Practical steps for adding polish and detail to your paintings.

Once you have a clear grasp of basic painting techniques, it can be tricky knowing how to proceed.  How are those other artists making such realistic paintings?  In many cases, you're seeing digital paintings subtly layered with photographic elements.  The methods of adding detail might not feel much like traditional painting, but they offer huge potential.   This collection helps you get started.  The 6 included series have a total runtime of 367 minutes. 

Note: This is an intermediate level course, and is designed as a followup to the Digital Painting and Color starter kits.


Video Previews

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AuthorMatt Kohr
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Learning to critique and improve your own work is hard.  Finding issues with your own creations is hard.  In this video I recommend a different approach to help get the ball rolling.  And if you haven't checked it out yet, make sure to watch the related "Fix List" videos to guide your improvements.  Have fun!

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AuthorMatt Kohr

Want to improve your polish?  Don't rush.  This video explores the importance of preparation and patience - using some of my old work as a cautionary tale.  Learn from my mistakes: it isn't cool to work fast.

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AuthorMatt Kohr
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Sometimes Photoshop brushes don't work right.  Or at least it seems that way.  This video is an answer to one of the common questions I'm asked: "why is my brush broken?".  It might not solve every problem, but it's a hidden setting that you might never discover on your own.  I hope it helps!

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When adding photographic elements to an image, they're never quite the right shape.  Maybe it's a perspective problem, or maybe it's just slightly skewed - but photos always need to be integrated into you painting.   In this video I'll show one of the most powerful, if situational, ways to twist and bend elements.  This is so cool.

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Color is a tricky area for many digital painters.  Like adding sugar to salt to a recipe, too much is harmful - too little is a missed opportunity - but finding the right balance takes years of practice.  To make matters worse, color can feel elusive and inconsistent since its perception is relative, based on surrounding values.  For these reasons and more, color offers many opportunities to trip up beginners.  In this episode of the fix list, we'll explore some of the most common challenges - as well as versatile solutions.    

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I don’t know where the myth originated from, but artists feel ‘dishonorable’  when using reference imagery.  That looking at photos of your subject is ‘cheating’, and should be avoided at all costs.  In my experience, the opposite is true - and all professional artists surround themselves with reference.  As illustrators we’re tasked with drawing everything  - it’s totally unreasonable that we’d be intimately familiar with every object on earth.

Without reference, it’s easy to revert to crude mental shortcuts.  We envision the visual stereotype, or icon, which doesn’t include realistic details or nuance.  In this episode of the fix list we’ll see how nearly any image can be improved by looking at reference photos.  They’re your friend!

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AuthorMatt Kohr

Scale can make or break your illusion of 3d space.  It’s the correct sizing of objects within the linear perspective of your scene.  Proportion a subset of scale: it’s the size relationship of component parts within each object.   If one character is half-sized, or a doorway is doubly tall - the entire image loses credibility.

Whether it’s surface details or object size, scale and proportion challenge beginners.  If you’re focusing on one object at a time, it’s easy to lose track of the scene in its entirety, and scale problems are common.  This episode of the fix list explores issues with scale, and how to avoid them.

As an additional note, scale is almost always tied to linear perspective - so make sure you’ve learned the basics.

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AuthorMatt Kohr

One of the easiest improvements you can make in a painting is to clarify the important shapes.  Doing this doesn’t require good craftsmanship, expert painting, or years of experience.  All it requires is a bit of planning.  

In short, objects are hard to distinguish if they match their background.  Imagine the fuzzy edges of a polar bear in an ice storm. Take that same polar bear and place her on a black platform, and she’d be much more visible.  This episode of the fix list explores problems with shape clarity, and how to fix them. 

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Messy brushstrokes and choppy rendering are the bane of beginner paintings.  Even the most creative ideas lose steam when presented with bad craftsmanship.  The real answer to the problem of craftsmanship is to ‘master your tools’.  Improve your brush tool technique through practice.  But the fix list is all about actionable advice to fix your current painting, so this video focuses on detail.

Surface detail is a trap for beginners - and often leads to poor craftsmanship.  In my experience, it’s better practice to start with the large forms --- and add surface details as a second pass. In this episode of the fix list we’ll explore common problems with details, craftsmanship, and how to paint more clearly.

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Successful images give the illusion of three dimensional space on a flat monitor.  Creating this illusion of depth involves a variety of techniques, which gives beginners many ways to mess up.   Though not a comprehensive list, common methods involve overlapping shapes, atmospheric perspective, and the scale of surface details.  This video explores some easy ways to enhance the illusion of depth.

As a final note, all of these techniques are improved with linear perspective.  If you don’t feel very comfortable with those skills, I’d encourage you to check out the basics.

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One of the most sure-fire fixes for amature work is light direction.  Without an obvious, consistent,  light in your scene , no amount of cool details will fix the problem.  Light is the structure that the composition rests on.  It’s the glue that holds everything else together.  

Many beginners approach this problem by making the light fancy and complex.  A rim light, or colored glow, will not fix your problems.  The best approach is to master simple, basic, light setups.  Being able to clearly depict sunlight, overcast skies, and simple indoor lights will improve any illustration.  In this episode of the fix list we’ll explore common problems with light direction and how to fix them.

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AuthorMatt Kohr

Linear perspective is a desperately undervalued tool for most beginners.  Commonly associated with street scenes and train tracks, many omit linear perspective from organic scenes and characters.  As it turns out, linear perspective is present in all images, not just architectural ones.  This single confusion leads to perhaps the most common downfall in beginner work: confusing space.  

To avoid confusing, flat, images, linear perspective is crucial.  In this episode of the fix list we’ll look at some common examples of incorrect perspective, and how to fix it.  But it’s important to mention that perspective can’t be explained in 10 minutes, and I’d recommend following up with the basics.

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As an illustrator, you’re a bit like the director of a movie.  Each object, character, and element in your scene is hand placed - like a carefully set stage.  With this total control, it’s up to us to create visually pleasing arrangements.  You’d be surprised how often images are dragged down by stiff, repetitive, object placement.  

This video explores a collection of artwork which lacks variety - and offers solutions to liven up the compositions.  The really nice thing about adding variety is that you don’t need any special skills to do it.  Choosing to place your objects in a pleasing way isn’t any harder than placing them in a boring way - so why not liven it up?

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Values are what we use to describe form, light, and shadow.  They’re a huge part of the way we see three dimensions on a flat screen.  They’re also a huge trap for beginners.  I spent years learning values the wrong way, and then years trying to overwrite bad habits.  

The common wisdom is that objects need a full value range: light lights, and dark darks.  That’s how we render realistically.  The problem with this guideline is that the value range applies to the whole image, not each object.  If you assign a full value range to all objects, the image becomes disorienting. A marshmallow or cloud might have very light shadows, and a bowling ball might be primarily dark.  In this episode of the fix list, we’ll explore problems with value distribution and how to fix them.

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Balance prevents physical objects from falling over.  Visual “balance” may be a less measurable phenomenon, but it’s no less important for creating stable images.  Depending on the arrangement of your objects in your image, the composition can feel ‘heavier’ on one side or another.  When this happens, the viewer feels subtly uncomfortable - like a musical chord left unresolved.  Without balance, the viewer’s gaze can drift slowly out of the frame, and lose attention.

This episode of the fix list explores common balance problems in beginner work, and proposes versatile solutions.  Though it doesn’t present a comprehensive list, it’ll give you a good starting point for creating balance in your own work.

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Artists are a bit like magicians: controlling our viewers’ gaze with tricks of the trade.  Like magicians, we want our viewers to stay focused on the interesting parts of the show.  We have a variety of compositional tools at our disposal to control the audience’s attention, but the line of action & focal point are especially effective.  The concept can initially seem abstract, but the best compositions all take advantage.  

The ‘line’ might be invisible, but its impact isn’t.  In this episode of the fix list we’ll see where beginners lose the focus, and how to grab it back.  

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The fix list is divided into three categories, though I nearly set ‘storytelling’ in a category of its very own.  Painting is, at is core, storytelling.  Details, technique, theory, and craft only serve to reinforce your story.  Consequently, no amount of craft will remove the need for story.

Style is commonly a target for beginners.  We aim to reproduce the superficial elements from artists we admire, whether it’s subject-matter or craft.  This strategy misses the essential ingredient of great work: the idea.  Every painting should start with a clear idea, whether it’s written or sketched.  If you don’t know what you’re drawing, how can you draw it well?  In this episode of the fix list we’ll explore common problems with story, and how to fix them.

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AuthorMatt Kohr
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Critique is an essential part of improving your artwork.  But good critique is hard to find.  Even if you can't find others to review your work, self-critique is essential.  I've created a series of videos called the 'Fix List' which gives you a starting point for self-critique.  You're encouraged to view them in any order.  Most importantly, bookmark the list for the next time you get stuck - and use it as a framework for targeted improvement.  Have fun improving your work! 

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I'm assuming you have a few photos saved in your reference or texture library.  Probably more than a few.  Sometimes it's easy to think that 'more is better', but in this video I give an alternative.  Let's take a quick look at ways to improve your reference library without adding new photos. 

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