Saturday, June 8, 2013

Pixel Art Lesson: Kits' Zodiac!Rat (WIP) (Creating a Unified Piece)

I don't know anything about Shattered Horizon, but the soundtrack was composed by Markus Kaarlonen, who also did the Rochard sountrack (and probably others). He's also the keyboardist for Poets of the Fall, who are totally rad! But his work on Shattered Horizon is very impressive, even if the soundtrack is very small.

So today I have what I actually consider to be my best single targeted critique yet! While I extremely proud of the extremely understandable explanation I gave to Jiinchu about banding, that happened over several posts. This is, I believe, the single largest critique I've ever given in one sitting. And it's cuz I think Kits can take it.

But let's back up. Who is Kits?
Kits is a PixelJoint user, named Kirsten. She's not a very active poster, who only had one piece around a while back, called Lace (Standing), which I've actually shown in the Building A Framework tutorial. Here's Lace (Standing):
I had some crits for her then and even did an edit, but that's not particularly relevant (you can still see it if you go back and check that other Framework tutorial).
This is a pleasing piece, with a kinda interesting character and a neat visual aesthetic, even if there's pixel-level flaws.

So the other day, I was super-excited to see this pop up in PJ's Newest listing:
Whoo, another Lace! This is Lace (Attack Stance). Apparently it predates the standing one, but I think it's superior overall, though I think Standing had a more ambitious (and thus more difficult) idea, so that's okay. See, this didn't quite prepare me for THIS sucker that's been sitting in the Public Queue:

Kits' "Zodiac!Rat (WIP)"

Major Themes: Presenting a Unified-Looking Piece, Coherent Design, Palette Optimization, Lightsources, Black Outlines

Oh my. If you've been reading these tutorials at all, I hope you see at least a few of the reasons that this is pretty awful. I'm not the only one to be shocked by the sudden drop of quality from Kits.
Jalonso: This is quite a mess in comparison to your 2 nice and clean and well designed gallery pieces.
If you're not a PixelJointer yourself, Jalonso is our most-present mod, and overall just a really chill dude. He has an eye for talent, and is a really active guy who posts a lot of great advice. (on a personal note, he's the dude who awarded me my badge and gold star for critique work) But here Jalonso basically just channels my own thouhts.
FreshSheet: Nice design, but the banding is seriously killing this.
Hey, it's FreshSheet! We just saw his Jack Black piece a couple weeks ago. He's done quite a bit of commenting with some generally good advice. His own art has improved significantly over that piece as well, especially in the palette selection area (where I focused that crit) so it feels great to know that I really helped a guy out. And you definitely don't need to be an expert of banding to see that, yeah, the banding is pretty incredible. Oddly enough though, while writing the crit I found that banding wasn't too impacting compared to other fatal flaws here.

Then Kits posted (her first comment!) this wonderful little gem:
Kits: Hence the WIP, I started with a different coloring style when she was still without a head...but when I made a head things started to take a different shape. I'm trying to parse out how to make the entire thing more unified and was hoping for some feedback by putting her up as is hahaha...
Oh my god I should not be thinking this but seeing her, a person with a great deal of potential, say "was hoping for some feedback by putting her up" just through all sorts of sirens off in my head, and they all read "CRITIQUE OPEN SEASON!"
And so that's what I did. Let the crit beast commence.
Ego: Well, if you word it THAT way I'm totally in for helping and feedback and all. In the future, keep in mind that the PixelJoint gallery isn't supposed to be for WIPs, but for finished pieces. There's a forum here for posting WIPs and getting feedback just for that purpose :) Also, there are other forums (such as Pixelation) dedicated to feedback and the like, and I'll open the door here as well and say that if you ever want some feedback you can message me here and I'll help out as best I can, any time. And if you DO just post to the gallery again, put a message like "really would like some help figuring out how to do x/y/z with this piece, please help" in the description or something so everyone knows you're not putting this forward as something you're done with.
General good advice. And that invite goes for every single pixel'r out there who wants some targeted help, just toss me a message (or a comment here works) and I'll toss you some stuff to think about.
Alright, to the piece. Now, you have two types of issues going on it seems, pixel-errors and design-errors. Both have elements that are playing into the "not unified" thing, but I'll start with the design.
Design-wise, the character is pretty okay, but some parts don't make sense to me really. That's acceptable to some level (crazy fashion is the norm in a lot of stuff), but not when the fashion isn't quite understandable. Here's some of the points where I notice that the, um, horn I guess doesn't make any sense to me and the belt/sash thing seems a bit loose. We can obviously tell that it's a separate piece because its edge sticks out on the right side, but if it were actually holding something together it would cinch in together. Here, check this picture:
You can see how the sash is at the thinnest point cuz it ties it together. Here's a drawing I made illustrating it for your piece: LINK.
I did a bunch of hand drawings for this piece because design concepts were much easier to parse out by hand than by pixel.

I'm still comin' up blank on what that piece of fashion is called. I use both Sash and Band around the piece, eventually settling into "Sash" for the wider light grey part and "Band" for the dark grey bit with the gem in it.
What does the basic sensibilities of her outfit have to do with unity? Well, in this case it's mostly about removing distraction. When I see a piece like this, even if I can't put my finger on WHY it looks weird I'll be put-off by how her outfit makes no sense. I once did a piece with a mayan pyramid in it, but I forgot how those are 3d and so left off a side, and despite the pixels being fine it made the whole thing just look, well, wrong.
I always look back at this piece and can't unsee the lack of side on that pyramid. Ruins a lot about it in my mind, that and the incredibly fucked perspective on those tiles.
Fixing some design elements like that can go a long way to making the piece look good.
So what else do I have design-wise? First, I've got the pose. I can't quite tell if those are just very high heels or if she's floating with her feet pointing down, or what. Also, choosing to go with that style of face (very stick-figure-esque) makes it kinda confusing on the eyes.
In a disconcerting "is she super-cartoony, or stylized, or anime, or what?" way.
So what can you do on other pieces to try and tighten up that design stuff and not hit the same pitfalls? Well, think about where things would realistically lie. Even in a totally fantastical piece, think about the reality, then make the conscious decision to deviate from that reality - just make sure you know you're doing it. That's why it's so important for even moe anime artists to understand anatomy, because in the end everything is based off of reality (even if the piece doesn't look realistic). The difference between stylized design and laziness/ignorance is deliberation. The most helpful tricks to getting your head around a design when you're pixelling is a) look at references - pose, material, anything and everything, and b) draw a sketch beforehand of how you want the pixel-art to be shaped. Like, pencil on paper. Even if you suck at drawing, just use it guide your thoughts and plan your piece beforehand.
I remember that advice! I just might have said the exact same thing in the framework post.
Also "The difference between stylized design and laziness is deliberation" is a GREAT line and I've been trying to come up with a great way to say it for a long time. It is a single line that defeats the ever-popular newbie's "but it's my style!" argument for poor quality. Perfect.
That's the design side of things. How about the pixel side? Well, there's a lot of stuff actually. But I'm going to focus on three things, and touch on a fourth and fifth. Three of them have to do with presenting a more unified image.
Here's my big one for unification: the black outlines around everything. See, solid black is a very hungry color. Weird sentence, huh? But it's true. Black eats everything around it. Unlike off-blacks and off-whites, true black (hex code #000000) and true white (hex #ffffff) act like totally saturated colors in that they are extremely bold and attract the eye. When you put a highly saturated color next to an unsaturated one, the saturated one can be so bold that it overpowers the other color and making the fine detail harder to see. (I refer to this as the saturated color "eating" the other color, hence the hungry thing).
Now, some pieces have it where they put a big block of bright cyan next to some grey, and it's obvious there. But the black outline is the trap - black doesn't seem like a saturated color, and doing it as an outline isn't very much there, so it's not a problem, right...? It is a problem though. When you have a black outline, it actually eats up the detail of pretty much everything that comes right next to it. Fine detail gets lost to the black. Using black on all the internal lines as well (such as between the red and grey on the skirt) means there's black all over the place. However, this is only one of the problems of the black outline. The other problem is much more straightforward - black breaks the flow. That's why we use it as an outline, it defines the edges of things, right?
The problem is that too often in spriting we get caught up and make EVERY line a black outline. You should only use black where you want to imply real separation - black along the bottom of the skirt, or around the legs, is fine. However, some areas, such as red-to-grey on the skirt (and near the neck) definitely don't need it. Sprites are small, every pixel is a precious space for you to flesh out the detail of the character, and to lose all that space to just separating things is too costly. This is the #1 reason, in my opinion, that it doesn't look unified - your black lines took the piece and split it into a bunch of separate pieces that we perceive as distinct and isolated from each other. I could go on about why black is awful for outlines (for example, it doesn't assist in relaying the properties, such as color, of the object it's outlining), but I'll stop there for now. Just look at the skirt here and tell me it doesn't look more like one object because I removed the line: LINK
There may also be other mild changes in here. Look for colored outlines.
Black outlines DO have uses, primarily in making Game Assets as you can take advantage of the separating effect to break the foreground sprites from the background. In just a piece of pixel art, that's not necessary, and even with game assets you usually don't want internal black lines.
Unification point 2: The palette. First, this is a thing you should do on every piece: construct a palette map. A palette map is an image that shows each of your colors, setting them side by side in their ramps (or strings of colors that go from light to dark on the same structure), with maps sometimes branching out if a single color is a part of multiple ramps. I made one out of your image: LINK.
This is a basic-style palette map. It's similar to a ramp display, but with branching. I discussed this stuff in the FreshSheet lesson.
What do we see? I see five ramps: a long bright red ramp and a long grey ramp, linked at the brightest color. I see an offshoot on the red ramp where you have what seems to be a nearly identical color (this is from the shoe btw). I see a duller red ramp of the hair, a brown ramp with almost no purpose (eyebrows and two pixels between the arm and body outside the black outline), and a yellow ramp of the skin. Black is both the end of every single ramp and not really a part of any ramp at all. All and all, plus transparency (or that white bg) it comes to 25 colors, which is a lot.
Why is black not a ramp? Disconnection. Black only makes sense at the end of ONE of these ramps, the grey one, but for some reason appears on ALL the ramps. When used as a black outline, it's not a part of the object being shaded with the ramp, instead becoming a piece added on that is alone in the piece as an outline color, rather than being integrated into the shading paths of the objects.
If you want black in your ramps, don't use it as just an outline color, use it in any of the darkest spots of the piece. Just remember: sometimes black doesn't BELONG in your ramps, and if it doesn't belong in your ramps, maybe it doesn't belong as an outline color.
Now, I'm going to draw your map a little differently. This time, I'm going to show the map of each part of the piece. LINK.
 This is more of a ramp map than a palette map. Pretty powerful tool for showing some different things though.
This shows us a couple of interesting things. First is shows us that there's no rhyme or reason to when you used the brighter colors vs the darker ones - you obviously had a lightsource, from the left, but the intensity of that lightsource appears to change from piece to piece. The skirt has it going at a medium strength, the gems and lighter-grey band thing have it very strong, and the arms and face have almost no effect from the lightsource. So there's that - a lack of consistency with the lightsource can make pieces look separate and un-unified. Also, from this map we can clearly see that you never integrate colors from certain ramps into other ones. See, that's the real TRICK of palette optimization. This one makes it clear, but look back at the first map real quick, the one that doesn't separate the parts, just the colors. The goal of Palette Unification is to make those color ramps link up as often as possible while still remaining sensible and usable. Look here, at the Commodore 64 palette. See how strange and different the colors are, but one can still make ramps out of them in almost ANY combination of colors, even purples and yellows and greens making ramps? 
That link there is the Pixelation Restriction Guide again. I often use the c64 palette as evidence because, to the common sense mind of the regular person beginning pixel art, it does NOT look like it should work at all, but because of the interesting laws that govern pixel art (such as the power of dithering and our conservation of colors) it is way stronger than it would seem. This is also why the c64 and other diverse (or bizarre) palettes are challenges for beginners, they require some understanding of how to optimize colors and how color theory works with them, but making use of the palettes take you from comprehension of the principles to really understanding and mastering their implementation.
If you don't like how dusty and desaturated the C64 is, check out Dawnbringer's palette. I've linked it before, or just search "dawnbringer palette pixeljoint" in google.
Essentially, I'm saying that you can put colors that don't SEEM alike into the same ramp and it can still work. Look at any entry from the week's Weekly Challenge and you'll see people doing this like crazy. For your piece, some re-working of the palette will probably be necessary to do very much unification, but here's an easy few: merge the two similar reds in the shoes, turn the browns into dark greys, use your hair colors as accents within the exisitng red ramps, and use the brightest skin tone in place of that bright grey you use - it gives a visual splash of color without making the image look too skin-like. If your palette across the piece looks unified, the piece itself will appear more cohesive and drawn-together.
(the weekly challenge this week was to use the inverted version of the Dawnbringer palette)
My third thing is banding. This is not about making it unified. Banding is a pixel-level error where you make a row of pixels "hug" and exactly repeat another line of pixels of a different color. For example, the way your bright highlight on the legs hugs the black outline on the left. THIS is a tutorial I wrote for my blog about what exactly banding is, why it's a problem, and how to fix it, in the simplest terms I could come up with. You have banding on the legs, the gems, the sleeves, the sash/band, the hands, the horn, and the red bits of the dress around the neck, to name a few.
Wasn't as bad as I thought at first!
My fourth thing is a type of line we call "jaggies", which is pixel artist jargon for "unsmooth curves". It's caused by abruptness in curve angles or inconsistency in a curve. An example of the first is the top-right part of the hair or the legs, and an example of the latter would be the way the skirt seems to bulge out on the right side. It can also be caused by a curve being too straight on an object that is otherwise curvy, such as the left side of the skirt (which is a straight diagonal line on an object that should be curved and flowing, making it appear uncharacteristically stiff). THIS is also a tutorial I wrote for my blog on how to fix things and understand what a smooth curve actually is. (sorry to keep linking you to my other stuff but it helps save space in these posts)
This was the real killer that made the piece look sloppy. The other stuff would make it look ill-thought out, but the jaggies are what reduce it to a really bad piece right now. As I've said though, I'm a stickler for smooth lines.

I really am sorry, but this explanation as it is comes to about 2400 words, or 14000 characters, which required four freakin' posts to deliver. Sometimes redirection is necessary for brevity (and my own sanity).
My last thing I want to mention is lightsource again. You see, lightsource is important. Along with the shape of an object and its pixel clusters, it's the single most important thing to make an image look consistent. And you HAVE a lightsource, as I mentioned, at the left. The problem is that it is unevenly applied. Not even just in the way I talked about above, where it's stronger in some places than others - there are places where it literally makes no sense. I'm talking about the skirt. There are two main issues with it. One is that you don't seem to understand how light hits folds like that (not an uncommon problem). Second is that you treated the red and grey on the skirt separately, probably because they had a black line breaking them apart, but the light should follow the two colors exactly the same way. Here, I have more visual aids. LINK
Yeah, I'm a real pro at not cropping my photos of my doodles. So enjoy my Art Of The Mass Effect Universe book in the background there. (ps you should buy that book if you like concept art at all, it's really really amazing)
This is the skirt reduced to its simplest forms, an up side and a down side to every fold. Where the fold faces the light source it is bright, where it doesn't it is in shadow. Let's add a little curve to those zigzags: LINK.
The primary difference here between my drawings and your pixels is that on yours, the greatest highlight is on the very tip-top of each curve, but it should actually be the part that faces left - the top should be where it transitions into shadow!  Let's add that second section to it and see how the light changes when it hits it: LINK1 LINK2. (note: my point is that it didn't change by splitting off another color)
 Huh, that's a pretty good upside-down shot of Grunt and Mordin there. Also visible: my bed.
So here's the wrap-up: For a more unified piece, you should do away with black outlines where thigns aren't actually separated (and might do away with them entirely), unify your color ramps across the whole palette to a greater degree, and establish a consistent lightsource not just for direction, but also strength of the light. Also design the character in a way that makes sense to the viewer and doesn't break the laws of reality unless you intend it to do so (and even then it should LOOK intentional, not ambiguous or indistinct). Pixel-wise, you need to smooth out your curves and avoid both banding and gradienting (where you shade by just using a darker color as you move in one direction without real concern for the way the light is actually wrapping around the object - this is very evident in the legs).
This is a tl;dr! I don't do these often, I don't believe in cutting out all the important explanation, but I did one anyways because this post is kind of a bear to look at.
Also, I left out the obvious one: finish the piece! Shade that hair. But WIP, so not too big of a deal.
Well duh.
Well, this is kind of a beast of a post, so I'm going to stop there. This should give you some serious stuff to think about and work on, but if I said ANYthing that didn't make sense or you want additional help on a specific section, just ask - I check back on pieces I critique frequently, and am always up for a follow-up post. Good luck!
Hopefully that helps though. Jalonso asked if this could be turned into a generic-ized n00btorial (a set of tutorials told in almost all images that cover a wide range of topics), so it'll be really neat to maybe have something actually hosted on PJ. I really hope Kits gets something out of it too, because I would really love to see some more refined stuff from her in the future. Good luck Kits! Hope to see more soon!
End Recording,

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