9 Common Digital Art Beginner Mistakes

Walid Feghali
February 24, 2024
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As beginners in digital art (or art in general), we all make mistakes that we learn from. I’ve written down 9 common beginner mistakes here, and we’re going to look at a solution for each of them.Mistakes are important to learn from, but you don’t have to fail over and over again when you can learn from people who’ve done it before and have found ways of dealing with them. It’ll save you frustration.Keep in mind that I’m looking at this with the intention of creating professional, realistic looking artworks. Highly stylized and abstract art isn’t the game here, so you’d have to go elsewhere to find that.I’m all about wanting to make things look really cool and real, like you feel you could actually reach out and touch the environment concept you just created.So let’s take a look at these common beginner mistakes. 

Mistake 1: Starting with no idea

When I was a beginner, and I wanted to start a new painting, the blank white canvas would sometimes appear quite daunting. If I would go at it with no idea in my head or no direction at all of where I wanted the painting to go, it was hard to actually start filling the canvas with something meaningful and I would just get frustrated and shut off Photoshop.Solution: An important thing to do before starting to paint is to have an idea in your head before starting your painting. You might say that you want to paint a female humanoid sea creature, and that’s great – you don’t have to know exactly how that sea creature would look, but you at least have an idea and direction. This will help tremendously when starting a new painting and brainstorming your ideas when sketching out your concepts.Another thing you can do is to check some inspiration sources on similar things to the concept you want to create. If it’s a humanoid female sea creature, look at female anatomy, maybe fish scales, dolphin skin and fins, and so on. Perhaps the creature has lobster-like claws.All of this will help you sketch out ideas and go on with your painting, and even give some great design ideas.

Mistake 2: Too many details

Another thing I would do a lot is to try and add details everywhere and try to refine every single square centimeter of my paintings. I would get obsessed sometimes trying my best to make it as detailed as possible, even in the corners. This was an issue I soon realized.If your audience sees a painting with an extreme amount of detail everywhere on the painting, you will overwhelm them and it will hurt your painting – even if the details are incredibly beautiful and intricate.Solution: A painting should sell an idea, a story, a concept, and you do that by using composition, lighting, contrast, story elements, and so on – not by overusing details to try and make your painting look finished and nice. To do that, you need to create focus and not over-focus everything and over-define your entire scene. Your painting loses focus, direction and flow if the eye-catching details are all over the place.The important focal point areas are the ones that should get your audience’s attention, not the unimportant areas no one has any business of looking too long at.Take a look at these two images:

sci fi dark space
Earth Space Planets

These are from a digital matte painting competition hosted at mattepainting.org, “Alien Cloudscape”. I think the first image by Simona Ceci, while very well executed and rendered, has too many details. The second one by Jadrien Cousens has way less details, but sells the idea better. It also looks more cinematic. The second image is also the winner of the competition!

Mistake 3: Too little value dynamics and atmospheric perspective

I rarely have an issue with this, because I come from a background of drawing a lot with graphite pencils. I love to create strong contrasts between light and dark using traditional mediums, and that has translated into my digital art as well.However, I see many beginners not utilizing the value ranges properly to create dynamic looking realistic artwork. The value dynamics might be there, just not used correctly.Another thing is atmospheric perspective. It’s highly important to utilize properly to tell the viewer what is big, far away, close, give impression of scale, of atmosphere and so on. Even in close environments and with character concepts, atmospheric perspective is used to “trick” the eye and help the viewer understand what they’re looking at, and create depth.Solution: Take a look at the examples below:

Example of low value range, low value dynamics

The first one is a painting with low value range, low value dynamics. It appears quite flat and dull, with no real contrast or light play, and almost no atmospheric perspective.Here’s a better one by Gavin O’Donnell:

Example of high dynamic value range

This one utilizes a great deal of contrast and has a high dynamic value range, nicely focusing the important focal points of this image. Notice how it becomes brighter and more highlighted the closer we get to the ruins if we follow the path from where the “camera” is.You have values ranging from complete black, to complete white, and the whole spectrum of colors and values in-between. If your painting has contrasts utilizing most of this spectrum in it, you can convey an idea with much more satisfaction if you properly learn how to use value dynamics and atmospheric perspective to your favor.

Mistake 4: Overusing pure white

Pure white and pure black is something that you see often used in beginner paintings. These extremes should be carefully used, and that’s especially true for pure white, but less so for pure black.Pure white is quite rare in nature, and would only occur when you look straight at the sun or the moon, or a bright lamp. The pure whites in your paintings should be reserved for these focused light sources and for an effect.If you use pure white or black too much, your painting will look what we call “blown out”, where there is no more information than that color, and the values are pushed to their limits.Solution: Look at the the example below:

Overuse of pure white

In the first painting here, you see that the sunset sky is totally blown out, it’s a pure white (sometimes pure bright yellow/orange), which is a common beginner mistake.If we rectify that by giving back some definition to the sky, it will look much more natural. You can see how a sunset can look below, with no blown out areas (except for a pure white sun disk at times): (by Ninjatic)

rectifying pure whites

Mistake 5: Not using cool and warm colors effectively

Color theory is a very important aspect of painting and presenting your ideas. Getting colors to work together and in your favor is something that takes study, practice and time. Even professional artists don’t understand color theory perfectly, and that’s fine – all we’re trying to do is making things look good and natural.The main point I want to make here is that it’s important to understand that using cool and warm colors will greatly help your paintings look more alive and pop out.Solution: Study things outside, or photos of them. Look at the color hue of shadows and of the lit parts. Study how a forest grove with some patch of sunlit grass looks like on a sunny day. How about a cloudy day? How does it compare? On sunny days, the shadows are usually a cooler, bluer color, while the light parts are warmer.Here are a few examples. I took these pictures in New Zealand. Notice the color hue of the shadows and of the parts where the sunlight hits (you can scroll the images to see the explained part!)

Digital Art Beginner Mistakes
Digital Art Beginner Mistakes
Digital Art Beginner Mistakes
Digital Art Beginner Mistakes

The blue sky casts omnidirectional light from above, and the sun casts directional light from one direction. These lights bounce as well, and we can see that in the first image where the tree gets a lot of bounce light from the sun so we have warm colors under it. And where the sunlight isn’t hitting, the blue sky light is brighter so it becomes more blueish, cooler.Here I’ve painted a few rocks (check out this rock painting tutorial if you want to learn how to do that!). Notice how in the standard, “cloudy” picture, the shadows have the same hue as the light parts. There isn’t as much cool / warm color contrast, while if it’s sunny, we get much more saturated colors, and the cool / warm color contrast really pops. Where the sunlight hits the rocks, we get warm yellowish colors, and where it doesn’t, the blue skylight takes over. I also do some bounce light here and there where it makes sense.

Digital Art Beginner Mistakes
Digital Art Beginner Mistakes
Digital Art Beginner Mistakes
Digital Art Beginner Mistakes

The second picture has a more cloudy but still sunny sky, so the colors get a bit less saturated, and the cool colors become less apparent, but they are still present.Using warm and cool colors effectively in the shadows makes the entire painting look better and feel more real.This is also used in movie and game productions where the lighting setup have both white/yellow, neutral light, blue cool light and reddish warm light, to create a contrast between cool and warm colors of light. See the example below. The blue, cold, ambient light is stronger than the candle light from where she stands, but the candles cast rim lights and give a little bit of ambient warm light from the back as well.

Using natural colors

Using this color theory properly will greatly improve your painting technique. 

Mistake 6: Using only hard or only soft brushes

This is quite a tricky mistake to fix, because knowing when to have soft and when to have hard edges and transitions is something that combines a lot of aspects of painting; flow, focal points, contrast, and composition. Luckily, you can learn a lot by experimenting with it.Where you use hard edges, contrast will arise, and contrast provides focality wherever it exists. Using soft brushes and getting soft edges can really help make the hard edges pop out even more.Solution: Try to think about where in your artworks you would have softer qualities, and where you would have harder. Grassy fields are often quite soft with a few contrasted areas here and there, while mountains have more sharp textures and edges.Take a look at the example below:

Using only hard or only soft brushes

Here there is a big sharp mountain with a white city in the center, and around it we see a sweeping soft landscape with some clouds rolling in giving more focality to our focal point.A great practice is to play with soft and hard brushes when you’re painting clouds and mountains or clouds and anything with sharper textures and edges, like a house, a tree, pillars or something similar. Switch between hard brushes and soft brushes and experiment. 

Mistake 7: Using too many saturated colors

When starting out, most beginners have trouble with color, so they often individually pick very strong colors from the color wheel and end up with too many powerful and combating saturated colors.Solution: Stick to the middle area of the color picker:

Using too many saturated colors

Stay mostly within this area and you will have a very real color and value scheme. If you look around you, you will notice that most natural things have a saturation and value ranging in this area, with some parts very dark and others bright and sometimes saturated, but is for the most part muted.Also, if you don’t have a solid understanding of why you’re using so many strong colors, my best advice is to use only two or three hues of colors – simplicity is king!

Using too many strong colors

This painting has almost exclusively a yellow, orange-ish orange hue to it.The other color here is really only the blue of the sky and of the energy sparks and the thrust engine from the bike.This makes it a very simple and pleasing painting where the concept reads well. Two main color choices that complement each other well.If I were to paint this with very saturated and hard color changes, it would look too abstract and unreal – stylistic. I’ve stayed mostly within the middle area of the color chart – nothing is too saturated, too bright or too dark, it’s all a well balanced, real color and value scheme.

Mistake 8: Getting stuck on brushes

“Which brush did you use here?” is probably one of the most asked questions I get. Beginners tend to rely on brushes to improve their digital painting skills. But just like different graphite pencils won’t make you any better at drawing on paper (every artist that can draw, can draw just fine using a regular graphite pencil), having hundreds of different Photoshop brushes won’t make you awesome.Here’s what will:Solution: Pick one brush pack, and find the brushes you like the most and stick to those! Using a few brushes that you feel comfortable with is invaluable, because you start feeling how they perform, how you progress with them and how to express your ideas – exactly the same way as you become comfortable with a graphite pencil to write or draw.If you after a while want something fresh to your brush palette, you can download some other pack and play around with the brushes there, but that shouldn’t be what you’re focusing on. You want to make awesome art.

Mistake 9: Not calibrating your tablet

Having a properly calibrated drawing tablet is important, and often overlooked as a beginner, because let’s face it, you just want to start painting!Solution: Calibrating it means that you go into the settings of the tablet, change the tip feel by how sensitive the pen is, setting up important shortcuts and functions with the buttons to speed up your workflow and make it smoother, and getting it to work with you instead of you with it.Also remember to sit with the tablet properly, meaning have it right ahead of the computer screen – not at an angle.


All of these mistakes are something that will become less of an issue the more you practice painting and the more you study your favorite artists and your natural environment.I struggled with all of these aspects and mistakes when I started out with digital painting, but I got better and better the more I painted and studied my surroundings and favorite artworks and photos.I hope you learned something new and can use the solutions when you’re painting on your own. Please leave a comment on what your thoughts are!

Until next time, guys!

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Walid Feghali

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