[tutorial]Creating faithful billboards from scratch

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[tutorial]Creating faithful billboards from scratch

Post by Ninelan »

Sometimes you are just not happy with what the game offers you. And if you're not artistically inclined, it can be hard to acquire new sprites that mesh well with the game. And if you are artistically inclined, where to even begin copying a foreign style?

However, if one knows the method, one can quickly realize just how easy a task can be, ;)
In this tutorial, I will show how one can make 2 distinct types of nature billboards. A set of rocks and a tree.
This can be applied to any type of object though, including the paperdoll. (This method was devised to copy the Daggerfall paperdoll style in fact!)

So let's start with what little tools you need.
The selected art program needs the following:
lasso select, for selecting and isolating regions for retouching.
Bucket tool with fine-tuning settings, these settings are: the ability to check and uncheck application to connected pixels only and colour tolerance. The ability to refer to other layers is not necessary but useful.
A set of brushes you are comfortable with. A smooth round brush is all you really need, but textures are always handy.

Pixel art can always be rather finicky, especially with the million different art styles out there, but it's usually one of the easiest art types one can master.
What better way to begin than with some colour!
(Here is a small segment of colours compiled off Daggerfall Imaging 2)
(this image is an exaggeration)
When you colour the sprite, you don't exactly want to do what you see on panel 1. If you colour your darkest and lightest values in a linear fashion from start to finish, what you end up with is a flat looking object with little defining volume. (while some environmental billboards are made like this, most are vibrantly coloured)
What you rather wanna do is be mobile and move between the palettes where necessary, and you can even skip a few swatches here and there if you must. As you see, plenty of the colours come in a warmer and colder hue, many Daggerfall billboards will use a warmer gradient towards the lighter area and the colder one on the shadier side.

I suggest exporting a few sprites from the game and comparing what colours they use side by side with a palette. just to study how the gradients are done on more concrete examples.

Now that we're through with this one, let's do our first sprite, a rock!


It's always good to have the example of what you're trying to imitate side by side as a comparison, this way you can always check how far you're straying from the style.
I have decided I wanted to draw a pile of rocks with a hard, pixelated brush. Two rocks are on the bottom and two other ones are stacked one on another. I wanted these rocks to have streaks, but then I made them look very rugged, so let's move on to shading.

Once I'm happy with the silhouette, I lock layer transparency and start shading with a big soft round brush. This is the crucial, most important part of making the sprite. How accurate you make the grayscale directly affects the end result. You may need to go back to this step a few times until you get it right. Don't fret from the smooth, blurry look as it will later get pixelated, in fact, it'll help you make nice and even gradient transitions which are important for volume.
If you have not drawn before, you might need to practice this step a little as it requires a lot of finesse, but generally, it's easier to get something good looking on a smaller sprite than a bigger one.
You want to make it very detailed, but you don't want to make some areas way lighter than the others, as that will create a too large a colour gradient that will interfere with the next step.

Now I need to explain a little bit how to get the pixelated look. There are programs, tools and gradients that allow for quick pixelization, but there are a million different ways to do it and each art program may not necessarily have that method available.
If you already know of an efficient method to palettize your image, skip this segment.

So let's do it the ol' trusty way...with a bucket tool.
Select your bucket tool, and make sure you have the 'connected pixels only' unchecked(this may have a different name). This lets you colour every single pixel of the same colour in the entire image, not just the colours that are connected together where you clicked. This is super useful.
Make sure colour tolerance is set to 0 or 1~2. This controls how many other very similar hues it will colour alongside the one you selected.
I generally start with a jarring, ugly colour that is not found on the palette and start by colouring the darkest region black, and each next region I colour a lighter hue until I'm completely done.
I advise against making it grayscale as you might end up colouring something the way you don't want it to be later down the line.

Once the image is palettized, I apply the apropriate colour palette of the rock (in this case, it's a few different grey hues, including the dark blue colours). It's nice and all, but it looks a little stale in comparison to the reference rock.
If you check closely, the original rock has yellowish-brown regions on the transition from warm to cold greys.
Now we take out the lasso tool and start selecting what we want that colour. With the bucket tool, we colour the selected areas with this new yellowish-brown colour. Since our bucket tool colours all pixels of that colour in the selected area, we can focus on filling one area and the rest will follow suit.

At the same time, I also selected the soil on which the rocks stand and coloured them in too.
As the last step I started altering some pixels I was unhappy with, eased in transitions, added other details like extra rocks in the shady area and small pits on the stone surface. I also completely reworked the soil by hand. Some parts of the original rock were blue, so I also added blue chips in my rocks.

Ta-da! And we have some new rocks to play around with! But what about something more complex, like a tree?
Well, here is an example of how to apply this to a tree.

The method is similar. References are always good, so I urge you to find pictures of real trees to study.
I settled with an elder with multiple trunks and a warm-green canopy. The blossoms themselves may be out of scope for this tutorial currently, so I chose to omit them.

When drawing a more complex sprite like a tree, it's good to partition the canopy from the trunk into different layers so we can work on one undisturbed from the other.
You want to define light and dark areas, as well as be careful about the texture of the canopy. Different trees have different 'textures' so to say. Once happy with the result, it's time to pixelate the canopy and trunk.

I decided I want to start with the trunk, it's good to reference already existing trees for this if you're unsure how to colour it.
I decided to go with an even brown. Then I selected some areas I want to be grey and changed the palette to that one. Some regions I coloured yellow and others green. Trees tend to be covered in lichen and moss, and combining brown with grey helps 'even out' the hues to be not as bright, as real tree trunks don't tend to be cartoonishly bright.
Lastly, I coloured the canopy green using warm and cold hues, but it kinda looks a bit dull, still.

I started selecting different regions of the canopy, altering its greens to be slightly different. The darkest areas I selected and coloured blue.
Then I coloured some specks here and there yellow to make the canopy look warmer. I also started to strategically place around grey as filler or to cover up dark spots, which has a wonderful property of being assimilated in the surrounding colours. Lastly, I started removing some pixels I did not like, covered up the tree branches ends and got rid of the black pixels.

You might need to go back and forth a few times to properly get the tree look you want, but with a little practice, you'll get it right as a little experience and experimentation can quickly gift you with a keen eye for details!

It's time to compare them side by side!

Looks good so far! If I put more time into fine-tuning them from shading to leaf size, the result could be even better, but everything comes with time and practice.
I hope this little tutorial opens up the creation of faithful looking billboards to a wider audience.
Thank you for tuning in!

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