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3D Game Textures: Create Professional Game Art Using Photoshop

3D Game Textures: Create Professional Game Art Using Photoshop

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by Luke Ahearn

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A broadly enhanced new edition of Luke Ahearn's cornerstone game art book "3D Game Textures" is here. When digital art software was in its infancy, most digital art, especially vector art, was textureless. With the advance in software, it is now possible to incorporate texture into most types of digital art. However, if the artists cannot build their own textures,


A broadly enhanced new edition of Luke Ahearn's cornerstone game art book "3D Game Textures" is here. When digital art software was in its infancy, most digital art, especially vector art, was textureless. With the advance in software, it is now possible to incorporate texture into most types of digital art. However, if the artists cannot build their own textures, they are limited to using commercial textures. In this enhanced 3rd edition of Luke Ahearn's gem of a book, not only does Luke teach you how to create your own unique textures, he also teaches how to create shaders (the visual effects - reflections, refractions, opacity - that make textures come to life) and materials (collections of shaders that fill well together to map to a particular scene or environment).  You can now expand your skill set immeasurably, and create more compelling, varied art work from scratch.

Unlike anything on the market, this book provides an in-depth guide to game textures, shaders and materials- with hundreds of high-quality examples. 

The companion website includes: demo versions of relevant software; resource images; all images from the book.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"As well as the design angle of creating artwork for games, this book also tackles the business side of creating artwork for commercial purposes, making it a wonderful insight into the world of the professional games artist. After reading this you'll have a far better understanding of what it takes to become successful in the games world, and it will give you the opportunity to begin building a stunning profolio." - Advanced Photoshop

"Discover how to design bullet holes, flames, windows and walls - all the effects that are an essential for today's videogame - with easy-to-follow tutorials. There are a variety of different themes explored throughout this book, covering anything from urban street scenes to the fantasy genre." - Advanced Photoshop, April 2006

"This book can help anyone become a better texture professional...Ahearn's book can and help you become a much better artist, even if you never did much texturing before...The details are simple, but they give anyone who has no Photoshop experience a better idea of what to do. A more experienced reader can gain an in-depth look at how to add improved texture to his projects. 3D Game Textures is a great book for beginners who would like to learn about textures for 3D art. No one should have a problem understanding and using this easy-to-comprehend information." - Apogee Photo Magazine, August 2006

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3D Game Textures

Create Professional Game Art Using Photoshop
By Luke Ahearn

Focal Press

Copyright © 2009 Elsevier, Inc.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-08-088439-4

Chapter One

A Basic (Game) Art Education

Art is born of the observation and investigation of nature.

Cicero (Roman author, orator, and politician, 106 BC-43 BC)


The basis of computer art is art itself, so before we dive into any technical issues, we must first discuss the most basic-but important aspects of visual art. Though teaching you traditional fine art skills is beyond the scope of this book, it is critical to have an understanding of some basic aspects of visual art in order to create game textures. Fortunately, these basic aspects of art are fairly easy to present in book form. By studying these basics of art, you will learn to see the world as an artist does and to understand what you see, and then to be better able to create a texture set for a game world.

The basic aspects of visual art that we will focus on are:

Shape and form

Light and shadow




Learning to observe the basic visual aspects of the world around you is a strong beginning in the process of seeing the world like an artist, communicating with other artists, and creating great game textures. Technology is, of course, critical to the larger picture of game textures, but the actual basics of art is where great textures begin. Too often, would-be game artists are thrown into a discussion on tiling, or even game engine technology, when the skills that are most important for the creation of game textures are the ability to understand what you are seeing in the real world and the ability to recreate it in the computer. Often a texture artist is required to break a scene down to its core materials and build a texture set based on those materials, so learning this ability is essential. Although you don't need to have an advanced degree in art to create great textures, let's face it: almost anyone can learn what buttons to push in Photoshop, but the person who understands and skillfully applies the basics of art can make a texture that stands out above the rest.

There are many types of art and aspects of visual art that you should further explore in order to develop as a game artist. Some of the things you can study and/or practice are

Figure drawing

Still-life drawing


Painting (oil, water color, etc.)

Lighting (for film, still photography, the stage, or CG)

Color theory and application


Drafting and architectural rendering


Set design

Technical illustration

It is even worth the time to study other areas of interest beyond art, such as the sciences, particularly the behavior of the physical world. Light, for example, is becoming processed more and more in real time and not painted into the texture to the extent it was just a few years ago. The more you understand and are able to reproduce effects such as reflection, refraction, blowing smoke, and so on, the more success you will find as a game artist. We presently have emerging technologies that reproduce the real world to a much greater extent than ever before, but it still takes an artist to create the input and adjust the output for these effects to look their best. The areas of study that will help you when dealing with real-world behaviors are endless. You can start by simply observing the world. Watch how water drips or flows, the variations of light and shadow on different surfaces at different times of the day, how a tree grows from the ground-straight like a young pine or flared at the base like an old oak-and you will soon be staring at the cracks in the pavement and photographing the side of a dumpster while the world stares at you. An excellent book for this type activity is Digital Texturing & Painting by Owen Demers (New Riders, 2001). You can also take tours of museums, architectural tours, nature walks; join a photography club; join a figure drawing class-there is no end to the classes, clubs, disciplines, and other situations that will open up your mind to new inspirations and teach you new tools and techniques for texture creation. And, of course, playing games, watching movies, and reading graphic novels are food to the game artist.

Chapter Overview

Shape (2D) and Form (3D) Light and Shadow Texture: Tactile vs. Visual Color Perspective

There are many elements of traditional art, but we will narrow our focus to those elements that are most pertinent to texture creation. We will start with shape and form.

Shape (2D) and Form (3D)

A shape (height and width) is simply a two-dimensional (flat) outline of a form. Circles, squares, rectangles, and triangles are all examples of shape. Shape is what we first use to draw a picture with before we understand such concepts as light, shadow, and depth. As children we draw what we see in a crude way. Look at the drawings of very young children and you will see that they are almost always composed of pure basic shapes: triangular roof, square door, circular sun. Even as adults, when we understand shadows and perspective, we have trouble drawing what we see before us and instead rely on a whole series of mental notes and assumptions as to what we think we are seeing. There are exercises to help develop the ability to draw what we actually see. Most notably, the book The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards (Tarcher, 1999), offers many such exercises. And one of the most famous of these involves the drawing of a human face from a photo. After you have done this, you then turn the photo upside down and draw it again. The upside-down results are often far better than the right-side up, first try. This is because once you turn the image upside down, your brain is no longer able to make any mental assumptions about what you think you are seeing; you can see only what's really there. Your brain hasn't yet developed a set of rules and assumptions about the uncommon sight of an upside-down human face. One of the first skills that you can practice as an artist is trying to see the shapes that make up the objects that surround you. Figure 1-1 has some examples of this shape training, ranging from the simple to the complex. This is a very important skill to acquire. As a texture artist, you will often need to see an object's fundamental shape amidst all the clutter and confusion in a scene so that you can create the 2D art that goes over the 3D objects of the world.

Form is three-dimensional (height, width, and depth) and includes simple objects like spheres, cubes, and pyramids. See Figure 1-2 for examples and visual comparisons. You will see later that as a texture artist, you are creating art on flat shapes (essentially squares and rectangles) that are later placed on the surfaces of forms. An example can be seen in Figure 1-3, as a cube is turned into a crate (a common prop in many computer games). When a shape is cut into a base material in Photoshop and some highlights and shadows are added, the illusion of form is created. A texture can be created rather quickly using this method. See Figure 1-4 for a very simple example of a space door created using an image of rust, some basic shapes, and some standard Photoshop Layer Effects.

Of course, mapping those textures to more complex shapes like weapons, vehicles, and characters gets more complex, and the textures themselves reflect this complexity. Paradoxically, as the speed, quality, and the complexity of game technology increase, artists are actually producing more simplified textures in some cases. The complexity comes in the understanding and implementation of the technology. Don't worry-you will gradually be introduced to this complexity, culminating with some sections on shader technology.

As with shapes, you can practice looking for the forms that make up the objects around you. In Figure 1-5 you can see some examples of this.

Light and Shadow

Of all the topics in traditional art, this is arguably the most important, due to its difficulty to master and importance to the final work. Light and shadow give depth to and-as a result-define what we see. At its simplest, light and shadow are easy to see and understand. Most of us are familiar with shadow; our own shadow cast by the sun, making animal silhouettes with our hands on the wall, or a single light source shining on a sphere and the round shadow that it casts. That's where this book will start. Light and shadow quickly get more complicated, and the examples in this book will get more complex as well. The book will start with the ability to see and analyze light and shadow in this chapter, move up to creating and tweaking light and shadow in Photoshop using Layer Styles for the most part, and finally look at some basic hand tweaking of light and shadow. If you want to master the ability to hand-paint light and shadow on complex and organic surfaces, then you are advised to take traditional art classes in illustration, sketching, and painting.

We all know that the absence of light is darkness, and in total darkness we can obviously see nothing at all, but the presence of too much light will also make it difficult to see. Too much light blows away shadow and removes depth and desaturates color. In the previous section, we looked at how shape and form differ. We see that difference primarily as light and shadow as in the example of the circle and a sphere. But even if the sphere were lit evenly with no shadows and looked just like the circle, the difference would become apparent when rotated. The sphere would always look round if rotated, whereas once you began to rotate the circle it would begin to look like an oval until it eventually disappeared when completely sideways. In Figure 1-4, in which a shape was cut into an image of rusted metal and made to look like a metal space door using Photoshop Layer Effects, the highlights and shadows were faked using the various tools and their settings. In Figure 1-6 you can see the same door texture rotated from front to side. Notice the complete lack of depth in the image on the far right. The illusion is shattered.

Understanding light and shadow is very important in the process of creating quality textures. We will go into more depth on this topic as we work through this book. One of the main reasons for dwelling on the topic is the importance of light and shadow visually, but in addition, you will see that many necessary decisions are based on whether light and shadow should be represented using texture, geometry, or technology. To make this decision intelligently in a serious game production involves the input and expertise of many people. Although what looks best is ideally the first priority, what runs best on the target computer is usually what the decision boils down to. So keep in mind that in game development you don't want to make any assumptions about light and shadows-ask questions. I cover different scenarios of how light and shadow may be handled in a game in this book. It can be challenging to make shadows look good in any one of the situations. Too little and you lack depth; too much and the texture starts to look flat. Making shadows too long or intense is an easy mistake. And unless the game level specifically calls for that on some rare occasion, don't do it. Technology sometimes handles the highlights and shadows. This feature is challenging, because it is a new way of thinking that baffles many people who are unfamiliar with computer graphics. It can also be a bit overwhelming, because you go from creating one texture for a surface to creating three or more textures that all work together on one surface. Naming and storing those textures can get confusing if you let it get away from you.

Overall, you want your textures to be as versatile as possible, and to a great extent, that includes the ability to use those textures under various lighting conditions. See Figure 1-7 for an example of a texture in which the shadows and highlights have been improperly implemented and another one that has been correctly created. For this reason we will purposely use highlight and shadow to a minimal amount. You will find that if your texture needs more depth than a modest amount of highlight and/or shadow, then you most likely need to create geometry or use a shader-or consider removing the source of shadow! If there is no need for a large electrical box on a wall, then don't paint it in if it draws attention to itself and looks flat. If there is a need and you are creating deep and harsh shadows because of it, you may need to create the geometry for the protruding element. You will find that as game development technology accelerates, things like pipes, doorknobs, and ledges are easily created with the larger polygon budgets, or by using the advanced shaders at our disposal. Many texture surface properties are no longer painted on. Reflections, specular highlights, bump mapping, and other aspects of highlight and shadow are now processed in real time.

In the rest of this book I will take various approaches to light and shadow using Photoshop's Layer Effects to automate this process and other tools to hand paint highlights and shadows. One of the main benefits of creating your own highlights and shadows in your textures is that you can control them and make them more interesting, as well as consistent. Nothing is worse than a texture with shadows from conflicting light sources: harsh, short shadows on some elements of the texture and longer, more diffuse shadows on others. See Figure 1-8 for an example of this. The human eye can detect these types of errors even if the human seeing it can't quite understand why the image looks wrong. One of the artist's greatest abilities is not only being able to create art, but also being able to consciously know and verbalize what he is seeing. In Figure 1-9, you can see the various types of shadows created as the light source changes. This is a simple demonstration. If you ever have the opportunity to light a 3D scene or movie set, you will discover that the range of variables for light and shadow can be quite large.

Highlights also tell us a good bit about the light source as well as the object itself. In Figure 1-10, you can see another simple illustration of how different materials will have different highlight patterns and intensities. These materials lack any texture or color and simply show the highlights and shadows created on the surface by one consistent light source.

For a more advanced and in-depth discussion on the subject of light and shadow for 3D scenes, I recommend Essential CG Lighting Techniques with 3ds Max by Darren Brooker (Focal, 2006).


In the bulk of this book, as in the game industry, we will be using the term texture to mean a 2D static image. What we refer to as textures in this book are also sometimes called materials, or even tile sets (from older games), but we will stick to the term texture. The one exception in this book is that in this section we will talk about the word texture as it is used in traditional art: painting, sculpture, and so on. A side note on vocabulary: keep in mind that vocabulary is very important and can be a confusing aspect of working in the game industry. There is much room for miscommunication. Different words can often mean the same thing, and the same words can often mean many different things. Acronyms can be especially confusing; RAM, POV, MMO, and RPG all mean different things in different industries. POV means "point-of-view" in the game industry, "personally owned vehicle" in government, and also stands for "persistence of vision." So to clarify, the term texture-usually meaning a 2D image applied to a polygon (the face of a 3D object)-in this section of this chapter refers to an aspect of an image and not the image itself. We draw this distinction for the following conversation on traditional art.

In traditional art, there are two types of textures: tactile and visual.

Tactile texture is when you are able to actually touch the physical texture of the art or object. Smooth and cold (marble, polished metal, glass) is as much a texture as coarse and rough. In art this term applies to sculptures and the like, but many paintings have thick and very pronounced brush or palette knife strokes. Vincent Van Gogh was famous for doing this. Some painters even add materials such as sand to their paint to bring more physical or tactile texture to their work.


Excerpted from 3D Game Textures by Luke Ahearn Copyright © 2009 by Elsevier, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Luke Ahearn has over fifteen years of professional game development experience as designer, producer, and art director on seven published game titles including Dead Reckoning and Americas' Army and worked as a background artist at EA. He has authored six books on game development.

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