5 ways to improve your digital art skills

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Even successful digital artists have much to learn, and you constantly need to push and develop your skills or you’ll start to stagnate and get left behind.

And that’s not just about learning new software techniques. It’s also about refreshing and refining those core art skills that help you to create brilliant visuals, whatever your medium. In this post, we look at five ways to do so.

01. Sketch regularly

Illustration by Christina Mrozik

Illustration by Christina Mrozik

Whether you use a pen and paper or tablet and stylus, regular sketching is an essential way to maintain and improve your skills. 

American artist Terryl Whitlach, who’s known for her creature designs for Lucasfilm, says: “It’s important to get better as an artist, and to have a platform to experiment, mess up, try again – and again – and grow. Sometimes, things just don't turn out, but that is the process of getting out of one’s comfort zone, and getting better.”

Regular sketching can also help you come up with concepts and ideas that you may not reach through other routes. 

Tony Diterlizzi, whose fantasy art will shortly be exhibiting at the Norman Rockwell Museum, says: “I often sketch random ideas conjured from a relaxed state of mind. Accessing this part of my imagination allows me to sketch out unusual ideas, which I can later incorporate into finished illustrations.”

Online sketching resources

For advice on how to settle into a productive sketching regime, check out these Sketching Tips for Beginners and these 10 tips from leading international artists. And don’t miss the special feature on art sketching in the next issue of ImagineFX (153), on sale 9 September.

02. Work on your figure drawing 

Figure Drawing for Artists by Steve Huston is accessible and comprehensive

Figure Drawing for Artists by Steve Huston is accessible and comprehensive

Figure drawing – the accurate reproduction of the human form in various shapes and postures – is a core skill for any artist, digital or otherwise, and always worth working on. 

The best way to learn the basics is, of course, by attending life drawing classes. But there are ton of books out there to help you, too: here are some of our favourites.

Books on figure drawing

Figure Drawing for Artists by Steve Huston serves as a good introduction to the subject. It's an accessible book that covers all the principles and practices of figure drawing without ever feeling academic or overly complex.

Human Figure Drawing by Daniela Brambilla, meanwhile, is less concerned with theory and more about encouraging you to practise, practise, practise. It does this by setting a series of exercises and encourages you to learn by doing – all the while learning from your mistakes.

A more suitable read for experienced artists is perhaps Figure Drawing for Concept Artists by Kan Muftic, who has created concept art for movies like Guardians of the Galaxy, Jungle Book and Godzilla. 

In this, the concept artist outlines systematic methods to advance your life drawing: the three-tiered approach (observe, process and apply); the Reilly Method; shadow mapping; negative space and shapes; and more.

Muftic also reveals how Henry Yan once asked him, “Are you a digital artist? Muftic replied, “Yes, why do you ask?”. Yan shot back, “Well, you just move your hand around mindlessly, hoping that something comes out of the mess.”

If your main goal is to achieve anatomic accuracy, you may like The Anatomy of Style: Figure Drawing Techniques by fantasy artist Patrick J Jones, which uses annotated versions of his own pencil drawings to get human anatomy right, without losing sight of creative vision.

Online figure drawing resources

Away from the printed page, there are number of online articles that show how these principles are put into practice by top artists. 

In this step-by-step tutorial to improve your figure drawing, John Watkiss walks you through the compositional and anatomical techniques he uses in illustrating the classic character of Tarzan. 

Similarly, in our Get better at figure drawing article, Patrick J Jones demonstrates how he draws from life without slavishly copying what he sees. 

And in this How to draw the human figure walkthrough, artist Houston Sharp explains how she uses a few key measurement comparisons and body part alignments to accurately depict a warrior.

Sticky Bones is created by animators

Sticky Bones is created by animators

Figure drawing artists' model

Finally, if you want a dynamic physical reference to work on at home or in your studio, check out Sticky Bones. This crowdfunded artists' model is created by husband and wife team Erik and Lauren Baker, two stop-motion film animators.

"Stickybones has been engineered to withstand anything your imagination throws its way," Erik Baker explains. "It can hit the most expressive poses quickly and easily."

03. Develop your portrait skills

Borislav Mitkov explains how to create a portrait in Painter 2017 in this walkthrough

Borislav Mitkov explains how to create a portrait in Painter 2017 in this walkthrough

Portraiture, whether drawn from life or the imagination, is another fundamental skill that every artist aims to master. 

Books on portrait skills

One of the best recent introductions we’ve seen to this subject is Draw Faces in 15 Minutes by art expert and teacher Jake Spicer. Based on pencil drawing, this easy-to-follow book breaks down its subject into comprehensive stages. 

You’ll learn how to construct a basic portrait sketch, then go on to discover how to develop your drawings and make them more lifelike. 

Online portrait skills resources

When it comes to developing your portraits digitally, the following tutorials demonstrate some interesting approaches. 

To create portrait art in Corel Painter 2017, check out our Create portrait art in Corel Painter walkthrough by illustrator and concept artist Borislav Mitkov, in which he makes use of custom brushes from other artists. 

Also using Corel Painter is Te Hu, who paints a digital watercolour portrait in this tutorial. In his article he demonstrates how to extract a subject from abstract shapes and colours and eventually end up with a fully developed portrait.

Finally, this video walkthrough by award-winning Photoshop brush maker Kyle T Webster demonstrates how to create an Edvard Munch-style portrait in Photoshop CC. 

04. Evolve your character drawing skills

The Silver Way by Stephen Silver offers a systematic approach to improving your character drawings

Improving your character drawing is largely about practice, hard work and inspiration. But there are some useful pointers to be learned from the pros as well.

Books on character design

One of our favourite books of the year so far is The Silver Way: Techniques, Tips and Tutorials for Effective Character Design by Stephen Silver, who’s worked on animated TV shows such as Kim Possible as well as running the Silver Drawing Academy.

His fun, colourful 250-page book packs a huge amount of advice and instruction, and covers a number of unusual techniques such as ‘memory sketching’, ‘blind feeling’ and ‘throwing up on the page’ that could help you bring your character drawing to the next level.

Online character design resources

There’s a lot of great advice online about character design too. Check out our How to improve your character drawing tutorial by legendary artist Aaron Blaise, 20 top character design tips from leading illustrator Jon Burgerman and Mina Petrovic’s step-by-step explanation of how to hand-draw a manga character.

05. Understand composition

Dan Dos Santos explains the fundamental principles that lie behind composition

Dan Dos Santos explains the fundamental principles that lie behind composition

Whatever kind of art you’re producing, composition is key. If you’re struggling with composition, it’s worth learning or refreshing the key principles behind it, such as the Golden Ratio and the Rule of Thirds

You’ll find a quick refresher in these 12 pro tips to improve your artistic composition from artist Dan Dos Santos.

However, to truly progress as an artist “you’ve got to know the rules to break”, as they say. This article by James Gurney explains how to harness compositional theory in a creative way, rather than being a slave to it.

Finally, if you want to see how all of this works in practice, check out Jose Daniel Cabrera Peña’s walkthrough of How to create a dramatic composition with multiple characters. In this case, he uses an image of conflict from Greek mythology.