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  • Excerpt: How to Become a Video Game Artist

    - Sam R. Kennedy

    How to Use a Pencil

    Perhaps the most flexible and universal tool for drawing is the pencil. With a pencil (and its companions, putty and plastic erasers), you can draw lines in a multitude of weights from thinnest to thickest (depending on whether you use the sharp tip or the flatter sides of the lead), and you can render light and dark from white to near black and all shades of gray in between.

    I recommend you use 2B and HB pencils, which are soft enough to render lines of various thicknesses and allow you to achieve a good dark. Be sure to keep your pencil sharp as you work.

    There are many types of paper used for drawing. For key art sketches and gesture drawings I recommend using simple copy paper. It's a convenient size and ubiquitous. If you are concerned about values and light, you could try a gray paper and use both a dark and white charcoal pencil.

    Since you'll erase a lot as you do preliminary sketches, it is better to render your initial lines with a light touch. Erasing heavy lines can tear your paper and leave dark smudges on the drawing.

    In these anatomical studies, Steve Anderson shows the versatility of a pencil drawing. Notice the different ways in which he uses the pencil. With the point, he draws out the details of the skeletal structure and the monkey's fur. Varying the pressure on the pencil tip allows him to create a dark line for shadows on the underside of the monkey (heavier pressure) and the contours of the monkey's body (lighter pressure). Using the broad side of the pencil, he creates a soft gradient along the monkey's side and then uses an eraser to create the highlights, showing reflected light, on the monkey's head and chest.

    Anatomical studies by Steve E. Anderson.

    Steve applied the same techniques he employed in his monkey study in this dragon drawing. He placed firm pressure on the point of the pencil to render the dragon's head and neck (including scales, horn, and webbing), while a softer touch was used to lightly sketch the rest of the body.

    Dragon by Steve E. Anderson.

    Digital Drawing and Color in 2D and 3D

    Although a lot of materials like pencils and paper are used around a video game studio, some artists prefer to create their concept, key art, and storyboards digitally using a pressure-sensitive tablet and stylus. (There are also pressure-sensitive monitors on which you can draw, and some artists really love them. Drawing digitally offers the advantage of the software's drawing tools.

    Of course, one-color drawing is not the only way to communicate ideas. Some artists like to work in color through the entire process. Although most color is added digitally in a graphics-editing program, we still refer to it as painting. Concept artists do a lot of digital painting; they paint their approved character and environment concepts, for exam- ple. A character artist, who models the game characters in 3D, applies colors and textures when the modeling process is complete. (Sometimes the painting of characters is given to a texture artist to do. But it is much more common that the character artist will do modeling plus painting and texturing, so in this book I am covering texture art as part of the char- acter artist's job.) Environment artists create the 3D objects for the game, like buildings, vehicles, and weapons. They also typically paint and texture their own models.

    Today's 3D software programs make it faster and faster to develop 3D sketches, like this Navy SEAL, developed in Zbrush. Quite a few concept artists now work in 3D programs like Zbrush to develop concepts.

    These jungle characlers were painted in Photoshop using a pressure-sensitive Wacom tablet. This project was done just for fun.

    This humorous picture started off as a pen drawing, but it was digitally painted in Photoshop. With the help of my pressure­-sensitive Wacom tablet, I softly build up the colors in the character's skin to create a sunburnt look. By pressing lightly with the stylus on the tablet, I got a semi-transparent layer of color, which helps make the skin look real. I couldn't achieve that without a pressure-sensitive tablet.

    The Technology

    Advances in technology continue to change how things are done in the video game industry and provide more ways of generating game assets and sharing ideas. Because today's real-time console video games feature 3D characters and envi- ronments, some artists prefer to develop ideas in digital 3D. (ZBrush is a great 3D visualization software program that allows the user to sculpt characters and other assets quickly.) Drawing a "sketch" in 3D can help get it approved faster; it also provides a starting point for creating the final 3D asset that will be used in the game, also know as an in-game asset.

    Photoshop and Painter

    Adobe Photoshop is the world's most used 2D image creation and manipulation software. You should have proficiency in it, as the odds are overwhelming that any place you want to work will use it.

    Photoshop is one of the oldest graphic software programs in use today, and it continues to evolve and improve to stay on top. Photoshop's ingenious use of layers (a system that allows you to paint over an image without changing the original), its advancements in paintbrush sets and filters (procedural FX that you can apply to your image, like Blur, Sharpen, Add Noise, and others), and its easy integration with other graphic software have set it apart from its competitors.

    Another of the early painting pioneers -- and still popular today -- is the software now known as Corel Painter. Painter gives the user paintbrushes that mimic the stroke qualities of traditional art mediums like oil and watercolor paints. Some artists find Painter's method of blending colors superior to Photoshop's system.

    I painted this image in Photoshop.Ii took photos of a female model and an alley and then composited them into Photoshop. I used Photoshop's system of layers to add FX and lighting on top of the photos.

    3ds Max and Maya

    3ds Max (introduced in 1990) and Maya (debuted in 1998, although predecessors existed earlier under different names) are complete 3D packages, and parts of every video game will be created in one of them. They and other 3D programs have been around since the earliest 3D video games in the 1990s, but 3ds Max and Maya have dominated the competition and are virtually the only full-package 3D programs used in video game production today. In both Max and Maya, game characters are modeled, painted, rigged (the process of applying bones and skeletal structure), and then animated. The software also features lights, cameras, FX generators, and rendering engines for cinematics.


    3D objects are measured in polygons. Polygons are multisided figures connected together to make up a 3D object. For example, a cube is made up of 6 polygons, 1 polygon for each side. A playable 3D character in a modern video game is made up of 5,000 to 10,000 polygons. The more polygons an object has, the more resources are required of the video game engine to render that object.

    I used 3ds Max to create the 3D models and textures for the vehicle and robot in this picture. The FX and people in this picture are painted. When I am developing a vehicle, weapon, or other hard-surfaced object for a picture, I like to work in 3D. In a 3D software package like 3ds Max, I can build the machine with many small pieces and know that when the software package renders the image all the pieces will be in perfect perspective. 3D allows me to put all those details in the machine without the headache of drawing each one properly. The software does the drawing for me. I can then take the rendering of the machines into Photoshop and continue to paint, like I did in this picture.

    Zbrush and Mudbox

    Newer on the scene than Max and Maya are the digital sculpting programs ZBrush (introduced in 2002) and Mudbox (debuted in 2007). ZBrush allows you to create and manipulate a 3D object, or model, the way you would with clay or other real-world sculpting materials. ZBrush's popularity has grown tremendously since it was introduced, and it now boasts lighting, animating, and robust texturing systems. Mudbox is a newer and more streamlined sculpting program. ZBrush and Mudbox both enabled the hyperrealism required of today's 3D models in video games and movies, which just can't be achieved with Max and Maya. A very high-resolution model in Max and Maya may be 50,000-150,000 polygons. ZBrush can support billions of polygons, allowing every wrinkle, pore, and hair follicle to be modeled in 3D. These details can then be exported to Max and Maya as lighting information called a normal map. When applied to a model with only 10,000 polygons the normal map can make it appear to have the much more detailed surface of a 10-million-polygon model.

    For this image, I developed a 3D model of the space shuttle in 3ds Max and the alien flying saucers in Zbrush. Having a 3D model for the spaceships allowed me to duplicate them many times without having to paint each one over again. I simply changed the camera's location and hit the render button to produce the four flying saucers. If done right, 3D software can be a great time-saver.


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