Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Digital Painting with a Nintendo DS

My boyfriend bought me a Nintendo DS for my birthday along with the tools necessary to run "Colors," a painting program. It was a little awkward at first, but I'm warming up to it a lot. My goal is to be able to use it to paint from life, which I never do.

Here's what I've done so far:

Zebra Comic Book – Drawing Maasai

I'm currently in Kenya, accompanying/helping my boyfriend who is a biologist doing his postdoc here. While I'm here I'm working on a comic book about Grevy's Zebra, which are highly endangered. The story features a little girl named Mary who befriends a zebra named Maraba. The script it done, and now I'm ready to draw. To start, I got some pictures from a friend featuring some of the types of people the story will be about: Maasai living in community lands in central Kenya. Here are the drawings done based on those pictures:

Zebra Comic Book - Practice Drawing Kenyans

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Japanese Ladder

Learning Japanese vocabulary (or that of any other language) without going insane

This is completely unrelated to art or animation, but I wanted to write this down somewhere because it’s been mulling in my head for a while now. I’m currently living in Japan and before coming here I took four years of Japanese in college. I am now studying for the level 2 Japanese proficiency test, and the most important thing for the test, by far, is vocabulary.

But there are so many words! It’s very easy to get discouraged. The concept of the “ladder” has helped me deal with studying Japanese without getting frustrated. It goes as follows:

The Japanese Ladder

Maybe you watch a movie, and you look up 30 completely new words while watching the movie. Imagine that your brain has all these tiny ladders in it. All those words form a tidal wave hitting the bottom of the ladders and a small number of those words, maybe 10%, catch on to the very lowest rungs of the ladders.

Those words, clinging to life on the bottom rungs, are those words that, when you see them later, feel familiar even though you can’t read or define them. So, you look them up again. This moves the poor word up the ladder a rung. You notice the word in a few other contexts, like in a video game or a magazine. Each time you look up the word or even just see the word, it makes some progress up the ladder. The ladder represents a gradual progression in the memorization of a word, from barely sounding familiar, to being a permanent fixture in your memory.

Japanese learning ladder

A few rungs from the bottom are those words that you know you’ve looked up a few times, but can’t remember its meaning or reading.

Then a few rungs up from that are those words that you can read, but can’t define. (Or can define, but can’t read.)

Then further up from there are words you can define and read if they are in a familiar context, like if they are in a familiar sentence pattern.

Then even higher are those words that you can recognize in most contexts, but occasionally space out on.
Then at the very top of the ladder are those words so ingrained in your memory that you will never, ever forget their meaning or reading, not for the rest of your life.

The point is this: Don’t get frustrated that you have to look up a word you “think you should know.” There aren’t any words, “you should know.” There are just words on their way up the ladder toward being in the ‘unforgettable’ rung. If you look up a word, whether for the 2nd time or the 50th time, you should feel content that you’re helping that word up the ladder.

A few summers ago, I had tried to study four new words every day, and review past ones every day. I eventually gave up because I was frustrated that I was forgetting the words from even the day before. It’s better to expose yourself to a large volume of new vocabulary, even if most of it doesn’t stick, rather than trying to learn a few words perfectly. Statistically speaking, the greater diversity of words you look up, the more chances that some of those words will pop up in other contexts later. And the more contexts you see a word in, the more it moves up the ladder.

Words on the bottom rung can fall off, and no longer familiar, if they never come up again. That’s why it’s good to have constant and varied exposure to the language. Do a little of everything – Anime, Japanese movies, radio, TV, American movies in Japanese, manga, books, magazines, newspapers, video games in Japanese … I’ve dabbled in it all. And discovering connections between words is like unraveling a great mystery novel. For example, I learned the word for “pirate ship” from playing “Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass” in Japanese, and then I recognized the ‘ship’ part in the word for ‘balloon,’ the kanji for which literally means, “wind ship.”

In review:

1. There are no words you “should know.” Each time you look up a word you forgot, you are moving that word up the ladder toward long-term memory.

2. Expose yourself to all sorts of sources of information. For Japanese that’s easy, with anime and movies and music and manga and all that. Even if you only do a little bit here and there, make sure you look up new words.

3. The more words you look up, the more chances are that you’ll find and recognize those words in other contexts later. You won’t remember all of them, but a small number is better than zero.

4. Don’t try to force yourself to learn a few words “perfectly.” Seeing the same words over and over in the same context, like in flash-cards, can work in the short term, but you need to see them in other contexts for them to become meaningful and useful.

Sounds like a very bad, cheesy self-help book. I apologize. The important point I’d like to make is that a change in thinking can affect how you study new vocabulary and keep you from getting frustrated.

I just had another thought. This is basically all part of my grand realization that you can’t start off making anything perfect. Everything starts with an imperfect step that gradually gets better. Before you can paint a beautiful painting you have to paint a few less-beautiful ones. Before you can embed a new word in your mind, you have to forget it a few times first.

Painting Backgrounds – Rainforests

Painting Rainforests

Painting Rainforests

Painting Rainforests

Drawing Backgrounds – Rainforests

Drawing Rainforests

Drawing Rainforests

Drawing Rainforests

Drawing Rainforests

Drawing Rainforests

Drawing Rainforests

Drawing Rainforests

Drawing Rainforests

Drawing Rainforests

Drawing Rainforests

Drawing Rainforests


I used pictures of rainforests I took in Panama. I did one drawing almost every day for about two weeks. Each picture took about 20-40 minutes to draw. (regular 0.5 mechanical pencil.)

Lessons Learned

-The drawings are arranged in the order in which I drew them. And I'm happy to say that the newer ones are bigger, more detailed and generally look nicer than the first few. It's nice to see the direct effects of practice!
-Forests are intimidating because of the formless masses of foliage. Rather than trying to worry about overlapping foliage, work from from front to back. Do the foreground leaves, trees and such first and then gradually add more forms behind it. The greenery in the far distance will have the least detail.
-There are so many plant types! But, really, the same ones came up over and over, and practicing them has been very fruitful.
-The dark and light tones will do more for setting the scene than the actual drawings of leaves. The picture should be studied carefully for the light/shadow information.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Drawing Faces from The Lord of the Rings

I've been plowing ahead with several different projects at once, as well as my day-job, but I wanted to get these drawings up. I was watching The Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers (in Japanese) and decided to make a drawing activity out of it. With a twitchy finger on the pause button, I waited for a beautiful/ugly/interesting face to appear and then drew it. It was a lot of fun.

Here's the first round:
Lord of the Rings Faces Drawings

I had so much fun I did a second round using Lord of the Rings: Return of the King:
Lord of the Rings Faces Drawings

I hope some of them are recognizable from the movies ... those are the ones I'm proud of. The ones I'm less proud include the following:

Drawing #21

I think that was supposed to be Frodo ... but, a few things definitely went wrong there.

Drawing #29

That's supposed to be Aragorn. Not "Walker, Texas Ranger" (as denoted by the "WTR?")

Drawing #34

Why do I get so lazy with eyes? She was this close to being a super hot drawing, and then, well, I'm afraid the ziggidy-zaggedy eyes just take it down a few notches.

Drawing #39

His left eye is literally melting off his face.

Seriously though, this was a great exercise. I highly recommend trying it, especially if drawing faces is intimidating. Plus, it's Lord of the Rings. Enough said.

One thing that really hit home doing this exercise was to pay attention to those eyebrow muscles (see drawing #46). I think I have a tendency to draw faces as if the eyebrows are just floating masses on the face. They're not. The muscle mass that the eyebrows sit on push and pull on the upper part of the eye, affecting the expression. Thus, you can have a great, spooky, half-moon eyes look without pulling the eyebrows all the way over them. Let them sit higher, and imply the muscle by making the eyes half-moons anyway (as in drawing #46).

I also picked up on the fact that I like drawing eyes BIG. For drawing #44, I started out drawing Arwyn's eyes too big. Once I shrunk them down about 50%, the face looked much more natural and delicate.

In general, there are so many fun shapes and shadows and such going on in these faces that they make great reference for cartoonists like me. It's hard to describe all the lessons I've learned ... even if I could pinpoint them, I couldn't explain them. It's better if you just trying doing this yourself. I'm absolutely sure you'll learn a lot.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Background Painting/Animation Practice

Here is the final product:

[kml_flashembed fversion="8.0.0" movie="" targetclass="flashmovie" publishmethod="static" width="500" height="333"]

Get Adobe Flash player


I've been working on storyboards and scripts for the past two weeks, so I wanted to do something a little less on the 'pre-production' side and more on the 'final product' side. I tend to get paranoid if I spend too long planning things that I won't have the skill/patience to bring it to fruition.

Drawing the Background

I started with my background. I looked through some of the pictures I took when I went to Panama during my third year of college. Once I found a good picture, I traced a 720x480 box on paper using one of models I made in Photoshop (described here).

I drew a somewhat rough version of the picture. I've tried doing drawings from pictures like this many many times before, and I usually get bogged down by trying to draw too many details. I was feeling impatient, so I just indicated the shape of the landscape and some of the major tree shapes. It looked like this:

Drawing the Background

The ugly looking white bits are where I later painted over some of my pencil lines in Painter. This was sort of a revelation to me. Usually, I don't like editing the sketch once it's scanned, but if I paint over the lines in white in Painter (instead of trying to erase them in Photoshop) then I can do it gradually, so it doesn't look obvious that it was edited (although it does when you just look at the sketch).

Painting the Background

Next, I moved into Painter. I set the sketch to "Gel" and made a layer below it that I filled solid with green. Also beneath the sketch layer, I made a layer for the light values. I put in the bright sky in the upper right corner and the trees below it, as well as the light bit in the middle of the path.

Then for the dark layer, I did a bit more sculpting of the ground, added many many more trees and silhouettes of foliage. I definitely used a lot more dark on this painting then in my last painting tutorial.

Then I added another layer for some of the greenery, but it wasn't standing out so well with the sketch covering it. So, I started adding layers above the sketch layer for foliage and other highlights. It's nice when the scanned drawing is good and you want the lines to define things ... but that really works better for indoor settings, where you can delineate objects easily. But with a forest, you can't delineate bushes and grass so easily, so I needed lots of layers above the sketch layer for those kinds of things. I still have a lot to learn about painting forests, but I don't think it's too bad. :)

After I was done in Painter, I took the painting back into Photoshop and flattened it (and saved it as a separate file). Then I took the lasso tool and selected the farther elements of the scene and applied a nice 2.0 Gaussian blur for an added feeling of depth. And voilĂ , it's done:

Animation Background

Animation Preplanning

Feeling somewhat satisfied with the painting, I decided I would go ahead and put some animation on it. I took the painting into Flash MX and immediately started to animate my character, Kanook, running through it. It was a horrible disaster. I sighed, I resigned myself to the fact that I would actually have to do some preplanning.

I sat down and thought about Kanook's run cycle. I basically broke it down into five frames:

Animation preplanning

Then I went frame by frame and sketched many cycles of those 5 frames into Flash. The tricky part was the end. I really wanted him to disappear off the screen, but nothing I was doing was looking right. That's why I left him still in the shot on the last frame. I will have to do some research on how to do that later ...

With the sketch animation done, I went and did the nicer version. I was careful this time to make the lines closed and without holes so I could color them easily with the fill tool (as described here).

Using Masks to Add Depth

Here's a neat little trick I've used many times. I make masks over the characters to show them moving behind background elements without having many background layers.

For example, see how Kanook is running into the shot:
Using Masks for Depth

I want to make it look like he's coming out from behind the trees. To do this, I first make a new layer and paint colored shapes where I want the character to appear. In other words, I don't put color on the trees that will be in the foreground. Here's shapes I drew for this animation:
Using Masks for Depth

Then, make that layer a Mask layer, by right-clicking on the layer and clicking "Mask." Drag all the layers you want to be affected by this mask under the mask layer (see the pictures for what it should look like).

If the mask layer and all its linked layers are locked, then you'll see the mask effect. Here's what what the final product looks like:
Using Masks for Depth

This is not a super great example since I'm so zoomed in and the tree shapes aren't so clear to begin with ... but hopefully you get the concept (ask me if not).

That's all I have to say about this animation. It was a fun little exercise that only took a few hours to do. And I hope my explanation was helpful to you, too!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

2D Flash Animation in Flash – Part 6: Coloring the Animations

[Part Six in multi-part series about “Link’s Prize,” a 2D animation done in Flash. See the bottom of the post for the rest of the series.]

Previous: Painting the Backgrounds

Materials used:

Flash, wacom tablet


-Not as easy as you think
-The Color Process, Version 1.0
-Changing a color layer quickly
-The Color Process, Version 2.0

Not as easy as you think

At this point, the animation is almost complete ... The animations are smooth, the backgrounds look good, the sounds and music are in ... all that's missing is coloring in the animations. Piece of cake, you say? Ha-ha.

I left this part of the process until the end because I knew it would turn out to be the most boring, soul-draining and looongest part of the whole process. That mostly has to do with the fact that my approach to coloring was terrible. Since then, I've learned a lot about how to make the coloring process quicker, but, not before spending many long, back-aching hours hunched over the computer.

The Color Process, Version 1.0

In a nutshell, each color gets its own layer, placed underneath the animation layer. Using the drawing as a guide, I paint in blocks of color using the brush tool.

Here's how it works. First let's say I have a frame like this (the background was made invisible):

I make sure the drawing layer is locked and make a new one beneath it for, say, everything green. Then I take the brush tool [], set it to a larger brush and turn on pressure-sensitivity []. Then I paint in the color. I usually will quickly make an outline around the area I want to fill, like so:

Then, with the fill tool [], I fill in the rest of the color. It can be somewhat faster if you divide the process up: First, draw the outlines for all the frames one by one, then go back and fill them in one by one (assembly line style).

In this way, I meticulously colored Link's yellow hair, skin, green clothes, and other details. Each color has a separate layer just in case I need to change the color later.

Changing a color layer quickly

Say you have just finished coloring all of a character's skin and you realize that the color you chose is too dark or too orange, or something. To correct that, first, make sure all the other layers are locked. Then, select the onion skinning tool []. Then, in the onion-skinning drop down menu [], select "Onion All." This will show you all the drawings on that layer at once. For example, here's the green clothes layer with onion skinning across all frames:

Then click this button []. This will make them all selectable. Now all those faded colors will look solid, like this:

Click Edit>Select All. (I recommended making a custom shortcut key for this function.) Here's what they look like all selected:

And finally, with all of them selected, you can go to the Color Mixer and select a new color, changing them all at once, like so:

The Color Process, Version 2.0

The problem with the previous way of coloring animations is that it's very, very hard work. If you have a 100 frames to color, and the character is made up of 4 colors, that's 400 frames to labor over. Pain in the butt. If I hadn't put so much work into the previous parts, I would have totally given up on this animation (that's why I left this part until the end!). I really did consider it.

But along the way, I experimented with other ways of coloring. It would be really nice to be able to color with the fill tool - just click, go to the next frame, click, next frame, click ... that would take so much less time. The problem I've had is that my drawings are quite rough, with lots of holes and "eyes", made by criss-crossing lines.

So, I decided to try a new approach, where I take the time to make each drawing look extra nice, without holes or gaps in the linework. I figure the extra effort put into the linework will equal even greater savings in time spent coloring. Also, having even cleaner linework is not a bad thing.

I couldn't try this coloring style with the Link's Prize animation because I had already completed the linework and wasn't going to redo it. So, I made a very short animation with which to try it. Here it is:

So first, let's look at the linework from this animation. See how it compares to the linework in "Prize"?

It really wasn't as hard as I thought to make the linework cleaner. Once I did that, then I copied the drawing layer onto another layer (using the "onion all" onion-skinning feature). Then, I filled in the color blocks using the fill tool. I still did each color on a different layer. If you need to adjust the color of one layer, it doesn't matter that the black lines are there too; they can be changed to the new color as well, since the original black lines lie untouched on the top layer.


I'm still not sure how to approach shading. When I say shading, I mean adding shadows and highlights to the character.

For "Prize," I just made a new layer for highlights/darks of a particular color and then drew them on with the brush tool. So, if the character is four colors, and one dark and one highlight for each color, then that brings the coloring frames up to 1200. Not fun.

I'm experimenting with the following technique:

Let's say you have a base color layer, like the skin layer in the image below:

Copy the base color layer to a new, higher layer. Make that layer darker (See "Changing a layer color quickly", above).

Then, using the lasso tool [], select the part that will be the lighter color:

and delete it:

Important note: When choosing the shadow color, don't just pick a darker color. Pick a color that is dark, as well as more pale than the base. In other words, don't just pull the slider down to make the shadows, but move the color picker down toward black as well.

I hope this way of coloring will prove to be better, even in larger scale projects. We'll soon see!

So, that's it! It's finished! Yay! I hope you have enjoyed this series. I appreciate any and all comments on what you've thought of it so far. If there's something else you'd like me to go over, anything at all, please leave me a comment or send me a message. Thank you all for your kind words!


Part 1: Idea and Storyboards
Part 2: Making an Animatic
Part 3: Drawing the Backgrounds
Part 4: Animation Preplanning and Animating
Part 5: Painting the Backgrounds
Part 6: Coloring the Animations

Thursday, April 24, 2008

2D Animation in Flash – Part 5: Painting the Backgrounds

[Part Five in multi-part series about “Link’s Prize,” a 2D animation done in Flash. See the bottom of the post for the rest of the series.]

Previous: Animation Preplanning and Animation

Materials used:

Painter 8+, Photoshop, wacom tablet


-Prepping the Drawing in Photoshop
-Entering Painter
-The Base Color
-The Lights
-The Darks
-The Colors
-Back to Photoshop

Prepping the Drawing in Photoshop

Remember when I drew the backgrounds? For each shot, I made a drawing, scanned it in and used a black and white version as the basis for animating. I saved two versions: a small 720x480 version for the animatic, and a larger, 300 dpi version for use later. The latter is what I'll be working with now.

Here's the background again from Shot Three:

Preplanning for Zelda Animation

There's not a lot of prepping to do. First, you want to make sure the drawing layer is not the lowest layer. The reason being that Painter will lock the lowest layer so you can't move it. That's no good because eventually the drawing layer will need to be on top. So, make the last layer a simple white-filled layer. That's the only real prepping you need to do.

In this particular animation, I have window in the scene, with light pouring in quite strongly. In order to make sure that light came through as strongly as possible, I used a soft-edged eraser to erase the inside of the window. This got rid of the paper texture, exposing the completely smooth whiteness of the lower layer. You can see the difference in the drawing above. The paper texture adds a wonderful quality to the paintings, but its not as appropriate for distant or blurry parts of the image.

Entering Painter

Next, I bring the drawing into Painter. I use Painter version 8. I can't guarantee that all versions of Painter will have the same results .... I hope they do ... I can't use version 8 forever ...

Anyways, this is what, eventually, my layers are going to look like:

Preplanning for Zelda Animation

All the backgrounds were done in the same way, with the same layer system. All except for the first one, which was an exercise is crazy working and reworking and crying and tearing my hair out and then reworking again. If I hadn't been on a crazy high of diet coke and green tea I could have written about it.

This system is simple, and I think it works well. I'm sure I'll be using it more in the future. So, the first step is to take the drawing layer ("Layer 0" in the picture above), and set it to "Gel" in the blending options (where it says "Normal" in the picture above). "Gel" is almost exactly like "Multipy" in Photoshop, but I think it's a bit nicer. That may be a completely baseless bias.

The Base Color

Below the "gel'd" drawing layer, at the very bottom, is the blank white layer whose purpose is to satisfy Painter's need for an immovable first layer. Then, above that is the "base" color. The base color will be, for the most part, seeping through the whole painting and tying it together. I recommend using a color that will be most present in the final picture. So pick a color, then just fill in the whole image with it. I used the same color for all subsequent shots to help unify the look of the shots.

Here's what it looks like so far:

Preplanning for Zelda Animation

The Lights

Here's an important detail: I work with the Oil Pastels - Chunky SOFT Pastel. That's the only brush I use. It has an amazingly soft feel and blends like magic. I LOVE this brush. I toggle the size of the brush using the [ and ] keys. This is amazingly helpful. I also use the [g] key to switch to the hand to move quickly around the scene while zoomed in. The [b] key brings you back to the brush tool.

The next step is adding the lights to the scene. Make a separate layer for your lights values. Then, I select a color that is appropriate to the light source. In this case, the light was from the sun, so I used a pale yellow light very close to white. Using the oil pastel brush, I added the light values. Afterward, it looked like this:

Preplanning for Zelda Animation

All of the lights were added with same color; the variation in the strength of the color comes from the varying pressure I put on my stylus. For example, I painted the inside of the window very hard, and tried to make the color very solid. Conversely, for the walls, I painted with an extremely light touch, and allowed it to be a little messy, going along with the paper texture.

The Darks

Where there's light, there's dark. The darks will make another layer. This time, I picked a color only slightly darker than the base. Too much very dark areas could really ruin a drawing like this. In the past I've overdone it with the darks. Just because you make a ton of light areas does not mean you need a ton of dark areas.

Here's what it looks like now.

Preplanning for Zelda Animation
In this case, the difference is barely noticeable. That's good.

The Colors

I've always had trouble painting. I think I'm more of a black-and-white, pencil on paper kind of girl. Painting, with all the colors and tones and values is really a lot to handle. Light and values I can deal with, but colors ... that's a whole other ball game. The reason I like this technique is that it allows me to focus on those light and dark values and then add the color later, instead of the other way around.

So, of course, there's a color layer. It goes above the light and dark layers, but not above the drawing. In this animation, the lighting makes the backgrounds quite dark and the colors aren't so strong. I still think however, this approach will work on more brightly colored backgrounds.

The color swatches layer:

For this sequence, I really only used about six colors or so, including the dark and light colors. I choose a color for the dark wood of the bed, the light wood of the bed, the pot, the pot's design, and the floor. That's about it. For each of those colors I kept a sample swath on a separate layer called the "colors" layer. I only had this idea halfway through painting the drawings, but anyway, saving your colors is really important for ensuring the color continuity between shots.

When I color, I set the brush to a lower opacity, like 10%. Even then, I still color very lightly. You want to build up the color very gradually, making sure not to overtake the value you made underneath. You're just washing color into the base of values you made earlier. For example, if you paint too hard in a dark area where the color should be faded and barely perceptible, then it will look really out of place. However, there are places where strong color will be appropriate.

Here's what the painting looks liked with the colors added:
Preplanning for Zelda Animation
You can also see the swatches of color I used for reference, stored up on a separate layer.

To really make the backgrounds look nice, you could add color layers above the drawing and subtly build on the color while toning down the black lines. I did that for the very first drawing, and vowed not to do it again in the interests of my sanity. Coloring both above and below the line drawing is great and highly recommended, but not if you have many many scenes to finish in a short time.

Back to Photoshop

That's about it for coloring in Painter. Next I brought the drawing back into Photoshop. For whatever reason, I am convinced that the 'multiply' in Photoshop is not as good as the 'gel' in Painter . So, I don't open the psd directly in Photoshop. I save a jpeg version from Painter and open that in Photoshop.

Note: For some reason, when you open jpegs made in Painter, they come up as with the same height but only a fraction of their original width. This has something to do with the Aspect Ratio, but I'm not sure exactly what's going on with that. If this happens to you, you can correct it in Photoshop by clicking, Image > Pixel Aspect Ratio > Square. Maybe it's just me. I'm not sure.

The last thing that I do to these paintings is add the glowing light around the windows. I'm sure there are many ways to do it, but this is what I did:

First, I made a new layer for the glow. Then, using the selection tool, I drew a 0-feather selection around the exact inside of the window (not that exact, just a quickie selection). Like this:
Preplanning for Zelda Animation

Then, I made a bigger 80pixel-feather selection, holding shift to add it to the original selection. In the picture below, the selection looks much smaller than how I actually drew it. When I made the selection, the lines went just past the borders of the window.
Preplanning for Zelda Animation

Finally, I selected white as my foreground color and used the Fill tool to fill in the glow. Like so:
Preplanning for Zelda Animation

And here's the final piece:
Preplanning for Zelda Animation
(If it looks smoother, that's because the previous shots were screenshots of a zoomed out, high dpi file, where the large amount of data doesn't look as good zoomed out.)

And that's all for that! Once again, there's a lot more thought and effort that goes into the painting besides the practical steps. I'll try to get to those in future posts. Stay tuned and check back often! Also, if there's some topic you would like me to go into more detail about, shoot me a comment or email. Thank you!

Next: Coloring the Animations

Part 1: Idea and Storyboards
Part 2: Making an Animatic
Part 3: Drawing the Backgrounds
Part 4: Animation Preplanning and Animating
Part 5: Painting the Backgrounds
Part 6: Coloring the Animations