The goal of this post is to collect a checklist or guide to go through during the creation of an artwork. The checklist isn’t tied to any specific tool but tries to ensure a certain quality of the end product.
For example, one common problem when creating art is that after starring at your work for such a long time, you won’t be able to spot errors anymore. However, this can be alleviated for example by looking at a gray scale representation of your work etc.
I’m not an artist by trade, so this guide / checklist is hopefully going to help me establish good processes and more artistic thinking. You don’t have to check off each suggestion to make a good artwork. However, it’s a good idea to skim through the list a couple times while creating your artwork and follow some of the concepts.
Much of the advice in this post is collected from various resources (e.g. Youtube) but in particular from the book Art Fundamentals, 2nd Edition.
First and foremost think about what kind of story you want to tell and what kind of experience you want the viewer to feel
It’s very hard or even impossible to perfectly imagine a scene in your head and then go ahead and create it. There are always many different things that can have an impact on a scene, so we end up with a great number of possible options. In order to try and plan before we commit too much time to a configuration we can do a blockout.
- Use dummy meshes (e.g. cubes, spheres, etc.) and place them in the scene instead of real meshes
- Place a camera and plan your shot - or walk through your level if it’s a game
- Stay in blockout mode until a strong composition or level design is found. Remember if only some elements are strong but those elements don’t connect then you’re not finished
- Do NOT get attached to your concept. Be experimental and stay ready to adapt as necessary
A value scale is a range of nine-ish values that you plan to use in your artwork. It goes from your brightest color to your darkest color. Refer to image below for an example (Source: Oliver Harrison on Wikimedia | CC BY 2.5)
You can then separate the value scale into three regions - shadows, highlights and midtones. The position of the value scale in the range of total white (0xFFFFFF) to total darkness (0x000000) determines the overall tone (high key, low key). The spectrum of the value scale determines the variance or contrast in the image.
By choosing a position and a width of the value scale, you at the same time define which colors from the full spectrum you’re going to omit on purpose. Which is another element that affects your work.
Take a screenshot of your work and import it into an image editing software (e.g. Photoshop, Gimp, Krita, etc.). Transform the image to grayscale.
- The image should still be as readable as the colored version. If this isn’t the case then you’ve got a problem with your value range. Value is the range of brightness and darkness in your image.
- Make sure that every value in the shadow is darker than the darkest value of the light source. The difference between the light and shadow should be obvious for better reading of the image.
You can emphasize it even further by converting it into a black and white version! Dark areas are dominant and will guide the viewer to the light, detailed areas.
- Compare the grayscale image with the colored image. What does the color add? If the grayscale version somehow looks nicer than the colored version then you’ve got a problem with your colors.
If possible setup a dedicated camera that always shows grayscale.
- Blur image to identify main colors of your image
- Take each color and add it to a color palette. Determine if the colors work well together. e.g. use Adobe Color Wheel to make sure it satisfies basic color principles.
- Avoid muddy/monochrome colors
Often the cause for a muddy or monochrome feeling is an inappropriate color temperature. E.g. putting a cool red into a warm shadow will make the red look muddy
- Make sure the local color / albedo of every material is never exactly 1. The perfect material doesn’t exist. Even perfectly white snow at the top of the mountain has an albedo of like 0.8 or 0.9.
- Keep in mind that the light source that is shining on a colored object will also affect it’s color and color temperature
- Make sure that if your light source is warm, the shadows should be cooler, and if your light source is cool, the shadows should be warmer
If possible setup a dedicated camera that always shows the scene blurred.
- Observe how the image is divided into individual parts and how those interrelate with each other.
- Keep the “Big Medium Small” guideline in mind and classify your shapes into these three groups to see how they interrelate
- Golden Ratio: Use it to divide your canvas into unequal yet proportionate parts
Separate the image in four equal parts (+). Balance is the equilibrium created by the placement of major shapes within the four corners of the image.
Note, while each object has it’s own shape multiple objects can visually merge into one shape.
Next you should determine the visual weight of each shape and make sure the balance in the vertical and horizontal direction is not disturbed. The weight of each shape is determined by its color, value and size. Higher-constrast areas will carry a heavier visual weight.
Example: group different sized shapes together on one side and one large, light shape on the other.
Example: use negative space and make it heavier with some value changes and a light streak
- Make sure that if you have multiple focal points one should dominate to make it the primary focal point
- Focal points can be created with shape, value, color, edges. The human eye likes to focus on differences or contrast.
- Make sure you establish clear focal points and think about where these points are placed and in what order
- Pay attention to shapes and lines
There can be real lines in an image e.g. the edge of a cliff or stone or the flow of a river or the vanishing point. However, there are also perceived lines like the gaze of a person towards a distant object. Try to create a path with your shapes and lines that guide the viewer towards the primary focal point.
Shapes, lines and focal points create a path for the viewers eye/brain through the image. However, these elements also create a visual tempo through the image.
In art rhythm is distinguished into qualities such as alternating, flowing, regular, random.
When placing objects try to create similar shapes or recurring details to immerse the viewer and pace the eye as it travels around the scene.
- Perfect symmetry is rarely encountered in organic life
- However, too much disturbance to symmetry can be perceived as incorrect or even deformed
The golden ratio and rule of thirds are disturbing the symmetry on purpose to make a scene more dynamic without being displeasing to the viewer’s eye.
- Make sure to add objects, figures or creatures to your scene so the viewer can judge the scale
- If you want to make something look incredibly large then you can extend it off the screen
- Consider the ratio between empty sky and landscape
- You can also use empty spaces to tell a story
- If it’s a landscape then don’t forget to add distance fog and fog in general
- Make sure you add layers: Foreground, middle ground & background
This is also important to make distance fog look right, otherwise the whole image just looks grey and under-saturated
- add different elements to the scene strategically placed on different layers
- Clearly separate the layers with the use of colors, light, shade and detail
- Try to lead the eye, so it doesn’t get lost. E.g. lead it from foreground to background
- Place your focal points so they create a path e.g. from foreground to background
- You can also try to lead the eye along linear perspectives towards the vanishing point
- Use similar objects in different planes of the scene. This will create rhythm in the scene as well as guiding the viewer