Digital art software

Which one do you use?

There’s so many.

I’ve tried a handful of trials and stuck with a very basic and very free software called Autodesk Sketchbook.

Some people say that drawing on a computer is not really drawing, because the computer does the job for you.

I believed that for a long time.

Others claim that there’s no difference between drawing on a sheet of paper and a graphics tablet—after all, you hold the pencil and the stylus the same way.

Now I would say that the truth lies in between.

Using SketchBook as an example, but the same rules typically apply to other drawing softwares.

When you draw on paper, the size of the drawing doesn’t matter so much if you want to make the artwork bigger, you just need to bring it closer to your eyes, and it will be enlarged with no loss. You can also take a photo or scan it and create a huge print even out of a tiny artwork.

In traditional art, size is relative.

In digital art, it doesn’t work like this. Yes, you can zoom in, but at one point your image will get pixilated or blurry. Why? Because traditional lines are made of infinitely small particles, and digital lines are made of pixels.

Your digital canvas is like a grid made of tiny little squares called pixels. When you draw, you fill these squares with colors. The smaller the pixels are, the smoother the lines look. So we want to keep the pixels as small as possible. The size of pixels is relative, so the more of them you have in the image, the smaller they will seem. That’s why it’s so important to choose a proper image size before you draw.

In theory, if we want to keep the pixels as small as possible, we should pick the biggest image size possible. But enormous size comes at a cost. The more pixels in your every stroke, the more work your processor has to do to display it. If you notice any lags when drawing, this means that your processor has a hard time catching up to your hand. So we don’t need an immense size, we only need optimal size.

Optimal size depends on how you intend your artwork to be displayed in the end. If you want to create a printed artwork, pay attention to the Document Size values. They show you the maximum size of the print you can create with the current image size. Resolution of 300 pixels per inch means a very high print quality, but you can lower it to 72 pixels if we will mostly see the artwork from a distance.

If you want to publish your artwork digitally only, consider two things separately: working resolution and target resolution. In SketchBook, default resolution is 3000 pixels wide and high. I usually start my drawings this way. And if I want to move to the detailing stage, I resize the image to around 6000 pixels wide.

Bigger size gives you access to the tiniest of details…

… but you don’t always need them.

Working with resolution is for you, not for the viewers. You don’t want people to analyze every scratch on every scale. Before you post your artwork online, resize a copy of the image to the target resolution. Target resolution, the one that your viewers will see, shouldn’t be too big for one more reason it would make it easy to print the artwork in high quality and sell it without your permission.

We can create a high quality A4 print from an image 2500 pixels wide and 3500 pixels high. Make it twice smaller, and we can still turn it into a slightly lower quality A4 print! So in most cases, I try to keep the longer side below 1500 pixels, and usually even below 1000 pixels. But it’s all a matter of preference.

Your drawing stylus is a magical thing, but how to tell it what you want it to be? Or how to recreate your favorite traditional tools in the digital environment?

SketchBook offers basic and advanced brush settings. You can decide how big your brush marks should be, and if you want them to be fully opaque, or maybe more or less transparent. As for the size, I prefer to change it dynamically with the bracket keys ( [ and ] ). I never change the Opacity here, I prefer to control it with the pressure, or with layer settings.

The advanced settings are more interesting. SketchBook divides them into four categories: pressure, stamp, nib, and randomness.

Pressure means, of course, how hard you press your stylus to the tablet. You can use pressure to affect size, opacity, and flow. Size is pretty straightforward—what do you want to happen to the Size of the stroke when you press hard, and what when you press light? By tinkering with these sliders, you can create tapered lines, or thick and round lines.

Opacity works this way. You can draw lightly to make lines barely visible. And when you feel more confident, you can just press harder to make the lines darker and more visible.

Flow tells you how concentrated the paint is. If Flow is low, you’ll have to paint a lot of strokes until you reach the level of translucency set by Opacity. If it’s high, you’ll get that level quick. So if you want to add water to your paint, just reduce the Flow.

Stamp is a name for the basic shape of your brush. You can see this shape by clicking once. You can either draw a lot of these shapes one after one to create an illusion of a line, or add some space in between to create an interesting effect. That’s what Spacing is for. The lower the Spacing, the smoother the line, but be careful—your computer may not handle the lowest setting well, especially if your image size is big.

To understand Roundness, imagine the nib of your tool. Is it round like a ball-point pen? Or flattened, like a fountain pen? This is where you can regulate it.

When the stamp stops being round, its orientation towards the edges of the canvas matters. You can easily regulate it by changing the Rotation. This is especially important for calligraphy brushes. You can also change the rotation dynamically by binding it to the direction or tilt of your stylus.

If you check Shape, you can replace the basic Stamp shape with something more interesting. This simple mechanism allows you to create an endless variety of brushes. You can import a shape, pick one from the default list, or draw your own shape with some other brush and capture it directly from the canvas.

You can also add texture to the strokes. It doesn’t change the shape of the brush, but distorts each stroke with a chosen pattern. Digital lines often seem unnaturally clean compared to traditional ones, but adding a texture can help you avoid it. You can use textures downloaded from the internet, use the default library, or capture something from the canvas. The sliders in this section will help you adjust the texture to your needs.

Finally, Randomness. Traditional strokes always have this hint of unpredictability to them. This makes traditional art look more organic, more natural, less planned. But you can simulate this effect by adding a pinch of randomness to your strokes. You might have set a specific size, Opacity, or Flow, but changing them slightly from time to time won’t hurt.

If you have ever used markers like Copics, you know that they have this special way of blending: they don’t cover each other, but they rather mix in a specific way. And you can’t make a dark line brighter by drawing with bright color over it. So that’s exactly how the Marker mode works. It’s perfect in combination with the default Copic color library.

If you’re familiar with traditional painting, you’ll love the Synthetic Paint mode. It blends the strokes automatically as you paint, creating a nice, natural effect, and saving you time. Pay attention to the Strength slider that appeared in the basic settings—it allows you to define how “wet” the canvas is.

They have designed the Colorless mode for blending of all types. You can use it like a blending stump that works for every medium, even oil paint. It works like a softer version of the Smudge mode.

In digital art, you can create separate layers in the artwork. This means that you can draw over the lines, or under the lines, or remove some lines without affecting the others. You can create new layers, remove them, copy them, merge them, and keep them in folders. Each layer is like a transparent foil that you can draw on.

Although it’s tempting to create a lot of layers, try to limit yourself to only a few. First, for practical reasons—every layer is like a copy of the image size, so it can slow your computer down. Second, your strokes can only interact with each other if they’re on the same layer. So you can’t blend or smudge colors from two different layers, and that can make the whole drawing look purely digital and unnatural.

It’s best to use layers for different stages of the artwork. For example, separate layers for the basic sketch, then for a more detailed sketch, for colors, for shadows, for shine, and for the background. If I want to experiment, I duplicate a layer for a while to keep the original intact. In the last stage, I often merge all the layers to work on them together.

Each layer has a Blend Mode that defines how it interacts with the layers below. Most of the time, the Normal mode will be all you need, but other mode can be quite handy.

Multiply is perfect for adding shadows. It darkens the colors below—the darker the color you paint with, the stronger the darkening effect. If you paint with white, though, it will remove the darkening effect. So you can, for example, fill the whole layer with a dark color, and then paint the shadows away by painting with white. And because you’re painting on a separate layer, the colors below are not really changed at all!

The Screen mode works just the other way around. Whatever you paint with, it will brighten the colors below. Black will remove this effect.

Overlay is like a hybrid of these two. If your color is dark, it has a darkening effect, if it’s bright—a brightening effect. It results in more vibrant colors than those of Multiply and Screen, so it allows you to create more colorful shadows and shine. If it’s too intense, Soft Light works like a softer version of Overlay.

Glow is a truly magical mode. It brightens the colors vibrantly, much stronger than the Overlay mode. The brighter the colors below, the stronger it works. It’s perfect for painting subsurface scattering, vibrant rim light, or magical effects. Regardless of what mode you use, you can control its intensity by dragging the Opacity slider.