Lesson 2: Contour Lines, Texture and Construction
This exercise is a first step to learning how to tackle the unexpectedly overwhelming concept that is texture and detail. We'll start out by learning to study a reference image and to work past our all-too-human instinct to throw away critical visual information.
Then we'll explore applying what we've learned from our reference images as a tool - not bound by how it is presented and arranged in the reference, but in full control, using it to convey information exactly as is needed to get an idea across to our audience.
Remember that you should be doing this exercise with a fineliner/felt tip pen. If you're having trouble filling in the dark areas, a black brush pen can also be very useful.
Your page will be arranged into a very specific layout, as shown here. You'll have a number of rows, each row will be roughly 2.5 inches tall, starting with a square of that height and width on the left. The rest of the width of the page (I'm recommending 8.5x11 printer paper, you'll have to change the sizes around if you're working in paper of a different size) will be split into two rectangles more or less of equal size.
You are welcome to work with your page in landscape orientation (11 inches wide, 8.5 inches tall in this case) so you'll end up with 3 or so rows, though I'll leave that decision up to you.
Notice how the rectangle on the end there has a bit of a black bar on its left side - make sure you fill this in with solid black. It doesn't need to be too thick, just enough to be significant.
Each row is going to pertain to a different texture, and is going to require a different set of reference photos. You can use one, but it's better to use several photos of the same sort of thing, just to arm yourself with that much more visual information to draw from. Keep in mind that when we say texture, we're referring to a very specific thing.
Don't forget - the assigned homework states that your first row should be crumpled paper.
Texture is the stuff that wraps around your major forms. Technically texture itself is made up of small forms, and the marks you see are all made up of the shadows cast by those forms (as mentioned in the pitfalls listed above), but they're at such a scale that they are not impacted by any sort of perspective distortion.
For example, bricks are not a texture. Bricks are at best, a pattern. The material of the bricks, however, with all their pocks and marks and grit, is certainly a texture. Similarly, nose is not a texture, but skin (complete with pores and hairs and zits and whatever else) is.
As you can see from this image, I've chosen some fried chicken. I got this reference image from the Epicurious recipe for Rosemary-Brined Buttermilk Fried Chicken. In case you're hungry.
In the first square, we try to do a direct study from our reference. That is, we try and capture exactly what we see, down to all the finest detail. You should be focusing entirely on drawing the shadows you see, not outlining individual forms or drawing them directly.
Note: While this part of this exercise is about drawing everything observationally, this is as a step towards understanding the nature of the forms that are present, and how they relate to their surroundings. Later, when we get into drawing the texture gradient, we will be focusing instead on using that understanding in order to invent our own cast shadows for those textural forms, based on their relationship with whatever light source we put into place.
Take your time, study the reference image and zero in on specific details, then move to your drawing and put down only a few key strokes before returning to your image. Don't rely on memory, because our human memory is not trustworthy - it will oversimplify things very quickly, resulting in textures that feel cartoony.
As you do your study - or after completing it, whichever works best for you - take some notes down in the neighbouring square. These can consist of writing, drawings, etc. Try and distill the major aspects of what gives this texture its particular appearance.
This part is not to be done until you've done the last two steps for ALL ROWS ON YOUR PAGE. At this point, you should have gotten a decent amount of mileage purely observing and studying textures, now we get to learning how to organize it and use it for our own purposes.
The left side of the texture has a thick black bar on it. Imagine that the right side has an equally thick white bar, where no lines may be drawn. In between these two bars, I want you to use your texture to transition from black to white, left to right. I'd recommend starting towards the center, as this is where you're going to get the most detail due to the balance of light and dark. As you move to the left, let your shadows deepen and grow larger, and make sure they blend seamlessly into the black bar. As you move to the right, let your shadows get blasted out as they get closer to the light source, leaving only those in the deepest cracks where textural forms meet.
You will probably have the urge to outline the forms you see. Don't. We're not working in line at all, we are only drawing the shadows cast by the little forms that exist along the surface of our object.
The purpose of this exercise
This exercise has two major purposes - first, to get you to start thinking about how you observe and study your references, and second to get you to start working on how you organize that information. Learning this stuff generally works in those two phases - first you only really need to care about transferring information, building up an awareness of the shortcomings of human memory and how to work around that. Once that's under some degree of control, we start thinking about what information we actually need to be conveying to the audience to achieve our goals for a given drawing, focusing on which shadows to draw and where to place them.
This image is barely even necessary, but to put it simply - don't scribble. Don't rely on randomness or chaos. You may find a texture that feels like it's just a bunch of nonsense, crazy chaotic marks. It's not - it never is. There's always some sort of rhythm to them, a flow that they follow because that's how the physical world works. Even mussed up hair is going to flow in a particular fashion as the strands of hair group into shocks and clumps.
If you're about to scribble, stop and think. Go back to studying your reference, and look more closely.
Mistake: Drawing the forms of a texture
Textures are, as previously discussed, made up of little forms that exist along the surface of a larger one. Make sure you're not outlining and enclosing all of those forms however. Instead of drawing the forms themselves, you should be drawing the impact they have on their surroundings - that is, the shadows they cast.
Mistake: No transition from dense to sparse
The biggest challenge for those who are new to texture is breaking away from using lines to enclose and outline their textural forms.
It's important to realize that lines don't actually exist - they're a tool we employ, and they are very effective at demonstrating the borders between the volumes of our forms. They work very well when dealing with general construction, but once we get into situations where we have a lot of tiny forms that run along the surface of our major constructed forms, this tool becomes much less effective. It can quickly result in a lot of lines crammed close together, creating high contrast, visually noisy areas that turn into unintended focal points that draw the viewer's eye. Of course, we've discussed this previously - the solution is to rely on cast shadows instead.
This doesn't mean drawing in our textural forms with line first, then applying shadows. It means relying purely on shadows only, and allowing there to be edges that get lost and found throughout our texture. This happens because the shadows where two forms meet (like two scales coming together) will generally be much deeper, since light has more difficulty penetrating these crevasses. As the amount of light increases, the shadows on external edges will disappear much sooner than those in these deeper cracks, causing those edges to get lost and then be found once again.
This is extremely useful, because it allows us to punch gaps in our textures, providing a means to transition from densely packed areas of black ink, to areas that are mostly just left blank.
Additionally, using this approach allows us to imply a lot more information without actually having to draw it all. As we move further to the right side where the texture is left sparse, the viewer's brain will fill in most of the detail there. If instead we were to outline everything in its entirety, we'd be telling the viewer that every single piece of information that has been drawn exists, and that there is nothing that exists that has not been drawn. There is no room left for implied detail - everything is instead entirely explicit. That is an inflexible way of working, and should be avoided.
Once you're done, this is roughly what you should be looking at. Do not worry about whether or not you're getting it. This is just the start, to get you thinking about how you go about observing and studying your reference, and how you organize the information in your head before using it in your drawings.
Everything has a texture, but some people do find it a little challenging at first to recognize this, and as such you may struggle with finding resources to work from. As a starting point, you can use this pinterest board by Ryan Malm. Alternatively, I always find google image search to be particularly useful, especially due to the Search Tools where you can limit your search to high resolution results.
The Art of Blizzard Entertainment
While I have a massive library of non-instructional art books I've collected over the years, there's only a handful that are actually important to me. This is one of them - so much so that I jammed my copy into my overstuffed backpack when flying back from my parents' house just so I could have it at my apartment. My back's been sore for a week.
The reason I hold this book in such high esteem is because of how it puts the relatively new field of game art into perspective, showing how concept art really just started off as crude sketches intended to communicate ideas to storytellers, designers and 3D modelers. How all of this focus on beautiful illustrations is really secondary to the core of a concept artist's job. A real eye-opener.