How to paint digital paintings that look like traditional paintings.
This tutorial/guide is about my process making digital paintings look like traditional paintings. Or to be more exact how I mix and match digital and traditional to get the best of both worlds.
Because this is not a simple guide but involves a lot of other things you need to understand I will be going back and adding free resources for each part like composition and understanding values and color. Really it will end up being more of a mini art course than a tutorial.
Work in traditional media. – The first step is a bit counter intuitive you need to learn how to paint and draw in traditional media. A lot of people think you can skip this part or fake it but if you do it will hold you back. Now I am not saying you have to learn to paint like John Singer Sargent although that would be great. But I am saying you have to learn enough to understand the process and be able to do passable work. You need to be able to execute the brush strokes you want and the shapes and values etc. In other words you have to learn to paint and draw. I know shocking for an artist right 🙂 You also need to study traditional materials and understand them. Part of painting in traditional media is learning materials. For painting in oils this is very important. For example when oil painting you can use walnut oil instead of linseed oil and not have to use harsh solvents. This method is better for your health and is as old as oil painting itself. Here is a bit more about using walnut oil.
Understand there is not just one valid process. – Most of the time people tend to get the idea there is a single correct way to paint in oil or acrylics or to draw. The truth is there are many ways to paint. For example you can paint color directly or you can paint monochrome and then use transparent layers of color over it. There were great painters that used both methods. Both methods work and can produce amazing results along with many other ways to paint. The processes that are not really valid are the ones that do not work or produce unstable paintings that fall apart with age.
Study real paintings. – Study in detail the paintings of great painters in history and how they worked. Study in detail the process they used and how they manipulated the paint. This will help you learn about the looks your after. It will also help you be a better traditional painter. Here is just a bit about how Rembrant worked to give you an idea of what I am talking about. Link
Study composition. – All paintings and drawing involve composition. This is a basic of art and something you need to master. Read books and watch videos on the subject. Study great paintings. Practice doing composition thumbnails. This knowledge will help you on everything you ever do.
Study color theory and value. – Color is another basic of being an artist. There are many books and videos on color. And there are many systems of color and value. I suggest starting out with very simple two and three color palettes as you are learning. Also when you study values start with simple objects and simple light sources. And this is a general rule for learning art. Start with the simple master it and move on.
Learn to paint digitally. – Another big part of what you are doing is learning the limits of digital painting. Push the limits of digital painting and learn its limits.
Example of Photoshop brushes that try to mimic real paint. Brushes Download.
Here is a video on digital portrait painting.
Learn Photoshop. – You will need to learn Photoshop well to be able to use it to manipulate all of the elements you will be using. I suggest using an online step by step video class. If you can find free ones fine if you have to pay for a good one it is worth it as it will save you a lot of time. I will try and put one here I recommend later.
Putting it all together. – The next step is putting all of the things you have learned together. I will give on overview but it will be full of options. There is not single hard and fast way each image works. They all come together in unique ways. It is always important to remember art is about choices.
Define your goals. – This is an important step and not one you should skip. What is your goal for the style of the work. Do you want it to look like a thick Rembrandt impasto? Do you want to reflect the style of of John Singer Sargent? Do you want the refined look of a William-Adolphe Bouguereau? Make the choice early on and make a plan.
Design the painting. – And beyond style of brushwork what do you want from the photo? Is it a portrait? What is the mood supposed to be? In other words design a good painting including composition and color palette. When you are sure about the design move on.
Make sure you understand your subject. – If you are painting portrait make sure you understand the structure of the face and skin colors of the face etc. If you are working from reference get good reference. If you are working only from imagination you better have mastered your understanding of the face or what ever subject you are doing. Not really understanding something and then trying to paint it is the downfall of most inexperienced artists.
Use good reference material. – If you are using reference material use good reference material. And reference material does not just have to be photos. You can use a real costume on a full size artists mannequin. You can use small rough models to get your lighting right. You can use costumes and props or what ever you need to get the information you want.
Do not be afraid to use tools. – Many amateur artists do not understand that using tools is something artists have always done. The key is choosing the tools right for the job and style and using them well. Find a process that is right for you. Your process can be just from imagination or can use a few or many tools. Study about as many methods as you can and see what you come up with.
Here is a bit about how Maxfield Parrish used technology. “Parrish believed that the artist benefited when he used technology. He used photography in his studio and constructed his own 4×5 inch glass plate camera and developed the image in a positive form on another glass plate in his darkroom. He created a projector so he could project the image from his camera on a sheet of tracing paper. He would trace what he wanted from the photograph and transfer the image to a painting surface. He usually combined several photographs for one painting and never painted from live models.” Link
The great American painter Thomas Eakins use photographs and projectors in his work and hid it during his life. But yet his work is still hanging in museums and worth large sums of money. “The Bregler Collection reveals that Eakins shot thousands of photographs, many of them of nude male and female models, which he projected directly onto his canvases with the use of an opaque projector. He traced them and made scratch marks to guide his brush, then camouflaged the incisions with layers of paint. Eakins and his wife, Susan, took great care to keep the projection stage of the process and the source photographs a secret. She left instructions that all records and photographs should be burned upon her death. When she died in 1939, Bregler rescued the entire contents of the studio; it remained hidden until 1984.”
Creating the main image. – At this point since you have a clear design and goal its time to really get started. I normally start with a monochrome underpainting. Although you can combine this step and the next step and just paint directly. I do both and both work fine. It just depends on your goals etc. Now to the underpainting. I normally do a monochrome underpainting and concentrate on getting the values and composition correct. I do not use heavy brush strokes on this part. I tend to make it just a soft and I will paint in the details later on in the process. It is basically a Grisaille technique but with less detail in the monochrome layer. Take your time and make sure the composition and values are just right at this stage. Also this stage can be done digital or traditional either one is fine.
Odalisque in Grisaille underpainting by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.
Example from a tutorial by Thomas Penrose.
Remember Scale. – You are about to start painting in textures. When doing this on a digital painting you have to think about scale. What size you do expect it to be viewed at? If you are printing it what size do you expect to print it at? How big do you want the brush work in relation to the view size. If your brush strokes are to small and everything is really tight your final image will end up looking like a photo or an airbrushed work. If you are not sure about this try small simple images until you get this part down.
(Remember to protect your values when you start the next steps.)
Starting to paint texture. – Next think a lot about the paint style and texture you want. Also think about what parts should be loose and what parts will be tight. Then think about the type of brush works and textures that each section and edge will need. You can also combine this with Creating the main image step if you like.
Now for this layer you will start to paint your first light brush strokes. You can do this directly into the underpainting. Just remember to back it up first. These strokes will tend to define form and soften edges if needed. They do need to show brush strokes but just subtle brush strokes. The more robust ones are to come. While doing this remember what you learned from painting in traditional media. Also remember what you learned from the study of paintings by great painters. And remember at each step you are making choices that will make your image succeed or fail.
Stronger texture and color. – Now things start to get hard to explain because each picture is different. And there are many valid orders you can do the steps in. And the steps can repeat and restart and reverse etc. But I will do an overview just keep in mind you can change the order of steps.
This is where things start to really get interesting. You are starting to run into the limits of digital painting. You are at a point where most paintings stop and tend to look like just digital paintings but you are going to take it farther. To do this you have to mix in real photo textures and brush strokes. You have several options for getting these. You can paint just brush strokes and scan them. You can paint a rough version of the picture paying special attention to areas with interesting options for brush strokes. You can use public domain paintings in high resolution. You can make water colors of details you want to have that look. But basically you are mixing in details of real painting.
The method of mixing in the layers is also varied and will be based your understanding of Photoshop and the look you are going for. You might take just an area you painted and scanned that gives you a nice effect in one place and only if you use softlight at 43%. In another area it might be something that gives it just the right texture and uses overlay at 100%. You have to have an idea of the look you want and how to get there.
As part of this you will also being starting to add color. You can add color directly in photoshop as an overlay. Or you can use the color of your painting textures or both. Either or both can work if done correctly. And they can be added in and changed as you do more.
You want to work on this until you get an over all look you want. But it still is going to need a lot of work. It will probably look interesting but not exactly right.
Canvas, paper and other textures. – Canvas, papers and other textures is not necessarily next as it could be part of the previous step. You will have to experiment and see when it works best on each image. But things to keep in mind when adding canvas and or paper textures. It has to be of a scale to look correct with the brush strokes you are using. It has to be pleasing and make the image look better and not just be added for no reason. Like the brush strokes and future textures you can erase in places where you do not want it and thin it out in other places. Try to think about where the paint would be thin or thick.
Also note that you will want a canvas texture that has already had a background color painted on to it and not just a raw canvas texture.
You can also mix in other textures during the process from concrete to bark. You never know what you might find gives you an interesting effect.
Refining shapes. – Now you will start to refine the larger and middle size areas of darks and lights to define your shapes better. Again there is no easy way to explain how to make these choices.
One thing very important to remember to do not destroy your texture. For example do not just go in with an airbrush and make a big smooth dark area. You either need to paint in a way it looks like paint or just darken the area and save the texture. And if you are painting think about how the canvas grain and your over all paint textures look like they were made. Paint in a way that matches that.
Details. – Now its time to paint in the finer details. You have to think about how all of the other textures look like they were painted. And you have to use digital paint in a way to make them naturally blend together. Make it look like dry brush work. Or a smooth stroke of paint. But make it look like it belongs.
Final details. – This is where you but in your brightest whites and darkest blacks. These values are normally best saved for last. Use the brightest highlights and darkest shadows sparingly.
Final Thoughts – If you have put in the hard work and practice and study you should now have an amazing looking painting. But you might not be finished. You can now have the painting printed to a fine canvas or water color paper that is archival with pigment based inks. You can then seal the image with clear acrylic gel and finish the painting in oils or acrylic.
There is also a method now where they can use a special 3D printer that they use to reproduce paintings in museums. You would need to make sure the height maps were done well but it can produce amazing results. The main problem with this 3D printing method is the expense.