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The Beginner's Beginning Guide to Beginning Beginning Painting

Published 2020-03-28
Carol E. Leever
Digital Painting: The Beginner's Beginning Guide to Beginning Beginning Painting


  1. Learn your Software
  2. Decide on a Style
  3. Start drawing or roughing in an image
    • Create File
    • Set up your TOOLS
    • Get Your BRUSH
    • Start Drawing
    • Create a Silhouette
  4. Values: Shade your drawing
  5. Values: Highlight your drawing

This is a beginner's guide -- as in an actual beginner's beginner guide. If you have any experience with art programs or painting, this is probably not for you. This is for someone who WANTS to paint but opens up an art program, stares blankly at it, then shuts it down and gives up.

Also, I'm not a professional artist. I started digital painting about 3 years ago, had to give it up for a year because I was sick, and started back up again recently. I haven't taken any art classes; everything I've learned, I learned by watch tons of YouTube videos. I made a lot of mistakes along the way, so I'm attempting to give you the benefit of my errors. I'm a very slow painter, struggling with simple things, but practice makes slow, incremental improvements.

To start

These are the basic steps you need to go through to BEGIN digital painting.

  • Learn your software
  • Decide on a style
  • Start drawing or roughing in an image
  • Values: Shade your drawing
  • Values: Highlight your drawing
  • Detail your drawing (if you want -- depends on your style)

Now obviously these steps leave out a lot -- for instance, I don't mention color, and all of the subjects above have entire lecture series devoted just to parts of them. But all we want to do at the beginning stage is sit down and paint SOMETHING.

Also, to do this tutorial, you need a drawing tablet or a stylus. If this is just a hobby or something you are trying out to see if you like it, don't spend a lot of money on this. You can pick up a basic tablet/stylus from Amazon for around 50 dollars or less.

If you are working on the iPad, you need the Apple Pencil. There are cheaper pencils out there, but they don't work as well. And unfortunately, the Apple Pencil is quite expensive -- between 100 and 150 dollars. It's nice to have though because you can use it for note taking as well.

The good news is that the software I'm going to use in this tutorial is FREE!

I. Learn your Software

Now for this, I'm actually going to intersperse the software within the tutorial itself rather than go through massive steps here without producing any actual images. Obviously, if you can afford something like the Adobe suite, you'll probably want to use Photoshop, but it is prohibitively expensive. I'd recommend starting with some sort of free or inexpensive software. A lot of professional artists are beginning to drop Photoshop and move toward some of the new software that has recently come out (especially stuff for the iPad).

For the PC/MAC desktop, I'd recommend something like Krita. It does everything Photoshop does, and MORE. It was designed by artists for artists and has more features than I've even begun to discover. And it's FREE!

If you want to work on the iPad (this is becoming VERY popular) I'd recommend Art Studio Pro or Procreate. Both are cheap (generally under 10 dollars) and both are great. I edge out Art Studio Pro over Procreate simply because it has Keyboard Shortcut Support (Procreate has keyboard support too, but you can't reprogram the keys!). Other than that the two are very comparable. Both have great brushes, and both are relatively easy to use. I'd say Procreate is probably slightly easier to use when you're getting started, and it has some awesome gesture control when it comes to drawing shapes. Try them both! I often switch back and forth between them when working on something on the iPad (the iPad is also portable -- so you can take it outside to sketch).

Regarding what you actually need to know to get started, these art programs have TONS of features. You don't need all of them. Eventually, you'll learn about some of them -- there are YouTube videos on all the features. But to get started all you really need to know are the following things:

  • Open file - Save File - Export File (to create a JPEG)
  • A brush (the brush type doesn't really matter -- just use a basic brush)
  • An eraser (the brush and the eraser are basically opposites sides of the same coin)
  • The Layer menu (the joy of digital paintings if you can do everything on LAYERS)
  • The color wheel (we're actually not going to use color -- but you still need it to determine darks and lights.
  • The selection tool (this is secondary, but it's a nice tool to start with)
  • Layer Clipping masks (also secondary, but it's really NICE to be able to use this tool)

If you just start with your focus on these basic tools you'll do fine. This is 90% of what you use on ANY painting. The extra tools are just icing on the cake.

II. Decide on a Style

This is probably less important than anything else -- because it will be something that sort of happens naturally based on what you actually want to paint. And there is no 'right' style. Think of Charlie Brown cartoons vs Rembrandt. Both are awesome. Both are Art. Each style has a specific time commitment. A cartoon doesn't take long to draw -- a Rembrandt type painting may take hundreds of hours. Typically, these are your main categories -- but there are many variations on these themes. (BTW -- I have no academic knowledge of ART HISTORY, so I'm making these names up.)

Photo Realistic
This is very time consuming, and often has to be viewed from a very specific angle in order to get the entire effect.
(Rembrandt, Titian, Vermeer, Da Vinci, etc -- hundreds of styles in this category. (Very time consuming: Da Vinci worked on the Mona Lisa for 12 years!)
Modern Digital Painters
These are the people who do movie backdrops, concept art, video games; their works are often seen to be a combination of photorealistic and old masterworks. Expect to put in between 20-100 hours on a single image (sometimes more than that.)
These are the sort of images you'll often find in children's books. They can be incredibly detailed and beautiful, or very simple. You often see watercolor styles here. Think Beatrix Potter, or Where the Wild Things Are, or Winnie the Pooh. All different, but all beautiful. Depending on the detail, you may put in a lot of hours, but this generally is a faster style.
I watch a lot of videos on painting and often hear people refer to something as a "painterly" style. I think they're typically referring to impressionism. I find impressionism to be in an odd category -- to me, it looks like what all my paintings are like about 2-10 hours into the process. So basically, roughed in, but unfinished. But sometimes that's all you need. You usually can see lots of brush strokes in the painting, and it has to be viewed from a certain distance to get the full impression.
Awesome art style -- can be done very roughly, or with massive fine detail. Just depends on what you like.
Cartoon/Cell Shading
This is what comic books are usually done in. You can have extremely beautiful graphics like you'll find in highly detailed superhero books or something simple like Charlie Brown. Typically, these are shaded and highlighted with something called "cell shading" -- which is a type of shading that doesn't rely on massive amounts of blending. The shading all tends to be hard-edged.
If all you can draw are stickmen -- go for it! Perfectly acceptable!

Obviously, there are other types of styles, but these are the most common you'll find. And there are hundreds of subcategories within each. Go with what you like to look at.

III. Start drawing or roughing in an image

Okay, here's where we start the tutorial using Krita. We're going to DRAW something! Obviously, our first step is to start the software, but I'm going to assume you have that under control. We're going to start with creating a new file.

Create File

Click the little link (circled below) that says New File.

Krita New File 1

That will open up this window:

Krita New File 2

You can go with whatever dimensions you want (when you are doing a highly detailed drawing you want at least something over 4000 px (width or height). And if you intend to print this you want the resolution to be around 300 ppi (this determines how many actual pixels there are on the page). For this tutorial, I'm using a width of 4000 and a height of 2000.

There is a content tab on the top of the page (circled below in red). Click that to get this window:

Krita New File 3

What you want to change on this screen is the background color. Set it to something in the mid gray value. The reason we do this is when you are painting you have to pay attention to your VALUES -- that means the lights and the darks. If you are painting on a white background all your highlights will be off, because you will always compare them to the background. You can't get any brighter than white. If you are painting on a black background, all your shadows will be off. You can't get any darker than black. So we go with a mid gray.

Simply click the White Bar to open this window.

Krita New File 4

Notice that I moved the little marker in the color square to a mid gray color. The left side of the color square is all your grays. On the right side are your saturated colors. (For some reason this color square is upside down in regards to lights and darks -- most programs have this reversed. In this case down is lighter, up is darker). I went with a lightish mid gray (not quite mid -- I don't like a really dark background).

Click the OK button, which will take you back to the previous screen. Then click the CREATE button.

That brings you to this screen: NOTE: your screen may look different because you haven't set up your tool panels yet.

Krita New File 5

This file can be saved by going to the File Menu and doing a normal save like you do in every program out there. Or you can export it by going to File > Export, and then setting the file extension to JPEG or PNG for use on the web.

Get Your TOOLS

First you need to get the docked panels you need. Krita's default will have panels open that you don't really need. So set up your program the way you want it.

TOOLS: First you need your tools panel. Mine is already open, but if you don't see it, go to Settings > Dockers > Toolbox

That will give you this panel:

Krita Tools 1

As you can see this has your brush, your magnifier for zooming, your selection tools, and all sorts of other things.

I can ZOOM in and out with my mouse wheel (you may not have one). But to zoom in and out on the image you can either use the MAGNIFYING glass, or one of these shortcuts: ShortCuts: Krita.org

Krita Tools 2

Regarding all the dockers I use: these are the ones you want at the beginning (pictured above). Layers, Small Color Selector, Tool Options, Toolbox

Note: your panels may go to different locations when you open them. That's no big deal, you can move them by grabbing the bar at the top and sliding them around. This is my final set up:

Krita Tools 3

Note: There are few things with Krita that are not instantly obvious.

First: every tool you have (brush, line tool, selection tool, etc.) has tool options. If you don't have the tools option box open, you'll never see them and won't realize how much they can actually do. The tool option panel changes every time you pick a new tool. It's easy to overlook.

Second: There is a secondary option bar at the top of the screen under the File, Edit, View menu. This has a lot of other options built into it that you will need. For example your eraser is actually there. It is an aspect of the brush tool, not a separate tool unto itself. You can turn your brush into an eraser by clicking the little eraser button (or using a keyboard shortcut). And then go back to a brush by deselecting the same button (or using a keyboard shortcut). All your brush options are there as well. When you want to select a new brush you can click the brush menu button.

Krita tools 4

Third: All the menu panels are modifiable. You can see the navigation options here:Navigation Krita.org

Fourth: you can make all the menus disappear just by hitting the TAB button. Hit it again to bring them all back.

Fifth: Keyboard Shortcuts: You don't have to use these, but they really do speed up your workflow. All of them are changeable. You can access them by going to Settings > Configure Krita. The second tab is all the Keyboard Shortcuts.

Now that you have all your panels set up, save your settings so that Krita will remember what you like.

Krita Tools 5

You do this by clicking the little box in the far right corner and giving your set up a name. That way if you ever open Krita and everything is messed up, just go to that little box and click your setup. It will put everything back where it belongs.

Get Your BRUSH

We finally get to start drawing something. This first step requires a brush and probably the eraser, the color panel, and maybe the selection tool.

Get a brush: To get a brush you have several options. First, you can just go with whatever brush is defaulted to by clicking the brush tool and start drawing. Or you can grab a specific brush using one of the brush menus. The main menu is here:

Krita Brush 1

By clicking the word in the top left corner you can see ALL your brushes. Krita has a lot of them. For more information go here:Brushes Krita.org

Krita Brush 2

For this tutorial I'm going to start with the basic-1 brush. It's a solid brush (no opacity), and basically just a round shape. That's all I really need to sketch with. But you can use any brush you want.

Krita Brush 3

Another way you can get a brush is by using the shortcut menu. Right click somewhere on the canvas, and you'll see a something called a Popup Palette. (Left click to get rid of it.) This can be modified so that you can add your favorite brushes to it: Palette Krita.org

Krita Brush 4

Once you have a brush, pick a darkish gray from the color wheel just by clicking on the color wheel and selecting your color:

Krita brush 5

Now set your brush size. This will depend on what you are drawing. I'm going to do various examples for this tutorial.

Krita Brush 6

For my "drawing," I'll use something small, like 3 or 4 pixels. For a "rough-in shape" I'll use something larger. Also note, I typically use a different color like RED for line drawings, but for this I'm just going to stick with grays so we don't have to worry about colors. But go ahead and use whatever color you want for this.

Also notice that Krita has set up a drawing layer for us already. The background is the solid gray, but we're going to be drawing on a layer above that.

Krita Brush 7

Remember that you can easily erase anything you draw by using the eraser tool.

Start Drawing!!

Okay, I can't actually tell you how to draw. You just have to start and keep working on it. Practice, practice, practice. But since we're actually PAINTING not drawing, the drawing doesn't actually matter all that much. Unless you are doing a comic book or manga style, you'll probably delete the line drawing eventually anyway.

Now obviously, the more detailed the drawing is, the easier it will be to paint. But it isn't necessary.

What to draw: Organic objects are easier to draw. A tree, a monster, a mushroom. Physical, structured, non-organic objects are more difficult -- buildings, a coffee cup, a table. The reason being is that everyone knows what those objects are supposed to look like, so if you are off on your perspective or form, everyone can see it. But trees can be crazy and weirdly shaped and nobody thinks twice about it. A monster that no one has ever seen can look like anything you want.

Faces are more difficult. They are technically "organic" but they have a very definitive structure to them. There are tons of tutorials on YouTube about how to draw faces. The hard ones are the pretty faces -- because we all know what they're supposed to look like. If you are drawing a plain face or an ugly face, you have a lot more freedom. No one cares if the nose is lopsided or the eyes are different sizes. With pretty faces, everyone will see the mistakes.

The same is true of creatures that actually exist -- everyone knows what a cat or a dog is supposed to look like. You don't have a lot of leeway with the form or structure. (Unless it's a cartoon of course.) Start with something easy. Here are some examples (note, I am NOT a good drawer!):

Krita Drawing 1

A Ball: This will probably end up being an orange or something, or maybe just a child's ball. I made it simply by increasing my brush size and clicking once on the screen.

Krita Drawing 2

A weird potato creature: No one actually knows what a potato creature is, so I can make it look anyway I want. That way if it's lopsided or misshapen, who will care? This will be a fairly "easy" drawing.

Krita Drawing 3

A Doll: I actually imported an image onto the screen and traced this. Is this cheating? Maybe? Maybe not? I haven't actually run into any art police so the issue has never come up. Tracing is a common practice. Go lookup the camera obscura or the camera lucida. The obscura has apparently been around since 500 B.C. and cavemen used a similar principle to draw cave paintings. Many of the old masters including Da Vinci and Vermeer used them to trace a line drawing on their canvas before painting. And a lot of portrait artist today use the camera lucida to do portrait work.

So if you want to trace -- go for it!

Krita Drawing 4

Weird thing? I have no idea what this will actually be. I do a lot of "monsters" using this method. I don't draw any lines, I just create a silhouette. Many artists use this method. Ultimately you need a silhouette to start with -- I currently have 2 on the screen -- the ball and the weird thing. I'll have to make a silhouette if I want to paint the potato creature or the doll. (I won't be painting the doll since that would be too much work for this tutorial. I'm going with the other three since they'll be easier.)

Krita Drawing 5
Create a Silhouette

First, why do we need a silhouette? It's not so much the silhouette as it is the opacity. You don't want to draw something see-through (unless it's supposed to be see-through). When I draw a cat, I don't want to see tree branches in the background showing through his belly. So once I create my drawing or outline, I always make a solid silhouette for it so that I know I'm not starting with something see-through.

In my case, I already have 2 silhouettes: the ball and the weird creature. But I want to paint the potato creature as well, so it will need a silhouette. My ball and my creature are actually currently too dark to work with, so I'm going to lighten them up so I can add shadows.

How to lighten the current images: I do this by first selecting a shape. For this, I used the 'contiguous selection tool', and just clicked on my ball. You'll see the marching ant lines around the shape.

Krita Sillouette 1

Then I pick a lighter color and use the paint bucket to just fill it in. To deselect the ball, I can go to the menu option of Select > Deselect.

Krita Sillouette 2

I do exactly the same thing with the weird creature thing.

Krita Sillouette 3

Now for the potato creature, I have to actually "paint" in a silhouette. I could try the paint bucket tool again, but the odds that I closed all my lines properly are not very good.

I do this first by creating a new layer and moving it UNDER the drawing layer. You can move layers simply by grabbing them and dragging them. You can also rename them just by double-clicking the current name and then typing something new.

NOTE: make certain you've deselected everything that might have been selected before drawing. Deselect is under Select > Deselect. If something else is currently selected you can't draw anywhere else.

I'm looking for a nice clean silhouette, so I toggle the drawing layer off and on (hit the little eyeball on the layer) to make certain it looks nice and smooth.

Krita Sillouette 4 Krita Sillouette 5

IV. Values: Shade your drawing

Now we are going to do our shading, often called a "dark pass." We're going to use a dark gray to shade the forms. We're also going to use a softer brush that has opacity on it.

Any tutorial you watch on YouTube by a professional artist is going to be filled with talk about VALUES. All this means is the ratio or contrast between your lights and darks. This gives things form and structure. If you are doing a landscape painting you learn that everything closer to you in the foreground is darker than everything in the background or distance. The same is true with creatures and objects. They have to have a nice value to them to "read" as the object you intend them to be.

This is a DENSE subject. You can learn all about the different types of shadows (core, form, cast, ambient occlusion), but the reality is to start, all you need to know is that stuff that doesn't get any light is shadowed, and stuff that the light is shining on is bright.

Color makes this even more complicated. Obviously, we have dark reds, blues, and greens, and light reds, blues, and greens. They all have different values depending on where they are on the color wheel. Also reds are consider 'warm' and blues are considered 'cool'. That gets confusing too.

And then there's poor yellow. It's bright. There's no such thing as dark yellow. Dark yellow is brown, not yellow. So it is always going to have a light value. And it's also warm, unless it's moving toward green, in which case it becomes cool.

So NO COLOR for this step. We're just going to use a dark gray. Don't use BLACK. If you use black right at the beginning, you're stuck. You can never go darker than black. So save that for the really dark stuff. For this step, we're going to "clip" or isolate our silhouette so that we don't have to worry about painting outside the layer. This can be done several different ways.

Option 1 - Alpha lock the layer: If you click the little alpha lock symbol on the layer, you can only paint inside the shape already draw on the layer. You can never go outside the shape. The drawback of this is that your shadows will be on the same layer as your silhouette so there is no way to separate them.

Krita Shading 1

Option 2 - Select your silhouette: If you get the selection tool again and click your silhouette, you'll get the marching ants around the form, and then you can't paint outside it. You can either paint on the same layer as the shape, or create a new layer above it and paint on that. The only drawback to this method is the marching ants can be annoying after a long while.

Option 3 - Clip your layer: This is the method I'm going to use. Krita actually seems to do this step in a sort of backward manner to Photoshop, Procreate or Art Studio Pro. But it still works the same way. To do this all you have to do is right click on your silhouette layer and select Group > Quick Clipping Group.

Krita Shading 2

This puts the silhouette layer into a group (a folder), and adds a new layer above it called the "Mask Layer." If you draw on the mask layer, you can't go outside the shape on the silhouette layer. You can rename the groups and the Mask Layer as well just by double-clicking on the name, and then typing something new.

Krita Shading 3

Now get a SOFT BRUSH. I'm going to use this one:

Krita Shading 4

It's called "Air Brush Soft." There's whole sections of brushes that will work fine for this -- you can use a nice texture brush to add some "grit" to your shadows. Or you can use a soft round brush that has a bit of hardness to it. The two things you want to look at are HARDNESS and OPACITY. When you're first starting, it's easier to just use a soft brush. You don't have to do a lot of blending that way. Everything just sort of blends itself. But the drawback to the soft brush, is shadows sometimes have nice hard edges. The soft brush won't give you that, so your shadows will look sort of fuzzy. We're not going to worry about that right now.

The next thing is OPACITY. Most of the basic texture brushes and soft brushes have opacity turned on in the brush settings. This means if you press really lightly with your stylus, you'll get very little "paint" on the canvas. It will be soft and see-through. If you press really hard, it gets more solid. That's what you want.

So use any brush you want as long as it has the pen pressure for opacity turned on. You can tell it's turned on just by testing. Draw a very light line, and then press hard and see if it draws a darker line.

For color I'm going with a dark gray. And I'm going to figure out where my light source is coming from (for all of these I'll use light coming from the top right corner). And then I'll just start adding in my shadows. This will require pressing lightly or hard, resizing the brush as needed, maybe using the eraser to start over or lighten areas that got too dark, and just experimenting.

Here's what I ended up with. This probably took me about 2 hours to do.

Krita Shading 5

As you can see my ball is just a ball. That went very fast.

My little potato creature is rather weird looking -- very wrinkly.

And my weird shape turned into some sort of fish/slug thing. At a later point I will probably go back and add more detail.

For both the ball and the fish/slug thing, I created a clipping mask again using the drawing layer since that was the layer they were on. I also erased all the lines on the potato guy since I don't need them any more.

V. Values: Highlight your drawing

There's actually a bit of a difference between an actual highlight and a lighting pass. With the lighting pass you are just adding lighter values where the light is going to hit the object. A highlight on the other hand is usually nearly fully white and is a spot that is reflecting the light very sharply. It is often on eyes, or anywhere there is water or metal.

Again with lights don't use WHITE. You can't get any brighter than white, so don't waste it until you need it. Even a slightly lighter value than your base value (the color of the silhouette) will be effective.

For this I'm going to use the exact same soft brush, just with a lighter color.

The first thing I'll do is create another mask layer above the shadow mask layer. To do this you just click the Add New Layer button (first button at bottom of layer menu on the left). Then click the little weird "A" symbol to turn it into a clipping mask. Then start highlighting!

Krita Highlight 1

This is what I came up with:

Krita Hightlight 2


Everything up to this point is the basics of digital painting. No matter how complicated your painting might get, the first part is really the important part. At this point you can 'see' the final product -- or at least what it's going to be. The rest of it is just adding in details -- or rendering as it's called. That's the fun part -- or the really tedious part depending on your point of view. It's the part I rather enjoy -- I find starting an image difficult, but once I can see basically what it's going to be, I enjoy the rest of it. You can add as many details as you want -- or as few as you want.

There are a lot of things that can happen during this stage -- lots of technical things you can do with your software depending on what you want. There are a bunch of "tricks" I've learned through trial and error, and a lot of YouTube tutorials over the last few years. But I'll need to do a separate tutorial on those.

If you can get through this first part in this tutorial, you can just keep experimenting from there.

I wasn't entirely certain how to conclude this tutorial since the "rendering'"part requires tutorials unto themselves (like how to deal with color). So what I decided to do was take the little weird shape I created in this tutorial and render it out as a full image.

I ended up doing 2 versions of the shape -- the first stays fairly true to the original form: a slug fish. The second one went a bit off the rails as I got crazy with it and ended up with something that looks like Cthulu's little brother. I enjoyed painting the "monster" more than the fish. The problem with the fish is that it's still something that most people have an idea about what it should look like so I had to work to get the "fins" and "tail" in the right positions. With the monster, I could do whatever I wanted and no one would know the difference.

I took videos of both processes. The colorful fish was done on the iPad using Art Studio Pro. It was the first time I purposely tried to record myself painting. Both Art Studio Pro and Procreate have video recording software built into it. Procreate records you automatically. Art Studio Pro requires that you turn on the recording, but basically does the same thing Procreate does. However, both recording processes only record the canvas -- not the program itself, and it doesn't show zooming in and out. So I was a bit disappointed with how that video turned out -- I had to do some work in the editing process to get any sort of zoom effect, and I'm not really very good with video editing software.

For the monster I used Krita on my PC. And I used Windows 10 built in screen recorder. This worked much better as it records the entire program and all the zooming automatically. Putting the video together was much easier. I do notice that halfway through the video I unclipped the color picker from the program because it was in the way of the video controls, so it seems to vanish from the screen. Other than that it turned out pretty good.

Both paintings took me about 5 hours each. I've sped up the videos to about 3-4 minutes -- no one paints this fast.

Also for both paintings I used the same tutorial brushes throughout the entire process -- the hard round brush and the soft round brush. The rest of the brushes are awesome, and I was crazy about using them when I first started. But the longer I painted, the more I ended up gravitating to the more simple brushes. The round brush is the one I use the most.

These are the finished JPEGs of the two images.

Slug Fish Eyeball creature
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Gwynette Krulisky said about The Beginner's Beginning Guide to Beginning Beginning Painting: Reply

Thank you SO MUCH for telling us about Krita, I cant believe it's FREE!!! I cant wait to try it! You did an amazing job of covering the basics. The screenshots are extremely helpful! Ive done a lot of online training over the years and havent seen this good a job of telling & showing exactly whats being discussed.