From paper to computer art and back

2012-08-27

I used to love drawing as a kid, but various causes conspired to keep me from getting any good. Then I got seriously into computers, and for sixteen years I've barely set pencil to paper. That finally changed two weeks ago, when a sudden bout of inspiration made me pull out my sketchbook (yes, I'd taken to carrying one with me!) and get started on a little cartoon.

No, I won't show you right now. It will be a while until I get back up to speed. But the re-learning process itself is a story worth sharing, specifically in relationship to all the things I've learned and done in the mean time.

Because, you see, all the things I've done with computers inform my art now, and vice-versa.

I've always had an eye for perspective, or so I was told. That only got better as I worked in raytracing, and later writing [[2.5D?]] graphics engines. The mathematical principles are exactly the same, you see. That allowed me to rescue a recent scene where I botched the perspective on the central element and had to rethink the entire drawing around it.

Did I say central element? Ah, yes. That's something I've learned from an ASCII art tutorial, of all places: any piece of visual art should have a focus, around which everything else revolves. It doesn't have to be in the middle, or even in the foreground, but that's what you start with, and what defines the rest. It's true even for photography. Which reminds me.

Having a focus is all good and well, but in the end it matters how you frame the scene as a whole. And that's where digital photography makes for excellent training, because you can take as many shots as you want, but you generally can't move things around, or reposition your lights at will. When you do have that freedom, like in raytracing, you'll be able to take advantage of it much better.

Speaking of that, you know how in POV-Ray (in the absence of a modeler) you're largely restricted to basic geometric shapes? As it happens, decomposing complex objects into basic shapes is a technique often recommended by professional artists (though a good friend of mine is opposed to it). You'll have to add on top of the basic frame, sure, but good old geometry will give you a solid foundation to build upon.

All that and more informs my drawing now. But how does drawing inform my computer art?

The first lesson is one I've learned from the aforementioned friend: don't be afraid to mix media. Painters aren't shy about sketching in pencil on the canvas before applying paint. Comics are increasingly drawn and inked on paper, then colored and shaded digitally. That's no different from Myst layering 2D animations and video over pre-rendered 3D backgrounds, or Might&Magic VI combining polygonal buildings with pixel art for characters. Don't be a purist; whatever looks good and conveys what you want is fair game (pun not intended).

Second, and on a related note, computer art isn't one uniform medium. Vector art is analogous to cartooning, pixel art is kind of like painting and 3D modeling is essentially sculpture (thanks, Shoby! lots of things I've learned from you!) Point is, you want to use each of them for their strengths. Too many beginning game developers seem to think that polygonal 3D is the end-all-be-all of computer graphics, only to discover that it's not, after all, less work to create than sprites, while the programming it requires is a lot more difficult.

Third, remember that art is a reflection of reality. Regardless of medium or level of abstraction, you won't get very far unless your work is grounded in the world around you. Case in point: the iconic imperial destroyers from Star Wars are based on WW2 battleships. The Sulaco from Aliens is famously shaped like an assault rifle. Even the apparently illogical Enterprise from Star Trek was informed by its designer's experience in aviation.

Last but not least, perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that style trumps technique. The low-poly, cartoonish art in World of Warcraft draws the eye to it; hyper-realistic "brown shooters" are criticized at every turn. That's no excuse to draw poorly, mind you. Practice to become as good as you can. But your art must first and foremost have something to say, and that's not a matter of adding yet another lens flare effect.

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