9 Step Digital Art Process For Awesome Drawings

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Written by Juha

You too can create breathtaking digital art pieces that captivate the viewer. You might think that creating a phenomenal digital art drawing or painting takes hours of tedious work, and you’re not wrong.

The most common place that every artist fails is at the beginning of their work. Having a straightforward and dedicated plan on how to execute your vision is the best way to see an art piece through to the end.

Let’s take a look at a solid 9-step plan that any artist, beginner or advanced, can use to unlock their full potential.

Gather Reference Images


The first step in the drawing process is to gather inspiration. Reference images are perfect for sparking ideas but also valuable resources to aid in the drawing process. You don’t need to search for a specific image that matches what you want to draw.

Instead, try finding pictures of certain elements, such as clothing or poses, and put them together on a board.

You can also have reference images handy of textures you want to incorporate in your work. Finally, try having a manikin or 3D model pose as a reference during the drawing process.

Not only will this help sharpen the anatomy of your piece, but it can be a helpful tool for when you go to add your primary and secondary light sources.

If you do use another artist’s work as a reference, try not to exactly copy details or their design. This is plagiarism and is a serious legal offense.

But there’s nothing wrong with gathering inspiration from other artists or trying out new techniques in your own work. If you do use another artist’s pose, brush, or other assets with permission, be sure to include their name with your work.

Some artists specifically request this, but more often than not, it’s a simple courtesy you can take.

The realism and detail in your drawing will be drastically improved if you have reference images for every element in the scene. It may be easy enough to draw a crate from memory, for example, but you’re bound to remember and include more minuscule details if you have a photo handy.

For digital painters, having a photo of your subject is key. But what some painters often forget is to have a photo of your subject from multiple angles. There are certain details that are lost with singular perspectives.

Create A Rough Sketch


Creating a rough sketch is the next part of the digital art process. The keyword here is a rough sketch, not a perfect one. Take time to scribble out your figures and get a feel for how the composition of your piece will play out. Sketching quickly and without much detail will allow you to fine-tune things before you go on to create your outline.

This rough sketching method is also a common warm-up for artists, as it allows them to refamiliarize themselves with proper anatomy and dimensions. You may need to create quite a few sketches before you’re satisfied with how your piece will play out.

Another thing you can do in this step is to give a rough outline of your background and other inanimate elements. You’ll want to have an idea of everything going on around your subject, so you don’t lose sight of it later on in the piece.

Be sure to define what your figure is sitting, standing, or posing near, and block this out. If you don’t, you might end up with some perspective issues later on.

If your sketch ends up being a bit messy, there’s no need to worry. You can create a new layer to retrace over your sketch, which we’ll cover later. You can also reduce the opacity of this layer, so it doesn’t show through in your work.

As an added option, try sketching on paper and scanning it into your art software. Some artists “think” better on paper or are accustomed to using other tools.

Redefine The Sketch


Once you’ve got your rough sketch down, it’s time to redefine it. This might mean creating a sharp outline you can colorize or just cleaning up your lines a bit, so the image is clearer. Most people start by erasing contour lines and tracing back over rough shapes with a single line.

It helps to reduce the opacity of your initial sketch and draw over it in a new layer. When you’re redefining the sketch, you might decide to start adding in some smaller details, such as clothing, facial expressions, hair, and objects. Again, these details don’t have to be exact outlines. Rather, they’re suggestions so that you can understand the composition and perspective playing out in the piece.

Focus on making any rough sketch outlines clearer and thinner. This will help you immensely if you choose to create line art of your sketch. If you plan on painting over this sketch, be sure to work in multiple layers.

You might consider redefining your sketch in another material, like paint or colored pencil, rather than a lead pencil or pen. Doing his will help the outline blend under the layers of paint and look more natural.

Determining how perfect you need to make your outline depends on what kind of art style you’re going for (or what level of convenience). Having vectorized line art will hugely speed up the colorization process and presents an overall clearer and more sharp image to the viewer.

If you’re not going for this look, however, and prefer something more akin to realism, then you don’t need to sink so much time into your sketch. Define your details and create an outline of where and how you want your piece to develop.

Create Line Art (optional)


Many digital artists take time to create line art of their outlines. There are several reasons for this. For one, it speeds up the colorization process. It’s much easier to fill in an area with a color, as well as target specific areas at a time.

But for digital painters, having line art in their work often subtracts from realism, so it’s not usually preferred. Digital artists who work in anime, manga, or comic niches will usually include line art in their creative process.

Concept artists, on the other hand, don’t usually go for defined line art unless they’re working in a more cartoonish style.

If you do create line art, take time to ensure that each line is thick enough and anchored to another line. Each section should be closed, with no gaps or holes.

You can test to see how “strong” your outline is by using the paint bucket tool and filling an area in. If the color seeps into another area, or the entire background is colored, then your lines aren’t strong enough.

When creating line art, work in a separate layer, and vectorize this layer if applicable. A vector outline means you’ll be able to edit it much more easily later on, such as by resizing or deleting sections. Vector outlines don’t lose their quality from file to file or even when being altered.

Overall, it’s a great way to ensure your lines stay crisp and even. You can also easily import or copy and paste these outlines into another file.

Create Color Scheme And Mood


Along with your reference board, you should include a color palette or general mood you’re going for in the piece. Start by adding color swatches next to certain elements in your reference images, and compare all these colors together.

How well do they interact? Are any colors clashing or alter the mood of the piece? What elements can you recolor to make them pop? Decide what mood you’re going for, and see how other pieces with this same mood handle their color palette.

If your piece doesn’t match up, chances are your palette won’t convey the same emotions, despite how great the line art may be.

You might also consider testing out your color scheme by doing a rough color over your outline. You’ll have a better idea of how cohesive your palette will be when it’s represented in your outline.

Experiment with changing colors or adding additional elements to your piece. Remember that you can change your outline and your color scheme at any time.

You also want to make sure that your color palette has some sort of cohesion or appeal. Palettes with too many colors spread across the wheel may distract or confuse the eye.

Palettes that are analogous in color often do well, but if these colors are too similar to one another, your piece will lose definition. Take note of what your primary color is in your palette or which color is most prominent.

Consider if you have its contrasting color in your palette. Remember that you don’t need to use the exact opposite of the color in order to create depth.

For instance, if your leading color is a warm red, don’t go straight for a plain green. Try something a little more askew on the wheel, like a seafoam green or chartreuse. This will be more engaging to the eye.

Start The Painting Process


Time to begin the colorization or painting process. For line artists, this means blocking in color within your outline. For painters, begin defining your primary colors on the canvas.

Remember that art software seeks to replicate the traditional drawing and painting process as closely as possible. Painters will need to apply an overall coat of paint on the canvas before blocking in color. People who are drawing might want to gently buff in color before going back and adding in more values.

Once you’ve defined your larger areas of color, you can begin manipulating the values of these colors to add depth and dimension. You may also want to begin adding in smaller details such as wrinkles, texture, and light.

Be sure to keep light and shadow in mind as you’re painting your piece. You can always go over your piece with a lighter color, but your piece will look far more realistic if you make more subtle changes in the values of an area.

If you’re a line artist, consider using tools you’re not accustomed to in both traditional and digital art. Watercolor, oil-based paint, and airbrushes may produce more desirable effects than markers and pencils. Don’t forget that many software programs have tools for India ink and other traditional tools as well.

Keep tabs on what tool you used for your outline as well. At any time, you can go back and revise your outline or add to it. Whatever tool you used to create your outline is usually preferred for adding in details later on, like folds or natural lines.

That’s unless you’re trying to hide your outline underneath the color and forms you paint, in which you’ll want to pick a precise tool that is darker in value compared to the other colors in your piece.

Add Secondary Light Source (optional)


If you’re looking to make your piece appear more lifelike, adding in a secondary light source will help you do just that. Your primary light source is whatever the most direct line is casting on your subject or objects in the piece. Many artists forget to include the secondary light source, which virtually every piece (or realistic scene) has.

Secondary light is typically an artificial light source or reflection of the primary light. If your piece has a lamp, window, or mirror in the background, you want to account for that natural reflection of light.

Just as important as light is the shadow that results from it. You can overexaggerate shadows to adjust the contrast of a piece or subdue them to create a more matte effect. When adding shadow into a piece, avoid using black or gray as your sole color pick.

Shadows may appear black, but really they’re darker values of the color they’re on (the shadow of light pink might be red or dark pink). If you’re having trouble pinpointing the correct color of your shadows, try color-picking your reference photos.

Add Details And Finish The Drawing


Wait! Your piece isn’t finished just yet. Too many artists fall into the trap of adding color, and it’s done. You still need to revise your piece and add in details. Some of these critical and often missed details include texture and organic features.

Fortunately, digital art makes it all too easy to add texture to a piece. Whereas the details of woven fabric take hours to recreate, digital art makes it possible with the swipe of a tool. Play around with these tools and brushes to see what they can add to your piece.

There are also quite a few brushes for adding organic elements into your work. For example, you can easily recreate the pattern of grass or water without having to messily do it by hand.

If you think your piece is complete, take a step back from it and give yourself time. When you look at it with a fresh pair of eyes, you might see a thing or two you need to add.

Share Your Drawing Online


Don’t let your piece sit in silence! It deserves to be shown off to all your followers. Wait, you don’t have any followers? No worries. Curating a social media account takes time and effort.

Sign up for art-sharing sites and communities like Deviant Art or Fanbox. If you’re nervous about receiving criticism, don’t be. That criticism is exceptionally helpful, and it’s judging the piece, not you or your abilities as an artist.

But if you’re easing into the whole idea of sharing your art online, you can mention “no constructive criticism” in your description, which many often do.

If you’re really proud of your piece, consider making some money from it. You can list on a digital art marketplace like Makersplace or upload it to a print-on-demand site like Redbubble. If your followers like your art, suggest that they buy something with it on it!

Wherever you share your art, be sure to give yourself credit! Make sure your work is signed or has a watermark over it. This will also at least give you credit if someone tries to use your work on their site. You can also link back to your social media or selling platforms to give yourself a little boost.


Digital art offers a lot of conveniences to the modern artist. It’s now easier and faster than ever to create a stunning art piece. But even though the art process is expedited in some ways, it’s important to remember to give yourself time.

Give yourself time between steps in the creative process, as well as time after your piece is finished to reflect on it. Looking at your piece continually with fresh eyes will help you adjust your strategy moving forward.

Following this 9-step process will help you keep focused on your piece every step of the way.

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