Searching for the traditional look in digital painting
My drawing and painting started with traditional techniques. I worked my way up from kindergarten crayons to dry pastels. Only in my college days did I get hooked on Photoshop (and a mouse, yikes!), then on my first graphics tablet (Graphite Intuos, anyone remember?). A while before that, I started getting used to painting with watercolor, oil and acrylic. You could say that the development of traditional and digital painting in my case happened alongside. This made it easy for me to compare the pros and cons of each technique. In the case of traditional creation, the biggest disadvantage was the irreversibility of some mistakes and the biggest advantages in addition to the variety of experiences with different media, traditional textures, happy accidents related to the properties of different paints and a limited number of possible variations.
While painting digitally, we can undo every move and make color corrections and adjustments over and over again, which can often be overwhelming. It’s not uncommon for overworked digital works to lack the vibrancy and lightness of traditional sketches or paintings. That’s why quite early on I started looking for techniques and brushes for graphic design programs that would replicate the traditional look and resemble the pleasure of working with traditional media. My favorite technique at the time was watercolor (it still ranks very high!). You can read about the search in this area in the post Digital watercolor brushes
The purchase of an iPad in 2018 made me switch almost completely from painting on a computer to a tablet. My spine felt a huge relief then 🙂 I have used various apps for painting, but because of the stability and ease of use, my illustrations are most often created in Procreate. The brushes in Procreate somewhat resemble those in Photoshop. Unfortunately, among the default ones, I didn’t find ones that accurately capture the feeling of painting and the look of watercolor, gouache, or oil paints. Therefore, I decided to create them myself.
Oils – oil brushes for Procreate!
Oil paints have fascinated me for years. It’s a medium that forgives mistakes more easily than watercolors. The softness of the paints, painting with diluted or heavily opaque paint, the visible brush marks, the ability to refine every detail – all this excites me a lot about this technique. However, the mess I make when painting, the length of the work (the long drying time of the paint), the characteristic smells of turpentine and linseed oil, and above all, the prices of paints, canvas, ,brushes and… my laziness – these are the barriers that have kept me from reaching for oils for years. Watercolors, pastels and gouaches were much more common on my desk. That’s why I first created brush sets for Procreate referring to the media I use most often first. You can find them all at my Etsy.
At last it was time for oil paints! I remembered the pleasure I had in spreading paints on canvas, mixing colors and imprinting brush textures. What if I tried, at least half of that magic transferred to Procreate? That’s how the Oils set was created.
I categorized it into dry brushes (unmixing colors, with clear textures,) wet brushes (mixing colors, with color variations, darker edges to create clearer textures), palette knives, and special effects brushes (splashes, multi-color strokes, series of brush marks).
If you have had fun with oil paints I think you will find similarities. If that pleasure is yet to come, but you are looking for similar effects in Procreate – here are some of my tips for giving your digital paintings the traditional look of oil paints.
Digital oils in Procreate – my way
1. Think and plan
As with other techniques, both traditional and digital, think about the subject and how you want to approach it before you get down to painting.
- What format will you choose?
- What composition will you use?
- What is your plan for values (light and dark areas)?
- What will be the dominant colors?
- What color will you choose for accents?
- Where will the most important point of the painting be located?
Even when painting from a photo, you have a huge influence on how you interpret it and what you want to show the viewer and what you want to pass over. Quick little sketches will be very useful in these reflections. With them you will see if the planned picture emphasizes what you want to convey/tell with your painting.
2. The canvas
We usually paint on primed paper or canvas. The texture of the canvas has a big impact on the texture of the painting, so I have included six different textures of different canvases in my brush set. The best way to do this, start working on one of them by importing it to the first layer in your graphics program.
3. The primed canvas
Most paintings are primed with white paint, but many artists have also used warmer tones. This gives the overall painting a warmer tone and creates interesting textures in places where the new layer of paint does not cover the canvas accurately. Try it for yourself as well! Apply a warmer color on the new layer in Multiply mode, so that the texture of the canvas is still visible. I like to use larger texture brushes for this job.
4. The sketch
That is, a visual roadmap that uses simple shapes and lines to apply the most important lines of the composition and objects. It will not be visible from underneath successive layers of paint, and we can also turn off the layer with the sketch at any time, so I do not focus on its accuracy or aesthetics. Here, easy-to-handle brushes with more precise tips and edges will work well.
5. The underpainting
You already know the distribution of the most important elements on the canvas, you can now fill them with initial color. For the sky, distant elements that disappear into the distance, you can use color-mixing brushes, which will make it easier to create tonal transitions.
For more defined elements, choose dry brushes with sharper edges. I usually don’t paint too opaquely in this phase following the rule that we start with lighter layers of paint and choose increasingly opaque ones in the painting process. Although I paint digitally, I think that following the rules of traditional painting helps to achieve a traditional look. I often choose color variation brushes in this phase, so I enrich the colors and then usually choose them from the colors already applied to the canvas, instead of from the color box. I also use colors darker than intended. By adding lighter shades later, you can get an interesting effect/impression of color sculpting. I don’t worry if I cover the texture of the canvas with paint. I will return to this topic in the last phase.
6. The top-down approach
I start painting with the largest shapes and use a large brush size. This can be done on another layer, but I prefer to paint on the same layer. This way, brushes that mix colors can use the colors already present on the layer. A cool idea to add texture would be to use brushes from the Palette Knives category.
I focus on the edges of the shapes. Where they need to be more understated I use blending brushes. Where they could use more artistic disorder I use those with messy edges.
I like to refine paintings with wet brushes, especially those that blend colors and give the impression of applying thicker paint. If I want defined shapes and colors – I do it on an extra layer. The most precise brush in this set designed for such tasks is Dry Detail Oil.
8. Finishing touches
When painting digitally, it is easier to overwork the image. It’s the moment when the whole thing looks too precise, too smooth, too heavy. This can be seen especially when I keep the previous stages on separate layers. This allows me to compare what the next layer of refinement has improved , and what has been lost in the polishing process. Often I erase parts that have already been painted to reveal previous, more freely painted parts. To add more spontaneity, I use brushes from the Oil Effects category, A little splash on the edge of trees, more visible brush bristle strokes on grasses, a layer of texture on too-smooth surfaces brings the whole thing to life.
Color correction – something that cannot be done in traditional techniques. In Procreate, I mostly use correction with the help of Curves and Gradient Maps. One of Procreate’s biggest lacks is the absence of adjustment layers (as solved in Photoshop, Infinite Painter, or Fresco). That’s why I usually copy the whole thing (copy all) and make adjustments on the new layer, manipulating its transparency later or masking selected parts after the changes.
Below you can see how correction works using Gradient Maps in Procreate. It’s a lot of fun!
At the very end, I add the top layer with the canvas texture (the same one I chose at the beginning) in Multiply/Multiply mode. I reduce the transparency of the layer so that the texture is not too sharp. I give the layer a mask and erase it in places where I would like to simulate a thicker applied paint.
If I want to add more roughness and paint strokes, I create another layer this time in Overlay/Overlay mode and import one of the textures from the Strokes Textures folder onto it. I adjust its appearance with Curves/Curves, reduce the brightness and boost the contrast. I adjust the strength of the effect again using the layer’s transparency. If you want to match the brush strokes visible on the new texture to those painted on the previous layers, you can do it with the Liqufy tool.
This is how the whole thing looks – a view from a recent trip to Biebrza River (Northeastern Poland).
Such a roadmap can be reproduced in most graphics programs, but if you feel like checking out how my brushes work in Procreate, I recommend it!
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If something is unclear, you want to learn more, ask a related (or completely unrelated) question – I look forward to your comments!
And that’s it, see you in the next episode! It’s hard to predict what topic because of my creative ADHD 😉