Digital Illustration? What Does That Mean?

May 1, 2018


Over the years, I have received this question many times. Therefore, I wanted to take some time and explain to the inquisitive minds what a digital artist is and how it is beneficial to a creative workflow and meeting deadlines.

A digital artist is simply a person who creates artwork on a computer. There are many different categories of digital artists such as illustrators, graphic designers, 3D modelers, 2D and 3D animators, film editors, film colorists, and the list goes on. Most of these jobs were around before computers, however since the invention of the personal computer and its integration into the creative industry, these jobs have become almost exclusively digital.  The idea is easy to grasp, but how and why are still a mystery to most.

There are many different processes to each of these fields in order to get a professional looking film or piece of artwork. Since I am an illustrator, I will concentrate on this field of study to demonstrate digital versus traditional art and how digital art can really help with a tight deadline.



We all know of the traditional painter with a canvas and brush using acrylic or oil paints to create a classic work of art. The artist carefully prepares the canvas and selects the types of brushes he or she will need for the desired effect.


A digital illustrator will paint with a stylus pen on a special pressure sensitive monitor or pad that is plugged into a computer. This stylus pen is equivalent to the painter’s brush, and the monitor equates to the canvas. 


While a traditional artist will have tubes of colored paint and is limited to what they bought at the art store, a digital illustrator has access to every color imaginable on a digital palette on the monitor screen. 


A lot of times clients will need a very specific color that would be nearly impossible to match in the traditional fashion. With the digital process, one can enter in series of numbers and letters (hex codes) to get a specific color match. This is a huge time saver!


The same theory applies to brushes and pencils in the digital world. The traditional artist will have an assortment of round, flat, and fan brushes. In the digital realm an artist can have a cloud brush, or a brick brush, along with all of the traditional brushes. The sky is the limit as far as types of brushes one can create on the computer. This speeds up workflow when you need to create an entire forest in one day.


In the basic sense, the process of painting a piece of art is the same between traditional and digital illustrators. The first step is the initial rough sketch. Using the stylus the digital illustrator draws on the monitor what he wants to sketch.


The second step serves like an underpainting. It is a more fleshed out and detailed line sketch. The original rough sketch can be erased at this point.


The third and last step is adding color. Depending on how detailed you want, this can take a lot of time. This is a simple cartoon coloring so this only took ten minutes, however a realistic painting can take days, even digitally!


So how does digital painting help speed up the process? The key secret is working on editable layers used in a special computer program. Each part of the body (in this example) can be broken up into different pieces to be colored separately. I will try and visualize it below.


With these layers separated, the artist can adjust each layer without having to redraw or repaint the entire piece as you would traditionally. This is the fundamental difference between digital illustration and traditional illustration.


This is why digital painting can be quicker and easier when working with a client that has an evolving creative vision. People change their mind, get a new idea, or have a new team member or boss that adds a critique to the project. This is reality when working for others, and the digital painting process allows that freedom and flexibility that traditional painting does not.


I hope this post gives you a brief glimpse into what it means to be a digital artist, more specifically a digital illustrator, and how we work with computers to bring wonderful art to life. 


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Grand Rapids MI United States

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