A programmer learning to draw

“I want to be an artist!” sure sounds cute from the mouths of babes, but when a 30-year-old programmer says it, it’s just kind of sad.

I was a professional programmer, but now I’m a catch-all game developer, so I have to learn how to make art. (I don’t have any real experience besides elementary and middle school art classes, which I remember as fun enough but aimless.)

First off, why would I try to make my own game art instead of just hiring someone to do it? To be honest, it’s mostly stubbornness since I’m coming off seven years in the corporate world, and just once it’d be nice to totally do my own thing. No communication barriers, no negotiating visions, no waiting to hear from someone, no searching for tactful ways to say “This is stupid” — just me and my own effort.

There are other practical reasons:

  • It’s cheaper.
  • I don’t need fancy professional-grade art since I’m making a lo-fi pixel game. I just need art that’s undistracting.
  • The development of my art and the development of my design/story ideas can fluidly inform each other. (In a story-driven adventure game especially, this matters.)

But mostly, it’s just stubbornness. Usually, making a living and being a loner in your work are mutually exclusive. (This is painfully true for creatives.) I want to have my cake and eat it too.

So how am I going about it? If my experience is any guide, there’s no getting around the fundamentals. So I’ve been self-educating the last couple months from these materials:

  • Drawing: A Creative Process by Francis D.K. Ching. It’s a book, and it’s a somewhat holistic, somewhat technical introduction to the main ideas of drawing. The chapters have titles like “Line”, “Shape”, and “Depth”.
  • Ctrl+Paint, a collection of mostly free online videos about both traditional drawing and its Photoshop alter ego. (Drawing in Photoshop is not drawing. They’re as different as biking and motorcycling.)
  • Scattered online pixel art tutorials. When it was time to dip my toe into animation, I googled “sprite walk animation”. /r/pixelart also has some good links in its FAQ.

Currently, every day I spend 2-3 hours on these art exercises in Photoshop:

  • Gesture drawing
  • Still life, in grayscale, with a focus on value (light and dark)
  • Tiny study (a Ctrl+Paint formulation of a small-scale color exercise)

On top of that, I may or may not pixel up some character sprites or room backgrounds or in-game objects.

But you can’t pixel art if you can’t art. So for now I’m worrying about learning art.

You remember that scene in Batman Begins where Liam Neeson’s character tells Bruce Wayne: “Rub your chest. Your arms will take care of themselves.”? I only have one year to make this game (ten months as of this blog post), but in this early stage I’m only worrying about fundamentals. I choose to believe that if I can just learn to make art, then my game art will take care of itself.

Next time I can post, I’ll give some actual examples of my exercises and practice pieces.

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