One of the most asked things about creating art is, “how do I blend?”

A blender
Photo by Mark Anderson from FreeImages

No, not that kind of blending.

The kind of blending that produces amazing artwork shown to the right.

It is a fussy, tricky thing to learn and can trip up a lot of new digital artists. Do it wrong, and everything looks muddled, and you start to hate your painting. Do it right, and you may not remember how you achieved that the next time. So let’s go through what blending is and how to go about doing it. You can always refer to this article later if you’re like me and suddenly forget how to blend!

What is Blending?

Blending is when two or more colors (or values) are mixed to soften a transition. Need to fade that shadow out? You’re blending the darker hue with the lighter tone. Or perhaps you need to bring in a highlight that doesn’t have sharp edges. Where you soften those edges from highlight to midtone, that’s also blending.

So as not to trip up any newbie digital artists, blending is also used in greyscale painting to create transitions between values.  

Is there a Right Way to blend?

There is, and there is not, a right way to blend. No two artists go about it the same way, but I am here to tell you the one thing you may have heard already: Beware of over blending.  Over blending will destroy your transitions until you have no definitive line between one section and the next. There are places to blend, so that you have those softer lines, but there are also places you need that hard edge to define a shape.  Don’t be afraid to use references!

If you take one thing away from this article, take away this: You do not need to blend everything in your painting!

However, as stated above, some methods can help you blend more effectively. Techniques that you may wish to practice until the experience is gained and confidence is built. We’ll get into the different methods a bit further into this article, but first, let’s go over the basics of how to blend.

How to Blend

A note, first, to my readers: I will be demonstrating and discussing this as it pertains to digital painting using Photoshop, though the techniques can apply to other aspects of digital art and other digital art programs.

Break out your drawing tablet and your preferred art program and let’s get into blending.

First, grab any brush. Second, place two splotches of color at 100% opacity and flow on the canvas a small distance apart.

Two splotches of color
Two Splotches of Color

Now, turn on pressure sensitivity for opacity and flow.  If you’re not sure what the difference is, or if this doesn’t apply to your art program, check out CTRL + Paint’s video on opacity vs. flow.

Time to get familiar with your other new favorite tool when blending: the color picker. If you don’t have this set up to a keybinding or and express key, do it. You’ll need it a lot. In most programs, this looks like an eyedropper.

Pick up the color on the left and lightly brush it over the center of the two colors, overlapping the one on the right. Now pick up the color on the right and do the same. Notice you have a slightly different hue that seems like a mixture between the two?

Middle Blending
That middle color is what you’re aiming for!

Great! You’ve begun blending! Continue to do this, back and forth, back and forth picking different values as you go that seem to be the best mix between the two shades until you have gained your desired gradient transition.

Blending to get a gradient
A nice transition between red and blue

Types of Blending

There are three main types of blending I’ve found while doing digital art, and I’d like to share them with you. They all have their uses, and you can even use all three types in one painting.

Art by Rhiow
I used a mostly hard-edged brush to get those sharper areas around his color spots but a softer one through the darker values on his nose.

Hard-Edge Blending

This method refers to blending while using a brush with a hard edge. Hard-edge blending creates crisper transitions to remove some of the blurriness that may occur when using a softer edge brush (we’ll get into that in a second).  

Soft-Edge Blending

You may have come across this already; people warning you “don’t use an airbrush or a soft edge brush to blend!” No, that is their personal opinion and can frustrate new artists trying to learn. You choose what effect you’re going for. A soft edge brush will create smooth transitions that you don’t even notice when looking at the overall painting. This effect can be especially useful in softer clothes and skin.

Textured Brush Blending

Art by Rhiow
I use a textured brush especially on the nose and to give a less plastic look to the skin.

I love my texture brushes. It makes me feel like a real painter. A textured brush will leave impressions when you blend, a small imperfection in your transition, which can have an interesting effect on the painting. Of course, if you over blend using this method, you will lose your texture! So go light with this if you wish to keep the textured effect.

Other Blending Tools

Some painting programs do have specific blending tools or brushes designed just for blending values and colors. (I’m looking at you smudge tool.) I tend to stay away from these, as they seem to be more complicated than they need to be considering the brush tool, pressure sensitivity, and the color picker will do everything you need for blending. But they do, also, have their time and place. I’d suggest doing some more research on your specific art program to figure out what blending tools are available.

Where I’ve Learned To Blend

Please know, I am still learning how to blend. It is a difficult subject that a lot of artists struggle with and is something I recommend practicing regularly. But it also happens to be one of my favorite things to do. Pushing and pulling the colors and values around is soothing for some reason. So I do it as often as I can! But, I wanted to share with you a few places where I started learning how to blend with digital art tools.

CTRL + Paint

I love Matt’s free video library. He not only includes how to do it but why to do it and exercises to help you out. Here’s one of his videos on blending.

Video from CTRL + Paint’s Youtube Channel

Dave Greco

Dave is a professional concept artist that works in the games industry. He’s created a small section on his youtube channel for tutorials, and I found his blending video extremely helpful.

Video from Dave Greco’s Youtube Channel

Tips and Tricks

I’m going to share with you some of the tips and tricks I’ve picked up while learning to blend. First, do not be afraid to use references and study those references. You need to train your eye to notice when there is a difference between a hard edge and a soft edge.

Second, do not get wrapped up in what settings one particular artist uses for their brushes. Some tutorials out there will state only use a hard-edged brush, or only use this opacity setting. Play with your settings; figure out what you like. I know I am not a fan of opacity and like flow better, for example.

Third, and most importantly, practice. If you need to trace something so you can practice blending, then, by all means, trace it. Just do everyone a favor and do not share that with the world saying you drew this. I found I started to grasp the concept of blending better when I was applying it to actual heads rather than spheres on a screen. My portrait skills were way off when I started, but my focus was blending, so I tried not to worry too much about the form and more about my transitions.

The final tip I can give you is to be patient with yourself. The methods of blending I’ve discussed take time to practice and develop, especially training yourself to use that color picker frequently and to vary your pressure on your stylus. I have faith in you; you’ll get there!

Show Us Your Blends

Have you started playing with the joys of blending colors and values in digital art? Want to show off your work? Contact us to be considered for the Artist Spotlight!