Digital Painting with Synthetic Brushes

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Lena Le is a multimedia designer/artist from the SketchBook team. Here, she shares a walkthrough of some of her paint techniques. The piece was created using SketchBook Pro 6 (desktop version), with a combination of Wacom Cintiq and a Wacom Intuos tablet running off a MacBook Pro.

The synthetic paint brushes in SketchBook Pro can be used to simulate oil and acrylic paints. Experiment with different techniques to achieve a certain look and create many different brushes. An oil paint look has a unique wet blend and heavy application of opaque colors.


Using a brush at 50% opacity and 80% paint load usually gives me the oil paint look I prefer. The strokes look wet, blend softly, but still appear opaque.

Below are examples of brush and blending behaviour with paint load and opacity at the same percentage. With a lower paint load, the application of paint will fade in a shorter stroke. I usually use anywhere between 75% and 90%. The second image shows two strokes overlapping at different percentages.

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I start with a rough sketch in a light blue color. This is the direction of the image I’d like to go with and, at this point, I don’t focus too much on what would make a technically successful piece. When I paint, my composition and cropping may change, thanks to the flexibility of digital art software. When I have a loose sketch I’m satisfied with, I darken it, using layer adjustments.

Afterwards, I create a layer below the sketch and fill in the background with a solid color.

Under painting


I start to loosely paint, using large strokes under the sketch and above the solid background layer. Color is the most important part of my paintings and it is important to me to have strong color contrast. Try to decide early in the process where your light source will be coming from.T This is a good stage to start and experiment.

I always detail the face above of the rest of my image early on, since it is often the focal point of my pieces.

Color blocking


I continue to paint under the sketch, as well as starting to paint on top of the sketch.

When trying to achieve the painterly look, I try to not get too caught up with refining details. Instead, I keep my brush strokes raw and loose looking. I use less and larger brush strokes, keeping the opacity at 85%, so the strokes are almost opaque, but still have a slight fade.

Over painting


I merge all of the layers I have at this point and start to paint on top of this layer. I limit my layer usage and often merge down as I paint, which allows me to paint and blend on one surface, like I do with actual oil painting. It allows for strokes with more expression and for me to feel less afraid of commiting to changes.

Synthetic brushes blend colors together softly. At this point, I start to introduce painting with lighter brushes that are low on opacity and paint load (around 15% for each).

Expanding the painting

I decide to expand the canvas horizontally to show more of the background. Using Flat Brush 3 and Heavy Flat Brush, I start to loosely paint in the background. These two brushes have a soft edge and are great for covering large amounts of space.


Adding the wolves


I paint two more wolves on each side of the figure, keeping the balance of the composition in mind. The Coarse Angular Brush 2 has a dry bristle look that is great for painting fur.

I also use the round air brush to softly blend some of the hard edges in the painting and give the piece more atmosphere. I use light blue, yellow, and purple to punch up the color around the edges of my composition and figures.



Tree branches

I use the round air brush in the background to put touches of saturated light colors, which add to the piece’s ambience and mood. I also start to add branches to the background, making sure not to make them so detailed that they detract from the figure. I am using the felt tip pen with a taper to paint them in.

Observing the piece, I notice some places need a punch of color, so I lightly go over them with a saturated color with a low opacity air brush.


Foreground silhouettes

Using an opaque tapered pen brush, I paint the silhouettes of grass and leaves on top of the image in one solid color. I think about the movement and framing qualities these branches will have.


I also use an opaque brush to paint the speckles on top of the image on a separate layer. Next, I duplicate the layer with the speckles and use the blur tool to blur the duplicate. This creates a subtle glowing effect. An alternative to this method is using an air brush on top. I use this to soften the look of shapes that look too sharp or harsh.


I lock the layer with the leaves and grass, so I can paint freely inside the shape. Using the air brush, I lightly color the grass and leaves, then use some synthetic paint brushes to add some prominent strokes. I go in with a small brush to apply any accents to the piece, such as the highlights on her lips and hair.

I make sure to have a balance of both broad strokes and small details. Trying to not get lost in the details, I often zoom out on the entire image and pick areas that need touches of light and color. I also flip the image horizontally several times throughout the process to find areas that need improvement or look skewed.

Using the same method as before, I paint in some darker branches in the foreground on separate layers. Using the blur tool, I blur some of the branches at different strengths in the foreground.


Finishing up

At this stage, I have finished working on the wolves, adjusting their features and fur color. I want the wolves to have an ethereal and ghostly feel, so I use very light opacity and paint load brush, then drag the paint in one direction from their heads and necks. This makes it look like they are dissipating and fading into the distance.

I touch up the face and hair, placing small lighting details on her eyelids and reflected light on her lips. I desaturate the foreground foliage, as I found it too distracting before.

Lastly, I use the airbrush once again to soften the overall image and bring a glow from the background’s light source.

This brings my piece to its conclusion. Thank you for reading!

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