Basic Steps to Creating Digital Illustrations

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Are you ready to take the leap from physical mediums to digital art? Are you not sure where to start or what you'll need? Then, this guide is for you!

I began my transition from physical to digital mediums back in 2010. At the time, I had an old Dell computer, a trial of PaintToolSAI, and Wacom Bamboo that I bought for $75 at Best Buy with my birthday money that year. Since then, the digital art industry has boomed, there's a wider diversity in art programs, and more resources are readily available.

In this guide, I will be going over how to start as a beginning digital illustrator, what tools you might need, and the basic knowledge needed to set yourself up for success and learning.

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system req

As I mentioned before, you don't need the fanciest gaming PC or highest Intel processor to get started (my dinosaur of a Dell somehow managed!). However, there are some important tidbits to know so that your art programs and accessories run smoothly while you're working. The bare minimum system requirements to check for are as follows:

  1. Check if your processor (or CPU) has 64-bit and/or SSE2 or higher support. Most CPU's these days tend to have these requirements, but it's always good to check, since having the right CPU settings allows for larger image sizes and more layers to run smoothly.
  2. Check your RAM. At the barest minimum, you can run some programs at 2GB, but that is not recommended. Most art programs suggest having a minimum of 8GB to 16GB of RAM.
  3. Make sure your GPU (graphics card) has anywhere between 1.5GB to 4GB of GPU memory. Although you don't need the most decked out graphics card out there, you might need something with more GPU memory if your display is 4K or greater.
  4. Know your operating system (OS). Most art programs prefer Windows 8.1 or higher, but if you have an older version of certain programs (like PaintToolSAI or and older edition of Photoshop), you can potentially run those on Windows Vista or XP. I would not recommend this, however, since support for those operating systems and programs have stopped, and you're going to want higher resolutions in order to illustrate properly.
  5. If you're using a desktop or laptop set-up, check your monitor resolution. Most art programs will want anywhere between 1024×768 to 1920 x 1080 (or higher) with 100% UI scaling and 16-bit color. You'll want a decent screen to not only view your artwork on, but to make sure that the color is as accurate as possible.
  6. As far as hard disk space goes, you should have anywhere between 3GB to 16GB of free memory space depending on the program.

When it comes to choosing what type of computer (Mac or PC), that's entirely up to your personal preference. Macs are known for being in art labs and having an array of keyboard shortcuts that some artists swear by, but many PC's are versatile, modular, and can run an array of programs. Having a desktop workstation provides a more powerful machine, while working on a laptop provides mobility and flexibility. There are also plenty of tablets such as the iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab that can function as both a regular commercial tablet and as a drawing tablet, utilizing apps like Procreate or Medibang. At the end of the day, it comes down to what you want out of your device. As long as you meet the specifications listed above, you'll be able to run most art programs and applications with ease.

tablet

Speaking of tablets, having a drawing tablet is a downright must when it comes to creating digital art and illustrations (I've drawn with just a mouse before and it wasn't pretty!).

When it comes to picking out a tablet, there are two main questions to consider:

  1. Do you need a screen or not?
  2. What is your budget?

Often, the two questions correlate to one another. As I mentioned earlier, my first tablet was a Wacom Bamboo tablet that had a USB plug-in and no screen. These type of tablets tend to be more budget friendly (usually under $100 USD), but have to be plugged directly into a computer and don't have a screen. On the flip side, there are higher end drawing tablets with screens such as the Wacom Cintiq, which are a staple in the digital illustration and animation industry. Lastly, there's commercial tablets. Don't rule these out just yet! iPad, Samsung, and Microsoft have some great options! I know artists who swear by their iPad while others are more than happy with their Andriod devices, such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab.

Again, it's about knowing what you want and the specifications of each device, but if you're looking for a more in-depth overview on the three categories of tablets, check out this guide!

PS

One of my biggest digital art tips is to always learn the ins-and-outs of the software that you are using. Good tools make a craftsman even better! Again, picking the right art program can be filed down to mostly preference and budget, but there are some programs that offer options that others don't.

When selecting the right program for you, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Am I drawing and/or painting professionally, and do I aim to create fully rendered pieces and/or graphic designs? If that's the case, then you're going to want to look into Adobe Suite options, like Photoshop CC and Adobe Illustrator CC. The CC versions, however, do come at a monthly subscription cost, so be sure to review plans before diving right in (or if you have older versions of the software, you could try that as well!). There is also Clip Studio Paint, which I can't recommend enough and have several guides on, and Procreate for Mac/iPad users, some of which I, personally, follow and have read their glowing reviews when it comes to Procreate.
  2. Am I looking to create comics? I definitely recommend Clip Studio Paint for that since the software started out aimed at Japanese comic and manga artists, but you can also use Photoshop, Medibang, and Paintstorm Studio.
  3. Do I need vector drawing software? For that, I would recommend Adobe Illustrator, Affinity, and even Clip Studio Paint.
  4. Am I using this for more casual purposes, have a tight budget, and just want to get started? Then, all of the aforementioned programs work great, but I would also recommend PaintToolSAI. SAI requires a one-time fee and is relatively beginner-friendly. I began learning digital illustration in SAI due to it's affordability and how easy it was to paint in (sometimes painting in Photoshop takes more trial and error). There's also plenty of free options, such as Medibang, Krita, GIMP, Artweaver, and FireAlpaca.

It's also important to note that many programs have free trials. Some even extend to a full month! If you're researching a program and think it might look beneficial to you, then definitely download the free trial and play around with it. Looking at the specifications and comparisons between programs is a great place to start, but it's ultimately going to boil down to what you feel the most comfortable learning and working with. If it feels natural, then it's probably a good option!

online tutorial

It's not all just about software and brushes; knowledge is one of your most important tools! While it's true some people study art school, many freelance and professional artists are self-taught (including myself!). With advancing technology and the wide expanse of the internet, there are plenty of resources, tutorials, and references to learn from. Here are some of my tips and recommendations:

  1. Follow artists that inspire you! I follow a handful of artists on social media, especially on Instagram and Pinterest. Viewing their portfolios and sketches can help you figure out new ways of drawing or figuring out your own style.
  2. Youtube is your best friend. Trying to figure out how to do something in your art program or learn basic anatomy? There are plenty of free tutorials you can follow on Youtube. Some of my favorite artists to watch are: Sycra (the foreshortening guru), ProkoTV (a collection of professional artists and teachers with a plethora of tutorials), Kyle T. Webster (yes, that Kyle T. Webster), Mark Burnet (a previous artist for Blizzard who has a great beginner's video), Alicja Nai (an excellent Procreate artist), and Sara Tepes (a young but knowledgeable Krita artist).
    Although some of these artists and tutorials may be working in a different medium or program than you are, general art knowledge carries across all genres of art. Also, if you're looking for something a little more lighthearted to put on while you're drawing, I recommend Jazza and the Drawfeeshow. Even though these are more humor and entertainment-based channels, I still learn so much about technique just by watching them draw.
  3. References, references, references. Sometimes, when I'm drawing, I often have five or more tabs up with various reference photos. Photo, shape, and color study is an important part of art that translates over into digital mediums as well. Pinterest is a great place to keep track of your references or save them for later. I have several boards just for photo references, brushes, and art tutorials.
  4. Check out Skillshare. Skillshare is an online learning community with tons of tutorials and videos teaching various creative topics, including drawing, illustration, graphic design, and animation. If it's your first time using Skillshare, you can get the first month for free. After that, it's $13.75 USD per month ($165 USD billed annually), but if it's a resource that you are using regularly, then it might be worth it!
  5. If there's a particular artist you want to learn from, they might have a private course or a Masterclass. Certain professional artists may have an online course or other resources available for a one-time fee. Some of the artists I love that have courses are Mitch Leeuwe (he also has a less in-depth videos on his Youtube channel), David Ardinaryas, Laia López, and Christina Gomez. You could also look up artist studios in your area that might offer in-person workshops or look into a non-credited art course at your local community college.
practicing

I know, this is the most common and least wanted advice, but the more you do something, the better you get at it. Consistency is key.

My piano teacher once gave me great advice when it came to practicing. When I asked him how often and long should I practice, he replied, "I'm more about quality than quantity. You could practice, banging your head into a wall, for two hours and get nothing out of it. You can also spend fifteen minutes and have something click. Practice in a way that you're getting the most out of it."

This advice gave me a sense of relief; I didn't have to put as much stress on myself as I was in the habit of doing. Practicing in a more free-flowing way whenever I had time to myself (no matter how long) allowed me the freedom to play and learn. The same can be said for drawing. It's true that there is some self-discipline when it comes to practicing, but, if you're like me, it's important to remember to not get too in your head about it and to have fun and explore while learning. Give yourself the time, place yourself in a comfortable learning environment, be patient with yourself, and keep at it! You will grow and get better over time. Good luck!