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Leveling Up Your Digital Painting Skills: Pro Tips and Tricks


Mastering digital painting opens new possibilities for creating stunning artwork digitally. While rewarding, developing painting proficiency requires practice and the right techniques.

This comprehensive guide provides tips and strategies used by pros to elevate your digital painting. We’ll cover:

  • Fundamentals like composition, values and color theory
  • Brush settings and effects that bring paintings to life
  • Working from photo reference material effectively
  • Speed painting for increased efficiency
  • Using layers strategically for non-destructive editing
  • Common painting workflow from sketch to completion
  • Methods for enhancing realism through textures and details
  • Integrating mixed media elements into digital paintings
  • Leveraging symmetry to expedite the process
  • Building a catalog of custom brushes and resources

Apply these digital painting hacks and your artwork will steadily advance to a more skilled level. Let’s level up!

Master Painting Fundamentals

Regardless of medium, fine art foundations transfer to digital work. Master basics like:


Practice principles like the rule of thirds, leading lines, balancing elements, framing, depth etc.

Color Theory

Understand color harmonies, hues, values and temperament for appealing palettes.


Depict light convincingly through highlights, shadows, glows and attention to how surfaces reflect light.


Use linear and atmospheric perspective to capture dimension and space.

Drawing Accuracy

Observational and figure drawing skills translate into stronger foundations for paintings.

Paint Mixing Theory

Understand how to blend colors digitally to match real-world painting color theory.

Optimize Brush Settings and Effects

The right digital brushes and tuning settings like opacity, flow, scattering, texture etc. allow matching real-life painting tools and mediums for authentic results.

Tablet Pressure Controls

Use pressure sensitivity for natural stroke variation in thickness, opacity, scattering and more based on pen pressure.

Color Dynamics

Link parameters like hue, saturation and brightness to tablet pressure for rich, complex strokes.

Texture Brushes

Overlays like canvas, charcoal, splatter etc. add natural feel. Use sparingly at lower opacities.

Smudge and Blend

Smudge, glaze and melt brushes mix and smear colors together reproducing blending effects.

Dry Brushing

Flick brush bristles using directional chaos on texture for thick, ragged strokes.

Color Balance

Avoid oversaturation. Use muted tones in shadows. Add accents of vibrancy sparingly.

Work From Quality Photo References

When tackling realism, working from photo references can accelerate skills. Best practices:

Seek Permission

Only use personal photos or commercial references you have rights or licenses to paint from legally and ethically.

Match Composition

Maintain original image framing and composition for accurate proportion and perspective.

Use Multiple References

Compile features from multiple photos for a unique composite result with more visual interest.

Focus on Values

Accurately replicate the shadow shapes, forms, contrasts and values despite eventual color changes. Value drives realism more than color.

Analyze Lighting

Study and mimic lighting direction, falloff and intensity across subjects to make shading authentic.

Hide References

Hide photo references on a lower layer to avoid rigid replication. Glance at them for precision but don’t rigidly trace.

Speed Paint with Blocking and Masks

Work efficiently by strategically sketching, masking areas, and painting in stages.

Thumbnail Sketches

Map overall image flow with quick thumbnail sketches trying out compositions. Refine one into a final sketch before painting.

Block In Colors

On a separate layer, roughly block in solid color shapes for major elements like shadows to define forms.

Detail Masking

Hide intricate areas like faces with masks while freely painting backgrounds and peripheral elements first.

Reveal And Refine

Gradually reveal masked regions and refine them with greater precision vs the free, loose initial layers.

Zoom for Accuracy

Maximize zooms on detailed regions like eyes while painting them to ensure accuracy then zoom out to assess overall cohesion.

Use Layers Strategically

Leverage non-destructive editing through layers to simplify complex paintings:

Sketch Separately

Place sketches on their own bottom layer to contain adjustments and retain throughout.

Color Isolation

Assign elements to individual layers by color for easily manipulating each distinctively.

Masking Refinements

Use masks to gradually reveal details from rougher to more polished on separate layers.

Reusable Elements

Paint repeating elements like foliage on separate layers, then duplicate for efficiency.

Composite Painting

Blend digital painting with photos by subtly overlaying painted layers atop photo bases.

Non-Destructive Editing

Tweak layers non-destructively, changing blending modes and opacities until they integrate.

Standard Digital Painting Workflow

Follow this phased approach from start to finish:


Brainstorm compositions as small rough thumbnails defining focal point, lighting, flow.

Line Drawing

Create clean line art defining outlines and major forms. Make layers for adjustments.

Blocking In

Flatly fill basic color regions like shadows to establish masses and balance.


Refine rendering through gradients, blending, textures on new layers while retaining base.

Overlay Effects

Introduce effects like light rays and glows on topmost layers.

Final Adjustments

Apply finishing touches to unify color balance, contrast, sharpness etc.

Enhance Realism Through Textures and Details

Augment realism by overlaying and blending textures, fabric details and natural effects:

Fine Noise

Overlaid fine monochromatic noise adds subtle grain for authenticity.

Canvas Texture

Add slight canvas bump texture in neutral tones for physical feel.

Fabric Details

Paint delicate textures like threads, folds and weaves on overlay layers to define material.

Organic Textures

Replicate wood, water and stone textures through custom brushes and filter effects.

Edge Hairs

Use small custom stencil brushes to add delicate hairs along complex edges.

Chromatic Aberration

Fringing color edges mimics real optical lens effects.

Dust and Scratches

Apply a light touch of grunge like dust, dirt and minor abrasion textures. Don’t overdo.

Incorporate Mixed Media Elements

Matching physical mediums digitally produces natural, multi-dimensional results:

Pencil Sketching

Rough pencilPre-sketch key contours using textured pencils and smudging for an authentic drawn look.

Airbrush Effects

Mimic soft graduated sprayed effects using particle brushes, like background gradients.

Dry Media Textures

Overlay chalk, charcoal and pastel grain textures for a rich mixed media appearance in backgrounds.

Gold Leaf, Foils and Iridescence

Adapt scanned foil textures using blending modes to integrate metallic touches.

Paint Splatters

Use custom splatter brushes subtly applied for speckled accents.

Watercolor Bleeding

Allow some purposely sloppy bleeding of edges and allow to dry between passes for watercolor-like behavior.

Leverage Symmetry to Speed Up Painting

Redrawing both sides of symmetrical subjects is tedious. Streamline the process:

Mirror Canvas

Activate horizontal or vertical mirroring to paint one side and automatically mirror it.

Object Mirroring

Select specific elements and flip horizontal or vertical axis to quickly replicate.

Kaleidoscope Brushes

Complex kaleidoscope brushes automatically render radial symmetry.

Content Aware Fill

Use photo duplication tools to copy details from one side to seamlessly fill opposite side.

Texture Cloning

Replicate hand-painted textures cleanly onto opposite side using cloning tools.

Distort Warp

Warp mirrored results slightly so symmetry doesn’t feel artificial.

Build a Catalog of Custom Brushes and Resources

Curate a collection of specialty brushes to expand capabilities:

Medium-Specific Brushes

Create sets mimicking traditional media like watercolor, oil, pastel and acrylic with authentic textures.

Natural Media Bristles

Simulate bristles, splattering, smudging and spreading effects of natural brushes.

Textured Brushes

Design brushes imprinting canvas, fabric and wood textures as you paint foreground elements.

Scattering Bristles

Program brushes with scattering and rotation for chaotic stroke settling and pooling for organic feel.

Special Effect Brushes

Make brushes that generate effects like smoke, ice, fire, lighting, fur, foliage and more dynamically.

Pattern and Stamp Brushes

Design brushes that procedurally generate repetitive patterns like grids, polka dots, paisleys etc. as you paint.

Complex Brush Tips

Import high resolution images to use as brush tips like flower shapes you paint with.


Elevating digital painting skills requires experimenting with tools and techniques used by professionals. Work from quality photo references. Use layers non-destructively. Integrate mixed media elements and textures. Speed up painting by leveraging symmetry. Expand capabilities with custom brushes. With deliberate, continual practice and learning, your digital paintings will steadily advance to mastery.


By Dani Davis

Dani Davis is the pen name of the writer of this blog with more 15 years of constant experience in Content marketing and informatics product, e-commerce niche.

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