My Journey from Traditional Watercolor Palette to Digital Tablet

By Vicky Young in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

All my life I’ve made images. As a child, I doodled on my homework. I did oil paintings, and illustrated with watercolor, ink, and crayon. I even taught art: mostly life drawing, where we’d splash around with ink, and use big charcoal sticks on huge Kraft paper sheets.

Then I got my first contract to illustrate a children’s book. Naturally I was thrilled, but I also felt an anxious pain in the pit of my stomach.

Up until then, my illustrations were sketchy book dummies or one-offs. At most, I’d do a series of three with the same characters to try to impress art directors. And how hard could it be, with my simple, almost cartoony style?


As it turns out, it was HARD! Very hard to carry a whole book through. I redid a lot of the same images to make small changes, often deciding I preferred the first one. Luckily, I had plenty of time, and I needed it. I wasted paper and pricey paint. I cried over ink blots. I covered the windows to keep the light steady.

My naturally spontaneous, happily disorganized approach gave in to one where I had to plan ahead. My back ached from long hours at the desk. I wasn’t sure this was for me. (Of course, it was well worth it in the end.)

With more illustration gigs came new requests. Clients now wanted me to scan and upload digital files. The digital age was on. I got some assignments in the educational (rather than trade) market that had to get done FAST. I had a Wacom Graphire tablet, but wasn’t good at looking at the screen while drawing on the tablet—it felt like driving a stick shift.

I needed a new computer, and saw one in the store that had a pen and pressure sensitivity. Suddenly I was able to edit my images, directly on the screen. I started using layers in my digital files, so if an art director wanted revisions, presto change-o. My work became a conglomerate of paint and pixels, then all pixels, skipping the scanning stage entirely.

The best way, I found, to train myself as a digital illustrator, was to redo traditional pieces on the computer. I’d scan them into a layer, then paint over them digitally. I wanted to stick with my light watercolor style and pen and ink line, and I needed to re-learn how to do it through this new medium of technology.

After a while digital drawing became second nature. Now I sometimes sketch out my illustrations in watercolor, first, but I don’t try to force the illustration to end up an exact replica. Rather, I refer to the other media—with gratitude, because without it I wouldn’t have any sense of the energy of traditional media.

I have fun playing with the endless array of digital brushes, such as Kyle’s brush sets for Photoshop and fun digital textures, and I happily try out new programs.

I still love the textures of paper and happy accidents of paint, and I don’t think these can be replicated perfectly with filters and drippy-paint apps. But I have (somewhat) less anxiety about deadlines.

Digital illustration is now the norm. I would never want to give up painting and I still do it, and I think all artists and children should learn traditional media. But there’s also a lot to explore with tablets, and some very helpful resources online. I rotate from a Cintiq tablet to trusty tablet PC (which I use for typing, too) to small portables that are my sketchbooks.

Just like we now have cars as well as horses, we now have styluses alongside our brushes. It’s quick, and not so messy. Best of all, even if artists use machines, art can never (at least, I hope not) be taken over by robots. :)

There’s nothing holding you back from learning to paint digitally. . . jump in! I did, and it was oh-so-worth it!

Special thanks to Vicky Young for submitting this guest post. Please check out her website,, for tons more information about artists’ tablets and digital drawing tools!


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