The Art of Even the Ocean
In Chapter 1: From Pixels to Painting, I looked back on the process that led me to digitally paint Even the Ocean’s outdoor areas. Today, we’re looking at the painting process itself!
Even after I settled on a digital painting style, there was still a continued development process during which I figured out the new workflow. At first I was drawing outlines for the terrain (chalk it up to my discomfort with straight painting, which I talked about in my previous post). Eventually I settled on the final process, but the early areas in that style feel a bit flat and stiff to me, and my Photoshop layers were overly complicated, which slowed down my workflow.
Eventually I got into something of a groove, and that’s what I’m going to talk about today. For the purposes of demonstration, I made a brand new fake Even the Ocean-style area, because my original files aren’t set up well for clear explanation. I hope that watching the process is fun and interesting, even if you have no plans on using this actual method! Note: I’m using Adobe Photoshop CS5, and will refer to certain tools/features of that program. Other programs may have similar features but with different names.
We begin with a concept for an area — our idea of the geography, the mood, the characters, what takes place there. Next we gather reference photos and make a mood board, gradually developing a mental image of the area.
Using placeholder tiles, we create the underlying structure of the area, keeping in mind the geography we ultimately want, and we test to see how it feels for Aliph (the player character) to traverse it.
We then create simple silhouette images based on the placeholder tiles, and test to make sure it feels “right” to walk on them. We want the terrain to have varied/organic silhouettes, but Aliph is actually colliding with (walking on) the simplified tile shapes, so we have to generally follow them.
We make a bunch of elements of the scene. Each type of element can have its own layer in our image editing software.
- Stationary background.
- Parallax background elements —things like distant hills, which give a sense of perspective.
- Decorative objects.
- A special texture for the surface of the ground.
- A texture for other parts of the ground.
We copy and paste the textures, using clipping masks so that the textures can fill the silhouette without extending beyond it.
Then we copy and paste the other objects and elements throughout the scene, and — there you have it! An Even the Ocean area!
The basic idea is pretty simple! Although there are a few other complications: Areas usually involve little puzzles or interactions, which need related art, and it all needs to fit together and feel plausible. And ideally, we’d create a more varied and 3-dimensional-feeling area than we have so far.
The same general process applies for adding in other objects. Just make sure to keep the foreground objects in a separate layer folder so that you can export them separately with ease!
Notes on Painting at a Low Resolution
It can be difficult to get marks and edges as sharp as you would like when working at a very low resolution in Photoshop. Using virtually any brush will tend to look more blurry than it would at higher resolutions. If you happen to find yourself in this position, here are some options:
The easiest way to get sharp yet anti-aliased edges at a low resolution is to use the lasso tools. Nearly all the basic shapes of the land and environmental objects in Even the Ocean were drawn with the freehand or polygonal lasso tools. You can add or subtract from a selection by holding Shift or Alt while lassoing — this allows you to sculpt up nice, complex shapes.
Interestingly, if you take a basic Photoshop brush, open the Brush menu and add a texture that’s just a black square, you’ll be able to make the brush create a sharper line at smaller sizes than otherwise possible (I’ve been trying to re-find where I found this trick, let me know if you know the original source — I believe it was a game developer). This is good for drawing grass, small edge highlights, small textures, etc.
Why bother with a low-res painted art style at all? It is a little silly isn’t it? In some ways, but painting in a low resolution worked well for me in this project because the lower the resolution, the less visual information there is to deal with. This is pretty obvious, but what did that mean in practice for Even the Ocean? Consider the following example:
In this example, the right side of the image is redone in HD, using more or less the same techniques as I’d use for any Even the Ocean area. To my eye, the effect is very different! Since the gain in resolution is not matched by a proportional gain in detail, the component parts are more obviously visible as cutout shapes that have been textured and colored. It feels flatter and less resolved. A big part of being an artist is having a opinion about when a piece is finished according to its own internal logic — and I know for a fact that I would reach that place far sooner with Even the Ocean’s low res style than if it were HD. And — as pixel artists and cartoonists have often pointed out — when information is selectively withheld, a work can engage the imagination of the audience to fill in the blanks. Art is a collaboration!