’t always fully accurate. A bleed allows for some space to make an unaligned print or cut without that being noticeable. When you are approached by someone: Ask if they need a bleed. All you have to do is make your image usually 3 mm larger on all four edges than you would have otherwise and color that part too as if it were part of your image. Your client can give you the specifics.
Social media is a bitch, I’m sorry, there’s no other way to say this. Personally I really dislike social media because it’s very competitive and it’s very hard to become visible. When you make your pick I recommend that you really dig in deep and learn the platform you want to use. There are different tactics for each and every one of them. But posting a lot and at specific times seems the standard. No matter what you do: Pick one or two platforms to work from, and no more. Master one, then master another. It will become a day-job otherwise.
It’s also very important to know that few views or likes or anything like that has NOTHING to do with you or the quality of your art. It has all to do with algorithms. Like any business, breaking through and mastering these algorithms takes time. And I mean A LOT of time. And for artists this is even more problematic because we usually only make a few artworks a week, at best. We have to compete with people who specialized in something else that requires photography and can post many images each day.
- Deviantart – Very good for starting and weathered artists.
- Artstation – Only for artists that have solid skills. (No need to be perfect though).
- Instagram – A no-brainer, might land you some commissions, but otherwise very artist-unfriendly because of its algorithm and the fact you can only have one link in your bio.
- Pinterest – Only interesting if you actually sell art you can display in mockups. And an absolute number 1 if you do so.
- Facebook – If you want to be found, make sure you have a Facebook page and keep it up to date. Simply because Facebook is such a behemoth, it’s a good thing to have out there.
- Linkedin – In case you are looking for a job in the art world.
- Twitter – Hard to get a solid following, but if you manage, this one might be interesting, especially because you can combine it with simply twittering with your followers.
- Reddit – Well, just because Reddit can be heavily image-based. Find the right places and it might work for you.
- Behance – If you prefer to show more than just your final image. This is a really good portfolio platform that also includes your workflow if you like.
- The Dots – The LinkedIn for creatives. If you like to work this way: Don’t rule out LinkedIn. There are many companies out there that need art, but never heard of The Dots.
These are a good place to get started, but remember: Any of them needs to be mastered.
Should I have my own website?
Yes yes yes! Oke, maybe not right away. First, make sure you can make some decent artworks that are worth selling. Then build your website so you can have a place to display your art, and have act to actually display. It will help you look legit when you start taking on commissions. And when you register your website as a company at google, you will be relatively easy to find and people can give you reviews on google. Very beneficial. It will help with your name and reputation. And it makes you a lot easier to find. Not to mention that you can shape your business the way you like.
But what website platform to use?
No-code websites require no coding and are very intuitive. It’s mostly drag and drop and you know exactly what you’re gonna get in the end. Very good for someone that doesn’t have a large budget to hire someone that can build a website. It’s even better for people that have no knowledge of building websites at all. The downside is that it’s relatively expensive and less flexible than the non-coding WordPress. WordPress however is a lot harder to learn.
I know nothing of coding, but at some point, I was forced to build a website on Joomla. You want a flexible and advanced website you can do anything with? Then you’re in the realm of Joomla and WordPress. But: Unless you’re a tech geek: Don’t use Joomla. In my opinion, and that of many others, it’s very clunky and outdated. WordPress is far more user-friendly. After struggling with Joomla for roughly 5 years I switched to WordPress.
Within a month I learned how it all works and for me, it works flawlessly, despite the fact I’m not tech-savvy at all. So, if you can’t pay for someone to build your website for you, but you want to have full control over what’s on your website and what you can use: WordPress is your answer. This website is built on WordPress by myself, using only tutorials and the support system of WordPress. Need help to set up your website? Hit me up! I don’t regularly do this for anyone else, but I might just have a slot free for you.