You may or may not remember me from my indie dev diaries, where I talked about my solo project and my experiences learning Unity. Immediately after committing to updating you all regularly on my progress, I was offered an opportunity to do some contract artwork for Nate Schmold’s Cosmochoria, (which is, of course, the indie game that inspired me to do my own project in the first place). And so, of course, I happily accepted the job.
But I still need to write about something, and so I introduce you to Side Quests – my new column discussing the various additional opportunities that pop up and distract me from my main quest. And although the world will have to wait a little longer to be saved, these are the things that make the game worth playing. (And by game, I mean life! It’s a metaphor.) In this article, I’m going to talk about my experience working on vector artwork for Cosmochoria, and what I’ve learned along the way.
However, I don’t want to prattle on about how great and wonderful I am. (Spoiler! I’m not!) So I thought instead I would talk about something much more interesting to me than success – and that’s failure.
When I was just a wee lass, my parents enrolled me in after school art lessons, eager to encourage and develop my creative side. I had always been interested in drawing, (I have a picture of a hippo that I drew when I was 4-years old! I know it’s a hippo because it says so, with an arrow pointing directly at it.) The only thing I remember from these classes is the old vulture woman who perched herself directly behind me, peering over my shoulder while I worked, frustrated with me for my various mistakes.
“Are you even trying?” she would squawk when the scale of my drawing did not match the reference photo. Of course I was! I was trying very hard, but drawing was very difficult and there were so many things to remember all at once and if she would just let me try, maybe I’d get there. Of course, being 12-years-old or so, I never said any of that, or anything at all, and simply threw my work into the trash and started again.
I stopped going to art lessons after the scary vulture woman made me cry, and have since practiced my art in dark corners by myself, desperate to get better and terrified that someone might see something I did before I got “good.” If someone walks into the room, I hide my sketchbook. If they peek over my shoulder at the computer screen, I scream, cover the monitor with my hands, and yell at them to go back to doing whatever it was they were doing. Sometimes I cry. They’re going to see how bad I am! They’re going to find out that most of what I create is garbage!
And maybe this comes from growing up in a society that incessantly seeks perfection in all forms and relentlessly ridicules failures. Always smart, always beautiful. For the longest time, I couldn’t even play video games with someone else in the room (especially puzzle games) because they would see me failing over and over again as I tried to figure something out. I wanted to project an illusion of perfection at all times by only showing off my successes and hiding the failures. This is a very sad, very lonely way to live.
I love games like Cosmochoria because they encourage failure. Booting up the game, you are told that you’re going to die, and that’s okay. You fail, over and over again, but eventually you learn. There’s something very freeing about this, very relaxing, despite hectic and challenging gameplay. In contrast to other games that I enjoy, such as The Atelier Series which rewards absolute perfection in time management, Cosmochoria allows you to explore, make mistakes, and inevitably grow as a player.
Which brings me back to the topic at hand – artwork. That’s what we’re here for, after all, not a life story about a sad younger Jessi who cries all the time. (Just trying to set the mood, provide a little backstory, you know?)
While Cosmochoria was running its Kickstarter campaign, I drew some fan art for the game. I did this just for fun and because the website at the time had a section for fan art that seemed like it needed filling. I also love fan art because it pushes me to try something outside of my comfort zone – different styles, colors, environments, and so on. Otherwise I tend to draw the same types of things over and over again and never really get any better.
It was a lot of fun to draw something guided by Cosmochoria’s whimsical, minimalist style. Although I use the term “draw” liberally because it is more like “building” to me; I generally just make shapes and then move them around until they look right. The way I draw by hand and the way I do vector art are very different and generally not compatible, (which you may notice in the later pictures). I learned to sketch in a realistic, detail-heavy manner but never learned cartooning. In contrast, when working at the sign shop, the artwork I do on the computer is very minimal, (solid shapes and colors, no outlines, very little details). This is because the machinery needs to be able to cut the vinyl in one solid piece so it can be applied to a sign easily.
Anyways, it was supposedly because of my fan art that I was offered the job. This is actually not the first time I’ve gotten a job by accident! Once, the student/friend who sat beside me saw me doodling in class and recommended me to some folks who were starting a Kickstarter, (although I’m not sure what happened to that particular project at the moment). So I suppose my advice to budding gamedev artists is to just keep on doing what you do, even when you’re not supposed to be doing it, because someone might find you.
Lots of Plants
My first task was to “draw a plant.” I was given no specifications about what type of plant to draw – my possibilities narrowed down to anything in the infinite cosmos of imagination that was in any way “plantlike.” So I drew a mushroom. I like mushrooms, and there were no other mushrooms in the game yet, so it seemed like a solid choice. I’d like to say that it was easy, that I’m brilliant and amazingly talented and the world is a wonderful place full of sunshine and rainbows, but in reality I struggled. A lot.
My first mushroom was too skinny, and the second too awkward. The next ones were unnecessarily detailed and looked terrible when scaled down. Then it was too bumpy, too blue, and eventually it was okay. The biggest challenge I had was adding too much detail to a drawing. I scaled the vector images down and pasted them onto a screenshot of the game, but they simply looked wrong when compared to the other plants. This forced me to try and figure out techniques to include the detailing I wanted into the drawing by using less.
I should also note that the pictures above have been organized nicely for your convenience, but my workspace usually looks more like the following:
It’s an explosion of bad ideas, debris, and embarrassing bits and pieces of leftover failures littering the screen. However, as I had no specific goal in mind, (other than it must be a “plant” of some sort), I had the freedom to completely change and alter a design if it was not going well. It can be challenging to scrap something that you’ve worked on for a long time, but I’ve learned to cut away what didn’t work and focus instead on what did. Weird, bad drawings transformed into weird, less bad drawings. It was only through failing repeatedly, and accepting these failures as learning tools, that progression was eventually made.
A Change of Pace
In addition to creating plants, I also had the opportunity to color in some of Nate’s NPC scans – basically, converting the pencil-and-paper sketches into vector art. Fortunately, Nate’s drawings are much more compatible with being turned into vectors than my own (as you can see with my plant sketch above) so that was not an issue.
I’ve never colored someone else’s work before, so this was a completely new experience for me. I discovered that there are advantages and disadvantages to working with another artist. At first I thought it would be fairly simple, as all I had to do was trace existing designs instead of creating my own. I actually enjoy tracing – I learned to do vector art by tracing logos for clients at work, and through that was able to learn how to use the program effectively and was eventually able to create my own, unique artwork. The difficult part, however, is that it is super intimidating. You have to be respectful of the art style and there is considerably more pressure to make sure it is “perfect” and done right. If I’m struggling with a certain design, I can’t simply scrap it or take it apart and make something else instead.
Fortunately Nate was very helpful and patient – he gave me tips on how to do some of the trickier shadowing and he put up with me when I sent him 5 different versions of the same character because I wasn’t 100% sure how the teeth should look.
Eventually I developed the confidence not to bug him over every little thing. It’s also pretty cool to watch the sketches come to life with color – especially when I’m working on a character I never would have come up with on my own. The absolute best part, though, is seeing something I’ve worked on show up in the game world.
The downside, of course, is that I can’t help but nitpick everything once I see it. Should I change the color? Is it too big? Too awkward? What if I added this or that to it? And, of course, there’s nothing I can do about it, because it’s not mine to work on anymore.
I’m definitely very thankful for the experience! I’ve learned a lot about creating vector artwork for games, and will be applying a lot of the tricks I’ve learned into my own projects as well. I’ve also gained some valuable experience working with other people, instead of shutting myself in my room by myself and never communicating with anyone else during the creative process. In fact, I would say the best way to accelerate learning is to work with other people. The tricky part is getting over the fear of exposing your failures and shortcomings and instead accepting these as integral parts of the learning process.
That, and every time you commit to something, something else will show up to distract you. This is how life works, my friends.
But thank you everyone for reading! I hope that my experiences may be somehow interesting or helpful to some of you out there. Just remember to never stop creating, and that a lot of what you do probably won’t turn out quite right at first. But you just have to keep at it.
Just keep on keeping on.