Digital Illustration Tutorial | Adobe & Corel

I love reading "how to" articles and tutorials online, especially when it comes to art. Speaking from my personal experience, I view digital illustrating to be a technical skill just as much as an artistic hobby. Besides having a skilled hand and a good eye, there are methods thatwork and can be taught with step by step instructions. It's helped me in many ways, as can be seen in my Blast From the Past series. Now maybe what I've learned can help you, too.
Following my step by step procedure doesn't guarantee you'll illustrate just like me. We all have our styles. But, there is always something you can learn from others, as I have and now replicate in my own work. Many of my practices are a result of tutorials that I have learned from great artists, so I can't take credit for steps to follow.

Now, this is going to be a lengthy post, with a lot of photos. Please bear with me. In order to understand the following, it may help if you have basic understanding of Adobe Photoshop. Now, these are my tools of the trade.


  • Paper
  • Mechanical Pencil
  • White Eraser
  • Scanner
  • Desktop PC
  • Wacom Bamboo Tablet


  • Windows Vista
  • Adobe Photoshop Elements 5.0
  • Corel Painter Essentials Pro 3.0
The image I will use as my example is called My September. I illustrated this back in 2011. No, not in the month September. That name has a personal story attached to it. Nevermind you now. In case you were wondering, this is a portrait of my wife, a common subject in my art. I referenced a photograph of her, which is actually quite common for digital portraits nowadays.
Original Photo Reference
Original Photo Reference
Finished Digital Illustration
Finished Digital Illustration

The Pencils:

My September Pencils
The first step to all of my illustrations is the obvious. Draw the picture. Occasionally I would form my drawing using the tablet alone, but I find my proportions and image detail to suffer when I draw this way. Nothing beats real paper and pencil. I'm sure I'm not alone in this.

With this image, it's not exactly a "still life" drawing. I still have my style. The eyes, hair, and wrinkles on the clothes are drawn the way I would even if I had no reference. From the photos above, I'm sure you can spot other differences.

I will not detail techniques on pencil drawing. I'll save that for another tutorial.

The Inks:

My September Inks
Inking is also very important. I can get by with messiness and quick  scribbles with the pencils stage, but the inks are final. This is what the viewer will see in the final product.

With the use of the tablet, I essentially "trace" over my pencil drawing (which I scanned into Photoshop at 300-600 dpi). By decreasing the opacity in the "pencils layer" it's very easy to draw a fresh and clean version on a new "inks layer".

Photoshop brush tools are okay, but I prefer to use Corel Painter for this stage. Corel has a very nice "rotate canvas tool", which makes it much easier to draw curves and hard angles. The specific brush I use is the "Oils" brush, typically 7px wide, 100% Opacity. This brush is very fine, but the pressure sensitivity to the tablet pen allows me to adjust the width of the stroke at any point. I like ending my open lines with a trail.

Once the new lines are down, I use Photoshop to clean them up. I always merge my inks layer with a white under layer (otherwise the inks will have a transparent background). I blur the merged inks layer with a "More Blur" filter. Then I adjust the "Levels" as follows: Channel: RGB, Input Levels: 100, 1.00, 150, Output Levels: 0, 255. This gives my inks a very nice sharp, clean look, without being too pixely. 

The Flat Colors:

My September Flat Colors
99% of the time, I will use Adobe Photoshop to apply the flat colors on a new layer. Using the "polygon-lasso" tool, I create the shapes in-between the black lines and fill them with a solid color.

With this image, however, I continued using Corel. I used the brush "Airbrush" with 100% Opacity and various sizes. With a careful hand, I manually colored in the correct colors in the correct locations. For every color, I made a new layer. So, brown for the hair and eye brows on one layer with a layer underneath it for the grey shirt.

I didn't worry about keeping within my inks lines because later I will erase the edges at their proper places. When I use Photoshop, however, I get the flat colors shaped exactly how I want them the first time around. It makes for "selecting" areas much easier. But, with Corel, everything is manual and there are no easy way out. Makes me wonder, why didn't I use Photoshop on this? I forget.

The Shades:

My September Shades 1
Now comes the hard part. Adding shadows, highlights, and other details that really make the image come alive.

Again, I use the "Air Brush" tool, with different colors, sizes, and even opacity. I really freestyle this part, and it somehow looks okay in the end. I keep in mind the direct of the main light source in the image. In this case, it's... um...left, I think.

For easy reference, I put spots of color on the image so I can use the "eye dropper" tool to pick them up again. In this case, there is a light blue hue on the right, with a pink highlight on the left. 
My September Shades 2
The first color I shaded was the blue skirt. I know I should have referenced the original photo for shadow placement, but then again, there was no pink highlight and blue hue in the picture. This is my own style andflavor for the image.

Next, I shaded the shirt. I'm still experimenting with wrinkles and folds on clothes. It's something that I can use more practice on. Once I finish shading an area, I erase the edges and consider it done. Except maybe for some final touches. I keep in mind the hues and highlights for each area of color. I keep the shading layers separate until I know it's done. Then I merge the color and shades into one.
My September Shades 3
This time I work on the skin. In order to accurately shade the skin tones, I hide the layer containing the hair color. Skin shadows are not as high in contrast, but they are smooth and soft. I added more color splotches for the skin tones because I reference them quite often.

As you can see, some of the color extends way beyond the black lines. Sometimes I use large brushes. With all of this work, I am really grateful for "hot keys". Pressing keys on the keyboard is quick and easy, especially when I make so many strokes on the tablet. It takes time to manually select the tools and options with the cursor and it messes my rhythm.
My September Shades 4
I finished up the skin layer, erased the edges, and then worked on the hair layer next. Hair is always tricky. Drawing lots and lots of individual strands is realistic, but it can also look like spaghetti if not done right. I read somewhere that hair tends to "clump in shapes". This helps me direct the strands, so that they flow as parts, and not as a big fuzzy mess.

Some of my other styles would have solid shapes for hair, like in comic books or cartoons. But this image calls for more realism. At this time I also add detail to the eyes. They are my favorite part of this image. I'll show you what I mean.
Eyes Close Up

Finishing Touches:

My September FInished
The image is almost done. I really don't like white backgrounds, especially when the subject is so detailed and alive. I didn't actually draw anything for the background, so I made something in Photoshop.

It's a pink to white gradient with a cloud texture and other miscellaneous brush strokes to keep it interesting. I used some Roses screen tones I found online (for free) and adjusted their color to match the rest of the image.

Also in Photoshop, I add some highlights, darken some areas, and make other finishing touches to the image before declaring it done.

Sometimes, I don't do it right the first time around. For this image, I have gone back and erased some parts and re-shade others. For example, I noticed that one eye was not lined up correctly, so I moved it and fixed the area around it so that it's not noticeably altered. This is where it's crucial to keep everything separate on their own layers. Otherwise, it's a pain to move, adjust, and fix things. From start to finish, I'd say that up to 15 hours of work went into an image this detailed.

So there you have it.

My first tutorial, detailing the process I commonly take for my digital illustrations. It's more of a written tutorial. I'm sorry I didn't attach any screenshots of the actual tools or steps. I'm sure I could have written a lot more, but I think I got the general idea across. What do you think, would having a video tutorial be a lot more helpful?

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