Blending Digital Paintings: What You Need to Know

Blending Digital Paintings: What You Need to Know main article image
Posted on March 14, 2021 by Giada Buccarella

One of the most frequent actions that we have to face when painting, is certainly blending. 

First of all, a linguistic clarification is necessary: shading and blending are not the same thing, and they are not synonymous, but they are in fact two distinct actions, although both are connected to each other. 

By “shading” we mean the correct use of color values on the image while for “blending” we mean the technique with which a homogeneous and coherent transition is obtained in order to get a realistic rendering, capable of giving a three-dimensional look to a two-dimensional image.

We can more easily understand this concept by looking at the image below:


You can see the 3 main steps : first, flat colors have been applied; 2, major darker areas have been laid down (shading process); 3, time to blend colors! (blending).

We can see how shading and blending are so strongly dependent on each other, although they are two distinct processes. In the first phase of drawing we proceed with flat colors, which act as the main foundation of our work, and then we will deal with the shading by adding color (shadows, highlights and mid-tones). Once we have established the right tones and applied our shades of colors, we move on to blending, in the most consistent way with the context (in this picture, the challenge is: painting skin, knowing where the human body has the darkest areas, i.e. underarms, or under the neck).

Reference images and practice

It may seem simplistic and banal, but blending requires technique, patience, study and observation. If you are in the initial phase and you are not very experienced, it may be useful to use reference images and proceed with exercises. It is not necessary to draw an entire image: for example, you can concentrate on one element for example: the drapery of clothes, hair and skin.

Here below an example of drapery blending:


As you can see, the process is always the same: flats, shade, blend. 

A premise is necessary: ​​blending actions and the use of a smudge tool use quite a notable amount of PC memory and people can encounter problems on some computers with an obsolete or outdated graphics card, with a poorly performing ram. Particularly if you use a version of Photoshop, you may encounter lag problems in the use of the smudge and in all blending actions, sometimes so persistently that it is not possible to complete the action in its entirety. This represents a rather crippling problem. If you are one of those who have had problems of this type, or if your machine is a bit outdated, or if your system requirements are not extremely powerful, what you can do is use less impactful software than Photoshop but that they are specific for coloring operations.

Some good alternatives to Photoshop can be the following:

  • Corel draw – paid software, with an interface very similar to Photoshop
  • Sai Easy Paint Tool – very light software, typically used in manga illusion but very versatile, with a very simple interface, very user-friendly, which concentrates its functions mainly in drawing and coloring actions. It must be remembered that this software is not developed for Mac and is only available for Windows, although it is possible to install Windows (and eventually, install  Sai Easy Paint) in an Apple machine via a PC partition.
  • Clip studio Paint – A more elaborated, but still very user-friendly, version of Say Easy Paint, very similar in functions, available for a fee in the pro version, with trial use.

Otherwise, you can more simply use your iPad, if you have one, with an updated version of Procreate.

In blending, what interests us is to obtain dimensionality: we want to avoid that the image is flat, we want to obtain a plausible color transition effect. For this reason it is good to practice blending: in nature we have hard shadows and soft shadows, we can understand the difference in the image below.


Therefore, it is important to understand the right blending method: in fact, blending too much can have unpleasant results on our works. The risk of blending too much is basically swiping away the details of the pictorial elements. Doing so, you’ll have to work double the time, as you’ll have to rework on the area that you have blended too much and that has been “erased” by the smudge.

The smudge brush tool

The smudge tool is present in practically every type of software; Photoshop has some by default, but you can create your own, or you can install others. The smudge tool is a very personal tool, and often before you find a suitable one you need to try several before you find the right one, as is the case with brushes. More generally we can say that the choice falls on textured and non-textured brush smudges. The choice is up to you, and what you prefer to use when drawing and blending.

One thing that must be kept in mind is the right setting of the smudge tool: in fact the smudge must never be smaller or larger than the area on which you have to work otherwise the effect could be unpleasant: the rendering could be compromised and the image may be “swiped”. Try to use and set the smudge brush tool as big as the areas you are going to work on.

If you want to start gaining confidence with the smudge tool, I want to propose a very simple but very effective exercise that can be done very easily in Procreate.

This type of exercise consists in taking two different colors and creating a transition using the smudge tool trying to create a gradient without streaks and without spots, this exercise is also very useful if you are trying to understand which smudge brush you can work with.

You can see more here below:


Try this exercise in different colors, start with 2 , then go on adding a third, and so on, but also try different smudge tolls, so see what is the one that is right for you? Are you a “textured smudger” or not?  Remember that what you want to achieve is a smooth and nice transition of colors, not just a smearing blob of random tones!


Do you have a favorite blending technique? What kind of software do you use the most? Share your opinions and your experiences because your experience and your thoughts can be important to someone else and generate a positive exchange of information!

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Very insightful article as always! ✨

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March 17, 2021



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