How to game art #2 – Drawing game assets

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This is the second episode of How to game art. In the previous game art tutorial, I talked about techniques you can use to maintain precise silhouettes for your game assets.

Most of our job, as game artists, consists of drawing assets. That is why today’s game art tutorial is dedicated to the game asset drawing process.

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There are 2 approaches a game artist can take to build assets or slap down ideas on the canvas: drawing contours and painting shapes. Both are valid methods that can lead to the same results. Picking either one is a matter of taste. Someone who sketches with a pen will feel comfortable sketching on the computer. A painter will probably feel more efficient painting. You can also choose to use both! Anyway, today, we are only speaking of the sketch approach.

Graphic tablets

Before we talk about drawing, let’s talk about graphic tablets. To sketch on the computer, you want to be using a pen or graphic tablet. For starters, a graphic tablet enables you to hand draw images on the computer in a similar way to drawing with pen and paper. There are tablets that you can place flat down on your desk, like the Intuos. And there are expensive screen tablets that you can directly draw on. I have a 13” cintiq myself.

The Intuos and 13″ Cintiq side by side

If you have never owned a tablet before, you should start with a cheap Wacom bamboo or Intuos. Pick one with an A5 drawing surface at least. On a side-note, you can start with cheaper tablet brands like Huion. The artist Frenden lists affordable Wacom alternatives on his excellent blog!

In my experience, screen tablets are only worth the investment if you draw a lot. If you paint digitally instead, you will likely be better off with a regular, cheaper tablet.

If you can’t afford a tablet or you want to create game assets using your mouse, it is still possible! However, it is hard to draw with a mouse. You will be better off using a vector software like Illustrator or Inkscape.

Let’s now talk about drawing game assets!

Sketching with the brush

First of all, I want to stress the fact that the brush or software you are going to use does not matter. I only recommend using a solid brush shape, at 100 percent opacity. That aside, you can sketch with pretty much any tool that works for you! And stick to it! It takes time to get comfortable with a given brush or software.

Some software provide you with great sketching tools, like Manga Studio or Krita. Those 2 feature dedicated pen-like tool presets that are great for inking. In Photoshop, you will want to use a basic round or maybe a square brush.

The process illustrated

Step 1 – Blocking

The first step is to establish the pose and proportions of our character. It is called the rough or blocking of our character. We can start using a big brush size to prevent us from getting caught up with the details. I start with a curve that represents the spine and vertical flow of the character’s pose. The character’s head, chest and center of mass will most of the time be placed along that curve.

I generally start with the head and main axes

After that, I add the axes that represent the orientation of the shoulders and of the pelvis. You can draw from that idea and establish the broad orientation of all limbs using a simple curve. That way, you can focus on establishing the pose and balance of your character. It is also fast to do, so you can quickly experiment with many poses!

The next step is to add the big shapes and to define the size of your character’s limbs. I will come back to proportions in future videos, as they can vary a lot from realistic human beings to mobile game characters. Here, I’m going for a multiplatform browser type of game. I want to focus the player’s attention on the character’s upper body. I’m giving it a prominent head, and I exaggerate its torso and belly to give it more weight.

Now that we have nailed down the structure of our character, we want to plot its main features. We want to detail its facial features, its clothing, its hair… still with loose and light strokes. Once we roughed out the whole drawing, we can start inking our character.

Step 2 – Inking

Inking is the process of taking the rough sketch, and drawing over it in order to produce clean lines. Inking is not a passive job though. We are not supposed to only draw over the initial sketch. We are supposed to reinforce the design of the character with our strokes. Actually, in the comic book or animation industry, this is a job in itself.

In game art, we generally want to draw each limb on individual layers as closed shapes to make it easier to fill later.

The idea is that the strokes you put on the canvas actually bear meaning: a thick stroke reinforces a certain area of your drawing. For example, you can emphasize your character’s head using a thicker stroke. The curvature of your lines also matter: flat lines tend to convey a sense of steadiness and solidity. Curves, on the other hand, create a sense of flow or movement. But I will come back to those concepts in future tutorials dedicated to drawing.

‘’Flat lines convey a sense of solidity. Curves produce a feeling of flow or movement.”

For now, we are just going to focus on creating clean, closed shapes. We simply go over our initial sketch one limb after the other. And don’t be afraid to redo your strokes multiple times! We cannot always get them right at the first trial.

Step 3 – Filling

Once we have our character’s outline, we can use it to fill in our character’s shapes. In Photoshop, we cannot use the fill tool to fill our shapes in a clean way. To fill the shapes, I use the Magic wand tool, which you can access using the W Key. I then expand the selection and fill it using the alt delete key combination. This is a shortcut to fill the selection with the foreground color. To make the filling process faster, I have made a simple action that expands and fills a selection for me.

All we have left is to repeat the process until all shapes are filled. Sometimes, it is not enough to expand the fill. This can leave some visible gaps in our layer! In those cases, we have to fill the empty area using the brush tool.

Step 4 – Shading

We have one last step to tackle: shading the character. To do so easily, I lock the alpha of all limb layers. I pick the basic round brush. Then, I select a shadow color using the color picker. And I paint each limb one by one until the whole character is shaded. Sometimes, I also use clipping masks to add gradients or details that deserve their own layer. If you don’t know what clipping masks are, you can go back to my previous tutorial on preserving your assets’ silhouettes.

Meet Rudy the Astronaut!

Last tips

Overall, you can see that the process is relatively straightforward: you are supposed to draw as on paper. This means at least 2 things:

1. I recommend that you don’t zoom on your canvas, even if you have trouble drawing precise lines at first. You never want to get caught focusing a single area or on useless details until you nailed the big picture.

2. You are generally going to redraw your assets multiple times. Even professional animators and comic book artists or game artists draw in multiple passes. They start with many rough drawings that they ink much later!

A quick tip with sketching in general: you have to keep in mind that you draw using a whole chain of muscles, from your forearm to your chest. When you start drawing, those muscles need about 15 to 30 minutes to warm up. During that phase, your line quality will certainly be relatively bad! Or at least under your capacities. So keep drawing!

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