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5 Tips to Level Up Your Digital Art Right Now

Updated: Jun 21

We all know that getting good at something takes time. But are you really achieving what you’re currently capable of? I’m not talking about improving by taking art classes or watching painting tutorials. There are a few process and mindset changes that you can adopt today that will make your next painting much better. If you’re not pushing yourself on these 5 points then you really aren’t getting the most you can from yourself and your images:

Examples of character design process

1. Spend more time planning your image. Whatever amount of time you normally take on planning and research, double or triple it. Junior artists often rush through this early phase because they are eager to get to the painting. Thinking through the entire image before committing to painting it can make a huge difference in the outcome. Spend this extra time designing (characters, environment and props), considering the posing, and developing the image concept (what is the scene about and who is it aimed at?).

Illustration of a cobbler and the related references

2. Gather more references. “I drew it from imagination” - yeah, we can tell. The truth is our memory is not that good. If you don’t believe me, try drawing a bicycle or giraffe from imagination. Now there are artists who can draw quite accurately from imagination, but that is because they are drawing from a collection of subjects they have already practiced and studied extensively. This isn’t the case for most juniors, so we recommend that our students reference absolutely everything, if possible. Make sure to stay grounded with your references, at least half of them should be real-world subjects, not other artwork. Just this step alone will cause a noticeable improvement in your art.

Composition sketches for a fantasy illustration

3. Make more than one thumbnail. We know that coming up with different compositions can be tiresome, but going with your first (and only) idea can cause you to leave the concept of the image unexplored and prevent you from creating a scene that could be much more effective. Make your composition sketches purposeful and not random. That is, make sure the compositions and framing helps the narrative and makes it clear. Sketch a half dozen, experimenting with camera placement based on references, then compare and choose the best one.

Painted compositional studies for a fantasy illustration

4. Really figure out your lighting. Lighting is hard, but it is too critical a part of your image to leave to chance. Too many juniors jump into the painting before they’ve properly settled on what the lighting setup will be. If you are unsure of how to light your image, start with deciding the time of day and the overall mood of the image. Next find a reference image (movie screenshot, photograph, another painting) that has similar lighting and colors to what you have in mind and try to adapt that lighting set up to your image. It is important to keep 3 aspects of your lighting consistent; the direction, intensity (dim like a candle or bright like the sun), and color (warm, balanced, or cool light). 

Before and after illustration example of a face

5. Spend more time on your painting. This is similar to point 1, but now we’re talking about the render phase. Students often underestimate how long a quality image (like card art or splash art) takes to create. For us, an average MTG illustration takes between 30-60 hours to create. Marketing images and splash art take even longer. Most juniors need to double or triple their overall hours put into a piece to really see the results they have in mind. Remember to give attention to every part of your image, don’t hide things by blurring them or covering them with black shadows. 

Of course there are a lot of other things we can do to improve and build our skills. Our minds are a closed circuit unless we provide more exterior input. For instance, there is no way to get better at anatomy without learning and practicing anatomy. The same goes with perspective and the other fundamental skills. But students are often surprised to find out just how much they can level up their art with their current skills by just implementing the 5 tips listed above. These things don’t take months to do, you can do them right now.

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