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I'm not an artist, but I need art in my indie game
by Jesse Attard on 09/24/13 11:21:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This post originally appeared at

I'm not an artist, but I need art in my game.

This is part 3 in a series of articles describing how I approached each aspect of creating Immortal Empire as an independent developer. Read the whole backstory here.

Artwork is the area I relied most heavily on outsourcing to a number of individuals, most notably Mat Chambers (characters), David Baumgart (spell icons, fx), Zenobia Homan (tiles, environment objects), and Eric Vedder (illustrated characters). A few other artists (Sergei Churbanov, Cecilia Santos, Jasmin McGahan, David Scott) helped out as well to which I am eternally grateful.

Of course, trying to coordinate so many different people was difficult, and in some cases I needed to fill in some gaps with artwork myself.  In my previous article where I discussed the music to Immortal Empire, I pointed out that I have some formal experience with music, making that aspect of the game much easier to tackle.  When it comes to artwork however, I have literally no experience to draw upon. (moar puns!!1)

In the end, I deigned to create some affectionately termed coder art, much of which can be seen in the final product.  This article describes the process I went through and includes some tips I picked up which are hopefully useful to other artistically barren programmers like myself who need art in their indie games.

I'm very proud of many things in Immortal Empire, but let's face it, the artwork is not exactly cutting edge. At a fixed 800x600 resolution and consisting almost entirely of hand-drawn 2D pixel art, Immortal Empire's artwork lands somewhere between X-Com and Warcraft II, meaning it would feel right at home if it were released in 1995.  Alas, it was released in 2013.

Click for full-size

Many games have managed to be very successful in recent years despite not having advanced graphics, often employing a minimalist style to great effect.  Unfortunately I feel as though minimalism just wouldn't have worked for the game design of Immortal Empire, so instead I attempted to mimic a style that is very nostalgic for me: early 90s PC games.

Onto the artwork. I contributed in a number of areas, but I'm going to focus on a couple images I drew that will best describe the process.  Here is the animation for the entangle spell on the left, and the idle pose for the Elder character on the right.

For the pixel art, the process I eventually settled on went something like this.

0. Compare against a couple different neutral colour backgrounds, never change your opacity, and always work on a separate layer.  Accidentally using alpha or manually blending into a fixed colour background looks terrible in game, and it is a very easy mistake to make. Using separate layers for each step lets you restart when you make mistakes and do A/B comparisons easily.

1. Start with an outline.  When drawing lines (without alpha transparency), I found it almost always looked better to leave diagonals open rather than filled in like the image on the right. 

When creating rounded lines, decrease or increase the number of straight-line pixels consistently, rather than doing something arbitrarily. I'll often draw the line free-hand at first, delete the diagonals, then touch up the curve to keep line lengths consistent.

This might sound obvious but you really don't want to move onto the next step until you have finished this one.  At this stage, a silhouette can work as well, but I prefer an outline so you don't lose interior details.

2. Add shading to your outline.
As with the lines widths, be consistent in how you gradient the colour.  By that I mean gradually increase or decrease the luminosity rather than flipping back and forth or skipping a shade. I try to avoid adding detail in this step, instead I just shade uniformly. When creating rounded things like the tentacles below, I found it often looked best to put the brightest section near the center, not right on the edge. Keep a palette of distinct colours you have used on a separate layer for future use.

3. Add detail to the shading. This is where you can put creases in clothing, make things appear rough or shiny, or add dithering if that is your art style. I try to avoid introducing new colours here, and instead would refer to the palette that I created in step #2.

Click for full-size

4. Add final touches.  Here I add little doodads like the buckle on the Elder's sash or the thorns on the tentacles. When doing this step, I found I often had to go back and adjust the shading.  For example, creating a little shadow underneath the buckle made it feel less flat.  Only when I am 100% happy with the look of this one frame will I start another frame of animation or attempt to draw more of the same element (such as the multiple tentacles in the entangle spell).

That's it!  My preferred setup is to use two windows, one zoomed in very close where I edit the pixels, and another zoomed out to 100% so I can actually look at the results. I check the actual zoom distance frequently, as I found that things sometimes look great zoomed in, but from afar look totally wrong. In fact, the opposite can also be true!

Like most things, art of course takes years of practice to improve. But here's hoping these few tips can help other artistically challenged independent developers like myself create some medicore but passable artwork for their games.  If you have anything to add about your adventures in this regard, or tips you can suggest, please comment below!

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Sjors Jansen
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Well imho a lot of 2d games from 1995 look better than games from 2013 (but I'm totally ok with pixels). I do however believe pixelart is very labor intensive, so I'm not sure if that's the best way to go for an indie dev.

I did a small tutorial called pixelart for programmers a short while ago. It tries to go from butt ugly ms paint drawings to acceptable pixel art using logic and reason. It also has some links for more advanced stuff. Artists probably will burn me at the stakes for that, but that's ok, they're nice people.

Cherry Gutierrez
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Part of the issue here comes when attempting to fit pixel art to the modern screen resolutions and fps.

The workflow does indeed become labour intensive and tedious at high resolutions and smoother animation (higher frame count).
Not to mention an increased color palette available.

Double the resolution of the sprite and Quadruple the number of pixels.
It is easy to see how modern pixel art sprites struggle to maintain the quality of previous generations.

People are employing point scaling x2 and x4 for that retro look on screen.
However, there are other workflows that can both produce better visual results and be more cost effective.

If you are after that pixel art look, set your framework to match the games of old.
Low Resolution
Limited Colour Palettes
Low Framerate.

abbas saleem khan
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i love pixelart and i wish there was more of it around. one of the things that i tend to do when devs are working quickly via prototyping is to use objects from sketchup and google warehouse. they can quickly create placeholder art from that and have the artists come in and replace it later. its a very handy tool.

Kaze Kai
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No offense intended but this guy's pixel art is really boring. He has the right idea with rudimentary linework but that's about it.

Look, I understand if you don't like to draw or animate, that's fine, but there are a lot of artists out there who would probably be thrilled to help you if you're a programmer and having someone draw your graphics who doesn't hate every step of the process or who can make interesting shapes and forms with volume that isn't achieved by amateurishly shading with black and highlighting with white would improve the quality of your project significantly.

Or you can Google some introductory art lessons and learn that way because no matter what your geeky programmer friends tell you in IRC, pixel art is not the callgirl for anyone who can't do better; you need practical knowledge of visual art to make it not suck and that means developing your own understanding of shape and form, color theory, the relationship of light and shadow, the anatomy of anything that is supposed to move or gesture, and composition, there is no shortcut around this but making a game is a huge daunting process anyway, that's why teams of people get together and make them.

If you want some advice on how you can make serviceable graphics for your project then this article is great, just like all the other ones out there trying to make the graphical load less of a burden for indies, but if you're really concerned about the visual side of a video game (and I hope you are because the phrase "video game" has the word VIDEO in it) then go find a digital art program, I don't care where, and study traditional and digital painting techniques and understand how effects are achieved by manipulating and working with relationships between color because that's the closest thing there is to pixel art. If you can make a passable painting, you can do pixel art.

Okay I'm done.

Mitchell Fujino
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Not going to comment about the quality of this art, but in your second paragraph you seem to imply that artists are just lying around everywhere waiting for people to ask them for help. I wish, but it just doesn't happen.

Art help is the #1 asked for work on reddit's /r/GameDevClassifieds, and there are many many posts about "Stop asking artists to work for free/cheap/portion of imaginary profits".
Often the ones who are available and can work within your requirements and price range are only available for a short time. This is likely why Jesse Attard had to have so many different artists and do some of the work himself.
(And obviously, really good in-demand artists will quickly have full time jobs and not be available anymore to work on your tiny indie project.)

If you do have a supply of artists thrilled to work on other people's projects, well then I have about a hundred friends with indie projects who really would love to meet them. :) Otherwise, this is an okay article on "how to make do without".

Jesse Attard
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Indeed! I knew it would be next to impossible to find free/revshare collaborators, but I was surprised at how hard it was to find paid contractors for pixel artwork.

You're absolutely right, that is exactly why I had so many different contributors and had to do some myself. Like you correctly identified, even the ones I worked with promptly moved on to full-time jobs and became unavailable for contract work.

They're out there, but sometimes it was just easier to draw something myself rather than track down another contractor.

Cherry Gutierrez
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I have artists thrilled to work on other people's projects.
Point your friends our way. :D

What you should consider is the handful of small studios that have dedicated pixel artists.

This is where you can find professionals that are less likely to "disappear" when the going gets tough.
They can also help you find a quality/cost tailored to the funds you have available.

If they know their stuff, and are able to run a sustainable business, you can be assured the price will easily outweigh the cost of trying it yourself.

Contact me directly or post on the pixeljoint forums, we will find you.

Ian Fisch
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Are you serious? I think this work is great for someone who admits he's "not an artist". It's 5 steps above what you'd normally consider programmer art.

Daniel Holbert
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I agree that this is great work for someone without a background in art. I understand Cherry's point of view, and the quality of work is obviously higher with a trained artist, but sometimes the budget is no budget. I've been lucky enough to find some interest from artists in my project, but there are several ways in which I have a leg up over other projects, and it's not exactly like artists are falling from the sky. I also think that doing a basic pass youself can provide good direction to artist collaborators.

I've recently decided to learn The Art, myself. I've been bouncing around a lot (drawing, digital and acrylic painting), and it's a heck of a lot of fun!

Dean Boytor
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Very Great read!

Personally for me, I came from a more technical background. I drew a lot when I was younger, so I had to bring a lot of that back when I needed assets for my game.

The art work for games is kind of hard for people who are more technical. When a program runs, you can analyze its efficiency and you can tell right away if it works or not at compile.

Art however doesn't compile, people can tell you whether or not its good but its really up to the artist. I feel that artwork can never really be finished. you can spend months deciding if "things look right".

But that's the beauty of it, I get to use both sides of my brain to be creative in different areas. Sometimes it gets really frustrating creating art, but I'm really enjoying the process.

It helps a lot to look at other games assets or work and deconstruct them to find different techniques and illusions.

Ty Underwood
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I think that perhaps, like programming or sound design, it would be a better idea to learn principles of life drawing and observational drawing and then translate those technical skills into an appropriate style for the game that you're working on.

I don't think pixel art is an appropriate "shortcut" because its very difficult and labor intensive. If you aren't an artist, either make an artist friend or learn how to be an artist instead?

Sebastien Vakerics
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I really enjoy looking at, and creating, pixel art and I think it is a shortcut. However, this depends on resolution. An HD resolution pixel art styled image might as well be "traditional" styled raster artwork and can be very labor intensive. But as the resolution of your artwork lowers and lowers, the more relevant pixel placement becomes and the less relevant actual technical skill in fine art matters. Additionally, it only takes a fraction of the time to create a 32x32 pixel character compared to creating a "drawn" character at modern resolutions, or even in 3D.

That being said, being a competent artist with experience creating artwork for games will no doubt improve the results. Pixel art specifically requires someone who has a good understanding of concisely communicating the most important parts of the artwork within the constraints of only a few pixels.

Glen Watson
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I've done pixel art for many years and can do art when needed. I still think getting someone who has talent in your game's art style will make your game so much better than doing it yourself.

I know it hard finding one with out the ego problems many talented artist have, but still worth the better product in the end.

Daniel Holbert
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I really appreciate this article!

Dennis Faas
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Very nice article! You describe the basics for creating pixel art very well.

As most game developers are programmers rather than artists, this problem is as old as game development itself.
I am aiming to improve the situation for developers by providing a resource for fully animated game characters.
To everybody interested in this: check out the Kickstarter for InDee Toons:

Ian McCauley
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Id love to help. Shoot me an email at . I started art back on an amiga so im familiar with what your looking for.