How to: Paint a Cute Character in Paint Tool Sai – a Digital Painting and Inking Tutorial

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How to: Paint a Cute Character in Paint Tool Sai – a Digital Painting and Inking Tutorial


Welcome!

In this tutorial, I’ll be teaching you a bit about my painting technique and show you how to go through the process of paint a cute character in Paint Tool Sai.

This Tutorial will be a nice primer on how to break down a simple drawing into parts if you’re new to digital art, as well. Don’t worry if you’re new to the program– you can adapt any of the techniques to your skill level. If you’re an expert– awesome! If you’re totally new– no worries!

Let’s get started with the tools you’ll need.

Step 0 : The Tools of the Trade

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To complete this project you’ll need:

  • A drawing tablet of some kind with pressure sensitivity (I’m using  a Wacom Intuos Pro)
  • A copy of Paint Tool SAI

And that’s it! Digital art is great because you need very limited materials to work on all variety of projects.

If you don’t have a graphics tablet, you can theoretically use a mouse or track pad to draw (a lot of people do!) But since some of the techniques that make digital art enjoyable and economical rely on pressure-sensitivity (ie: having your lines ‘feather out’ and appear ink-like), I wouldn’t recommend it. That being said- do whatever works for you!

And with that- onto the painting!

Step One – Setting Up Your Canvas.

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The first thing that you’ll need to do when you open Paint Tool Sai is to set up your canvas. This is where you will be painting and drawing.

I’ll be using a 4 by 6 inch canvas, but you can choose a smaller or larger size if you prefer.
To ensure the image isn’t pixellated, set the Resolution to 300 DPI

That’s all! Onto sketching.

Step Two – Sketching your character.

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Once your canvas is set up, the first step is to sketch your character.

Following the directions above, create a layer called “sketch” and then set up a soft brush for sketching.

Your sketch does not have to be perfect, and you can reference an image on paper or from the internet if you need pose inspiration. 

Create a rough sketch showing the pose, basic features, etc. Don’t worry about cleaning up the sketch, because we’ll be erasing it and tracing over it later, anyways. Make sure you have all of the important parts of the character drawn before moving on.

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Here is my basic sketch of my character. Once your character is sketched, you’re ready to move onto the next step.

Step Three- Inking your Character.

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It’s time to move onto inking your drawing. This will ‘clean up’ the drawing that you sketched a moment ago and provide a nice, clean, solid base for us to flat color the image later on.

Following the guide above, reduce the Opacity of your sketch layer to 10%. Then, create a new layer called “Inks”– this is where you will use the ink pen brush described above to ink your character.

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Unlike with your sketch, you want your inks to be as clean as possible.
This means:

  • Adding in any small details that you missed in the sketch.
  • MAKING SURE that all of the ‘shapes’ in your inks are totally closed. Later we’ll be using the magic wand tool to make coloring much easier, and if you don’t close your shapes you will make work for yourself later on. If this doesn’t make sense, skip ahead to that technique to see.
  • Ensuring your lines aren’t wiggly, broken or rough looking.

You will likely have to press ‘undo’ a lot as you ink. Don’t worry! Re-drawing a line a few times is totally normal and will make your finished image much better.

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Continue inking until your character is totally done!

Then, you can turn ‘off’ your sketch layer and admire your inks.
I personally think that the next steps are much more fun, so get ready to flat color next.

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Now that your inks are all done, you are ready to flat color your character.

Step 3.5 – Using the Magic Wand tool to color more easily.

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I believe that in a lot of cases, artists should work smarter, not harder.
With the magic wand tool– you can work a little smarter while coloring your artwork in Sai.

If you did a good job with your inks and used very solid lines, you should have an easy time with this. Instead of “coloring in between the lines”, you can get a helping hand from Paint Tool Sai.

First, make a new “color” layer– this is where all of your coloring and shading will go in this painting. Next- use the Magic Wand tool (as seen above) to select a section of your “Inks” layer.

You must be currently working on the inks layer. Highlighted areas will turn blue, and you can select as many areas as you’d like (ie: all of the skin.).

Once you have the areas selected, go back to your “color” layer and begin coloring. You won’t have to work to stay inside of the lines, and it makes the whole flat coloring process take a couple of minutes instead of hours.

If you’re having trouble selecting areas: You have almost certainly made a tiny mistake and not totally enclosed an area in your “inks'” layer. Go back to your inking layer and fix up your lines until they’re tidier and the magic wand tool works properly.

Step Four – Flat Coloring

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Now it’s time to ‘flat color’ our painting!
At this point, we’ll only be putting down flat colors appropriate to each area of the character. No shading!

Please note that I added a lilac background layer by placing a layer behind my character and bucket filling it with lilac. I prefer having a non-white background behind my character as a I flat color, because it makes it easier to avoid ‘missing spots’ that you have to fix later.

Using the selection technique highlighted above, use the brush shown above to begin filling each section of your character on your “color” layer. You can vary the brush size as much as you’d like- don’t try to stick to one brush size.

Don’t color in your inks layer! Check every so often to make sure you aren’t accidentally doing this, because it can be pretty problematic later on.

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Be creative with your colors! Try to add some bright and unexpected colors to your image. It will make the finished painting more interesting. For example, I added pink eyelashes.

Once you’re done, it’s time to move onto the fun part- shading and highlights.

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Once your character is all flat-colored, you can move onto shading and highlights.

Step 4.5 – Color the Lines

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Stop right there! I have one more step before we shade.

I am pointing out this step because a lot of people aren’t aware of this basic feature of Sai and waste a lot of time drawing colored lines.

Coloring your lines adds a lot of depth to your character, and we can always adjust the color of the lines at the end to make more sense with the shading that we decide to do.

For now- just create a new layer called “Ink Mask” directly above your “Inks” layer. Then, check the box that says “Clipping Group” directly above the layer panel. Now your “ink mask” layer is grouped with your inks layer.

You can randomly scribble any colors on this layer, and they’ll mask over top of your inks automatically and make the inks that color.

​For now, I just my lines pink and blue, but you can experiment however you’d like. Easy peasy!

Step Five- Shading and Highlights

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Here it is- time to shade and highlight.

I do my shading and highlighting a bit different than some artists (and a lot different than the usual technique that Photoshop artists use), but I swear it’s easy, dynamic and enjoyable.

It’s a little scary because I paint in one layer (no hundreds of layers to disguise your mistakes), but it’s difficult to mess up as long as you take things slow and think ahead. Once you know the basic technique, you can adjust your brushes all you like!

The Technique:

I paint using two brushes– a “painting” brush used to put down new colors, and a “blending” brush used to blend those colors together.

That’s it! Think of it as putting some paint down with one hand and then using the other hand to smear it around and blend it together. With this technique you can achieve ‘soft’ looking shading without tons of layers.

You just need to keep switching back between the brushes when you want to add new colors, or blend them together. It’s very flexible and easy.

Put down color (shading) with brush A:

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Then Blend the colors with Brush B to create a smooth effect:
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That’s it!

Keep repeating this process with each section of the character. Make sure you’re still using the magic wand tool to stay inside of the lines (it makes everything so much easier).

Below you can see a few more images of how I work though this process.

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Recolor the lines:

In between these images, I went back to my “ink mask” layer and changed the color of my lines. Adding some white lines near the edges of her hair, and some darker lines on areas that I wanted to emphasize helped to bring the image together. 

​Once you do that, you’re almost done!

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Almost there! Once your character is shaded, you can move onto adding highlights and a simple background.

Step 5.5 – Shinies!

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This step is always very simple and satisfying– adding “shinies” or bright highlights to the eyes, hair and wherever else needs them.

Make a new layer called “Highlights” on top of all of your layers, change the Mode to Screen (this makes the whites combine gently with the layers below), and change the opacity to 70%.

Grab a white brush and add a few specks of light to the eyes and hair. This helps to make the eyes seem more vivid and bright. 

Step 6 – Add a simple background

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We’re almost done!

I always like to add a simple background because it adds a lot to the composition, and is quite easy if you’re using the paint and blend technique that we used for our shading. 

Using the exact same techniques we used above, create a new layer called “background” and create a simple background.

Apply color with your painting brush, and then blend it together with your blending brush. I chose a beach because it doesn’t have a lot of hard edges and is easy to paint, but you can choose anything!

If you’re having trouble making your background colors look ‘right’, look up a google image of the kind of setting you want to paint, and copy the color palette. It can be hard to visualize what color exactly make sense for a setting, so this helps a lot.

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Once I was done with my background, I threw a few white highlights on another layer to add some atmosphere. You, however, are all done!

Step Eight – Done!


You did it! 

Thanks for checking out my tutorial and for supporting my art just by viewing my website– I hope you were able to get in some decent digital art practice.

If you drew something using this tutorial, please let me know- I’d love to see.

Check out my finished painting below as well as well as a review of the steps that we used.
If you have a suggestion for a new article, please comment below- I love hearing your ideas.

Your support keeps me going- thank you so much!

​- Grace

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Keep an eye out for more tutorials and content like this every Friday at 5PM MDT. Browse the rest of the site for my portfolio, my online shop and to find my social media links (I post every single day!). Thanks for your support!
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