Thursday, March 21, 2013

Pixel Art Lessons: YellowLemon's Remains of a Tribesman (Banding, Color Burn, Color Selection Theory)
PrototypeRaptor is awesome. He does glitch, electronic, and dubstep stuff, and this is just one of his great pieces. Another is his Open Your Heart remix from Sonic Adventure.

Hey, I'm here typing instead of studying because I'm a terrible student!

This is part a series of posts where I share the pixel art critiques I've given and generalize them so the rest of the world can learn something! I try to be as explanatory as possible, so, while lengthy, these should be decently accessible. Because it turns out you can learn just as much from analyzing the amateurs as you can from observing the pros!
For a greater intro, look for posts tagged "Pixel Art Lessons."

YellowLemon's "Remains of a Tribesman"

Major Themes: Banding, Color Burn, Color Selection Theory

I could probably use some background on this one. See, on PixelJoint, every week there's a challenge. A set of specifications is given, and people take a shot at completing a piece in one week that fits the requirements. Over the following week, people vote on them, and then the top three pieces get ribbons. I myself participated a couple weeks ago with The Amazing Man-Spider, and actually won third place! But that's not relevant. I'm describing this because today's piece we're examining was a weekly challenge entry! The challenge:
Recently the Moai statues on Easter Island have been found out to have undiscovered parts under the ground. Create an image depicting what you think is buried in the ground.

Canvas size - Unrestricted.
Colours - Max 15.
Transparency - No.
Animation - No.
So let's see what YellowLemon pulled together!
That looks pretty decent! But it has some troubles. What was his description.
I swear I wasn't trying to be "fashionably late" with this. I had some trouble with my wrist, and had to take a slow pace with this one.
On Monday, my idea was to make a row of FOUR moais (pretty ambitious, yes): a skeleton, a rocket, a fetus (yeah, might have not gone with it) and a PEZ dispenser. On Tuesday, my wrist started acting up, so I ended up concentrating on what I thought would be the best concept.
(There should be 3 shades of each color, but there's an unnecessary extra shade of brown that I can't pin down anymore.)
EDIT: Added texture to the underground soil. It might be a bit distracting, though.
I came in after that first edit. From what I can tell, those little stones in the soil didn't exist when it was first posted, but were added by when I showed up. Let's just get right into what I said!

Found your loose brown pixel for ya.
Looks pretty good. Cyan on the sky is kind of a blinding color, and there's some crazy staircase banding going with the spear shaft. I'd recommend that, unless you're intentionally going for a "stratified, distinct layers of dirt" look, you try out some more unconventional (meaning non-checkerboard) dither patterns to make a more natural-looking gradient. Could be a fun thing to try out.

Idea in general's pretty fun though, and the texturing in the dirt isn't really distracting at all, it adds a pretty good look to the otherwise-plain dirt.
If you look in the original image up there, you won't see the loose pixel. He edited it out pretty quick, and I hadn't had the idea to save versions of things I crit cuz I hadn't planned this series then. Anyway, that post was my attempt at brevity. I was met with:
Ego, thanks for finding the lost pixel  and also for the C&C!

So, with "blinding" you mean that the sky color is too bright, and with "crazy" banding, you mean it looks bad?

The "layers of dirt" wasn't really what I was shooting for, but it seemed the most time-effective thing to do to add texture to the dirt. I don't know if it would be OK to change the soil again, since the deadline is already up
Questions asking for a bit of clarification? Welp, time to toss brevity out the window! I should warn you now, I kinda went a little nuts with my posts to YellowLemon. I was in essay-writing mode from classes and was actually learning some stuff myself in my research, so I went a touch overboard.
Okay, I'll hit this with a bit more detail.

Cyan, and very highly saturated colors in general, have a tendency to little hard on the eyes. The worst suspects, to me, tend to be cyan, lime green, and fushia/light purple, though pretty much. Now, in the right circumstances, these colors can be perfectly usable. They become problematic, however, when they interfere with the surrounding colors. See, exceptionally bold colors (such as these ones I've mentioned, in addition to others, like solid black) have a tendency to, uh, "eat up" the colors directly around them. Other colors, especially  less bold/more neutral colors like less-saturated colors, browns (oddly, even quite saturated browns often wind up pretty neutral in my books), and greys, are overwhelmed by the stronger colors, making fine details hard to make out.

As an alternative explanation, colors of high saturation in large sheets can be, well, blinding. Just open up a basic program like paint and fill the screen with #00ccff. Then try filling it with, say, #afc1c6. The difference ought to be clear.

So it isn't really that the sky is too BRIGHT, so to speak, but it's too BOLD. On the whole, this piece has a pretty neutral palette, filled with a lot of (relatively saturated) brown and flat gray, with the sky being a very strong color that distracts from the rest of the piece. You only have about half saturation on the cyan, but because cyan itself is one of the more powerful colors and its only neighbors are literally toneless greys, it comes off very strong. Dimming down the brightness might be able to fix it, but you might also want to consider changing the blue in a different direction: hue or saturation. I already articulated the way saturation affects it, but hue could do it too. Like I said, cyan/turquoise in particular is a color that eats its neighbors. Shifting the hue away from green and toward blue might be help.

Crazy banding is just referring to the fact that you have a LOT of banding on the spear. Banding, in the vast majority of situations, is a bad thing - it creates a fuzzy faux-gradient look that tends to not look good. Helm over on Pixelation prepared an astounding primer on what banding is and what to avoid, it's far better than I could come up with myself. Hugely educational (as is the rest of the pixel-art primer, regardless of skill level). Here's the link:

It's worth throwing out that while I didn't call it out before, the spear's not the only banding around, it's just a pretty intense example of staircase banding. The sky gradient is the other big spot of banding, done as skip-one banding. Reading through the primer linkt here ought to able to help you with conceptually identifying that as well. Lastingly, you're generally pretty good about it, but you need to watch out for when your anti-aliasing may accidentally become banding. It happens a couple of times, mostly on 45-degree angles.

At this point, don't touch this piece, at least until next week when voting's done - no point risking being called a cheater or something. The layers of dirt is definitely a time-efficient strategy - it conveys the basic idea easily, and is simple enough to do. That particular suggestion of trying more complex dithering had more to do with if you intended to attempt further revisions, or, if you didn't intend that, simply to keep in mind for future pieces. In fact, all of this is probably easiest applied to future pieces. If you do revise this piece, hold it til next week, or, if the revisions are significant enough, post it as another gallery entry.

So yeah, I hope this is helpful! And no problem about the lost pixel and the C&C, I like talking about this stuff. I don't often have a ton of inspiration for my own work, so keeping a steady eye on other people's stuff and helping out helps keep me sharp as well! Ask away if you've got any more questions about what I'm talking about! I'm not completely confident in my explanation of what precisely I meant by "blinding," so if I wasn't totally clear I can take another stab at expressing that.
First, you see that link in the middle there? That's to the Pixelation tutorial, with a jump straight to the banding section. That's the most powerful single pixel tutorial I know of, and the best explanation of the intricacies of banding. Until some critique I actually did today, I've usually delegated my explanations of banding to that tutorial, since banding is among the hardest of the common pixel art problems to explain. In several weeks I'll probably post what I've been doing today, in which I actually do a pretty decent job of illustrating banding.
Anyway, this is mostly pointing out banding and trying my best to explain the idea of color burn. Color burn is my word for when a color is so grating to the eyes that it overwhelms and "burns out" the pixels it exactly touches. Solid black, solid white, anything with 100% Saturation, and especially cyan, lime green, and fuchsia, all have the tendency to do this. It's about the relationship between a saturated color and a non-saturated one. Reply from him:
No worries, this time I understood completely what you said

I was conscious about the banding in the sky and the spear, but I had left them like that since I didn't want to add more colors to either of the hues, nor spend more time on the sky (which didn't end up as good as I'd liked) Maybe even change the size of the spear and such. I spent a lot of my Sunday on the piece, and had little time to spare . (Thanks for the cool tutorial btw, I'll be sure to read it)

When you mention that my anti-alising accidentally becomes banding in some places, I take it you are referring to the forearm of the arm that holds the spear. I was aware that it looked muddy (especially comparing it to the other arm) but I didn't spend any time looking for a better solution, and decided that it still looked better than with no anti-alising at all.

The color of the sky, on the other hand, I hadn't considered at all, and just went with one that looked fine at first glance, without studying its behavior in the piece as a whole.

I'll have your critique in mind for future pieces, especially taking care with color harmony.  In my "style", I tend to use saturated colors, so this is bound to be a problem in the future Thanks again!
Side note: Never restrict yourself because you think you've established it as your "style" - it holds you back. Even if you like drawing a certain way, take chances and do other crazy things, you'll learn lessons that can be applied to your preferred way of drawing. Not implying that was YellowLemon's intention, I know he does experimentation, I just wanted to mention it.
Reading this today is making me realize how apt my "banding is basically the Uninformed Man's anti-aliasing" I put into my critique today.

Him talking about the forearm and how it looks better this way than with no AA at all brings up a good topic: the 45-degree angle. Put simply, the 45 degree angle line is a huge bitch. If you leave it alone, it gets kinda jagged. If you anti-alias it uniformly, you've done banding. You need to be clever with your available colors.
Anyway, what I dropped next was somewhat unasked for, but it's good stuff still. There's a lot though.

Okay, that's fair. The time aspect of these weekly challenges is definitely a big factor and it makes sense to try to time-save as you go, and on the sky it's not too bad. The spear I think there were choices other than banding - in particular, offsetting the shading and opting for a more anti-aliasing-based approach could probably have kept the gradient-y banding at bay.

The fore-arm is definitely one. There are a couple other minor location, but these are definitely not a huge deal, more of a technicality. It's just good to train to recognize things like these when you're going. The general feelign is not hugely changed, it's more a side note. And as for banding vs no-AA at all, it can be a judgment call. The best case scenario would be to mess witht he exact shaping to the point that you don't NEED to choose anymore. In this case, I'd say that for some of the parts, where the bone is on the thicker side, use the grey for AA, and for the thinner sections you can use the brown from the dirt behind it to actually provide a minor bit of AA - it's not as strong as the gray, but it's not nothing.

I did a minor edit to point out a couple things. I circled the main AA-bandings in red, and did an edit to the spear to illustrate what I meant.
Color harmony is a complicated subject! It's tough to analyze in your own work, it ends up feeling a lot more like intuition. It's something you just internalize over time - just think hard through things, read stuff occasionally, and practice a lot.

Saturated colors can be good, even when used in huge degrees! When I think of heavy saturation, two artists immediately come to mind for their use of the bright and the bold: happip and OCEANSCENTED. happip has a very bright style, but here's one in particular that's a a great example, Parrot:
 Solid extreme saturation, including the pretty wicked cyan and lime green, but it blends (as a side note, there's some banding here too, especially on some 45-degree curves - it could be a decent experiment to try and spot as much of it as possible). Here's another:
That's a great study in how to take a strong saturated blue/cyan and mute it down into the surroundings without it eating everything. I already see a bunch of OCEANSCENTED's pieces in your favorites - Izzy is one of the  most stylish up-and-coming artists, and has an extraordinary innate sense of color. Let's take a peek at two of her pieces, for example: Heehaw (
and "now why would you do that" (
If you don't mind for a second, I'm gonna talk about these four pieces and what makes them successful.

What is it that does it? This is really just me working on observation here rather than theory, but from what I can tell, the answer is consistency. None of these is QUITE as noticeable as happip's Parrot. Take the piece into your image editor of choice, and examine the colors. What you'll find is that the Saturation is stunningly similar - in fact, the yellow and orange and red have the exact same saturation value, and others are so close that this can't be anything but intentional. I'll continue elaborating on why I think this is after a couple of other examples. Again, a side note: look at the way the purple is used as the secondary light source on the wing and you can see where he's taking ADVANTAGE of the devouring power of purple to make it noticeable, even when it's only a single-pixel wide.

Both of Izzy's pieces I mentioned above follow a similar principle: saturation is generally consistent, with one color being the exception in each (a duller red in Heehaw, and a darker blue-purple in the other).

Let's make this personally applicable: your own Angry Blues piece.
Ignoring any individual issues, this is a piece using highly contrasting cyan and yellow, but it DOENS'T cause the blinding, "color-swallowing" effect. Why? Two reasons. One: Lower value. The colors are darker in value, which limits their blinding potential. But again, at the same time, they're the same general saturation. It changes somewhat, but it's in the same region.

So what conclusions would I say could be drawn? Two. First, saturated colors next to other saturated colors try to drown each other out and thus both appear pretty strongly. Staying in the same general region can allow your colors to compete with each other in roughly the same way, though they're susceptible to the normal parts of color theory eg contrasting colors (which causes the blue/red distinction in happip's Parrot). Second, if you want to use saturated colors AND nonsaturated ones, you have a couple of options. One of those options is to use the saturation in small spots - a little says a lot. Check OCEANSCENTED's "Lucky anim test",
it's a very grey piece with a single splash of color, and general fashion has been using small but bold spots of color to create an impact for a long time. Another option is to slowly step down from the saturation, gradually going from saturated to dimmer (or, much more commonly, making the highlights unsaturated and the shadows saturated), letting it transition slowly so the strong colors aren't sitting on top of the mild ones. This is what happens in that other happip piece.
And that is a beast of a post. Happip is a classic favorite of mine, and a frequent user of saturated colors. OCEANSCENTED is easily one of my top modern favorites - her pieces are constantly doing interesting things, and I learn a lot by picking them apart. Believe me, this isn't the last time you're gonna hear about Izzy - I could devote all of next month's lessons to her pieces and I'd still have plenty to spare. She's actually probably gonna be next week's post.
Anyway, YellowLemon responded:
Ego, you're a loonie

You found out the anti-alising-banding spots that I even forgot about, and the spear looks much better in your edit

Thanks a lot for this further insight into color theory, complete with analysis of other artists' use of color, and then mine again for good measure (I read it all, I swear ) I assure you I'll have in mind these tips (the ones I don't forget, anyway )
Loonie is fuckin' right. And my response (and final post):
Loonie is right - finals things right now have me in essay-mode and it sems to be bleeding through into my other hobbies :p I have practically, like, cited evidence and everything.

Was kinda fun though. Learned a lot in the process, and I'm never upset at the opportunity to dig through OCEANSCENTED's style and figure out what makes it work so damn well. Until I was actually writing it, I hadn't even noticed the consistency-of-saturation trend in, uh, "high glare" pieces. Didn't mean to pull myself into really analyzing other folks - I tried to keep it focused on using others as examples for the principle of things to apply it But yeah, glad you thought it interesting! Really, the main thing to remember is that high-saturation colors make it harder to see neighboring low-saturation colors. Everything else is just reasoning and explanation.

...Now I have to hope that what I've internalized about color theory is actually correct. I'm not a formal student of this or anything, I hope I'm not just being ridiculous. Anyway, good luck on future stuff! Thanks for the opportunity to exercise my own pixel knowledge a bit! :3
And we're done! That was a huge pile of color theory and color burn, with a bit of banding as well. Hope you get some benefit out of it.
And if you do feel like you learned something, or if you entirely disagree with my very uneducated thoughts about color, let me know!

End Recording,

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