Friday, July 25, 2014

Pixel Art Lesson: s0mber's "cloak" (Contrast, Palette Size, Resolution, Lightsource)

Abhainn Mor from Young Dubliners on Myspace.
The instrumentals of The Young Dubliners are pretty great. I'm not totally into their lead singer's voice, but the celtic rock style is pretty sweet. Also their new album is barely anywhere yet so sorry about having to embed friggin' MySpace.

I've been running my mouth some more on PixelJoint, so I guess it's time to share some of my and my recipient's experiences.

s0mber's "cloak"

Major Themes: Contrast, Palette Size, Resolution, Lightsource

The piece actually went through a lot of stages. What you see here are, on the right, the final stages of the piece. I don't actually have the very first iteration, and it seems that s0mber also saved over them. Unfortunate, but what can you do? I'm gonna have to get in the habit of saving originals. Technically, the one on the far left isn't actually what it was - you'll see it's true form through the critique.

I don't have the first image, but my points were very quick before the first edit.
s0mber uploaded it as his first image. I wasn't the first commenter, but I thought I was - I was typing my comment when 7heSama cut in beneath me with:
7heSama says: Needs higher contrast, esp. in the light gray in his foot/shdow and the dark/medium red
Looks nice tho
Which is basically what I ended up saying in more words:
Ego says: Welcome to Pixel Joint!

There's a bit of readability trouble. The saturated red distacts from the grey shirt enough to make it harder to read, and the shading on the cloak is really hard to see without zooming way in because of the low contrast. I like the character though!
That's basically the briefest I've ever posted in, like, years. I had so much I could pick on but didn't want to scare away a new poster. Like I said though, I've been running my mouth lately, so that didn't last long...
s0mber replied: Thank you! This is one of my first creations, I'm fairly new to arts.. Will play with colors, thanks for the motivation.
Followed soon by
s0mber says: Updated. Not perfect, but better?..
Well, first off, that's the right way to take critique! Right in stride, and immediately incorporating it. Any regular readers can catch some potential troubles already: a different sort of contrast issue, and a color count one.
Ego says: Ah, interesting. You've solved the one issue, but stepped into a different one - no biggie, that's how you get better, right?
Fix the previous problem and give me a whole new subject to talk about? My favorite. Lets me practice a bunch of kinds of pixel knowledge.

So yes, you've done a decent job solving the contrast thing. Even at 1x the feet in the shadows can be made out, and the red of the cloak is less saturated to the point that the other bits show through a bit better. Nice job!

The new issue is partially about contrast till (yes, same concept, but in a different way), and partially about the way pixel art in particular works. It centers entirely on the cloak - there's little things you could work on elsewhere, but the cloak is the big deal. In this version, you added some extra colors to the cloak. I can guess why you did it: you switched the dark bits from before to the much darker red, and the change felt too abrupt so you added some intermediate colors. Not unreasonable. However, there's a couple problems with doing that here.

The first is with regard to contrast. While the difference between the light part and the dark part is visible, most of the intermediate stuff fades together when zoomed at 1x or even 2x because the colors are close together. Getting the contrast right here is going to be a bit of a struggle - both solid red and solid blue are hard colors to show the contrast without being too abrupt. But just adding colors in a gradient like that isn't usually a great strategy - it starts doing this thing we call banding (you should look up Banding in The Pixel Art Tutorial in the resources section of the forum here - you do it pretty heavily in a couple places) that we try to avoid.
That tutorial is easily accessible right here! The Ramblethread cure links there is super interesting but much more advanced - I link the Pixelation Knowledge Repository later, which is a summation of a lot of the points of that thread. In the PJ tutorial by cure, section IV-4 is the one I'm pointing at, which talks about banding. If you read my Lessons here, I've discussed banding a lot - it's the hardest-to-explain fundamental concept of pixel art, and is commonly caused by otherwise-good practices used without care.
Another question for you to think about: what's your light source for this piece? This is an important question for any kind of art, not just pixel art. Based upon the highlights on the chest, the light is in front of him on the right. Based upon the shadow, the light is coming from right above him. Based upon the cloak, the light is coming from the left, or maybe from above if you're looking at the hood. Pick a light source, and think about how the form of the character would cast shadows over other parts.

About color count: well, a) you don't have 20 colors, you have 19 now! I arranged your palette here: Take a look and think about how many of those look similar to other ones you have. An unspoken goal of pixel art is to have as low a color count as needed to provide the impression you want - it's considered good craftmanship. Looking at your palette, some of those colors are really close to other ones - you could just make them the same! When we're zoomed out, looking at the piece at 1x or 2x, the differences are often not too noticeable, so always keep in mind that THAT'S the scale people will mostly be looking at your piece.
Here's that image if you don't feel like clicking a link.

I always worry when I explain the idea of low color count to new users because it's NOT a rule. High-color work can be great, like the TheoVision piece I showed last time. You don't need low colors, but if you can achieve the same effect in a piece with fewer colors it's considered good form to do so. If the impression you want ends up needing a lot, so be it. However, this is pretty rare - go through the PJ hall of fame and you'll be hard-pressed to find many pieces with more than 40-ish colors, and the ones that are almost all demoscene-style pieces from a very different tradition of pixel art. Also, the smaller your piece, the fewer colors you'll need, although the opposite is not true (larger pieces do not necessarily require more colors).

A last note: if you have the capability, consider making the background to the character transparent! It's by no means necessary, but I think it might actually look nicer without the box of color around him. This isn't too big a deal though, it still looks fine with it.

Hope this stuff helps! Let me know if you'd like something explained further, and sorry about it being such a dense block of text. Keep it up man, I'm looking forward to seeing your stuff here in the future!
And s0mber took the concepts well! And posted the following post and new iteration.
s0mber says: Thanks for the pointers! Still don't seem to get it right, but at least the number of colors is down to 6 now.. Need to do some more reading and experimenting and then reiterate :) Getting the colors right is tough, lights and shadows - even more..

Ego says:
No doubt this is the best iteration yet by a good deal!There's still a couple floating contrast things that could be perfected (using the pant shade on the shirt might be too harsh a transition, and the hair shade blends with the cloak) but the reds are great with each other and you cleaned out the superfluous colors.

You've stumbled into an odd situation - you mixed resolutions! Most of the piece (and the entirety of the previous versions) was blown up 2x beforehand so that each individual pixel was actually a 2by2 square. That's totally fine. However, when you made this iteration, you have those mostly 2x2 blocks but a couple of 1x1 pixels. I'm sure that you wanted the extra room to add detail, but since now the eye can distinguish what a 1x1 pixel looks like the rest of the 2x2 shading seems blocky by comparison. Wherever a single pixel is visible, that provides your resolution.
 I'll be honest: I don't see this problem very often at all! I most often talk about resolution with banding because I'm basically parroting what the Pixelation tut says about it. Here though I think I finally understand exactly what it means in those explanations and why obfuscating your resolution is one of the primary goals of pixel art. This is really why I write long explanatory crits, because it teaches me as well as other people. I mean, just last night I was musing about clusters on Twitter and broke through how AA interacts with cluster theory. That's unrelated to this crit of course.

The other thing would be that I can tll what you were doing with the shading on the cloak, but it seems more like the idea of a cloak fluttering rather than how a cloak would actually fold. Think about it like this: those sorts of ripples, while iconic for a cloak, make the most sense if it's being blown in the wind. If that were the case, it would be blown up a lot more. At rest, it would have a much more predictable shadow, cast simply by the body against the cloak.
This is very much a composition crit, and yes lightsource is (to me) a composition-level problem. It's a good sign for you when I stop talking about pixel-level stuff and move onto your composition-level stuff! While those are harder to fix as they require redoing whole sections completely, it means that your pixel-level stuff is at a point that I'm not concerned about it.
Of course, it also could be the result of the fact that no amount of pixel refining can fix a piece with a broken composition.
(I also talk about it less because I'm totally not a pro at composition - there's a lot of great resources for that if you want to learn, but I need to figure out more myself before I start talking about it TOO much)

A very specific note: you see that shading on the cloak right next to the arm? The way that it exactly mirrors the shape of the arm? THAT is banding. This is the tutorial you want for a good opening explanation, at section IV-4:

I try not to do this with new folks, but I did a quick edit of your piece to show you what I mean. I show you this on a condition: don't just copy what I do. Understand how it works and apply those lessons in your own way.
I think I've been quite clear in the past why I don't like showing edits to new folks; it's the same reason I write my tutorials as examinations of others and not walking through a thing of my own - learn from it, don't copy it.

Hopefully that puts a visual point on the points I was explaining. Keep going - your improvements have been in leaps and bounds :)
And the process continues:
s0mber says:Thanks! A couple more iterations. I see what you mean, but still can't get it right in some places.. well, trial and error.. Think I shall switch to something else, read some tutorials for a moment and review in some time, as I feel like I'm out of ideas for this one.. Iterations so far: link
This is the linked image.
Ego says: Aye, and the latest ones have the best forms yet :) Still a bit of that resolution mismatch, but whatever.

Don't feel obligated to stick onto this one at all. I rarely actually go back to change a piece and just apply critique to the next one. You've made tremendous progress with this piece, and you should be proud of that :) If you're ever stuck and itching for critique, hit me up and I'll see if I can't help.

To help with the tutorial searching, the one I linked in the previous post is one of the best. This one is actually my favorite, though it doesn't go out of its way to explain all the lingo (but has a great explanation of the resolution thing I was talking about): And I'll be a bit selfish and link my own lessons, mostly teaching through observing other critiques to understand what to watch out for:
The rest is asking permission to write, well, this. I could have left off with some additional crits about the final ones (such as the resolution issue not being resolved) but it's also made some great choices like the switched hair color and the generally fixed cloak shape. I decided not to though, better to leave it as it is and keep an eye out for whatever he comes up with next. Keep it up man!

End Recording,

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