Learning to make backgrounds

Posted by Alex Jordan on

Seeing as how I want Project Squish to have pretty artistic backgrounds that clash with its often violent gameplay, I guess I better get off my ass and make some pretty artistic backgrounds, huh?

Well, I'm not very good at it. I'm pretty good at freehand pencil sketches, but that doesn't translate well into having a properly drawn-and-colored panorama. My earlier attempts in pure Photoshop haven't really panned out, and work with watercolors is going slowly. But in addition to getting my drawing hand the requisite amount of experience, I'm also trying to get my brain to learn exactly what it is my hand should be doing. How do I elicit the look and feel that I want? Good intentions alone do not produce results.

Therefore, I figure I'd turn to my favorite adventure game of all time, and certainly the most beautiful: The Curse of Monkey Island. What follows in this blog post is simply me staring at a screenshot and trying to deduce how it was achieved artistically.

So here we go.

First off, I don't see much sharp inking. Which is a bit of a problem for me, because sharp drawing (albeit with a pencil) is my forte. Sharp inking seems to be reserved for prominent details, like the brown hill at the bottom of the island, the town, the seaside fort, and the wrecks in the harbor. More to the point, inking appears to be used for sharp color contrasts.

A good deal of soft pencil (or brush?) work is used in lieu of hard inked lines. All the beach transitions (beach to jungle, beach to water) are very soft. I'm guessing because this is more of a "natural" transition, i.e. water is always found lapping at beaches and doesn't need a hard edge to remind us of that. Most of the man-made works on the island have hard edges, because they clash with the nature around them.

Light pencil and brushwork is also used for little details, like new ridges of jungle and the interior swirls of clouds. Major contrast doesn't appear necessary because (a) that's not the effect they were going for, and (b) the painting itself handles most of the texture and transition work.

It's the colors that scare me the most, as its where I have the least experience and the least success. A friend thought that the COMI artwork was done with watercolors and a heavy amount of digital editing, but I haven't had much luck with either. For one thing, I don't see any sign of a physical brush presence... the color's texturing is immaculate, but none of it seems to have come from a paintbrush. It's also bright and colorful, which is something I wish to emulate.

The lighting is also strong and simple, with a unified lighting direction and shadows that darken colors rather than obscure them in chiaro scuro. That, I can get behind. The palate also seems refreshingly limited, except for where the swamp dwelling is.

But on top of everything? The overall effect is that the artwork is stylish. Buildings, clouds, rocks, and trees conform to languorous poses and proportions. The clouds look like they belong on a map that says "Here be dragons!" It's cartoony and bright and colorful and looks exactly how it's meant to. More to the point, it looks exactly like how the game is meant to feel.

Okay, so that was the extent of this exercise. Any other artists think I missed something?