How to Get Started as a Digital Artist

Posted by Parker Williams on

Once I began posting my shirt designs and illustrations, I started getting hit with SO MANY questions about how someone with little-to-no experience could get started in digital art.  So here’s a little push in the right direction.  I detail each step below with what I did personally to get started, but here’s the TL:DR:

  1. Get Photoshop via the Adobe Creative Cloud.
  2. Get a pressure sensitive pen and tablet.
  3. Learn the basics for free online.
  4. Learn to use reference and get inspired.
  5. Share your work!

Get Photoshop via the Adobe Creative Cloud.

Photoshop is the industry standard for digital painting (for good reason), and it’s accessible for everyone for only $20 a month through the Adobe Creative Cloud subscription.  It’s easy to get intimidated by Photoshop if you’re just starting out, but the basics are easy to learn with a little effort.  There are countless free resources online to help you get started. I list a few of the sites I personally use in the section below.  Check out the Creative Cloud plans here:

Get a Pen & Tablet

If you haven’t looked into a tablet, you might think they’re expensive.  They really aren’t.  You don’t need to go overboard with a $1000+ tablet when you’re just starting out (or… ever, if you don’t want to.)  The Intuos Draw and Intuos Pro series from Wacom are perfect for beginners and pro’s alike.  Once you use one for the first time, you’ll be hooked.  I definitely was.  The Cintiq is the industry standard for serious/professional digital artists, but it’s only necessary if you want to actually draw on a touch-screen.  Some people (like me), prefer to use a traditional tablet and monitor setup, where you use the pen on a separate tablet device (Intuos or other "pen tablets") rather than painting directly on the screen (Cintique, iPad Pro, etc.)  Feel free to poke around online for a tablet that suites you, but I strongly suggest checking out these 2 options below.  I use an Intous Pro, and I love it.

If you have an iPad pro AND work on a Mac, there are great options for turning your iPad and pressure sensitive pen into a drawing tablet.  I haven’t used these personally since I work on a pc, but I did my homework to see if they were right for me.  I ended up sticking with my Wacom Intuos, but here’s a few apps that are worth checking out:
Astropad
Air Display
Air Stylus

Learn the Basics for Free Online

As mentioned above, one of the great things about Photoshop is the shear amount of free tutorial content available.  “Mastering” Photoshop would be a huge undertaking, but learning enough to get moving in digital painting is easier than you might think.  Many beginners assume they need to know every tool and use complicated brushes and techniques to accomplish anything, which simply isn’t true.  Personally, for shirt designs I use a single basic/stock Photoshop brush, and a few other tools like the eraser and layer masks.  For colorful illustrations and portraits, I just use another 2 brushes and few other tricks/tools.  To get you pointed in the right direction, I provided a few links that I helped me out the most when I started (and are still helping me today.)

Ctrl + Paint

First, we’ll start with the site Ctrl+Paint - Digital Painting Simplified.  This site offers a ton of free content, broken down into small videos that run about 5 minutes long.  The instructor does a great job of presenting the content step-by-step in order from basic to advanced, so even if you’ve never touched Photoshop before you’ll be able to follow along.  Once you start to get comfortable with the basics, you can step up to videos on advanced and specific subjects, like how to paint certain materials and how to use lesser-known Photoshop tools and techniques.

Schoolism

Another fantastic site is Schoolism.  Schoolism specializes in courses taught by well-known and respected industry professionals.  You can find free content through their newsletter and on their YouTube page.  For anyone looking to get a strong foundation in digital art, I suggest checking out the subscription-based courses they offer; specifically the Digital Painting with Bobby Chiu and Introduction to Digital Painting with Andrew Hou.  At only $15 a month, you get access to self-taught versions of lessons they sell for $800 - $1000.  The more expensive courses include personal time and critiques with the instructors. The classes fill up quickly every month, so you know they’re doing something right.  If you ever feel like going beyond the basics, Schoolism has courses for learning invaluable skills in the digital art industry, such as Portfolio Review, Storyboarding, and Character Design.

Feng Zhu Design

These tutorials tend to be lengthy, and give more of a “top level” or “conceptual” look at creating digital art.  They also tend to show a very talented person making some disgustingly amazing artwork.  I’d really only suggest checking this site out once you get a grasp on the basics of Photoshop, but don’t forget about it!  If you pay close attention, you can pick up a ton of tricks and techniques from a highly experienced digital production artist.

Gumroad

For my last example of free online tutorials, here’s a link to some top artists on the service Gumroad.  This site offers a way for artists and creators of all kinds to self-publish their classes, videos, brush sets, e-books, etc.  There's plenty of free content to check out here, so do yourself a favor and poke around a bit.

Learn to Use Reference and Get Inspired!

Unless you’re some super-talented wizard god with a photographic memory, you’re going to actually need to look at things to learn how to draw them.  For some reason, many people think that looking at reference material is against the “rules.”  Well, it isn’t.  It’s necessary to learn how to draw.  Obviously you don’t want to copy or trace a photograph and call it your own artwork, but you’ll need reference material to look at while you do your own artwork.  You’re also going to want to see what other people are doing; seeing great design and illustration gets me motivated (and sometimes a little angry that I’m not as talented as certain people, but whatever.)  That said, to get the reference you need and the inspiration to get yourself moving, I suggest using Pinterest.

Not only is Pinterest one of the easiest ways to find reference material, it provides an easy way to save/organize what you find.  You’ll even receive emails about new pins that relate to what you’ve been researching.  I don’t have a smooth way to put this into words, but Pinterest simply hasn’t let me down.  I visit it daily.  You’ll typically find images, artwork from other artists, and even tutorials related to what you’re looking for.

Share Your Work!

Finally, the most important piece of advice I can give you about getting started as a digital artist is to actually get your artwork out into the world.  You can post on your Facebook, create a free blog, or join a community like deviantart.com.

The work doesn’t need to be perfect.  It doesn’t even need to be a complete scene or an entire portrait or person.  Post your learning process and your sketches (digital or otherwise.)  If you’re working on drawing people, share the hands or eyes you think you did well.  If you’re interested in concept art for mechs or vehicles, post the engines and pistons and wheels you’ve done.  Anything you’re the slightest bit happy with.  In my experience, If ONE person responds positively to something you created, it gives you the drive to do more.  If you try to wait until you’re capable of painting a complete scene to perfection however, you’re going to be waiting a LONG time.

Another advantage of sharing your paintings and drawings is that you’ll begin to encounter people with similar interests.  Being part of a community can help a great deal in many ways.  Communities share resources and techniques, and can give you inspiration and drive.

Thanks for reading!


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