What is Digital Illustration?

M.J. Brower

Digital illustration is the technique of using a computer to produce original artwork. Digital illustrators use a combination of illustration software and image editing software to create computer art. Digital illustration is not merely the manipulation of images with software; it is the actual creation of new art with digital tools.

There is usually a degree of pressure sensitivity with graphics tablets, which gives users more flexibility in the way they draw.
There is usually a degree of pressure sensitivity with graphics tablets, which gives users more flexibility in the way they draw.

An artist might use a graphics tablet or a mouse to create digital artwork. A graphics tablet is an input device that connects to the computer and has a tablet, or pad, with an attached pen. The artist uses the pen to draw on the tablet. The resulting image is saved to the computer, where it can be enhanced and refined. Some artists use a mouse for digital illustration, but many find that they can control images better with a pen than a mouse. Graphics tablets also usually have some degree of pressure sensitivity, which gives artists more flexibility in the way they draw.

Graphics tablets may allow users to mimic drawing with a pen, for example by creating heavy lines by pressing down with the stylus.
Graphics tablets may allow users to mimic drawing with a pen, for example by creating heavy lines by pressing down with the stylus.

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The software used for digital illustration can be either vector-based or raster-based. Vector-based software draws paths—shapes and lines based on mathematical principles. The paths it draws are fully scalable. Making them larger or smaller does not affect them or make them "fuzzy," like bitmap, or raster, software does. Raster-based, or bitmap, software creates images from pixels, which are small rectangles that make up an image on a screen. Because each pixel might contain bits from different parts of an image, the image gets fuzzier as it gets larger, so there is a limit to how much a raster-based image can be scaled. Typically, drawing software is vector-based, while image editing software is raster-based.

Someone who wants to become a digital illustrator generally needs to be extremely familiar with both vector- and raster-based software. There are not very many vector-based software packages; Adobe® Illustrator® is by far the most commonly used by professionals. There are a number of raster-based applications, but Adobe® Photoshop® is preferred by many illustrators. A digital illustrator may or may not have a background in traditional art, but will often have a background in design.

Digital illustration is used in nearly every area of graphic design and illustration. It is used extensively in web design and software design, as well as in the creation of posters, t-shirts, computer animation, and advertisements. Digital illustration is often combined with traditional illustration, especially in books and comic books, to produce a truly unique style of art.

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Discussion Comments


@lonelygod: I would recommend getting a tablet. For a beginner it doesn't have to be a very expensive one, but if you are aiming to do professional work I would recommend a Wacom.

Tracing software has come a long way but making really good vector graphics with tracing software is near impossible (at least in my experience). Doing it in raster is easier though but still not perfect. A tablet is a sound investment for any digital illustrator.

As for the coloring. The pen is basically a substitute mouse. It acts the same way. So as far as coloring goes, it all depends on the software you use to create the illustrations.


For those of you with experience creating digital illustrations would you recommend a tablet for a beginner, or is scanning your drawings and using a trace tool in the program easy enough?

I am a bit torn over whether or not to buy a a tablet as they can be really pricey. I love how they offer the ability to draw directly into the computer program, but do you find the sensitivity of the tablet is enough to get all of your lines in smoothly? Or do you need to go in and edit afterwards anyway? Also, do tablets offer the ability to color in your art, or is it usually just for the outline drawing?


Producing digital illustrations can be a very time consuming activity, but you can create beautiful art with both professional level software and with freeware.

For those of you who are interested in trying new mediums, many smart phones with a touch screen now offer new programs that allow you to produce digital illustrations from anywhere. You can just download the app and draw with the touch of your finger or stylus.

There have actually been exhibits of people's art that was created completely on their cell phones. I really recommend trying it, as if you're anything like me, you probably always have your phone on you.

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