Introduction to dotwork

A quick guide to get you started.

Dotwork, also known as pointillism or stippling, is a very unique drawing technique, or a visual effect. It may seem difficult, but believe me, it’s easy and fun if you understand how it really works, and learn how to do it the right way. I’m sure this is going to be a quite detailed and long introduction - I usually talk a lot. Feel free to skip a few lines if you’re rather interested in the practical things than the philosophy and aesthetics behind this technique.

List of contents:

Disclaimer

Everything you'll read in this article is purely my view and opinion, not a universal truth. This is what works for me for years now, so I think it might be helpful to share it. This is a basic guide: I will focus on monochrome (black) dotwork drawings only, covering colors, painting or anything fine art-related is a different, way more complex topic.

All info images and the practice sheet is my own, please do not use it without proper credits.


1. What is dotwork?

The name itself is quite self-explanatory, and that’s why the word “dotwork” is getting more popular - even though this is the least official name. Dotwork explains everything to an average person: a drawing made purely with tiny dots. That’s it, nothing more, nothing less. This technique simply means putting small dots on the medium in an organized way, so these dots can form shapes, lines, and create different shades. The magic always happens in the details though. If you take a closer look, the whole art falls apart and you only see the chaos of the individual dots. But if you look at it from a distance, all these dots connect and create a realistic image.
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Dotwork is a special technique in two ways. First, it’s visually attractive. The dotwork texture creates an antique, classy look and the whole design looks like it’s sparkling, like it was made with microscopic flakes of creativity and uniqueness. Second, it’s modern and close to our digital world. Think about it this way: looking at a dotwork image is similar to looking at a digital screen, dots are like pixels. You think you see an image, but this is not the case. You’re looking at a finite set of information - dots and pixels -, and your brain does some amazing work to connect all this information and make you believe you see the actual image. This is the magic I mentioned earlier.

2. What makes a good dotwork artist?

You have to arrange your dots in a way to help the viewer’s brain understand all this information easily. If there are any mistakes in your dotwork, that means missing information. This is what I call “noise” and it creates gaps. The viewer has to fill these gaps and that means two things: extra work for the brain, and a higher chance of misunderstanding your art. So we can say that a good dotwork artist works on finding the perfect amount of details. The perfect dotwork design simplifies all the unnecessary, confusing details and emphasizing only the important, story-telling parts. I believe a good dotwork design is 60% planning and ideas, 30% technique, and skills. The remaining 10% is extra, it can be your mood, a personal experience, anything that adds a bit mystery to the design.

3. Tools you'll need

It’s the best part: no big investments or special tools needed. To start learning dotwork, you’ll only need a pen with a fine tip. This can be a real pen if you’d like to work on paper and do it the classic way, or a digital pen and a tablet if you prefer the digital way. I know both mediums pretty well, started as a classic dotwork artist, and became a digital artist a few years ago, mostly because it’s a more productive way (I can save so many hours of scanning, I can work with layers easily, etc).
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I’d rather prefer learning dotwork digitally, it’s more forgiving and more fun, you can erase easily and use some guides, but obviously, it can be more expensive than just buying a fine liner pen and some artsy papers. So don’t worry too much, both ways work perfectly and the process is absolutely the same. As I said, dotwork is simply putting dots on paper. As long as you can do this with the tool you selected, you’re fine. A dotwork design - like any other artwork - starts with sketching and planning, so if you’re working on paper, some pencils will also come in handy.

4. The size of the dot

Your pen will leave tiny dots on the paper or on the screen. The size of these dots can make a huge difference, so finding the correct dot size is the first thing you need to practice. If you use real pens, you can find liners with different tip sizes from 0.1 to 1.0 or more. This usually means how wide the tip is in millimeters, so a 0.1 tip is 0.1 millimeters wide, which is super tiny. The 1.0 tip leaves a 10 times bigger dot on your paper. In a digital environment, you can set the size of your brush (this is the digital synonym of a pen) in a similar way. The most common liners are 0.3 - 0.5, so I’d highly recommend to start with these ones and use these sizes as a starting point.
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Finding the best size is always relative. If you think your dots are too large, you have two options: you can switch to a pen with a smaller size or you can use the same pen, but draw a larger design. As you can see, I always measure the dot size compared to the actual design’s size. You will see that using too large dots is quite obvious, it’s easy to recognize because it’s hard to draw this way. But using too small dots are a more common problem. If you’ll try to draw a large design (think about an A4 or a US letter size) with the 0.1 liner, you’ll see that it’s working. However you’ll also see that it takes forever to finish and once you’ve finally finished you sadly realize that the whole design looks too detailed and it lost its lovely, crispy dotwork texture.

Take a look at these samples I made (figure 01), compare the size of the brushes. The one on the left was made with a super small size 5 brush, similar to a 0.2 liner. It looks like a basic drawing, the dots are too tiny, the design is a bit light and average-looking. The middle design was made with a size 10 brush (0.4 liner), notice how the dots are double in size, and the design still looks realistic, but now it has the perfect amount of crispiness, details, and perfect contrast. The one on the right was made with a size 22 brush (1.0 liner), that’s why this design strongly lacks of details and it looks a bit fragmented. Simply put the dot size is too big.
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You can see how the size of your dots affects the result and I believe this is the most common problem beginner dotwork artists face. Maybe you have great skills, great composition but your dotwork doesn’t work because the dot size is not correct. There are no strict rules here, to find the best size you need to start drawing a tiny part of the design. I usually choose a part with really sensitive details, like the eye. I choose a brush or a pen I think might work and give it a try. If it looks correct (like the design in the middle), I’ll continue and draw the entire design. But if it looks odd (like the left or the right design), I’ll change the size and give it another try. You don’t have to spend hours at this point, if you draw only a small part, you’ll perfectly see what I’m talking about. Needless to say, but some artists prefer smaller dots and a more realistic or blurry look, while other artists rather prefer larger dots and a more fragmented look. Try to find what works best for you and what you prefer. It’s your art and it’s important to keep it that way. From the 3 small samples I definitely prefer the middle one, that’s my style, that’s the aurea mediocritas (the golden mean) for me, so I try to stick to that density.

5. Transitions and shading

To create a nice, precise dotwork texture, you need to practice transitions. In your drawing you will draw some light and some dark areas to create contrast and define line and shapes. One of the most challenging part of this technique is drawing a smooth transition. Start on one the light side and try to increase the density of the dots as you move towards the darker side. I made a few quick transitions to see the difference between a nice, smooth set of dots and a chaotic set of dots (figure 02). You can notice that the samples in the middle were not made the right way. If you just start putting dots everywhere, the result will be something similar to this: a flowy transition with some darker and lighter spots caused by uneven density. The nice, even transition depends on the way you move your hand (see the purple guideline showing how my pen goes over the area). Split the whole area into smaller blocks (red lines) and try to fill them in with dotwork while going zig-zag. In one block you go from top to bottom, then in the next one continue from bottom to top and so on. You can do the same with round areas, just set a starting point and draw concentric blocks.
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If you have to go from pure white to pure black, that’s the easier way but let’s be honest, this situation is rare. While shading you’ll see that most transitions are more complicated with lighter and darker areas. You can split these areas into smaller areas - always try to simplify and plan your shading.
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Interfering dots and chunky shading are common errors. This usually appears when you think the shading is too light at a certain area and you try to add some extra dots. Then these dots will easily create a too dense area and sometimes the new dots will be too close to the original dots. Of course this is not a huge problem, most of the viewers won’t notice it, but it will make your shading “chunky”. To avoid this problem, always plan your shading, go slowly and try to finish in one continuous movement. If you don’t like it, you need to start over (this is when working digitally comes in handy, use the eraser) instead of trying to add extra dots and patching up the whole area. That would result in a total mess.

6. Solid black areas and lines

I receive so many questions about deep black areas and lines, it’s really a mysterious topic. “Do you simply fill the black areas or you put a very dense dotwork there too? Do you draw a line like you normally would or you put dots closely to form that line?” Well, maybe I’ll disappoint you now but I don’t see the point of putting dots everywhere, especially where it’s absolutely invisible. If there’s a solid black area, I fill it quickly, no need for dots there. If there’s a line, I simply draw a line. A normal line everybody would draw. I don’t like to waste my time on something the customer or the viewer won’t even notice.

However, drawing lines can be a bit more complicated because in a dotwork design you often have to use dotted lines, but that’s another story. A solid line is the “strongest” line, you can use it to emphasize an outline or a shape. If want to show something to the viewer but want to do it a more polite and subtle way, you can draw this line with dots. Putting these dots closely together will create an almost solid line, but putting them with a tiny gap (like a dot-wide gap between each dot) will create a soft line that acts as a hint. It won’t force the viewer to notice that line immediately, but rather feel that something is happening there. See this sample (figure 03) and you’ll understand what’s the difference between solid and dotted lines. All lines have weight and I choose the proper height by the line’s role in the design. Don’t overcomplicate it and if you’re unsure, go with a lighter line. Unlike transitions, a light, semi-dense line can be turned into a stronger, more dense line easily.

7. Planning and drawing a design

I guess you know the basics of dotwork now, I told you it’s not super complicated, right? Even the most complex dotwork design is built from these smaller areas and basic methods. Just keep everything simple. As I mentioned at the beginning, a dotwork design is 60% planning. Start with smaller designs, learn how to sketch an object, and how to find its key lines and parts. A sketch only helps you to highlight the most important parts, then you can slowly start adding the dotwork texture.

Here's my basic planning process (figure 04). I start all my designs with a quick layout sketch. This is the very basic shape of the design, like a circle, a diamond shape, etc. Then I split this shape into 2-3 smaller shapes and apply the basic art principles (like balance, contrast, emphasis, movement, and a few more - you can find plenty of tutorials about basic art and design principles all over the internet). The result is a simple structure which is basically the core of the whole drawing. The next step is optional, but I add a quick list of all the objects I’d like to add, just to see them all together and don’t miss a thing accidentally. The order is important here: I put the most important at the top and going down the objects are getting less important.

When the planning is done, I can move on to the final sketching (figure 05). I start with the main object (top of the list) and try to find its best place within this structure. This object is going to be the largest and it should get the most emphasis. I sketch its shape and important lines quickly, then continue with all the remaining objects. If I feel like something doesn’t fit, I leave it. I don’t like overcomplicated designs and I always try to draw what works naturally. If you try to add something with force, that object will stick out like a sore thumb, so don’t do it. Accept the fact that every drawing and every composition has its limitation and respect it.
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The sketch is ready, start the dotwork process. If you work on a larger design, the next question is where to start. I always recommend starting with the most important objects, draw them one by one and then continue working on the secondary objects and the rest of the design.

8. The practice sheet

I made a quick practice sheet for you, so you can try everything I just talked about and start to polish your skills. Download and open it in a drawing app or print it if you'd like to try dotwork on paper. You can practice transitions and I also added that super fancy balloon dog, so you can try to draw it in dotwork style! Don't sweat it though, this sheet should be fun, not a struggle. If you're not doing good for the first time, give it another try and see how your skills improve. If you get the hang of it, don't be afraid to create your practice sheet with more complicated objects!


Download page 01 (JPG) Download page 02 (JPG) Download PDF (2 pages)

9. Last touches and personal thoughts

If you think the design is complete, always leave it for at least a day. As we usually say, sleep on it. It might sound funny, but this really helps. Maybe you’re tired or you’re in a special mood today. Maybe you’ll feel more relaxed or more alive tomorrow, and you’ll notice a few errors or you’ll have some better ideas.
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I never send a design to the customer upon completion or publish it in my webshop immediately. I simply sleep on it and see how I feel about it in the morning. We have all heard it too many times, but I have to agree: to stay fresh-minded and creative as an artist, you need to master sleeping and waking up. I always sleep for exactly 7 and a half hours and wake up early in the morning around the same time every day. All my inspirations come from this part of the day, this is the time when my mind is the most active and most aware. So always double-check, this is your quality control.
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Dotwork is a really flexible technique, so don’t be afraid to combine it with other techniques as well. I usually mix dotwork with geometric shapes, a few years ago I experienced with dotwork and watercolors, etc. Feel free to experiment and enjoy the process, do what you love to do, and express yourself.
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No matter how much I love dotwork, I need to accept its cons too. I could write a long list of issues I experienced, but we all have different skills, so you may find something easy what caused me headaches (such thing is animal fur, that’s probably the worst nightmare of many dotwork artists). Don’t be afraid, and don’t let it kill your passion. Think about these difficulties as challenges. A few years ago I tried to avoid drawing fur, now you can see it in many of my designs. I think it looks good and I’m proud of it. I receive exciting commission requests every day and most of them are truly challenging. I have to try to draw all these new things, from manta ray and music album covers to ancient family crests. These can be really hard sometimes, but instead of giving up, I try to find a way to make this technique work and amaze my customers.
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I know I said that you don’t need fancy tools to become a dotwork artist. It is true, but you’ll soon realize that more professional tools can help you to work faster and easier. That’s why I decided to learn how to draw digitally and seriously invested in all the tools I needed. I did it to take my art and my work to a new level with more flexibility, more productivity, and more fun. It was not a necessity, I can still draw with a basic pen on a paper. I was always taught that investing in yourself is the best investment and it will generate the biggest profits in the long term. So start with a basic toolset, practice, experiment, and as soon as you get the hang of it, feel comfortable and ready to level up, just don’t hesitate - do it.
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Be your own master and don’t always listen to other artists. It sounds funny in a tutorial, right? I believe in the power of originality and I believe in myself. I soak up every information, like my brain is a big sponge. Then I examine all these informations and decide if I find them useful or not. If something’s useless, I just let it go. I don’t say it’s bad or wrong, it’s just something far from my style or something different from my way of thinking. So do the same: read this article, soak up all the info I’m trying to deliver here, and see if it works for you. If you think I’m wrong and you know it better than me, that’s alright, I won’t be offended at all. But if you find anything useful reading these lines, or any of my advice helps you to start this fun journey, that's enough for me.


Title: Introduction to dotwork / Author: Tamas Cserep / Last updated: 27-april-2020

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