How To Make Graphics Without Being An Artist

If you were to look at the following drawing, you might think it to be the doodles of a 4 or 5-year-old child.  I mean, what the heck is it?  Is it a crazy alligator crawling on a globe?  Is it a bat carrying a piece of fruit?  No and no, it’s clearly a dragon perched atop a magical ball and quite clearly the sad artistic maximum of this 31-year-old man.

As an artist, I have clearly failed.  But where artistry has failed, geekery has prevailed.  Even with my lack of artistic ability, I am able to take the previous sketch and turn it into the below image:

Why Make Your Own Art?

If you’re a homebrew app developer or game maker then I am sure you have many projects that could use graphical assets.  I used to think I was incapable of making graphics, that was before I caught up with the latest wave of **FREE **rendering software.  If you aren’t convinced yet, let me make a small case for at least trying to create your own art.

  1. Autonomy You need artwork anyway, why not make it yourself?  Imagine if you knew you could whip out an awesome icon in an hour, could this take your homebrew to the next level?
  2. Balance The left side of your brain needs a break from all that coding.  Why not engage your creative side?  Even if you don’t use what you produce, you might find a fun hobby in the process.
  3. Geek++ As a counter to #2, rendering is incredibly geeky and technical.  In many ways it is like photography in that there is a mix of technical and creative.
  4. Free The software is free.

Not convinced?  Ok, go back to watching American Idol.

How To Get Started

Use Free Software

To make the final image above, I used two pieces of software.  These two products are amazingly easy to learn, have thriving communities behind them and are just plain cool!

Daz Studio 3

You might call Daz Studio a figure design tool.  You load a figure, pose it, add lights and render.  For my image, I used a figure called Millenium Dragon.  Daz releases a free model every week and I was lucky to grab my dragon for free about a year ago.

They have all sorts of pre-made assets you can purchase for reasonable prices as well.  From swords and shields to spaceships and laser guns.

Daz also allows you to create primitives (Sphere, cube, cylinder, etc.).  I used a simple sphere with a combination of a subsurface stone and glass material to create the orb above.  You'd be amazed at how convincing a couple primitives can be with a texture slapped on top city scapes, spaceships, etc are quite easy to fake.

Vue 9

Vue can be summed up by saying Digital Nature.  Many big name movies use Vue to generate landscapes and environments.  The free PLE edition (Personal Learning Edition) does put a visible watermark on your images.

Vue also has a primitives system that is slightly more advanced than Daz Studio and  I've seen some amazing modeling done with these.  But most of the time, I could care less about primitives since I mostly use Vue to make backdrops.

I used Vue to make the background for the image above.  I dragged 3 landscapes out, added some clouds, changed the color of the ambient light and moved the sun where I wanted it.  In all, the background took about 15 minutes to create.  Here it is by itself.

Use Pre-made Assets

I think there is a strong case for using pre-made assets.  If I had tried to model a dragon, honestly, I probably would have never finished.  If I had, it wouldn’t be anywhere close to the quality of the pre-made one that I got for free.  But that’s not to say that everything has to be free.

There are a slew of pre-made assets that can be had for a few dollars.  In my mind, a few bucks was a small price to pay for these cool weapons that I used in one of my Android apps.

One thing to keep in mind is that if your target image size is an icon, say 60 x 60.  You aren’t going to have much visible detail and can get away with using the cheaper pre-made assets.

Use Science

If you’re not an artist and don’t trust your artistic eye, use science to aid you.  Science has done a good job of breaking down art and creating formulas to help understand why some compositions and color combinations are pleasing to the eye.  Use this to your advantage!

The Color Wheel

Don’t do what I used to do cluelessly stare at a color palette wondering what the right color was.  There are tools to help, like Palette Builder which will build a scientifically proven palette of colors based on 1 color of your choice.  Also you might want to learn the basics about the 6 primary color schemes and what situations each one works best in.

Basic Composition

If you only learn 1 rule, learn the rule of thirds.  If you have time and motivation learn the rest.  If you are having issues coming up with creative compositions on your own, head down and support your local comic book store comic books are full of interesting compositions.

Have Fun

From the guy that sketches worse than a 5-year-old, I hope that this gives hope to some of the artistically challenged coders out there.   Above all, I hope you enjoy yourself and maybe even find yourself a new right-brained hobby.  If you make any cool renders, send them my way!

Published 20 January 2011
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