Everything wrong.

Don’t like what you see? Good! Let me explain why.

Throughout my years of lurking on the Adventure Game Studio forums I have had a chance to analyze a wide range of different backdrops, many professional looking, and many, utterly and completely horrible in their badness. In looking at these various abominations I have come to identify a series of common beginners mistakes. This article attempts to point these out, as well as tries to explain how to easily remedy each and every one of these issues.

If you find that many of these “mistakes” can be spotted in your pictures, don’t be intimidated, these are all easy traps to fall in, but also, easy traps to avoid as long as you know that they exist. Also remember: If it hurts, it means that you are learning!

1. Perspective off

Parallel lines of an object are all supposed to meet up at the same so called "vanishing point". If they don't, your perspective is off.

Don’t ever try blaming your failed perspective on it being part of your “style”. No one falls for it. To pull an image off with intentionally messed up perspective takes a lot of skill and understanding of the rules of composition. The fact that the backdrops in Day of the Tentacle look haphazard, doesn’t mean that the artist behind them didn’t know how to draw perspective, it means the artist had such a good understanding of them that he or she actually got away with breaking the rules.

2. Faulty horizon placing

The turquoise line indicates the faulty horizon we read from the image. The magenta lines from the building intersect, and thus show us where the real horizon is.

An excellent way of starting off on the wrong foot when you are sketching is not knowing where your horizon line is. Without knowing its location, you are bound to mess many things up in your picture and will have no chance whatsoever at sticking to the same perspective throughout your entire scene. You find your horizon by simply following two parallel lines of any horizontal object until they intersect. This intersection marks the height of your horizon.

The only time an object has a different horizon than the rest of the scene is when it is tilted -and thus, not horizontal. Showing a slice of ones horizon can often be a good way of making your scene easier to read, but the important thing is that YOU know where your horizon is, so that all items you draw, end up with a coherent perspective.

Tip! Draw a faint line where your horizon is so you always know where it is. Erasing is fun!

3. Bad tangents

The trees unfortunately share a bunch of lines with the roof of the hut. This flattens the image and makes the shapes more difficult to read. I chose to move the trees, as the hut was pretty much parked where it was.

Few things can flatten an image as much as when separate objects, by sheer misfortune, share an edge. This is an issue which is easily missed by the artist himself, as he knows what lines belong to what, while the unaccustomed viewer can spot it immediately. Bad tangents are usually the result of sheer bad luck. The skill here lies in seeing them early and making sure to remove them before detailing has gone so far that fixing it will give you a headache.

Tip! Ask someone else to look for bad tangents in your picture. YOU are immune to them and will most likely miss a few.

4. Unbalanced weight

Lots of things were going on to the right and there was nothing to balance it up on the left. I simply shoved the whole thing over and added some heavy elements on the side to balance it up.

Another thing you are likely to miss as the artist behind the picture, is the fact that your image may be off balance. “Off balance” in this case, means that the image is overly “heavy” on one side or the other.  Having a nice balance in ones image is crucial for the picture’s composition  not to force the viewers eye to seek balance outside of the frame. Balance can be more or less important in different forms of art. Examples where it is very important include movie posters, logos and character stances.

Tip! Mirror your image a little now and then to get a fresh view of your composition.

5. No shading

Thinking about your sources of light while you draw instead of just ignoring them makes a world of difference.

It’s easy to see why many beginners prefer to simply ignore shading their scene properly, as it at a first glance appears to involve a deep understanding of light theory. This to me is a very sad thing, as truth is, the basics are in fact very simple, and when understood and applied, make a world of difference to the quality of your work.

As with the importance of knowing ones horizon line when doing perspective, you NEED to know where your light source is when you are shading your image. With every object in the scene, ask yourself: Why can I see this object? What is casting light on it? What strength does the light have? What direction? What color? Shading your volumes correctly will help the viewer read them, and will thus make the image more pleasing to look at.

The dominant light source in this scene, as with all daylight outdoor scenes, is obviously the sun. As long as I know where the sun is, and make sure not to move it around, it’s a piece of cake making sure the scene is lit coherently. Everything in the entire scene shares the same lighting. Nice and Simple!

So why aren’t the shadows pitch black, if there’s only one single source of light, you wonder? Easy! The sunlight bounces off of everything including the earths atmosphere, and this creates an ambient light that comes a bouncin’ from all sorts of directions. As my sky is blue, the total of my ambient light gets a nice blue tint. Now for obvious reasons the ambient light has a harder time to reach into edges and corners, and thus leaves those areas darker. (On an overcast day your only source of light is the ambient light.)

However! Worrying about your bounced light is step two. Step one is actively thinking about your primary light source!

6. Wacky character scaling

Oceanspirit Dennis and his evil twin Oceanspirit Kurt, pose as examples of failed, and correct character scaling.

This is no issue with the actual backdrop art, so much as an issue with the implementation of them into the game.

Characters are, just like any other object in your scene, subject to the laws of perspective. One thing this results in is that they grow in size the closer they come to the camera. An incredibly common mistake however is to underestimate this effect. (To the extent, in fact, that many games chose not to scale their characters at all). Being picky about the perspective in your backdrops is utterly pointless unless you intend to treat your dynamic objects in the same manner.

An easy way to check your scaling is to compare your character to the scene at different depths and make sure it seems coherent. (If your character is as tall as a door up close, he should still have the same relative size once he’s in the distance.) This may seem obvious and trivial, but most beginners games get this 400% wrong.

With a couple of easy no-brainer steps we turned this from absolute shite to something actually semi decent in only a matter of minutes!

Making good looking art is no magic. It’s about a lot of hard work and a good understanding of a huge bunch of rules. The difficult part is not understanding these rules, the difficult part is to actually get down and dirty and to tear your image apart even though you are afraid of making things worse. Challenge yourself! If shit breaks, just hit ctrl+z.

Author bio:

Theodor Waern lives in Gothenburg, Sweden,
works with nordgame.com for a living and spends 100% of his free time drawing, sketching and pondering about the continuation of his own adventure game project, The Journey Down.