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What is digital painting? Your guide to getting started

Student work: Georgi Sugimoto

5minutes read

09/08/2022

You're probably familiar with video game splash art, movie posters, comic book art, and book cover illustrations. Did you know these are all types of digital painting?

Digital painting is a catch-all term that encompasses many different forms of digitally created art, such as concept art and digital illustration. Combining traditional art with modern technology, digital painting is more convenient than using pen, paint, and paper, making it an attractive career path for artists.

To learn more about this diverse art form and how to get started as a digital painter, read on! 

What is digital painting?

Digital painting is an art form using computer software such as Adobe Photoshop with a graphics tablet and stylus pen. An artist will operate their stylus like a brush or pencil to execute illustration and painting techniques within a software program using a computer screen or tablet as their digital canvas. 

Digital painting is generally faster and more cost effective than traditional painting, making it an ideal medium for the fast-paced entertainment industry, including film, video games, publishing, and advertising.

Although still used to mimic traditional art styles, digital painting has also evolved to become a technique in its own right. Part of this evolution has seen digital painters move between 2D and 3D digital spaces. Using software such as Blender and ZBrush, artists sculpt out 3D maquettes (similar to 3D modeling) to use as a base for their work to help with creating more realistic light and shading.

zbrush-sculpt-sand-worm-concept-3d-artFor the CG Spectrum commercial, Department Head of Concept Art and Illustration, Brandom Reimchen, mocked up a maquette of his sand-worm concept in Zbrush. 

What does a digital painter do?

There are many digital painting career opportunities within the entertainment industry. You can choose to specialize in many different areas of digital painting and including: 

sophia-albright-environment-set-designSet/environment design by Sophia Albright, who graduated from the Advanced Digital Illustration Course.

What are the benefits of digital painting vs. traditional painting?

Digital painting has many benefits over traditional painting. These include:

  • Flexibility and convenience: You can work on your project from anywhere, anytime (as long as you have your computer or tablet with you). 
  • Easy collaboration: Digitally created paintings are easier to share with others for feedback and collaboration. 
  • Better productivity: If you make a mistake in a digital painting, you can undo or revert back to an earlier version and not have to start from scratch like with traditional painting.
  • Easy iterations: The ability to add/hide layers allows an artist to create different versions of the same image much more quickly and easily, which is great when clients want several options.

Some artists have the opportunity to use digital and traditional painting in their work, getting the best of both worlds. 

eric-wilkerson-mox-emeraldCG Spectrum mentor and trading card illustrator Eric Wilkerson uses both traditional and digital painting methods in his work: "My clients honestly can’t tell the difference between my two workflows and are just happy to get that high-resolution file by the deadline." (Left: Magic: The Gathering Mox Emerald finished card, Right: the oil painting it was based on.)

What is the difference between digital painting and digital illustration?

Sometimes there is confusion between the terms digital painting and digital illustration. Digital illustration is actually a type of digital painting. Think of the term digital painting as encompassing many different roles, and illustration being one of them. 

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How do I become a digital painter?

If you want to start the challenging but rewarding career of a digital painter, here are some tips for breaking into this creative career path: 

  • Download a digital art software like Adobe Photoshop and start practicing (there are lots of free options available online too!)
  • Attend conventions and network. Award-winning artist Eric Wilkerson’s first professional commission was a book cover illustration he received after attending a sci-fi fantasy convention six months after college graduation. 
  • Choose a digital painting course, then specialize in an area that interests you most. At CG Spectrum, we offer Concept Art and Digital Illustration Courses that teach you a range of digital painting techniques.
  • Connect with industry mentors who can act as guides, trusted critics, and a foot-in-the-door for job opportunities. 
  • Participate in online challenges and competitions. You'll have fun, make friends, improve your skills, and build work that you can add to your portfolio. You may even win a prize!
CG Spectrum Head Technical Assistant and concept art grad Penny Gaubatz has the following advice for anyone in the creative industry:

Don't be afraid to ask questions, approach people, or try out new techniques. If you are unsure about something don’t try to ‘wing it’--do research and ask the right people the right questions. - PG

How much is a digital painter's salary?

Digital painters get jobs in creative and digital studios executing illustrations, 2D game art, concept art, and more. They usually work under the direction of a creative director or lead artist, depending on the industry and company you work in, and are hired for in-house work, on contract as a freelancer, or for commissioned projects.

The average annual wage of a digital painter runs between $32,000 (USD) for a junior position to upwards of $77,000 (USD) for a senior position. (Source: Glassdoor) It’s a rewarding career that tests your creativity and technical know-how every day.

Industry-standard digital painting hardware and software

Many digital painters have a background in traditional painting and use pens, brushes, and paper to create their art. Digital painters can simulate this experience using a drawing tablet and a stylus. Their tablet is paired with digital painting software to provide all the brush types and colors they need. 

The great thing about using tablets is that your brush strokes appear on the screen in real time. It's also much easier to correct mistakes and add layers for additional detail and depth compared to using a computer mouse alone. You're also freer to experiment with colors and brush strokes without the need to start a new paper every time. 

When choosing a tablet for digital painting, you have three choices:

  • Graphic Tablet: The cheapest option with a large touchpad and stylus. It’s usually plugged into your computer via a USB. The tablet doesn’t have a screen, so you must look at your computer monitor as you paint.
  • Display Tablet: This mid-priced tablet has a built-in screen and feels more intuitive. However, these models commonly develop dead pixels with repeated use. They also don’t require a computer, so you’ll need to export your art to the computer when you’re done.
  • All-in-one Tablet: These are the most expensive option and can be used independently of your computer. The one drawback is you are limited in drawing software options to those compatible with your tablet. 
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tablets

Examples of different types of tablets for digital painters (these are Wacom tablets, but there are a variety of brands available too). For helpful tips on how to use your digital painting hardware effectively, check out Brandon's video Health & Hardware Tips to Boost Creativity

Here are some digital painting software programs you might use in your career as a professional digital painter:

  • Photoshop: Photoshop is the industry standard for digital painting. However, it comes with a steep learning curve. (Photoshop is a core software program taught at CG Spectrum, and a subscription is included as part of your course fees.) 
  • Krita: This professional, free digital painting program is a great way to test or practice your skills at home when you don’t have paid, professional software.
  • Corel Painter: This paid, professional software is excellent for artists who like loose, messy brushwork. It comes with over 900 brush types. 
  • Clip Studio Paint: Popular with manga artists, this lower-priced digital painting software has a cool feature to automatically correct minor wobbly brush strokes from your tablet.
  • Procreate: This lightweight software is easy to use but lacks many advanced, standard features in more advanced software like Photoshop. It’s only available for iPad and costs about $9.99. 

Download the software of your choice and start practicing today—it's the best way to improve your art and stay motivated.


Now that you know what digital painting is, you’re ready to take your next steps towards your new career. 

At CG Spectrum, we have specialized online digital painting courses to prepare you for an exciting career in the entertainment industry. Learn from industry experts, get support from award-winning digital painting mentors in the business, and gain the skills you need to get hired by some of the biggest entertainment studios in the world. Classes start every month. Learn more about digital painting and start your journey as a digital painter! 

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[more]Read CG Spectrum's bio[/more]

CG Spectrum is an online animation, VFX, digital painting, and game development school that brings the industry to you. Whether straight out of high school, changing careers, or upgrading skills, our goal is to help you build the job skills and confidence to pursue your dream career in film and games. Get more out of your education with world-class career training and mentorship from leading film and game industry experts.