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Creating Good Game Art When You’re Not An Artist

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Need some good art for your game, but can't find an artist? Don't worry - this article will give you a few ideas on how to do your own art, and still come out looking good.

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Note:  This article has since been revised and updated


Every amateur game programmer has a dream that goes something like this: You post an ad on Gamedev.net, looking for artists. Within an hour, you’re swamped with fifty emails from artists. After telling you they’ve quit their job to do art for your game full-time, they point you to some of their sample JPGs, which are incredible, and in exactly the style you’re looking for. They then tell you they’ll be more than happy to work for free (or for royalties).

Ahh, what a good thing life would be if it were like this.

Unfortunately, it isn’t. Most teams have a difficult time finding a talented, dedicated artist, and for many developers, the only way they’re going to get art is to put on the artist’s hat and do it themselves. Fortunately, modern technology has provided us with tools that can disguise our lack of artistic ability. Many hobbyist game art needs can be fulfilled by a non-artist and some really good use of software.

Take this article with a grain of salt: I can’t draw, nor am I versed in any form of art theory. I’m a programmer, but over the years I’ve been forced to try to draw things, and in doing so have picked up some tricks that I’d like to share. So, here’s a quick look at a few techniques that the newbie non-artist can use to create good-looking art.

Rely on the Plug-Ins

The first and most obvious step in your path to better computer art skills is to learn your paint program (Photoshop, or Paint Shop Pro, or whatever). Take some time to experiment around with each plug-in or effect that you can generate - knowing exactly what each thing does can help you later. Along those same lines, you should be very familiar with your art program’s interface, in general - learn how to arrange layers, how to select, how to path and mask things, and every other feature your paint program offers.

As an example - one of the most powerful abilities of today’s paint programs is the ability to create "shadow" and "highlight" layers. Create one layer that darkens anything under it, and create a second layer that lightens anything under it. Sandwich your flat image between these two layers, then airbrush onto the dark or light layers to create highlights and shadows on your original image. This is much easier than trying to manually highlight or shadow your image. (Note: most paint programs also have "dodge" and "burn" tools, which work like an airbrush to brighten or darken an image)

But in general, experiment! It’s quite possible that you can stumble upon a neat effect, and can then use that to create some neat art.

Use Simple Styles

Another great way to hide your not-so-great art skills is by creating a unique style which (coincidentally!) isn’t so art intensive. Just because everyone else is doing air-brushed characters doesn’t mean you have to. How about using "sketchy" or cartoon style characters? Or how about doing your game in black and white?

A word of warning: the hardest thing about doing a game in a particular style is keeping that style throughout your game. Styles work best when they’re consistent - having more than one style on screen at the same time could ruin the aesthetics of your game. So, drawing background art in a style different from your character art or GUI is probably not a good idea (however, if you wanted to switch styles between levels or worlds, that would be OK).

Get Art and Ideas Online

There is nothing wrong with going online and looking at other people’s artwork as a source of inspiration. This has been done since the beginning of time. There is something very wrong with going online, downloading someone’s art without permission, and then calling it your own. Don’t copy, but do carefully analyze (and imitate!) the styles of art that you like.

Also, there are many useful tutorial sites online where you can get a lot of tips on working with a particular paint program, or achieving a particular "look" from scratch (I did a search on hotbot.com for "Art Tutorials" and came up with quite a few hits.) Learn to draw just like how you learned to code - read the tutorials, follow along, try them out, and email the author if you have any questions.

There are free sites online that allow you to download simple GUI or HTML artwork (buttons, lines, etc.) for use in web pages and the like. Usually, if this art can be copied and used on your web page, it can also be used in a shareware or freeware game. However, if you don’t know for sure, play it safe and ask permission first.

Buy Clipart

There are many comprehensive clip art CDs available. Unfortunately, most of them aren’t really suited for game development - they contain line-drawn images that work best in desktop publishing (unless of course that fits your game’s style). However, some of the clip art photos can make cool backgrounds or title screen art.

Often times desktop-publishing clip art can be modified for use in games (again, check the licensing agreement) - for example, you can import it into your paint program and shade it or re-color it. The bad news though is that it’s unlikely that you’ll find every piece of clip-art you need.

Also, don’t forget that some fonts are "clipart" fonts, and can be used as art for your game. The classic example of this is the Wingdings font, which contains several commonly-used symbols. By taking a Wingding, coloring it, and shading it, you can create some good looking icons or symbols.

Drop The Resolution

Drawing art for a game that runs in 320x200 mode is easier than drawing art for a game that runs in 1280x1024 mode. The big pixels reduce the complexity of sprite artwork. If you’re really in a pinch, consider dropping your game’s resolution.

Alternatively, you can keep the game at a high resolution, and the art at a low resolution, and just give the player a huge view of the action. If your main character is only 50 pixels tall, there’s a lot of extra screen space available. There are a few situations where small characters and big views of the play area are really useful - see if your game design could benefit from the zoom-out. For example: Street Fighter was a cool game partly because the characters were so big and detailed, but Load Runner and Smash TV were equally fun because their main characters were very small, and you could see the entire playfield.

Have the Computer Draw It

This animation technique involves you buying (yes, buying!) a 3D image creation program, such as 3D Studio Max, trueSpace, Bryce, etc. (There are some very good shareware/freeware programs out there, however.) You then create a scene using primitive geometry (spheres, cubes, etc.).

There are some advantages to rendering your artwork. First of all, rendering all your artwork puts you on track for a consistent style throughout your game. If you render everything, your game art will automatically have a cohesive element that ties your entire game together. Yes, you still have to worry about creating a style and sticking to it, but even if you fail miserably at this, your game will still have a somewhat consistent look.

Some types of animation are also significantly easier to make. Animations where you fly in or around a scene are much easier to render than to draw by hand. Creating pictures of the same scene from different angles is much easier, too - just move the camera. Additionally, some programs make rendering a specific type of scene a snap - for example, the program Bryce makes it very easy to create stunning landscapes and outdoor scenes.

But there are some drawbacks. The biggest drawback (aside from the cost of the tools) is that rendered artwork often appears dull and boring to the gamer. Games have been using computer-generated imagery (CGI) for a very long time, and gamers have gotten used to seeing beautiful rendered scenes. To achieve anything that gamers would even consider "average," you will have to spend an ungodly amount of time tweaking and waiting for your scenes to render.

Rendering is best for scenes where light, reflection, and color are more important than shape and contour. Modeling and rendering anything "organic," or anything that has complex curves or weird shapes, is generally harder than just drawing it by hand (but of course, that’s assuming you can draw!).

Sketch First, Then Scan and Color

If you possess rudimentary pen-and-paper art skills, it’s often an easy job to draw something by hand, scan it in, and then color it and shade it on the computer.

This technique works really well with player or character portraits. And, it also allows you to solicit artists who may not be interested in making games - they can draw on plain old paper, and you can take the drawings, scan them, clean them up, and use them in your game (with permission, of course).


One final suggestion: As you’re drawing, repeat this phrase over and over: It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be good enough. Your art isn’t standing on its own here - hopefully, there’s a fun game design and a solid gameplay engine behind it. Given that, your art simply needs to be functional - the players need to recognize that a boomerang is not a banana, and that a gun is not a stick - it doesn’t matter if there are slight blemishes in either drawing. If you can convey the correct message graphically, you’re home free, regardless of if your art looks "perfect."

Also, remember that, contrary to popular belief, drawing ability is a skill, and like any other skill, your art ability will get better with practice and time. Yes, it’s true that some people are born with a talent for art - but that doesn’t mean that the rest of us are out of luck. Like with anything else, if you practice a lot, and push yourself to do better, your drawings will improve.

About the Author(s)

[i]Mason McCuskey is the leader of [url="http://www.spin-studios.com/"]Spin Studios[/url] ([url="http://www.spin-studios.com/"]www.spin-studios.com[/url]), the game development team building Quaternion, their first retail release. He will answer mail that’s sent to [email="mason@spin-studios.com"]mason@spin-studios.com[/email], even though he’d rather be playing Solar Jetman.[/i]


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