Okay so the short and boring answer would be: paint from life / photographs. Study real life. Do it intently, with focus, and that’ll teach you all you need to know.
Maybe that’s not what you wanted to hear though, so I’ll try my best to shed some insight into how that journey began on my end. But it’s a very general question, so yeah caution, WALL OF TEXT:
I’m not a very experienced traditional painter, so take this with a grain of salt. But as far as I am concerned, the over-all approach to painting is the same, regardless of whether you do it traditionally, or digitally.
I remember struggling to paint on a computer, despite my (then not very extensive) experience with the medium. I used to blame it on not having a graphics tablet, but even once I got my first Wacom, I had no idea where to start. I was used to doing selection-based coloring and I was still stuck in polygonal lasso land.
Then one day our highschool art teacher forced us to paint a random still life, using watercolors. And it just sort of clicked, that I could do the same thing digitally. Sure, I didn’t have digital watercolors, but I had a brush, and I had every color the human eye can perceive, at my disposal.
And at it’s most basic, painting (traditional or digital) is just picking a brush, picking a color, and making a stroke.
That might sound offensively obvious, so forgive me if you have come to that realization already.
You might be wondering why your digital paintings don’t look like your traditional ones, even if you’re following the same rules. Right off the bat, traditional paints blend and create colors on their own and in a way that digital ones do not (yet), and I understand that can be frustrating when all you’re trying to do is replicate that specific look.
Personally, I have found there are two key ingredients that make up this “traditional look”. Primarily the colors themselves, secondarily the brushes (by extension: the texture).
I can’t speak for other artists and how they achieve a more traditional-seeming variation in colors, but as for me, I do it manually. That means if I feel that a certain area is too clean, too “perfect”, as computers tend to do, I just go in there and manually add some slight variations of that same color. I usually do this around the edges, where different colors meet.
Shout out to the color gray.
It’s very easy to achieve highly saturated colors on the computer. So saturated in fact, that they don’t exist in any other spectrum and you can’t print them. I like adding some gray inbetween here and there, it can have some surprising effects (less surprising if you know your color theory).
There are a whole host of brushes on the internet that attempt to mimic the effects of traditional ones. Photoshop itself made another jump forward in that direction with version CS 5, in which you now have 3D brushes, with variable bristle-length, -count, -thickness, etc.
I made some brushes myself (PS CS 5 and above only, sorry), which you can grab here:
However I can’t caution enough just how purley cosmetic this part is. Some people like to think all they need is a certain brush and they’re already half-way there. But the brush, of course, is just another tool. It’s not going to improve your skills in any way.
It’s great fun to experiment with brushes/textures and see where they take you, but it’s also pretty easy to get lost in that world.
Side note: try googling textures, and for different ways on how to apply them. The web is full of this stuff and there are some neat tricks to be learned. (Personally, these days I tend to manually paint most of my textures, since it looks less digital that way, but that’s all about personal preference)
All that being said, I feel it’s important not to neglect the fact that we are talking about two different mediums here. More importantly, these mediums are not at odds with each other. It’s never been digital vs. traditional, but rather digital WITH traditonal.
Especially if you are trying to replicate the traditional look in a digital medium, it makes sense to combine the two somehow.
As an example, the texture I have imbedded in most of my brushes is one that I made traditionally, on paper, with oil colors (which was stupid cause I consistently forget how long those things take to dry, but the point still stands).
Similarly, one could go ahead and paint everything on just one layer, since usually that’s all you have in the traditonal medium. In my experience that works towards achieving a more painterly effect. That would however, at least partially, take away some of the advantages that you have in the digital realm. And what I said about the two mediums being different, goes both ways. Aka there’s no real reason to limit yourself digitally, unless it is what you want.
Ultimately, it’s all about what you want. You decide which direction you take your art in. You set yourself goals, you decide what risks to take and yes, you make the mistakes. This is your journey, everyone’s got their own.
You figure out the reason why you want to emulate the traditional medium in the first place (and, as an example, “because it looks pretty” is absolutely a valid reason). Then just keep trucking.
Hope that helped somewhat!
Sorry for the novel, I’m terrible at being concise. If you’re still looking for a way to jump in, I would suggest finding some line-art online that you like, and coloring it / painting over it. That way you can jump directly to the colors and textures, and not have to worry about sketching out a decent motif first. But really, whatever works for you!
Also, thanks Kris. <3