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The How-To Geek Guide to Learning Photoshop, Part 6: Digital Art

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For artistic readers, Photoshop offers digital painting options few other painting or photomanipulation programs can equal. Whether you want to draw for a living, or simply want to paint for fun, learning the painterly side of Photoshop is very rewarding.

If you’ve always wanted to make digital art, but haven’t ever taken the time to learn Photoshop, this primer will help you get started laying down digital paint quickly and easily. If you need a primer on the basics of Photoshop first, you can always start with any of the other parts of the How-To Geek Guide to Learning Photoshop, beginning with Part 1, The Toolbox.

Getting Started With the Brush Tool

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The Brush tool, shortcut key b, is the Holy Grail of Photoshop tools. It is likely the most complex of all the tools in the program, at least in regard to its useage. There are a host of options on the Brush panel, all of which new digital artists should make effort to familiarize themselves with. If you cannot find the Brush Panel, go to Window > Brush to open the panel.

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CS5 has yet more options for the Brush tool at the top of the screen, in the options panel. Here you can adjust your opacity and other options—however we’ll return to this in a moment to better illustrate how they work.

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You’ll find that right clicking in your workspace opens yet ANOTHER options panel for the Brush tool. For our demonstration purposes, we’ll avoid using the arcane looking brush panel in the first screenshot, and mostly use the options panel and the right-click contextual menu from the last two screenshots. Again, readers are advised to experiment with the complex Brush Panel on their own, and check back for more thorough guides on the brush tool at a later date.

Do I Need a Graphics Tablet?

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While they are not absolutely needed for any sort of digital painting, USB Graphics Tablets enhance your Photoshop experience greatly. They are not cheap, although there are some alternate brands or introductory products that cost $100—$200, while the most expensive ones run as high as $2,000.

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Many of Photoshop’s best brush features are not usable without a pressure sensitive tablet. The benefit is not simply being able to draw with the pen-like stylus, but being able to draw with pressure sensitivity a mouse does not allow.

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WACOM is the most common name in Graphics tablets, but is not the only company that creates them. The tablet illustrated above is the Waltop Venus, from the Taiwanese company Waltop.

Buy (or don’t buy) a tablet according to your needs. If you think you will get a lot of use out of it, then a $100 to $300 investment may be worthwhile to you. There are surprisingly excellent options available, even at the lower costs. In the end, you will know if you will get enough use out of it to justify it; simply don’t be afraid to buy the entry level unit if the more expensive ones are too much of an investment.

Learning the Brush Tool

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ctrl shift N to create a blank new file. Walk through this experiment to get a better understanding of the brush tools available to you.

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This is a decent setting for your experimental brushwork. Right-click to bring up the contextual brush menu and select the first standard brush, “Soft Round.” You can adjust your size here with the top slider, if desired.

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A black color stroke with this setting should look like this.

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Look to your options panel and set your “Opacity” down to 50%, as shown above.

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The same clicking and mouse dragging will now produce this color stroke, as it is painting a more translucent, see-through black with this opacity setting.

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Right-click to bring up your brush contextual menu again, and this time pick the second option, “Hard Round.”

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Keep your same opacity setting as before.

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Notice the smooth line you’ve drawn. “Hardness,” which scales from 0% to 100% affects the “fuzziness” or blurriness of the lines you draw.

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Similar to Opacity, is the setting for “Flow.” Return your opacity to 100% and set your “Flow” to 50%.

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You can see immediately the line drawn is different.

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Zooming in shows us how this same brush is drawn differently, in this repeating pattern. This is the major difference between the Opacity and Flow, and something that confuses even professional Photoshop painters.

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“Airbrush Mode” is another fairly confusing option. Nearly every version of CS Photoshop will have this airbrush icon in the options panel. Click it on and we’ll learn the difference.

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This is the correct brush setting to use for this demonstration. You’ll need a “soft” brush with a wide tip at whatever size you care to use.

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Click in your image and hold your mouse button down. You’ll notice that with “Airbrush mode” on, your dark pigment will continue to paint as long as your mouse is held down. It will also spill out from inside your cursor area.

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With airbrush mode off, however, you’ll find clicking and holding the mouse button only gives you a single blot of pigment, not the continuous stream that the Airbrush mode gives. It can be helpful to know the difference, and to experiment with what works better for you.

Drawing with Pressure Sensitivity

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Continuing to use the same brush, we break out the graphics tablet and select this far right option on the top panel, “Tablet pressure controls size.”

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A brush stroke with increasing pressure creates this mark that starts small and grows. It is uniformly dark through out.

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There is another option, “Tablet pressure controls opacity,” which will change opacity with less pressure, allowing for lighter tones for lighter pressure.

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This looks like so, with the grayer tones on the left, and the heavier, harder pressure tones on the right.

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Below the first row of “basic” brushes are sets that use pressure sensitivity in more interesting ways.

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Some of them are strange and unusual, and react to your paintbrush strokes in weird ways. This one reacted to the tilt of the stylus in relation to the tablet.

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Others can create nice, naturalistic marks. You can see the opacity setting layering nicely in these brush marks.

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In addition to pressure sensitivity, some brushes can be set to follow the direction of the brush stroke.

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Others come set standard with the “Scatter” options. A single brush stroke created all of this effortlessly.

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Similar to the stars, this leaf pattern scatters, rotates, and even creates leaves of different opacities based on pressure sensitivity.

Digital Inking and Painting with Photoshop

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Rather than scanning, it can be quicker to take digital photographs of drawings for digital inking. Here’s a quick look at how to use these brush techniques to create a quick image.

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You should work at good print resolutions whenever possible. Once you have your final sketch image, you can go to Image > Image Size to adjust the dimensions.

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300 pixels per inch is a fairly standard print resolution. Enlarging this image to 10 inches in width will create a 3,000 pixel wide image, resulting in something over 12 megapixels. Work at whatever size suits you.

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Create a solid color adjustment layer on top of your photograph. Any color will do, although light ones work the best.

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Selecting a light pink color, change your “Blending Mode,” highlighted blue above, to “Screen.”

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Your image is now toned down and ready to be digitally inked.

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Create a new layer on top to draw your ink lines in. Select the Brush tool or the Pencil tool to ink your image.

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Pressure sensitivity makes inking quick and easy.

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A single brush size easily draws all the various line thicknesses.

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To add color to the image, it can be helpful to create new layer with  ctrl shift N, then creating a new group for it. Be sure to create it underneath your digital ink layer.

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The bucket fill combined with the brush tool quickly fill areas of the image with colors or solid blacks.

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If you use the bucket fill with multiple layers, you’ll want to check “All Layers” on the right side of the options.

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Add new layers for each new color or work in a single layer, depending on your preference.

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Sloppy painting while working in layers is easy to work around.

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Moving sloppy painting below other, tighter layers can quickly clean them up and save you the effort of being neat.

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With flat tones complete, we can move along to painting in shading and a value range to the image.

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Reducing the flow and setting the pressure setting to “Opacity,” we can brush on some colors onto each of our layers.

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While similar painting can be done with a mouse, the time savings of quick, pressure sensitive brush movements are immense. The entirety of this painting and inking was done in shortly over 20 minutes.

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At this point, simply work as you see fit, adding shadows, then highlights.

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Some quick brushwork can make the foreground and background feel more complete together.

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While she’s hardly perfect, this quick study is a fair showcase of the kind of painting Photoshop is capable of—except this is hardly the extent of what can be done. Experiment with the brush tool for yourself, and find what works best for you.

Photoshop tips left you confused? Start at the Beginning! Check out the previous installments of the How-To Geek Guide to Learning Photoshop.


Come back to How-To Geek for the next installment of the How-To Geek Guide to Learning Photoshop, where we’ll go over basics for beginner designers and cover some of Photoshop’s many filters.

Image Credit: Painting, character and all artwork created by the author, protected by copyright. Please request permission before any use.

Eric Z Goodnight is an Illustrator and Graphics Geek who hopes to make Photoshop more accessible to How-To Geek readers. When he’s not headbanging to heavy metal or geeking out over manga, he’s often off screen printing T-Shirts.

  • Published 11/20/10

Comments (10)

  1. Hatryst

    Wow… This one’s tough ;)
    Great work…!!

  2. rino

    really great articles!

    is there anyway we can print or d/l this articles for offline viewing? i’m speaking of one zipped file.

  3. vikas

    its like an institution where we can learn photoshop whit many other things
    great work ………keep articles like this coming

  4. kyle

    these tutorials are great

  5. karim

    yes sooooooo wonderful

  6. beergas

    Agreed! Being a life long realist painter (slides projected onto canvas since I’m weak at natural drawing) this was a fast, easy intro. Been looking into ways to continue with realist acrylic painting but use digital imagery for website and this certainly helps. I love brushwork feel of a real brush on a real primed canvas but the spontaneous quality of this has advantages too. Once I get back some scanned images of slides I can decide on what to use for a painting from one image. For a painting to look like a painting, not a photo-realist one, such selection is the key.
    As I get into digital photography for image starting pointing PS will come in handy. I’m not that great at painting using a color printout of an image. Have done it in past painting something like sizzling steaks on a glowing grill. But those are thick volumes, less detail. Doing people, pets, things is bit harder to transfer to a canvas. Digital projectors are monster pricey at the moment. Does seem one way to enlarge & crop an image tho. Maybe used one on eBay but have to research them more as to cost & abilities. Thanks again for this. Saving it.

  7. sadat

    good job geek! would like to see more of these in the future!

  8. Neets

    Great job with this Photoshop series. Very informative. I do have a quick question however. I am very curious about the Waltop Venus tablet. Do you know of any companies that are selling these tablets? I am not having much luck trying to locate one of these devices.

    Thanks!

  9. Sewje

    Aiptek are starting to sell them under the name Media Tablet Ultimate about 120-130, an absolute bargain comsidering the specs are nearly identical to the new Wacom pro tables, will be getting one soon :)

  10. Neets

    Thanks for that feedback Sewje. I also contacted Waltop by email and one of their representatives advised Vistablet will be selling this tablet as well.

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