Digital Painting Process – Red-Tailed Hawk


Semi-finished piece.

Want to see how a painting develops? Painting is a great stress reliever if you saw my last post. I paint often and thought I would show you one way that I do. Here are three steps I took to paint on the computer, showing the process from the rough sketch and ink wash to the semi-finished painting you see above.


Rough sketch with ink wash.

No tricks, no photo to start, just a hand drawn digital sketch begins the process. The image is layered with light and dark tones, then various color washes, just building and building.

The whole process is done like a traditional painting with each brush stroke, one at a time.  I add the textured paper at the end to give it depth and a rich background color. By doing this, some of the painting work is lessened, plus you get a neutral background on which to display the work. You think the painting is done?


Partially painted on a neutral gray background.

No, it has more feathered detail to add, but I always start with the eyes and work outward. The beak will be next and then some feathers.

Below is the tablet and stylus that I use to do everything on the computer. It is like a pen, brush, mouse, any tool you need it to be to draw, write, surf the web, everything.



I read over and over bloggers saying that painting in Photoshop is not painting. Others complain that editing photographs is not true photography. Is this just people who don’t know the power of working digitally criticizing the loudest? Painting in this way is just a different kind of painting.



I do these comps for future oil paintings, and am working on another simultaneously of a male lion. Maybe later, I will show that one as well. For more digital art, see Bird Feeding in Winter Leads to Digital Art. It shows a few different techniques.


The photo that I referenced when drawing the first sketch.

I updated the post because I got the question on if I reference a photo or do it from memory. The above image is my photo I used to draw the first sketch. You can see I have some feathers and detail to add.

My house has my paintings and drawings exhibited gallery style, but not one of my photographs is displayed! You know me for my wildlife and nature photographs, but art comes in all forms and techniques.

In a couple of days, you will see an actual hawk that spent a long time flying around my garden looking for sparrows. No luck, but he was very diligent.

About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at:
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46 Responses to Digital Painting Process – Red-Tailed Hawk

  1. Exquisite! Thanks for showing us the tools you use, too. Yes, you can make an oil painting from this, but I love it just like this.

  2. I always thought you started with a photo, but now I see you start with a blank canvas, computer displayed though it is. I really don’t see the difference between this method and traditional painting other than that you touch the canvas digitally. Is it easier this way to achieve proper brush strokes and colors and to correct “mistakes” than it would be with actual paint?

    • It is much more difficult to get the right brush strokes even though using ‘brushes’ similar to each type of painting technique. They have the same bristle quality, but the control is less than by hand. I suppose if I did this more often, I would get a better feel for the way to hold the ‘brush’ and how much pressure to apply. I can even airbrush, but that is not at all like doing it traditionally. Again it is control.

      The advantage is mistakes can be rectified which in watercolor especially, can’t be done. But the real benefit is using layers in Photoshop. You will see in the lion painting, where I recorded more of the preliminary steps, some of the steps appear lighter or darker. In Photoshop I can lighten a whole or part of a layer, giving the image better tone. I do this as a final step in the process, and it really only shows up in a final illustration.

  3. Pat says:

    Beautiful work!

  4. Christy says:

    Hi Donna….you are so talented. This painting is beautiful! I would love to see the lion.

    • I have the lion almost done. It is a portrait. Much of the traditional art I have on my walls is big cats and horses. This is the first raptor I ever did. I did a couple of penguin paintings, a few crows, ducks and some seagulls.

  5. People do not understand art if they say these things…art comes in many mediums and let me say that to take an artful photograph and manipulate it many ways is art because you are adding that creative eye…as for your digital painting…well you have to be able to paint and understand how to paint to do that too…a true artist is in you Donna…Pish posh to those nay sayers.

    • They are mostly professional photographers that question or debate the use of Photoshop, but sometimes it is just the causal clicked that jumps into the discussion. Photo manipulation is far more complicated than painting from scratch (if one has this talent). I say that because to do it right requires a very strong understanding of color and how light falls and affects a subject. Good retouchers don’t just adjust the basics, they manipulate color channels improving what was shot. That takes a world of experience and ability. The same problem surfaces on HDR images. Not to many people really know how to do it well. I think that is why there is so much debate on whether it is something to do – mostly because if many knew how to use the app they would not debate its use.

  6. Beautiful painting. Great article. I hope it dispels some myths about digital art.

    • Good to hope, but it won’t. Like the professional photographers, you have the traditional artists that have the same issues. Photoshop is a great tool to do a study first before committing to canvas. How to transfer to canvas, one makes a grid on the canvas, then roughs the image in. Proportions get correct, but more importantly, an artist already has a sense how to put in the color after doing once already. It is also great for shoring up composition. In architecture, we actually make life-like 3-D models of the buildings at 1:20 or below scale. They too are studies, but also are used to sell a building project to a prospective client. I have built many architectural models, and many still stand in City Halls, corporate centers, and even TV stations.

  7. Emily Heath says:

    Incredible, I love the expression in the eye. Do you look at a photo for reference whilst you work, or is it from memory?

    • Emily, I answered your question by amending the post. I added the image I used for reference. I work from two computer monitors (shown in the post) and the smaller one holds the original photograph ( should have shown that, but didn’t).

  8. Exactly, it’s a different medium, that’s all. I remember when I first started painting “digitally”, I got a very bad wrist ache for days!! This needs as much practice as all the other types of painting.
    Very well done, my dear Donna! Excellent work!

  9. Brian Comeau says:

    I thought your comment about painting in Photoshop is not really painting was interesting. I used to be one of those old school photographers who felt the same way about digital photography years ago. I still tend to be a minimalist when it comes to editing but have realized that it’s all just tools that we use. There are no rules. Is using a polarizing filter or ND filter cheating?
    I was reminded of this again recently when a teacher got a little crusty with my daughter for not “painting right.” I started to wonder how many times had Monet or Picasso heard that “you’re not doing it right”…. and what if they listened to their teacher… What a loss that would have been for all of us.

    • There is so much debate on these two arts on the web. Like there should be a comparison? I have been using Photoshop since 1990 when it first was a commercial product. I started using it for architectural presentations, but being a ‘photographer’ also, quickly realized its potential. I wish I had it when I was doing fashion illustration. There would have been a whole lot less pressure on pumping out award winning ads. The fashion industry now heavily relies on applications for drawing. Even the CAD programs have come a long way in better hand drawn presentation.

      I agree with you on the use of filters, which I use often. Nothing beats their appropriate use on the camera, but I can simulate most in Photoshop. The only time I do this though is for images that are composites, which you would not see on my blog. I keep it real on the blog because it is important to me to keep getting better at the craft of photography.

      Too bad on the ‘bad teacher. I had one of those once too. He insisted on never drawing ‘outside the lines’. Then in high school I had an art teacher that made us draw by not taking our pencil off the paper and also not looking at that which we were drawing. My resulting work won a state award and ended up in a national magazine. I kept in touch with that teacher long after high school too. He was liberating and worked with me to really have an interest in art. There is nothing like a good mentor at a young age.

  10. After seeing the process on this post, I would say that painting with photoshop is still a kind of painting.

    • Since I have painted from a young age and had work in galleries, I would debate anyone on this tool. I purposefully added this post because I don’t think many knew that the image I painted of the birds were actually hand done, like Carolyn mentioned. I wanted to show that it starts like any painting. The ones I do from photographs, have a lot of steps too. I will show that sometime. It is not click a filter and be done.

  11. I’m simply amazed…!!!! Wow.

  12. alesiablogs says:

    I can only wish to have the talent you have!

  13. Helene says:

    Painting in Photoshop is an art form I barely have scratched the surface of, I wish I could dedicate some more time to learn it properly. I have an old stylus, it is actually 12 years old, a Wacom tablet, but it is pitifully small compared to yours – I haven’t used mine for years, I am so jealous of yours!
    The right kind of tools means a lot when doing work like this, I am working on a laptop, lying on my sofa with my legs up, with the laptop across my stomach, that’s the only way I can work on my computer as I can’t sit for more than few minutes. But I have a 17” screen in HD so I get space enough for all the tools in Photoshop and still have workspace.
    Your paintings are beautiful, keep up the good work 🙂

    • The tablet size really does not matter since they are programmed to match the size of your monitor proportionally to the movement of the stylus. I can do large CAD drawings on a tiny Bamboo Splash at 5.8″ x 3.6″ by programming the tablet like my Intuos4. I had the largest Intuos3 made at 12″x 19.2″ and all that does is take up more space. The monitor on the other hand, is large. It is far more convenient to work on a 30″ monitor than one much smaller. Someday I hope for a Cintiq but I would not get the largest one either.

      I can also do painting with the trackpad on the laptop (I worked on the lion on the laptop a bit), but do highly recommend using a tablet for pressure sensitivity. My laptop is also a 17″ HD, but I find working in Photoshop and on architectural CAD drawings that using two monitors is a convenience.

      As for all the tools in Photoshop, I use them as needed. They stay nested otherwise. The only other panel showing is Nik software and that is small until expanded. Plus you can hide all the tools too or make the work area full screen. It is endless how one works in Photoshop setting up the workspace.That is done mostly for travel when you might be working on limited monitor space.

  14. Karen says:

    Fascinating post, Donna, and equally stunning result. Someday I would love to explore this technology, I think it would be an amazing asset to stained glass work, too.

    • I use my set up for creating and drawing my stained glass designs. Someday I gave to show you that. My phone wallpaper is one of my Photoshop stained glass designs because I liked it so much. Drawing designs in Photoshop works great because you can draw the right size solder joint right into the drawing. Then, print them out to size to use as a tracing guide.

  15. seattlecharlie says:

    Quite amazing, and quite beautiful. Art is expression, If you feel good about what you have created, then that is all that matters.

    • Thank you. I just read an editorial on “what is art” and there is certainly disagreement on that depending on what art one is producing. Also, the critiques were saying all that is created is not art and has no business being called as such. Pretty fascinating the elitism in art. You need a clickable link. I cannot visit your blog.

  16. Jennifer says:

    It is interesting to see the initial photo inspiration and the building up of layers in the artwork. The completed hawk artwork is simply beautiful Donna!
    One interesting aspect of a digital artwork like this is that it is not need to be one-of-a-kind. You can print many copies. Does this make such artwork more like a limited edition print (less valuable) and less like an original painting? Interesting question!
    Like the effect that the digital world is making on printed books, computers are having a huge impact on artwork. When I left the wallpaper industry, we were using computers to set art into repeat and we were also proofing colorways on an Epson printer. Ink stability was a huge issue when it came to color. Even using archival inks, the colors were morphing after as little as a month.
    It is a brave new world when it comes to digital artwork.

    • Oddly, this painting only had two layers. The sketch and the ‘painted’ illustration. I am pretty confident in painting that when doing a quick study, I don’t need the crutch of multiple layers, so I kept forgetting to make a screen shot to post.

      In the next post on digital painting of the lion portrait, I have eleven layers in Photoshop because I wanted to show more of the process. Also, you might be interested in that post because I bring up the debate between Photoshop and painting (“real art”) and painting and photography (where elitist artists say photographs are not art).

      Traditional paintings exist as limited edition prints also. Plus they are reprinted on canvas too with costly professional printers. Digital work is often sold for high dollars as are photographs which are printed in limited runs. It is less an issue now to print museum quality prints, but it is how they are displayed that matters – their proximity to natural and artificial lighting – their setting in climate and humidity controlled environments. Inks fade much faster than paint pigments but they have come a long way none the less.

      You are right, it is a brave new world, and one that is ripe with controversy – and opportunity. I have been involved in illustrative art and the printing of it since way back. In architecture we do a lot of printing and presentation work too which must be kept for long periods of time. The same issues surface and face us.

  17. Fossillady says:

    Hi Donna, I really like how you showed us the actual tablet. I think it’s coming along beautifully and I think the pose of the hawk is awesome too. He looks to be searching for prey. I also love how the feathers fan out in the back . . . heck, I just plain love it! Lol, Take care, Kathi

  18. Beautiful Donna! All I can say is WOW! Thank you for showing us the process with the tablet.

  19. terrytrekker says:

    Amazing! I never realized you could do this so precise with a stylus! I need to learn more about this technique!

    • The stylus is not unlike using a pen, except that you look at the monitor and not your hand while drawing. It can be very precise, yet there is the Cintiq where you draw right on the screen with the stylus, similar to drawing on paper.

  20. Nicely done! Love the eye… they’re so difficult. I am not very familiar with drawing/painting on a computer and admit it seems pretty space age to me. 🙂 I’m sure I’d enjoy being able to use the “undo” tool when I’m painting, though.

  21. I love it Donna. Just beautiful.

  22. What talented artist you are!! A work of art is a work of art, the rest of discussion is just about technique used. Great work!

  23. You really are one talented lady!

  24. Randy says:

    Wow…..I’m happy to’ve stumbled upon this (free) site….Did so thru a image search for muscari
    Your’s was the most appropriate image of them available. Little wonder since you seem to have
    so much going for you. Cool ! (from Victoria – ain’t snowin’ here – You seem to know lots about gardening) Thanks !….Your raptor image also’s amazing ! Go Niagra !

  25. Fergiemoto says:

    Beautiful! I don’t care if it is straight out of the camera, or digitally enhanced or created. Either way, they all require their own skill and an artful eye to develop the final result.

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