33 Tips for How to Make Digital Artworks That Look Hand-made

Illustrators who work digitally or with mixed media have revealed to us how they create their best work - including where they find their brushes and textures.


When I was hired to design the cover for Penguin's Centennial Edition of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I immediately had the whole thing in mind, having read Joyce religiously for years. I knew to trust my intuition, since that intuition would be informed by all the research I'd already put into it.

The cover had to loop on the French flaps and on the front I wanted to put the protagonist in the middle of a poetic awakening, with the grim Irish skies suddenly turning luminous, borrowing the colours from each section of the book.

I sketched it out in Photoshop, then went over it with a light box inking with brush and ink each bit separately - the skies, the sea, the rocks and the protagonist. Then I composed everything together in Photoshop, coloured some of the lines and spent many many hours rendering the skies to evoke various scenes and themes of the book without any explicit references.

I'm sure no one will look at one cluster of clouds and identify the moocows, but that's beyond the point - the atmosphere is there, the moocows are in the book, fully fleshed in Joyce's words that don't need any illustration.

Roman Muradov (USA/Russia)

It's quite easy to combine digital and traditional these days. My method is pretty direct. I sketch digitally to have control over composition, while keeping it light, then go over the sketch on a light box. Nowadays I try to keep it pretty simple, but I used to make every single shape in ink and then collage it, which took weeks!

Roman Muradov (USA/Russia)


For me, being an illustrator is an opportunity to turn things upside down and inspire a conversation - a strong illustration is always a question, rather than a statement. And that's something I always ask my students when I critique their ideas - why can't this be a photograph? Ideally the answer should be different for each piece.

Roman Muradov (USA/Russia)

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I'd define my style as a balancing act between accident and design. I always allow unexpected things to happen, but I also end up editing every bit, whether the editing involves moving a tiny detail one pixel to the left or redrawing the whole thing.

I often think of dreams, not their meaning, but their mechanisms. As Borges wrote, we only have memories of dreams to work with, so it's this state of almost remembering, of being half-awake that I'm trying to evoke. And thus visually it's often a combination of sharp strong shapes and trailing unfinished details.

Roman Muradov (USA/Russia)


If you want your digital illustration to look warmer, incorporate hand-crafted items. Create your own brushes and textures by hand, using techniques like these.

Mar Hernandez (Spain)


[Once you have honed your craft], spend more time thinking about the idea; composition, colour palette, textures – all these things are defined before I start drawing the final illustration.

(There are also times when I experiment and investigate new tools, and then intuition comes into play.)

Mar Hernandez (Spain)

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I’m currently using and loving a brush from one of these really nice sets made by Israeli illustrator Assaf Benharroch, but I also use the Photoshop standard ones for some pieces. They’re totally fine.

Raul Soria (Spain)


I also use textures wherever I feel they’ll fit, but I couldn’t put down in words how I decide which one goes where and why. There’re literally thousands of hours of trial and error behind it all.

I used to put a texture on every shape and every surface. Now I don’t think that’s necessary anymore and I often leave some elements and backgrounds flat and clean. Anyway, it depends on what I’m doing and how much time I want it to take me. Texture work can take a while and easily get tedious.

Raul Soria (Spain)


I’ve been collecting textures for the last five to six years. Most of them are self-made, and now I’ve got a pretty large and a little chaotic library that I renew every now and then.

I just need to drop them once into a PSD file and the process goes smother and faster. Then I copy-&-paste them from shape to shape and from layers to layer - playing with their opacity, changing their colours, duplicating them, using a Multiply blending mode sometimes, and so on.

Raul Soria (Spain)

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I’m quite intuitive when it comes to dealing with colour. I also try to stay practical and not spend too much time trying different colour combinations, especially if the deadline is tight (as it usually is). In the last few months, I’ve set up some color palettes to choose among - with 8-10 colours each - so I always have something to start from when I’m working.

Then I just pick one, check if it works, adjust some of the tones if necessary and then try to reduce the amount of colours as much as possible. I like it when I get to use each color at least in two different places or elements of the illustration I’m working on, so the final image is somehow harmonic.

Raul Soria (Spain)


The magazine La Maleta de Portbou asked me to make an illustration to accompany an article by Toni Sala about Don DeLillo's book Falling Man. They also sent me over the final text, which is something I always find quite helpful. Basically, the article was about 9/11 and had a lot of references to the still life paintings by Giorgio Morandi [shown here].


I thought it could be fitting to try to depict 9/11 inside a Morandi painting, so I made the first rough sketch. It seemed that it’d work, so I made a more accurate one, showed the idea to the art director and she liked it - so I continued.

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Next I created all of the shapes. I didn’t want them to look super clean and accurate because the whole thing was supposed to depict a painting, so I re-traced the straight contours by hand.

At the same time I tried some color combinations. I wanted it to look somehow nostalgic, and of course the Morandi reference should be recognisable at first sight. And it all had to be brought to my own terrain and in the end it had to look fresh, not too dirty, and maybe a little bit playful - but at the same time respectful with the topic I was working with.

So I started with some colours from the last palette I had been working with and added some brown and beige, trying to make it look sort of creamy. The combination wasn’t working very good, but apparently good enough to deserve being saved. It actually wasn’t that far from the colours I finally used. It looks like I instinctively went for some complementary colours here.


I used three textures. I used pencil - duplicating the layer several times - for all bottles, both stone blocks, the jar and the figure’s shoulders and arm. I used ink for the background and the black head - and watercolour for the floor.

I made the strokes, the volume and the shadows using a specific brush in different sizes for each before refining it.


This is the finished artwork.

Raul Soria (Spain)

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I try to create images that have emotions. I love to experiment with new ways to draw, and I mix a lot of techniques. But it’s still more important to focus on the story I'm telling - the atmosphere I create and the emotion I'm expressing.

Jun Chen (USA) 


There’s always room for imagination and creativity. Sometimes, the [editorial article I'm illustrating] and the illustration can be two stories that share the same core idea. How cool it is to have a sci-fi-looking illustration for an economy story or a poetic abstract illustration for a personal story.

Jun Chen (USA) 


This illustration Pushing Hands was created for an article called 'Bacteria are Tai Chi Master' in Nautilus Magazine is about how bacteria moves and deforms to deflect incoming forces from other bacteria. It was an editorial assignment that gave me a lot of creative freedom.

I took an imaginative approach initially focusing on the idea of balance, fluidity and neutralising forces. Instead of showing bacteria literally, I came up with the idea of creating two surreal characters with multiple hands and dramatic costumes performing push-hands.

The piece is all about the interaction between the two characters. So I filled the whole canvas with the two and their intertwined arms.

Jun Chen (USA) 

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It’s always fun to secretly add something that interests me in the piece. As I’m in love with the visual style from the glam rock era, it just dawned on me that I could put heavy dramatic makeup with a glam rock feel on these two girl characters. It was a very fun project.

Jun Chen (USA) 


Writing words and concepts on a paper - and connecting them - helps me define a concept for the illustration before I start drawing very rough sketches to get a feeling about composition. I use Guideguide, a Photoshop plugin for creating grids to start drawing and adapting the composition to the grids, working with flat colours, the composition, shapes and details [to create roughs like this]. Building up different layers is very important because I play with different textures and opacities frequently.

Nicolas Valencia (Spain)


I then move onto using geometric tools from Photoshop, and the Pen tool to fix minor imperfections - before adding textures and painting with digital brushes. I then modify the Levels, contrast or colours to finish.

Nicolas Valencia (Spain)

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Experimentation is essential because you will find tools, textures and colours that match with your personal voice as an illustrator. You will also develop a workflow that allows you to work faster.

Nicolas Valencia (Spain)


Patience is a key for creating a 'handmade digital' feel, because I personally work with many layers over layers with different opacities and textures. This is essential for creating a coherent and esthetical work.

Nicolas Valencia (Spain)


My favourite digital brushes are from Kyle T Webster, he´s an incredible illustrator who makes awesome Photoshop brushes.

Nicolas Valencia (Spain)

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To create tonalities, atmospheres, mood and emotional responses, I have had to experiment with colours. At some point I’ve found colours that match my emotions and the personal voice of my images.

I believe colour is the most important element in my work - a good colour choice can bring an image to a next level and a bad colour choice can destroy an image.

Nicolas Valencia (SP)


Most of my digital work is directly informed by the paintings and drawings I do in my studio and sketchbook, which means that everything always starts as 1 or 2 base colors. Gradually, I begin to add shading and depth to evoke certain moods relative to the piece I am working on; sometimes it doesn’t feel necessary.

My main goal as an artist has been to simply as much as possible, to tell the most of the story with the least amount of information. Working in Photoshop has helped me enormously because I can use digital airbrush tools on various elements to make them disappear, blend in, or come to the foreground of the image - based on what I am trying to say.

Daniel Zender (USA)


A two-color image can immediately feel extremely deep and atmospheric by adding slight highlights or shadows to specific curves to separate them from other elements in the image. A lot of the work that goes into my artworks is based around adding and subtracting information to get the desired effect.

Daniel Zender (USA)

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For any illustration I do, I follow pretty much the same steps. It always starts with a  concept. I don’t thumbnail in the traditional sense, usually my sketches are done at quarter page size first. This doesn’t make a lot of sense when it comes to efficiency in my sketchbook, but for some reason it is better for me to work out things large, and then go back in and tweak at the same size.

I usually do 8-12 sketches - not including variations in composition on many of those options. Then I scan EVERYTHING in

Daniel Zender (USA)


Doing this allows me compare everything side by side - and make my own edits before sending to the art director. After the AD and I decide on a sketch, I move forward to final.

Recently I have gotten into the habit of working directly on top of my approved sketch in Photoshop. This is sort of a weird thing to do as the sketches are usually pretty loose, but it helps to maintain some sort of consistency between the approved sketch and the final art. 

Daniel Zender (USA)


All of the elements of the art are drawn individually and pieced together [as in this work-in-progress shot]. This allows me to do small tweaks to sizing and composition.

I use a combination of two brushes and a secret filter to achieve the graphic quality of my work. A lot of it is built up and then I use the Clear brush blending mode and the Dissolve blending mode to build up shapes and then carve stuff off like an exacto blade. By separating out individual elements as best I can, I can change colour, move elements, and adjust with the most flexibility - like a digital collage.

Usually my Photoshop files end up being 50-100 layers, even though they appear simple (thought many of those layers are hidden and discarded when flattened).

Daniel Zender (USA)

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Finally, when the art is done, I flatten everything for the AD. Before sending, I will adjust hue and saturation, to make sure the final image is perfect. Sometimes I will send two or three colour variations of the flattened image.

Daniel Zender (USA)


I try to evoke mystery and horror into my work, but with a specific dark sense of humour and approachability. I think the weirdest, scariest stuff happens when the viewer realises something unexpected is happening that they didn’t notice on first glance. 

Daniel Zender (USA)