Tracey Thompson

Product Design Leader, SF Bay Area

A digitally painted landscape. There's the red mud of a salt marsh in the foreground with the bleached skeletons of dead trees in the midground and dark green trees behind.

Digital Painting Experiment

Why Digital Painting?

My day job has me parked in front of a computer so I’ve waffled on digital sketching in the past. It seems silly to spend my downtime in front of yet another screen, especially these days when even my social life takes place over a video chat. But at the same time, digital sketching helped me keep my sanity over the last year and a half. The two reasons: it’s convenient and it takes up little space.

Just prior to the pandemic, we took a quick family trip for my Dads’ birthday on Amtrak’s Texas Eagle. I love sketching on the train and immediately packed my watercolor kit, gouache kit, and all my pens. Feeling my backpack straps strain under the weight, I decided to unpack it and commit to a single medium: digital. 

I have a history of overpacking. On my Indiana Dunes trip, I took 24 POUNDS of supplies. I did not want to repeat that mistake here. At a little over a pound, the iPad was exactly what I needed to travel light. I painted each day and still had room for clothes. With the Procreate app, I could quickly jump into a painting, then pause if I needed to without the hassle of setup and cleanup. 

Shortly after I returned, our community went into a shelter in place order. Suddenly every surface of our small apartment turned into an improvised office or school. I occasionally painted in watercolors, but quickly found myself returning to digital media. The convenience of this low footprint, zero cleanup method made it clear that digital was going to be the best medium to keep me sketching and painting in this crazy new world. I spent the next year and a half almost exclusively painting digitally.

Kopperl, Texas
Lindale, Texas

What I learned

I have so much I want to talk about regarding what I’ve learned including how I got started, specific techniques I’ve learned, and resources I’ve found helpful. Or course that firehose of information is making it difficult to actually get this post done, so I’ll break those topics up into a few blog posts that I’ll post later. For now, I’ll focus on what I learned at a high level. 

1) The convenience resulted in frequent practice 

I’ve struggled with digital painting in the past so I had low expectations for this experiment. But the adage is true: if you practice, you improve. Our new homebody lifestyles were far busier than I imagined. I found being able to pull out my iPad after dinner was over made it easier for me to make time to paint and sketch. When I got tired, I could just put the iPad away. The low overhead kept me moving on days when washing brushes seemed like too much.

2) I built confidence experimenting with light  

I have struggled to paint light the way I want to with physical media. So many times I’d lose the lighting, struggle to try to get it back, and wound up with everything completely overworked. Because software like Procreate uses layers, I am able to turn the layers off, try a different method, then compare the two. It is easier for me to see what I’ve done wrong, and how to get back on track. This has helped me understand how to better plan my compositions in physical media, and, at least with gouache, how to better correct my mistakes. I’m building confidence to approach lighting in physical media I would not have attempted in the past.   

Digital Still Life
Still life in Gouache
3) I was able to focus on process

The convenience of digital media also helped me make time to think about my practice. I found time to think about what I was painting and why. That’s something I’m sure I could do while standing over the sink cleaning brushes, but it hadn’t occurred to me before spending serious time sketching in Procreate. Using layers, I can put my notes right on the painting, then hide them when I share the work. It makes thinking through the composition a more seamless part of my workflow. 

4) What about physical media?

I am grateful to have an easy way to paint during all this chaos. While much of what I have learned translates back to physical media, I still have a bit of physical media guilt! I miss the feeling of a real brush. I know mixing colors in Procreate is nothing like mixing them in a pallet. I don’t want to get too far from brush and paper. This tells me digital will not replace physical media for me. I sense it will be “digital and” rather than “digital or.”

Future Posts on Digital Painting

I hope to share more practical details of what I’ve learned in future posts. Clipping masks have become a huge part of my process. I can’t wait to share with you some of the amazing artists I’ve been inspired by and learned from over the past few years. I also hope to share a bit of my other pandemic hobby: sketching birds. If you have a question or a topic you’d like to see me cover, contact me on Instagram and I’ll see if I can answer or work it into the next post. 

Prints Now Available

One last thing, I recently launched an INPRINT store to make prints of my digital work. These are giclee prints with a digital signature. Check out to see what’s available. More to come!

See the original post and more on my Art blog.