How Is Digital Drawing Different from Traditional Art?

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Our favorite writer on the details of making digital art Monika Zagrobelna has a lot of great insight into how people draw that will make you step back and retrace your own steps around drawing. She’s got a new two-part series that’s focused on traditional vs. digital art — how it’s different, what you should know, and how to get the most out of the tools of digital art. This is part one of the series. 

digital vs. traditional art

Since the beginning of humankind, people have been struggling to capture what they see and share it with others. They’ve been using whatever they have available at the time—first mud, then colorful clay, charred wood, sharp animal bones, then special pigments mixed with water or oil. They’ve been drawing with pencils and inks on paper, painting with paints on canvas, sculpting in clay, wood, bone, and stone. The material world offers a lot of possibilities for the creative mind of a human!

But today we have something amazing and new, a kind of a new world—the digital world. Computers, be it classic PCs , smartphones, or tablets use their screens to show us something unreal. We “touch” the icons, we “open” the folders, but what we see, no matter how unreal, is really seen. And to be seen is all that art really needs.

Art is representation of the real world created in some medium. It’s mean to be looked at, and this is its main purpose. If it has some other, more important purpose, it’s not art. So, a hand-drawn map is not art, unless it was meant to be beautiful.

Digital world is not bound by many limitations of the material world. You can get all the colors the human eye can see, you can change their vividness and brightness, you can mix them and erase without a trace. So why not use these great possibilities for making art? Or would it be… cheating?

What Is Traditional Art?

The simplest answer to this question lies directly in the name: it’s art made in the traditional way. What is the traditional way? To put it simply: “The way we’ve always done it.” Of course, art has always been changing, long before computers were invented, but there are two elements that all traditional artworks have in common:

  • It can be touched (it’s made of physical materials)
  • It’s “one of a kind”—it can’t be copied without creating it all over again

But what is an artwork?

What Is Art?

This is a difficult question, but I’ll simplify it for our purposes. After all, we talk here about “traditional art” as something visual, something that can be seen and appreciated. We don’t talk about music or theatre, so we can ignore the rest in our definition.

Art is representation of the real world created in some medium. It’s mean to be looked at, and this is its main purpose. If it has some other, more important purpose, it’s not art. So, a hand-drawn map is not art, unless it was meant to be beautiful. In the most basic sense, when you create something, you’re a creator. If you create something just for the sake of creation, you’re an artist.

There are two main types of creating, both requiring completely different approach….

Creating What You See

If we use drawing as an example, drawing what you see is about seeing the lines in the object you want to draw (being there right before your eyes), measuring them correctly to put them to paper, and turning the light and dark parts of this image into shades. This type of drawing requires the ability to see what the object looks like, not what we know it is, good measuring skills, and good control of the tool. The end result is a physical copy of what the artist saw at that moment.

In this type of creation you don’t really need to know the subject—you just copy what you see.
Creating From Imagination/Memory

Here the artist draws something they don’t see at the moment. They have to imagine the object, and all the visual elements of the image on their own. What would the lines look like if the pot was in this specific position towards me? What parts would appear dark and what light if the light source was in this specific position? What would happen if the light hit the texture on its surface?

An artist drawing from imagination has to spend a lot of time analyzing the seen reality before they attempt to draw it. Instead of simply memorizing what they see, they need to understand where that image comes from to be able to rotate it in their mind, change the setting, and add new elements to it. The end result is not what the artist saw at one moment, but what they could have seen.

You can learn everything about this method from my series How to Draw From Imagination.

What’s interesting is that because the artist doesn’t copy the visual side of reality there right before their eyes but instead re-creates it in their mind, nothing stops them from modifying it. It doesn’t need to be done on purpose—reality is simply so complex that it must be simplified in some way to make re-creation possible. Every artist has their own way of simplification, and it’s called style. Style is a consistent way of simplification, and it always have some rules, even if the artist isn’t aware of them. Styles with distinctively clear rules can be easily used by multiple artists, and can be easier to grasp for beginners.

The style of Loish is focused on expressiveness, not realism. Do you want to draw like her? Check out her tutorial on SketchBook Blog: How to Draw Female Faces.

As I’ve mentioned in the introduction, traditional artworks can be created with a variety of tools and materials. Let’s take a look at the most popular ones.


Drawing is, in its most basic definition, line-based art. If you have a tool that can create lines, you can draw with it. There are not any lines in physical world, but our brains make us see them in the contrast. When we draw the lines we see, the brain is able to convert them back to something known from reality, and we can recognize what the drawing depicts, even though it lacks most of the visible elements of the real world.

Traditionally, drawings are created with charcoal, pencils, and ink. You can use all these tools to add shades to the drawing (for example, by drawing with a tilted pencil). Such way of shading is still considered drawing, because it’s achieved in a precise way, with thick “lines” of sorts. Shading can also be achieved with lines of various density.

Drawing can represent the world on various levels of accuracy, from few-lines-sketches to photorealism.


Painting is less precise than drawing, because it’s not based on fully controlled lines. Instead, it puts focus on “patches” and “blots” that simulate various visual elements of the physical world—not only contrast and shades, but also colors. Squint your eyes (or, if you’re nearsighted, take off your glasses) and try to see the world as not the objects, but the patches of various colors—this is what gets painted.

To paint, you need two tools: some kind of paint (liquid pigment; there are many types available with various properties), and a brush. Brushes give you control over the amount of paint, the direction of the strokes, and blending. If you use fingers instead, you actually draw with paint, because the artwork becomes more line-based. Paintings can be started from scratch, from general blobs that get detail with every new step, or with line art—a light drawing that gets filled and eventually replaced with colors.


While drawing and painting are based on the pure visual side of reality, sculpting puts focus on the real objects—ones that can be touched and seen from many different angles, in various light conditions. The visual side of a sculpture is a side effect of creating something real. Sculptures don’t pretend to be three-dimensional—they actually are. Because of this, sculptures can be created and enjoyed even by blind people.

Sculptures don’t only present reality—they are a part of it.

To sculpt means to change the form of some material with fingers or special tools. Clay can be manipulated with fingers, but it must be burned afterwards to keep the new shape. Hard materials, like wood and stone, are more difficult to work with, but they’re also more durable.

What is Digital Art?

In the digital environment we don’t have wood, charcoal, or paint. Everything is the same—just a combination of 0’s and 1’s translated to a visual form on the screen. These 0’s and 1’s can simulate any medium you can imagine. Just like a proper piece of software can turn your computer into a violin, a piano, or drums, another one can turn it into a canvas and a palette full of various paints. The instruments are not real, but the sounds are, and so is the image.

Although digital art is not bound by the rules of traditional art, it often simulates it to give the user something familiar and to make the whole process more intuitive for the artist. Early digital painting programs were based on coloring the pixels with a mouse, but today they offer much more: the digital paint blends naturally, can be mixed, and is applied with a special stylus on a graphics tablet.

Modern digital art programs have much more to offer than ancient MS Paint.

A graphics tablet simulates a sort of a drawing pad connected to a computer. You can “draw” or “paint” on it with a stylus very similar to a real drawing tool, and the pad translates your movement/pressure/tilt to digital strokes visible on the screen. The cheaper tablets use the external screen, the more expensive ones have it built-in. iPad Pro can be used as a graphics tablet too, especially with the Apple Pencil as the stylus.

Wacom Cintiq is the most popular screen graphics tablet, but there are also cheaper alternatives available.

What happens to your “pretend” strokes depend on the software you use. Photoshop, which is not really a painting program, treats every stroke as something separate, which is not possible in reality. In other, more specialized programs, like SketchBook Pro, the strokes interact with each other, just like they would in traditional medium. The newly put paint blends with the already painted layers, and you can’t use a bright Copic pen on a darker one.

Digital art offers all the equivalents of traditional art….

Digital Drawing

The stylus can only have one shape, and this shape is usually similar to a pencil or a marker. This makes it very precise to use, and it can be successfully used for drawing. A good digital hardware/software combination lets the artist utilize all the techniques known from traditional drawing: create light, thin lines with a light stroke, dark, thick lines with a heavy stroke, and even draw with a side of the stylus to shade.

The border between digital drawing and painting is very thin, because all it takes is to change the size of the stroke to make the style more painterly. The general rule is: if a similar effect could be achieved with pencils, ink, charcoal, or markers, but without a brush, then you can call it a drawing.

Digital Painting

Although the stylus doesn’t look like a brush, it can work like one if the software allows it. You can easily change the size and shape of the simulated brush tip to achieve various effects, and some programs even go as far as to simulate the thickness and consistency of the digital paint.

Some programs, especially the simpler ones, may offer you a purely “digital brush” as well—a tool that adds colors to the image without any blending or advanced mixing. This way of painting doesn’t have a traditional equivalent, and it makes painting more intuitive than it is traditionally. The end result may look painterly, even though the process is more similar to drawing with a big marker.

Digital Sculpting

Sculpting in the digital environment is based on creating a 3D image—one that can be rotated and viewed from many angles. However, it’s simulated 3D, which means it generates a series of 2D images that your brain recognizes as 3D, even though you can’t touch it. The software provides the “materials” you can sculpt in, as well as tools (traditional-like and purely digital) and the simulated physical environment. In advanced software you can make your sculpture look photo-realistic, although this requires a lot of skill from you as a sculptor.


Because the screen is displaying the image continuosusly, nothing stops it from displaying a slightly different image every fraction of a second to create the illusion of movement. Such a moving image can be created by drawing each frame by hand, or by copying and editing the previous frame. Both 2D and 3D art can get animated. You can create beautiful animation in an intuitive way in SketchBook FlipBook.

You can learn how to create an animation of a galloping horse in Drawing and Animating Horses: A FlipBook Tutorial with Monika Zagrobelna.

Why Choose Digital Art?

Digital art offers special possibilities that couldn’t be described in the pros list, so let’s take a look at them here. Keep in mind that not every program has those.

Layers and Blend Modes

In traditional painting layers of paint are placed one by one, and they can’t be reached separately. Because of this, the painting process is reduced to adding the colors on top of each other.

Digital art offers something completely new in this regard: specialized layers. You can have a layer for the sketch, a layer for the line art, a layer for the colors, for shadows, for special effects… And they don’t need to simply cover one another. Each layer has a Blend Mode which defines how it affects the visibility of the layers beneath. For example, Multiply makes the layers below darker without changing their color, so it’s perfect for adding shadows.

Blend Modes are based on math, and they literally change the physical properties of “paint” to ones that could not be achievable in reality. They’re not really designed for painting, but can be successfully used this way, creating a whole new process of creation. This way of painting is actually based on precision and planning, and therefore is very comfortable to artists who don’t like the unpredictability of traditional painting.

In this method, each aspect of the object is tackled separately, which allows the artist to create realistic paintings from imagination. You can learn more about this method here.

Clipping Masks

Staying within the lines is something that doesn’t come easy when you want to be expressive. You want to paint from side to side, and yet you need to restrain yourself not to go too far. You could take a sheet of paper and cut the shape in it, to cover the rest of the canvas and paint within the outline, but it takes time and is not so easy to do well.

In digital art you can create a Clipping Mask: draw a shape and make only the pixels painted over it visible. The rest just doesn’t get painted! This lets you get fully expressive with your strokes, while keeping the edges clean and sharp.

Paint Bucket Tool

This inconspicuous simple tool makes the life of an artist much simpler—it fills the outline, so you don’t have to. Drawing can be very strenuous, so limiting the number of strokes leading to finishing of the artwork is very welcome.

Resizing and Reshaping

Sometimes you don’t realize you were were drawing something wrong until you draw it. It happens even to skilled artist—a little too long stroke, a little too wide circle. You can Undo and try again, but you can also edit what’s been drawn: move it, rotate it, resize it, or even reshape it to an extent.


When you get lost in the creative process, you may not notice that your colors shifted towards the wrong hue, or that the whole scene turned out slightly too dark. Basic adjusting options will help you fix it without ruining the whole image. You can also use them to experiment with different color variations.

Magic Rulers

Traditional artists sometimes use special tools, like a ruler or a French curve to draw the lines precisely. It’s useful especially in design, where expressiveness may not always be welcome. In digital art you can use similar guides that will support your strokes. In SketchBook Pro, for example, you’ll find a classic ruler…

… various French curves…

… line smoothing…

… perspective tool…

… and even symmetry, with radial symmetry included!


Today artists have so many options available, and I believe we shouldn’t limit ourselves to the old, classic definition of art. I use traditional ink liners in my traditional sketchbook to sketch and study, because I like to draw while half-laying on my couch. I paint digitally in SketchBook Pro because I love the possibility to use all the colors and brushes without the pressure to get everything right the first time. And I love that I live in the times when my art can be shared with thousands of people in a digital form. So even if my paintings are not “real” I don’t care—they are pretty real to me!

drogon the dragon

About Monika

Monika Zagrobelna is a Polish artist with a specialty in drawing animals and conceiving of animals that haven’t yet been invented. You can check out more of her work and follow along with her latest tutorials on her Facebook Page and HERE on the blog.