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Digital Painting Lesson: Paint an Arm Using Anatomy Basics

Digital Painting Lesson: Paint an Arm Using Anatomy Basics

Today we have an expert lesson for you in digital painting. It’s very important for an artist to be familiar with human anatomy. Even if you’re not a regular digital painter, digital painting and drawing techniques can come in handy for tweaking photo manipulation work, adding depth to illustrations and understanding light and shadow.

There are a lot of books that can help you in this topic, but they’re usually created for medical students and seem to be too complicated for the rest of us. I’ll show you how to paint an anatomically correct arm – one of hardest parts to learn – without any specialist knowledge.

Let’s get started!

Final Image

As always, this is the final image that we’ll be creating:

Step 1

This is the first and the most important step. Look at the template below. You don’t need to know the names of all these muscles – you’re an artist, not a doctor. Look at your right arm, touch it and try to locate all the muscles (muscle simullations, actually) you can see. Check how they interact with each other, how they change their positions when you turn your forearm. Take your time, you shouldn’t go further before you’ve fully understood it.

Step 2

Are you sure you understood it? Ok, now we can start drawing. Create a new file in big resolution and fill it with some dark background. Choose a pose you want to draw and build it with some simple shapes on a new layer. You can use any tool you want, but I suggest Pencil Tool – it’s great for defining the shapes.

It’s time to test your knowledge in practice. Quickly draw the muscles using the template and your own arm as references. You can use the colors if you find it helpful, just remember to create a black sketch afterwards. Forget the hand – it’s not what we’re learning now.

Here’s the sketch without colors. Messy, isn’t it? But it’s totally ok, we will need it just for a while.

Step 3

Create a new layer and draw the outline of the arm using general skin color. Make it quite solid.

Use Magic Wand Tool (W) to select everything outside of the arm, then go to Select > Modify > Contract and pick a few pixels. Now you can fill the inside of the arm with Paint Bucket Tool (G).

Move the sketch above the “body” layer and change its Opacity to 10%. Now, with this layer selected, use Ctrl + Alt + G shortcut (Clipping Mask) to fit the sketch into the base. You’ll use this shortcut after creating every new layer above (try to create a new layer for every sub-step, it may help you to fix something).

Step 4

Create a new layer (remember about Clipping Mask!) and define the edges of the muscles again. Pencil Tool still works great for it.

Now, draw basic shadows on the arm. They don’t need to be perfectly accurate, but try to guess them.

Use a lighter, more saturated color to blend the shadows into the skin. Still, rough effect is intentional.

Come back to darker color to define the edges again. Be precise now.

Step 5

Grab a fully soft Brush with low Flow (20-30%) and basic skin color. Now, use it carefully, filling the spaces between the dark edges. This way you’ll emboss the muscles.

Change color to darker shade and use the same Brush to cover the dark edges and blend it more.

Grab the basic color again to blend the skin even more. Be careful, leave as much roughness as possible. Draw lines rather than areas.

Now, back to darker color – add some shadows again.

Step 6

Change your Brush to hard one and lighten some parts with light color. Be subtle, paint the lights with quick clicks.

Use black to add some shadows in the opposite of lighted parts. Again, do it softly (even if the Brush is hard).

Look for the areas that need more skin and cover them with colors picked from around. Don’t cover them all at once with big color splashes, use thick lines again.

Step 7

Time to add even more lights. Use basic skin color (not the lightest one we’ve used!) and paint a thin stroke at the edge of the forearm. Then, paint some blobs of color next to it, leaving a border of darker color between them. Do the same with the arm, just don’t make the stroke so sharp anywhere else.

You can now draw some veins, picking the colors individually. Don’t make them too detailed, they’re just details themselves.

Step 8

This is very subtle trick (you may not even see the difference, but there is one, I swear!). Grab a soft Brush and paint very, very subtle blobs of colors in selected areas. Don’t go too far on this, or it will give unnatural effect.

Check if there are any areas still needing shadows. If you find them, you know what to do!

Create a new layer with Overlay as Blending Mode. Now you can use white to add some lights without losing colors or defined edges.

Step 9

Create a new layer, change the Brush Mode to Dissolve and paint some white spots with it. This will fake the skin pores.

Change the layer’s Blending Mode to Overlay and lower the Opacity until the pores are barely visible.

Step 10

If you think the arm is too pale, you can add some tan to it. Just create a new layer filled with orange…

…and change it’s Blending Mode to Overlay. Then move the Opacity slider to adjust the color’s strength.

And We’re Done!

Congratulations on making it this far! You now know how to digital paint an arm using anatomy basics and lighting/textures techniques.

If you enjoyed this tutorial we’d love to hear your feedback in the comments section below.

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About the Author:

I'm an artist with a long experience in doing creative things. I'm familiar with traditional and digital media, and I feel at home in Photoshop. I love fantasy, my speciality are dragons - I could draw them all the time. You can visit my portfolio at

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  1. Narendra says:

    Nice tutorial, short and sweet explaining basics of digital painting. Specially liked first few steps developing hand from basic sketch and muscles.

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