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Author Topic: Speed-Painting Spacecraft: a How-To Guide (No 56K, large images!)  (Read 19840 times)


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This guide will teach you how to speed-paint original spaceship designs from scratch.

This is a fairly detailed tutorial.  By the time you finish it, you'll have made this ship:

If you're an impatient "tl:dnr" type or already know a fair amount about digital painting, you can just scroll down the images and review what you're not certain about, maybe learn a couple of tricks and tips.  

However, if you're new to this or are struggling to figure out how to make ships that look good, I really suggest reading it all, in order, and trying to complete the example spacecraft that is provided with this project by duplicating what you see.

What does this guide cover?

1.  How to transition from a line drawing to blocked-out forms, with lighting and shade.

2.  Creating intermediate details, such as panel lines and other basic greebles.

3.  Color.

4.  Shrinking a sprite to final size and some processing tips.

5.  Basic hints and tips about pixel-painting on final passes to detail out a ship.

What does this guide not cover?

1.  How to use Photoshop, GIMP, Paint.NET or any of the other graphics programs that allow artists to work with layers, use airbrush tools, and other things like this.  

If you've never ever used a paint program or are pretty weak with them, this tutorial will only be really useful when you've learned the basics of your chosen tool.  I'm going to refer to things like "Layers", "Curves", "Color Balance", etc., etc. that are digital painting terms as I go.  I'll try and keep this relatively free of Photoshop-specific jargon, but if you don't know these things, you need to look them up on Google :)

P.S.: please, do not send me PMs about how to do things in Photoshop.  If you're interested in learning Photoshop but have no money, Photoshop CS2 is offered for free on Adobe Systems website.

2.  How to be an artist; i.e., the basics, like how to draw a line drawing of shapes and forms, how to use light and shadow and treatment of perspective.  If you have done some digital painting before, but aren't super-familiar with these things, there are literally hundreds of guides, studies etc. available on the Internet that will take you from the basics, like shading a sphere with a single light, to complex lighting and perspective.  I cannot teach such a complicated subject here.

Why did you write this?

1.  People asked me to.  I have created a lot of original ship designs from scratch, which is something that a lot of people have problems with.

2.  While kit-bashing existing is a completely legitimate way to make new ships for the game, and I've done a lot of it, it won't let you create anything completely original in terms of forms, especially at the lower levels of greebling and overall design feel.  

Moreover, kit-bashing often makes creating good forms with proper lighting harder, rather than easier, because sections have to be lit or shaded one pixel at a time, by hand, to get a really good result.  

It also makes color manipulation a bit more cumbersome.

Is this the "right way" to make sprites?

Absolutely not!  

There are lots of other methods which work just fine, like building complex 3D models and detailing the scaled renders, working with kit-bash parts and carefully pixel-painting, etc., etc., etc.  There is no "right way" to go about this.  This is merely one way that I've developed largely because I don't have a lot of free time and, as an experienced digital artist, I like figuring out time-savers.

Let's GO!  From a Line Drawing to Shaded Surfaces

Taking a line drawing and rapidly making it into a shaded piece of art that is ready to be colored is very easy and can go very quickly, if you understand the steps you need to take.  

However, figuring out the order of things is often a stumbling-block, and many artists hit their first wall here, because this is a technical hurdle.

We need to start with a line drawing.  Black and white or black lines and clear pixels, no grayscale and no colors.  

It could be a scanned line drawing, a drawing made in a paint program or drawing program.  It doesn't matter.

What matters is that it does not have any non-black pixels in the lines... and that it does not have any "leaks"- i.e., areas where the lines don't meet, which will prevent us from selecting specific areas.

What's this about Leaks?

Here's an example of a good drawing that's ready for the first stage.  It does not have any leaks; all lines are complete.

Here is an example of what we want to avoid:  a line drawing that hasn't had the leaks fixed!  See those little places where the lines aren't complete?  They're going to cause trouble here in a second...

Now, why all this stuff about leaks?  Well, if we fill the one without any leaks with two shades of gray, we get very different results.  The one on the left does not have leaks, the one on the right does.  See the difference?

So, if you're bringing in a scanned line drawing, you're going to have to fix all the leaks right away, before we can get to the next stage, because having a leak-free set of outlines is very important.

The Tutorial Ship

Now, because I know that a lot of you may or may not have a leak-free line drawing sitting around, I'm providing one to you, which you'll be using to complete this tutorial.  Download this image and open it up in your image editor of choice:


You're probably thinking to yourselves: gosh, this image is HUGE!  Why?

Well, here's why.  It's because when we're speed-painting, we're going to make a lot of small mistakes.  Speed-painting is about speed, right?  The faster you go, the more likely a mistake gets.  We're only human, after all.  So bigger areas are helpful, because you can do big, fast strokes on low settings and work on things without worrying about pixel-perfect accuracy.

Moreover, when you shrink the final results, the small mistakes get averaged away, due to how the process of shrinking an image works.  So our smaller mistakes will all suddenly "go away", when we get down to final sizes.

Because most people aren't super-accurate at painting, especially when they're going fast, this is a good method to use, if you want to learn how to do this fast.  We'll get it nice and clean at the very end.

So, let's do it, really really fast.  Ready?

Fill 'Er Up

Using the Magic Wand tool with Anti-Aliasing OFF, select all of the interior empty areas (i.e., everything that isn't a black line).  

It's super-important that we don't have any anti-aliasing on this stage, or we'll be creating the "leaks" we just made sure were all fixed.  So, double-check, or you will regret it later on in this tutorial  ;)

Make a new Layer, and fill that Layer with a fairly neutral gray (I used RGB 100/100/100), using that selection area.  It should look like this now:


Shade Me!

Using light and shadow to build up the impression of depth and form is probably the most important part of making a ship look good.  

However, there isn't a great deal to say about it that hasn't been covered in lots and lots of better tutorials about painting than this.  So what I'm going to cover here is the technical aspects.

First off, if you've built the filled layer as a separate layer as in the previous instructions, you can select each part with the Magic Wand tool and edit without fear of destroying your work on other parts.  This is super-handy.

So, using only black and white, the Airbrush tool (with a low, low flow setting and a generic soft brush at various sizes- I used 128, 64 and 32 to do this)... make your filled-in ship template look like this:


As you can see, I've taken the flat drawing and it now looks a lot more 3D.  There are lots of little forms to the object now, not just a collection of flat things.  Light and shadow; it's what gives a ship a form.

So, if you don't get it right the first time, keep trying and study this part.  This is probably the most important step.  Just remember, you don't have to get this perfect; you can make lots of little mistakes, and it's OK.  In fact, the more experienced digital painters here will note all sorts of little screw-ups in my painting, but hey, it only took about 10 minutes- literally longer to set this up and type this part than to do it  ;)

Also note that I only executed half of the ship at all.  Why do all that work on both sides, when we're just going to mirror it later?  Save time; work smarter, not harder.

All the Colors in the Rainbow...

Now that we have light and shadow, which give the objects forms instead of being flat and lifeless, we can now move on to color.

This part will look really complicated, especially since I'm going to skip talking about minor stuff like the paint stripes.  But it's actually really simple.

First off, make a new layer, copying the gray-scale version.  Set this layer to use the Soft Light blending mode, so that the grays underneath it will contribute to the final look.

Then fill with some textures and colors, maybe do some airbrush here and there.  Here is the color layer without using the blending mode, so that everybody can see how simplistic it really is:


Now let's see it when it's set to Soft Light, and the grays contribute light and shadow:


Pretty big difference, right?

But I added a few adjustments:

1.  I copied that original gray-scale layer and put the copy over the color layer.  Then I set it to use the Multiply layer blending mode and set it to a transparency level of 55%.  This gave me a little more drama to my contrast levels.  There are other ways to do this, but this is easy and it doesn't permanently change the gray scales or touch the color layer.

2. I gave it and the other layers the Layer Effect called "Stroke", which draws lines around our borders.  I set the color to pure black, set the Position to Inside and a size of 2 pixels.  Inside ensured it didn't bulk out the sprite's outside dimensions any; 2 pixels means 4 pixels of black between the objects, which, as we'll see, will largely be invisible in the final product, but give it a little black-lining with very little work involved.  

3.  I made one last layer, after selecting just the cockpit area, put it on top of all the others, and filled it with my cockpit color.  Blend mode was set to Normal, and once again, I used Stroke to make sure it would have strong black lines.

The final result looks like this:


Now we're ready for the final stages: shrinking the sprite to the final dimensions, doing cleanup and final pixel-art.  Ready?  Let's go!

The Incredible Shrinking Sprite

So, we're ready to shrink this ship.  Big decision time.

What size were we aiming for?  Is this a Frigate, a Destroyer, a giant Capship?

Depending on our answer, we may need to go back to the previous stages and adjust things here and there at this point, after doing some experiments.  In particular, that "Stroke" Layer Effect may need to get adjusted, so that it's not too light to give us some black-lining (with Frigates, it can definitely happen) or too heavy (capships need about half that size).

We also may need to add more detail, if the ship's really large.  For example, I didn't do any major panel-lines at all here, other than what was in the original drawing.  Doing that stuff while the sprite's still large is easier, because we can use the separate pieces to trim lines and correct mistakes- generally speaking, you want to do panel lines and other major greebles before we shrink.

But for this tutorial, I'm going to make that decision for you; I want this ship to be in the Destroyer / Cruiser range: roughly 200 pixels long.

So merge all your layers and set the image size to 200 pixels.  If using Photoshop, I recommend using the Bicubic method, rather than the default (Bicubic Sharper), because I like more control over sharpening.

You should end up with this:


As you can see, a lot of the small mistakes are now... gone.  So are a lot of details.  This can't be helped; shrinking things is an averaging process, and details will get lost.

But we can get some of it back, perceptually, by using Sharpen.

So copy the layer, and use Sharpen on the copy, once.  Then adjust the translucency of the copied layer until it's a blend of the Sharpened layer and the original, and merge them.  Here I used 50% translucency:


It's a fairly subtle change, but basically, it helps with contrast and gives us a little more feeling of detail back.

Now we're done with that, let's finally make this a whole ship, not just a half, and see what we've got.  

I just used the selection tool and selected up to the center pixels here, then cut and pasted that to a new layer, then I copied that layer and flipped it horizontally and moved it over.  

Then I discarded the original layer, since it only contained the other half now.  You should have a result like this:


Time for pixel-painting details!

The Devil is in the Details...

So, now we've got form, light, color, we've got it at final size... how to get that last bit done and get it looking like this?
Here are hints and tips.

Just after painting shadows and light, the final pixel-paint steps are probably the most important parts of making a really good-looking ship.

A lot of people get lazy about this stage, because they think it's going to take them forever.  It doesn't have to; if you've done the previous stages correctly, you already have a pretty detailed sprite, and it just needs a few things here and there.

So how to do this?  What's important?

The "how" is pretty straight-forward:  in new layers, either above or below the main sprite, add small additional greebling or clean up areas where the sprite, when shrunk, lost too much contrast and needs deeper lighting to make details pop out.

For example, I didn't build any hardpoint or turret locations into the initial drawing.  I usually like to do that at this stage, because it's not always quite obvious where they need to go when we're at full size- stuff that looks OK there will perhaps not look great when scaled down, and things like that need nice, crisp details.

So I constructed some little boxes with some little highlights and shadows, using the pencil tool and grays, to build the weapons attachment points.  You don't need to do this every time; in fact, you may want to build a few things like this and have them sitting around for this part, or just cut out the ones David made and use them (although be warned, you'll need to adjust them a bit in terms of light / contrast to make them fit in really well).  

Then I put them on the sprite and added a few pixels to suggest attachments.

How about those antennas?  Again, just the pencil tool, this time in a layer beneath the main one.  Zoom way in on those to see how I handled lighting; it's easy.

The number on the right side of the engine section?  Just some text with Stroke to make sure it stood out, rendered and rotated, then cut off where it would go "around" the hull.  Technically, I should have also messed with it a bit to get the perspective right, but in this case I figured it would be OK as-is.

The lights?  Two layers: first, one-pixel dots, then I duplicated that and used the Blur More filter.

How about the edge black-lining?  I duplicated the main sprite a few times, then merged it all together, then applied a 1-pixel Stroke, using black, positioned Center.  Then I merged that into an empty layer to render the Stroke into the sprite and did a few minor pixel cleanups.

How about the little holes and stuff?  Easy. Make a new layer, and use the pencil tool to sprinkle black dots in appropriate places.  Set the layer's blend mode to Soft Light.  For ships that are symmetrical, just do half.

Copy the layer.  Fill with white, using (in Photoshop, anyhow) Edit-->Fill, with the Preserve Transparency setting.  Or just Invert the layer- it's black, so it'll turn white.  Move one pixel to the left.  Set the layer blending mode to Overlay and adjust translucency until it feels right.  Voila, done.

That's pretty much it.  A little ship like this takes very little time to do all those details for, with a bit of practice.  If this is your first run through this tutorial, take your time and experiment here; one of the keys is to zoom in, do some things and then zoom back out to check the work.  Also, I generally make a bottom layer that I fill with a dark gray (not true black) for checking things like antennas and lights out.  Helps a lot, since those things are hard to see otherwise.

If you've followed this tutorial step-by-step, you should now have a ship that looks roughly like the one at the beginning and end, and should know a lot more about how to execute original artwork and make a decent sprite. With a little practice, you'll be turning out all sorts of excellent, well-shaded work and we'll all enjoy blowing it up when it's in a mod.  

Congratulations, and thanks for sticking with it  :D
« Last Edit: June 28, 2013, 01:46:18 AM by xenoargh »
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Re: Speed-Painting Spacecraft: a How-To Guide (No 56K, large images!)
« Reply #1 on: June 28, 2013, 01:55:11 AM »

WOW  :o  Nice man THANKS !
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Re: Speed-Painting Spacecraft: a How-To Guide (No 56K, large images!)
« Reply #2 on: June 28, 2013, 05:20:31 AM »

Awesome! That downsizing is a really intresting way to do it.
And the way you shade and sharpen also gives the ship great looks!

Thanks very much for the elaborate workout of your speedpaint techniques - really really nice!


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Re: Speed-Painting Spacecraft: a How-To Guide (No 56K, large images!)
« Reply #3 on: June 28, 2013, 02:39:25 PM »

No problem, glad it was useful :)

If there are any areas of the tutorial that you feel like you'd like more details about, feel free to ask in this thread.  Here are a few things I didn't cover, or kind of skipped through (the tutorial was already long enough, lol):

1.  I didn't cover doing the ship without any blacklining, for more of a classical-art feel.  It's simple; skip the Stroke step.  If you've used a one-pixel thick line drawing (or thereabouts) the black lines will just magically disappear when you shrink it, for the most part.

Here's an example of the same ship, sans any blacklining via Stroke:

I usually prefer a little blacklining to give it stronger edges, for that old-skool pixel look, but it's purely a matter of taste :)

2. I didn't cover colored blacklining, which is sometimes desireable when you're wanting to work with saturated colors or lighter colors.  That's very easy in most cases, just select each major color area and move them to a new layer, then adjust the Stroke colors to be a darker shade.  When complex colors are involved, like paint stripes, that can get a little more complicated- I'd suggest using the gray layers to create the borders where appropriate and being ready to do some final work just before shrinking it- merge the layers, then do some judicious airbrushing while it's still big.

3.  I didn't cover how to paint in additional forms and greebles, to create a more-organic feel.  That's a little outside the scope, but generally... if you're following the guide, you want to do that during the creation of the gray layer; remember, these details are going to create light and shade, and the contrasts that are created, not the color components, are the key.

4.  I didn't cover creating details that go across the borders.  That can get a little tricky, because you need to match up perspective and lighting a little more accurately.  Honestly, if you're not a really great painter, I'd suggest doing those sorts of things in the initial drawing.

5.  I didn't really cover lighting to match David's work, which is pretty important if you don't want your art to look very obviously out-of-place.  David's artwork is generally lit from above, with the light source angled slightly forward, with no significant angles.  This was a good choice, because it keeps the lighting even and constant without creating a lot of problems in terms of execution.  

I should emphasize that if you're wanting to emulate the Vanilla artwork that David's treatment of light is painterly and not exact, nor is it entirely obeying the rules of lighting in perspective; when you look at each of the different ships, it's a little different and sometimes things were lit more strongly to enhance details and use contrasts constructively.  So don't stress out too much about making it perfect.

6.  I didn't cover how to get saturation levels back up, if you want highly-saturated colors.  Using the gray layers like I did tends to lower saturation; if you want to fix that, it's pretty easy to do in Photoshop.  

Do it just before shrinking, by merging all of the layers other than the line drawing, then selecting the areas and using (in Photoshop, anyhow) Image-->Adjust-->Hue/Saturation and fiddling with it until you're happy.
« Last Edit: June 28, 2013, 02:55:52 PM by xenoargh »
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Re: Speed-Painting Spacecraft: a How-To Guide (No 56K, large images!)
« Reply #4 on: June 28, 2013, 03:28:06 PM »

Very nice guide, well done! I'll definitely come back to it when and if I start my own mod (depending on how the API progresses).

I'll move it to modding resources, better fit there.
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Re: Speed-Painting Spacecraft: a How-To Guide (No 56K, large images!)
« Reply #5 on: June 29, 2013, 03:06:15 AM »

'e voila added to the toolbox! thanks for contributing this to the community.
I think this will be usefull for a lot of starters and even veterans.
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