Lost in Translation: 5 Tips for Digital Sketching

If you’re like me, you’ve dabbled with digital sketching here and there only to find yourself in a quagmire of confusion and disappointment as you realize that your newly acquired tools do not instantly offer a newly acquired increase in talent or skill.

But, never fear, I have 5 simple tips to help ease the transition:

1. Relax & Warm Up

As I always tell anyone who asks about how to sketch well, relaxing is probably one of the most important things to remember when sketching. Not only is relaxation important, but warming up, as you would on paper, is important as well. Certainly you won’t hurt yourself by sketching without warming up, but you’ll be better off for it. Sketching on a digital tablet will feel different depending on which tip you use in a stylus. Warming up with help you get adjusted to the transition and help you find your “footing”

Warm Up Exercises

2. Pick a program

Corel Painter is my favorite sketching program, but Autodesk Sketchbook pro is definitely a close second.

Why do I like painter? It works for me. Just as you have your favorite tool when sketching on paper, pick a program and try to stick with it. Sticking with the same program will get you quickly familiarized with the ins and outs of the tools you’re about to use in a shorter period of time instead of spreading yourself thin by focusing on mastering several sketch programs. I like the brush creator in Painter the best, which leads me to the next tip…

3. Use Custom Brushes

Standard brushes usually aren’t that great, at least in my experience. They’re like vanilla ice cream – they might work for most people but there’s nothing remarkable about them. The brush creator in some programs can be a little intimidating at first. Embrace your new found power and try coming up with some brushes you like and work for you. It’s part of getting your own style, and will go a long way in helping you be more efficient when sketching digitally.

4. When in doubt, rough it out

If you’re struggling to get that idea out digitally and frankly you’re having a ham fisted day, it doesn’t hurt to take some time to return to the familiar and rough out your design intent on paper. Don’t waste time trying to make it right the first time either. Build layers, scratch and scribble if you can and build a rough framework for the sketch.

5. Work smarter and harder

Practice makes perfect, but also practicing how to work smarter makes perfect. Stop and think for a sec – I’m sketching digitally, what advantages does this medium present over sketching with pen and paper? It’s simple really. For one, it’s easy to make quick, non destructive design iterations using layers in a sketching package. It’s also easy to quickly integrate the use of CAD as a tool or guide for proportion. Using reference without printing is also another advantage. The point is, find what digital tricks work for you, and start to work them into your sketch process. In the long run, you’ll find that those tools you put in your toolbox as you practice will go a long way.

If you have any other suggestions, leave a comment below or share them in the forums! Happy sketching.

  • http://dreamerwstcoast.deviantart.com/ arnie

    i don’t have any new tips, other than simply i believe you nailed. the key here is, digital is a “tool”. and like any tool, it takes some time to get used to it.

    peace out

  • http://dreamerwstcoast.deviantart.com/ arnie

    i don’t have any new tips, other than simply i believe you nailed. the key here is, digital is a “tool”. and like any tool, it takes some time to get used to it.

    peace out

  • ET

    Hey,

    I can’t say how much I agree with what you’ve wrote. I’ve bought a wacom and hoped it would solve all my sketching problems – it didn’t. and now I know that a cintiq won’t do it either. i’ts all about the practice there are no real shortcuts.

    but you can learn a lot from others – any tips you’re willing to put out will be greatly appriciated especially in sketchbook pro – about using the layers and creating shading and highlights – there isn’t a realy goo tutorial for it out there.

    cheers,

    ET

    • http://www.idsketching.com Spencer Nugent

      Totally. It comes down to practice and working through the frustration that will come.

      That’s a great idea for a video. The sites overdue for one but once things quiet down a bit with work, I’ll get to it.

  • ET

    Hey,

    I can’t say how much I agree with what you’ve wrote. I’ve bought a wacom and hoped it would solve all my sketching problems – it didn’t. and now I know that a cintiq won’t do it either. i’ts all about the practice there are no real shortcuts.

    but you can learn a lot from others – any tips you’re willing to put out will be greatly appriciated especially in sketchbook pro – about using the layers and creating shading and highlights – there isn’t a realy goo tutorial for it out there.

    cheers,

    ET

    • http://www.idsketching.com Spencer Nugent

      Totally. It comes down to practice and working through the frustration that will come.

      That’s a great idea for a video. The sites overdue for one but once things quiet down a bit with work, I’ll get to it.

  • BooleanOne

    hi,

    I got my intuos 4 yesterday. I like it alot and it wil be usefull for my school projects (Industrial Design)
    off topic: I’m looking for some good car design tutorials, not the full renderings but the strong clean sketches, with nice surfacing.

    cheers

    • TheDeanoWeKnow

      You should check out Gnomon Videos Car Design & Presentation with Harald Belker, he also followed that up with Gnomon Videos Digital Car Rendering in Photoshop, again with Harald Belker, they have shown me a lot and I believe the first is exactly what you’re looking for. Hope this helps

  • BooleanOne

    hi,

    I got my intuos 4 yesterday. I like it alot and it wil be usefull for my school projects (Industrial Design)
    off topic: I’m looking for some good car design tutorials, not the full renderings but the strong clean sketches, with nice surfacing.

    cheers

    • TheDeanoWeKnow

      You should check out Gnomon Videos Car Design & Presentation with Harald Belker, he also followed that up with Gnomon Videos Digital Car Rendering in Photoshop, again with Harald Belker, they have shown me a lot and I believe the first is exactly what you’re looking for. Hope this helps

  • http://www.spencer-rhodes.com Spencer R.

    Using a larger tablet makes a HUGE difference as well. Having used–and hated–a 4×6 tablet, now using a 9×12 makes all the difference for me. The hand to eye sync is much more intuitive, which really removes the hardware barrier allowing me to focus on the new tools available to me. Spend a week using the thing in place of your mouse. It will become much more natural and less painful on your wrists.

    Good luck all!

    S.R.

    • http://www.idsketching.com Spencer Nugent

      Really good point. i find the 6×11-ish size works best for me. I really can’t stand cintiq’s at the moment – cables, weight, and heat are the main issues for me.

      In hindsight, I think I should have mentioned the difficulty of hand eye coordination when starting out. That alone was super challenging and discouraging. Drawing with my shoulder helped alot tho, and that’s definitely easier to do on a larger tablet.

      • http://www.grannyandsmith.com Chris Weber

        What do you mean with ‘drawing with my shoulder’? Is it like keeping your wrist stiff and using your whole arm to draw?

        • http://www.idsketching.com Spencer Nugent

          Exactly! It’ll do wonders for your sketching.

  • http://www.spencer-rhodes.com Spencer R.

    Using a larger tablet makes a HUGE difference as well. Having used–and hated–a 4×6 tablet, now using a 9×12 makes all the difference for me. The hand to eye sync is much more intuitive, which really removes the hardware barrier allowing me to focus on the new tools available to me. Spend a week using the thing in place of your mouse. It will become much more natural and less painful on your wrists.

    Good luck all!

    S.R.

    • http://www.idsketching.com Spencer Nugent

      Really good point. i find the 6×11-ish size works best for me. I really can’t stand cintiq’s at the moment – cables, weight, and heat are the main issues for me.

      In hindsight, I think I should have mentioned the difficulty of hand eye coordination when starting out. That alone was super challenging and discouraging. Drawing with my shoulder helped alot tho, and that’s definitely easier to do on a larger tablet.

      • http://www.grannyandsmith.com Chris Weber

        What do you mean with ‘drawing with my shoulder’? Is it like keeping your wrist stiff and using your whole arm to draw?

        • http://www.idsketching.com Spencer Nugent

          Exactly! It’ll do wonders for your sketching.

  • kyle

    I agree,
    I got my intuos 4 last august and it basically sat for a semester when I realized that it wouldn’t magically make me amazing (and that it would take more time and practice then the semester would allow).

    But lately i’ve been hitting every forum and tutorial I could find. I still prefer sketching by hand and scanning in personally, but i’m starting to use photoshop more and more. I prefer photoshop personally because I already know all the hot keys and such.

    One tip that a friend of mine gave me was to use the tablet for everything for a little while. Even when you are not sketching, use it as your mouse. Its a little bit of a pain, but it makes it easier to develop that awkward hand-eye coordination.

    For tutorials, i found these helpful:
    http://www.mileswaterhouse.com/tutorial_index.html

    I just stole his line sketch from the fourth one and copied it step by step for practice. Miles, if you look at this site, thank you sir.

    #3 is probably the biggest revelation that dawned on me a few weeks ago. I could never figure out how people could make things so expressive when everything i made was cartoony. I’ve only made a brush or two myself, but there are tons of people who put their brushes online to download. Its a lot of fun to try other people’s brushes and build your own library of the ones you like.

    Other then that, if you are into cars, I’d check out ps-garage.com. Its not sketching as much a chopping, but there are a lot of guys who can do some pretty good brush work. They also have tutorials and forums to check out. If you’re a car guy, its a fun way to waste countless hours (since we all have so much freetime!).

    good luck to everyone, I’ve got a long way to go, but its tons of fun once you get into it.

    kyle

  • kyle

    I agree,
    I got my intuos 4 last august and it basically sat for a semester when I realized that it wouldn’t magically make me amazing (and that it would take more time and practice then the semester would allow).

    But lately i’ve been hitting every forum and tutorial I could find. I still prefer sketching by hand and scanning in personally, but i’m starting to use photoshop more and more. I prefer photoshop personally because I already know all the hot keys and such.

    One tip that a friend of mine gave me was to use the tablet for everything for a little while. Even when you are not sketching, use it as your mouse. Its a little bit of a pain, but it makes it easier to develop that awkward hand-eye coordination.

    For tutorials, i found these helpful:
    http://www.mileswaterhouse.com/tutorial_index.html

    I just stole his line sketch from the fourth one and copied it step by step for practice. Miles, if you look at this site, thank you sir.

    #3 is probably the biggest revelation that dawned on me a few weeks ago. I could never figure out how people could make things so expressive when everything i made was cartoony. I’ve only made a brush or two myself, but there are tons of people who put their brushes online to download. Its a lot of fun to try other people’s brushes and build your own library of the ones you like.

    Other then that, if you are into cars, I’d check out ps-garage.com. Its not sketching as much a chopping, but there are a lot of guys who can do some pretty good brush work. They also have tutorials and forums to check out. If you’re a car guy, its a fun way to waste countless hours (since we all have so much freetime!).

    good luck to everyone, I’ve got a long way to go, but its tons of fun once you get into it.

    kyle

  • Santiago

    Well i have become addicted to this website… I’m Mexican… so yes you guy’s work has come a long way!

    I find it really useful when not adapted to the tablet to use a combination of Illustrator and PS… just to translate the basic shapes of a scanned sketch into illustrator first and then just give it the nice realistic shadows in PS…

    It has save me a lot of time… plus the pen in PS can be a little tricky…

    All of this can be with the beautiful, already user friendly mouse… but then again i have a small tablet…

  • Santiago

    Well i have become addicted to this website… I’m Mexican… so yes you guy’s work has come a long way!

    I find it really useful when not adapted to the tablet to use a combination of Illustrator and PS… just to translate the basic shapes of a scanned sketch into illustrator first and then just give it the nice realistic shadows in PS…

    It has save me a lot of time… plus the pen in PS can be a little tricky…

    All of this can be with the beautiful, already user friendly mouse… but then again i have a small tablet…

  • http://www.deyscdesigns.com Danny

    Great write up! I meant to comment earlier but forgot. Keep it up!

  • http://www.deyscdesigns.com Danny

    Great write up! I meant to comment earlier but forgot. Keep it up!

  • ohlala

    hm, how come those samples are made on paper or is it some emulatedpencil? first advice should always be: stop turning the page all the time! learn to sketch on a fixed surface. that requires some muscle memory. thats all. imo using cad underlays or perspective grids will slow down the learning progress. but maybe thats just me .D sketching digitally is tough. learn to deal with the frustration. btw, i am talking about freehand digital sketching, not your align stroke to path bs.

    • http://www.idsketching.com Spencer Nugent

      Nah it’s paper, and I agree with the align to path comment while practicing. However, using a guide is not a bad thing.

    • watcher21

      pffff, you sound like someone trying to look like you know all about it, but only repeating what you’ve heard. I am a young industrial designer, and spencer has helped me so much more than any of my former teachers. which says something, cause I learned a lot there too. like turning your paper when you sketch. and using underlays. and everything else that makes sketching easier. Its just a matter of trying and see what works for you. and this website offers so much more new ways to try out.
      so I am asking you, what makes you the expert? where can I find your tutorial videos? cause I think any of the contributers of idsketching.com know a thing or two more that you do.

  • ohlala

    hm, how come those samples are made on paper or is it some emulatedpencil? first advice should always be: stop turning the page all the time! learn to sketch on a fixed surface. that requires some muscle memory. thats all. imo using cad underlays or perspective grids will slow down the learning progress. but maybe thats just me .D sketching digitally is tough. learn to deal with the frustration. btw, i am talking about freehand digital sketching, not your align stroke to path bs.

    • http://www.idsketching.com Spencer Nugent

      Nah it’s paper, and I agree with the align to path comment while practicing. However, using a guide is not a bad thing.

  • ohlala

    sry if my comment came across a little cocky, you have benn puting a lot of effort into this writeup and its easy for me to prattle. its just, lets not confuse digital sketching with digital painting/rendering.
    oh, and if you can afford, get yourself a good pc (not a notebook) and a second display. makes life in your digital realm a lot easier. -_-;

  • ohlala

    sry if my comment came across a little cocky, you have benn puting a lot of effort into this writeup and its easy for me to prattle. its just, lets not confuse digital sketching with digital painting/rendering.
    oh, and if you can afford, get yourself a good pc (not a notebook) and a second display. makes life in your digital realm a lot easier. -_-;

  • Jif

    My experience was the tactile feel. Tablet drawing is “slippery” compared to nib on the grain of paper. I think the strongest aspects of drawing digitally goes to what a lot of the other people said. Fast overlays in layers, zoom in and draw small details big physically then when you zoom back out your small details are tight.

    Think of your first basic drawing classes and practice some of those exercises. I like to wash the page with a medium tone in the airbrsuh tool, pull out hi-lites with varying the eraser and then add some contrast tone with darker airbrush on another layer (shape those tones with the eraser if necassary) then as a last step put down my “pencil” lines.

    Draw from life, still life, models etc from your tablet, it was my experience that the muscle memory of a tablet is different from that on paper. Stay on the tablet for what ever length of time untill you’ve built some trust and confidence in the tool, then go back and forth from time to time, it adds to you skill set and different working situations will always have one or the other.

  • Jif

    My experience was the tactile feel. Tablet drawing is “slippery” compared to nib on the grain of paper. I think the strongest aspects of drawing digitally goes to what a lot of the other people said. Fast overlays in layers, zoom in and draw small details big physically then when you zoom back out your small details are tight.

    Think of your first basic drawing classes and practice some of those exercises. I like to wash the page with a medium tone in the airbrsuh tool, pull out hi-lites with varying the eraser and then add some contrast tone with darker airbrush on another layer (shape those tones with the eraser if necassary) then as a last step put down my “pencil” lines.

    Draw from life, still life, models etc from your tablet, it was my experience that the muscle memory of a tablet is different from that on paper. Stay on the tablet for what ever length of time untill you’ve built some trust and confidence in the tool, then go back and forth from time to time, it adds to you skill set and different working situations will always have one or the other.

  • http://www.jabdo.es/wordpress JABdO

    For me the worst thing of the tablet respect of the paper is you cant rotate as fast, for a more natural movement of the wrist and arm when draw

  • http://www.jabdo.es/wordpress JABdO

    For me the worst thing of the tablet respect of the paper is you cant rotate as fast, for a more natural movement of the wrist and arm when draw

  • http://pulltheskydown.com Androo

    Following from JABdO, I found that personally, conventional tablets were all but useless for sketching; painting, rendering, etc… they’re very handy, but trying to get a dynamic sketch with good linework when you can’t rotate the page easily was just a nightmare.

    Then I got a tablet PC a few years back (an cheap, old 14.1″ Toshiba R15 from eBay) and everything changed. With the exception of a tiny gap between the sensor and the screen that is easily compensated for, it really is just like sketching on paper, only with an infinitely large toolkit. The screen is even slightly matte, so it almost feels like the tooth on paper.

    Realistically, I’d say if you’re considering getting a usefully large Intuos, get a used tablet PC instead for practically the same price. So much more intuitive, and the workflow and flexibility is just so much greater.

    • ID4Food

      I second the Androo’s comment on tablet PCs! I had an acer travelmate c302 that I loved, but I was fooled into going mac and using a wacom. The adjustment has me looking at going back to paper completely.

      APPLE: Give us a version of the IPAD with a stylus! Call it the iDraw, and make us all ever so happy!

      • http://www.seizmicdesign.com powers
        • itigg

          If you are looking for a Mac equivalent to a tablet PC then check out http://axiotron.com. They can either take a MacBook you already have and turn it into a tablet or you can buy them already in tablet form. They also use Wacom technology for the drawing so pens work. They are also suppose to be coming out with a pro version sometime in the first quarter of 2011.

  • http://pulltheskydown.com Androo

    Following from JABdO, I found that personally, conventional tablets were all but useless for sketching; painting, rendering, etc… they’re very handy, but trying to get a dynamic sketch with good linework when you can’t rotate the page easily was just a nightmare.

    Then I got a tablet PC a few years back (an cheap, old 14.1″ Toshiba R15 from eBay) and everything changed. With the exception of a tiny gap between the sensor and the screen that is easily compensated for, it really is just like sketching on paper, only with an infinitely large toolkit. The screen is even slightly matte, so it almost feels like the tooth on paper.

    Realistically, I’d say if you’re considering getting a usefully large Intuos, get a used tablet PC instead for practically the same price. So much more intuitive, and the workflow and flexibility is just so much greater.

    • ID4Food

      I second the Androo’s comment on tablet PCs! I had an acer travelmate c302 that I loved, but I was fooled into going mac and using a wacom. The adjustment has me looking at going back to paper completely.

      APPLE: Give us a version of the IPAD with a stylus! Call it the iDraw, and make us all ever so happy!

  • ohlala

    people, dont listen to those guys, they are prolly newbs. if you cant sketch without turning the page: learn it. im dead serious about this. you will lose track of your proportion and perspective if you turn the page. besides, almost every pro i talked to, told me, that intous is the best and cintiq is just crap. face it fellow aspiring designer. get proper linework without turning the page! yeah icrap with pressure sensitivity would enable outdoor skecting, but thats just phantasmagorical.

    • Hobbes06

      How little you know…

  • ohlala

    people, dont listen to those guys, they are prolly newbs. if you cant sketch without turning the page: learn it. im dead serious about this. you will lose track of your proportion and perspective if you turn the page. besides, almost every pro i talked to, told me, that intous is the best and cintiq is just crap. face it fellow aspiring designer. get proper linework without turning the page! yeah icrap with pressure sensitivity would enable outdoor skecting, but thats just phantasmagorical.

  • http://web.mac.com/stevemcdonald1/Face-plant.com Stevie Mac

    Hey Spencer,
    You and John are awesome! I finally broke down and bought a Cintiq12WX. Your site is still the best for learning about sketching. Time will tell if I can make the switch from hand sketching to digital? Somehow I doubt it’ll be that tough after looking through all of your tutorials and having used a Wacom or a cruddy ol mouse for the past 15 years. I’m psyched. Keep up the great work and say hey to mr Mullencamp.

    There used to be, and maybe still is a vid on your site where John showed how he created brushes and created his basic setup of layering in Sketchbook Pro. Is it still around?

  • http://web.mac.com/stevemcdonald1/Face-plant.com Stevie Mac

    Hey Spencer,
    You and John are awesome! I finally broke down and bought a Cintiq12WX. Your site is still the best for learning about sketching. Time will tell if I can make the switch from hand sketching to digital? Somehow I doubt it’ll be that tough after looking through all of your tutorials and having used a Wacom or a cruddy ol mouse for the past 15 years. I’m psyched. Keep up the great work and say hey to mr Mullencamp.

    There used to be, and maybe still is a vid on your site where John showed how he created brushes and created his basic setup of layering in Sketchbook Pro. Is it still around?

  • Sean

    As Anyone looked at using Artrage Pro as a cheaper Sketching Program?

    • Alyas

      I’m not a pro, but personally I like Artrage, it’s different and extremely easy-to-use

  • Sean

    As Anyone looked at using Artrage Pro as a cheaper Sketching Program?

  • lisa

    how can i make strokes in photoshop and sketchbook that look like pencil strokes (heavy in the center light on the ends) without a tablet?

    • Vitinhomartins_8

      I don’t think it is possible, because tablets have pressure sensibility that allows you to make strokes with that pencil look, a mouse doesn’t have that pressure sensibility, so the lines will have the same look from the start to the end

  • lisa

    how can i make strokes in photoshop and sketchbook that look like pencil strokes (heavy in the center light on the ends) without a tablet?

  • Bluefly

    Definitely a learning curve. I have worn out two stylus pens already.

  • Bluefly

    Definitely a learning curve. I have worn out two stylus pens already.

  • http://sleep.shadowpuppet.net Adam Eivy

    Thanks for the tips. I got the Intuos4 a couple of weeks ago but haven’t really used it aside from as a new mouse–been sticking to paper just from a lack of where to go with the pen tablet. Guess I need to just hunker down and start playing with it more :)

  • http://sleep.shadowpuppet.net Adam Eivy

    Thanks for the tips. I got the Intuos4 a couple of weeks ago but haven’t really used it aside from as a new mouse–been sticking to paper just from a lack of where to go with the pen tablet. Guess I need to just hunker down and start playing with it more :)

  • Calvin Tabor

    Best things I’ve done to get used to sketching on a wacom tablet… Tape a piece of paper over the surface. It will feel more like pen and paper, and after you get used to it you can “remove your training wheels”. Also I’ve found the edge of the pads to be too glossy for my wrist to slide across nicely so I took a cool old bandanna and cut it in half then wrapped it around my wrist. Now my hand glides smoothly across the surface! Some people I know use fingerless gloves… you get the idea. Now go try it out!

  • Alyas

    Hey,
    what do you think about tablet pcs? I’m thinking about getting one for sketching on-the-go. Have you tried it?

  • annuschka

    I recommend using ArtRage 3. Especially if you are used to traditional drawing / painting and don’t have a lot of digital experience. It has a clean, easy interface. It emulates real media like thick pasty oil, pencil, paper, markers nicely. As far as I know it’s the only program with “real” pigmental color blending! And the most important thing: The full Pro Version costs 80$ only, lite versions are available for 40$, and there even is a iPad version for 8$. Yes, I’m a fangirl. For a reason. “Photo”Shop is made for photo retouching. Painter is way too cluttered for me. You will find some gems if you look in other directions than to the “big names”.

  • Heleen

    I don’t like Corel Painter at all, it always crashes down. And even Sketchbook pro does.. but that one’s a little bit better for me..

  • Fayakuza

    hello
    thank you a lot for these tips
    i’m a beginner fas using digital sketching on a wacom tablet, & i need some industrial design reference & books to follow.
    can you give me some.
    thank you

  • Ecruz1219

    hi i want to start learning digital sketching but im looking in the internet to buy a tablet. is there a certain type or company that you reccomend? i found one that is called “Wacom CTH460 Bamboo Pen & Touch Tablet”. is it any good?

  • http://chriskalis.tumblr.com/ ChrisKalis

    Hi Spencer, thanks for al the tutorials. What type of brushes (Shapes and attributes) are good if I want to create them in PS. What kind of tip is suitable for what type of use? Sorry that I have to ask these questions as Wacom does not tell you that, no even at their website. Thanks!

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  • Alfredo Araujo

    Great advice! Just found it and cannot thank you enough for make it sound so simple!

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