Until one of my games "makes it" big, or I get flooded with gold ingots, I will have to handle most or all of my game art myself. The crux of my question is: how can I learn enough art to get beyond "programmer art" and into something I would actually be proud of?

The focus of my question is 2D, not 3D.

I already have a good grip on:

  • Photoshop/GIMP (image maniplation and creation)
  • Flash (animation and drawing simple art)
  • Simple drawing (by hand)
  • Digitizing hand-drawn art
  • Graphic design

However, games require complex and varied art; anything from backgrounds to icons, sprites, animation, and complex effects.

How do I bridge the gap, artistically? I already have the experience and confidence that I can do it; I only need to know the direction in which to put my modest efforts. I know this will pay off, especially in the long term. But I'm not sure how to get there.

Using existing art is something I already do, so please don't address that in your question.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I believe that there are libraries of existing sprites and animations on the internet intended just for that. Although I too would prefer making my own art, so this question is very interesting to me. \$\endgroup\$ – jcora Sep 6 '11 at 12:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm quite sure that it is impossible. You just feel the art ... or no :) (I don't) ... which does not disqualify anybody from like the art or even understanding it. But to create it... I quess it is just impossible. But how about attend some drawing lessons? \$\endgroup\$ – Notabene Sep 6 '11 at 13:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Notabene almost anything is possible with the right learning and practice. Confidence is paramount. Even without talent and ability, learning can carry you a long, long way; my experience with 2D and 3D art taught me that already. \$\endgroup\$ – ashes999 Sep 6 '11 at 13:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ How is this question different from gamedev.stackexchange.com/questions/2391/…? \$\endgroup\$ – Tetrad Sep 6 '11 at 14:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Tetrad that question is open to using resources and hiring. This question is a more specific subset: improving your own 2d art ability for game dev, not improving 2d/3d assets in your games. \$\endgroup\$ – ashes999 Sep 6 '11 at 14:35

Lots and lots of practice. Most artists have been doodling and drawing since they learned how to hold a pen, you need to make up for lost time.

My suggestion: start with hand drawn things and other basics. Having a grip on how a program works vs bringing out the fullest in a program for art are two different things so look up some online tutorials and the like and get a couple of new techniques.

Next: practice like crazy. My favorite way to do this is set up a list of things to make, usually simple things - get about 20 to 30 subjects (this is pretty difficult and you wont always use all of them). Then get an alarm clock you can set for 10 - 15 minute intervals set it and in that time do your best to draw up a single object.

When the alarm goes off thats the end of that drawing. No 'but's. You now have the option to begin the same object again (10 to 15 minutes again) or start the process all over again. (Rinse, wash, repeat until you get the desired effect)

  • \$\begingroup\$ Great technique. This is similar to how I learned programming. But why limit it to 10-15 minute spurts? \$\endgroup\$ – ashes999 Sep 6 '11 at 13:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've found that us programmers can be a little possessive of our art even if it sucks. The best way to alleviate that is to make a deadline that makes us certain we wont spend any real time on the page. \$\endgroup\$ – Alex Shepard Sep 6 '11 at 13:49

Wow, a topic I might be able to answer some, seeing how I've been drawing my entire life (despite this there's scant evidence of it online, given that I tend to not scan my results -- I'm a very analog artist... that, and I dislike showing what I consider failures... although I suppose it would be useful for some?).

Victor's answer addresses the first thing: hand drawing. Kimon Nicolaïdes is probably one of my greatest inspirations, and I'm sad that I never got the chance to study under him.

"There is only one right way to learn to draw and that is a perfectly natural way. It has nothing to do with artifice or technique. It has nothing to do with aesthetics or conception. It has only to do with the act of correct observation, and by that I mean a physical contact with all sorts of objects through all the senses. If a student misses this step and does not practice it for at least his first five years, he has wasted most of his time and must necessarily go back and begin all over again."
It might sound extreme, but at the time (around 1936) it was a rather common idea (Harold Speed says something similar about practice); compared to today's idea that some people have a natural talent and the rest of us can never catch up, they believed that practice, practice and practice will get you there -- maybe a bit later, but eventually.

Personally, I don't believe in talent. Not in the way media plays it up these days. See, what everyone forgets is that even talented people practice, and there's even evidence that "special talent" doesn't really exist. (Which is good news for us mortals.)

Kimon Nicolaïdes's book, "The Natural Way to Draw", is great, and I regularly re-read it and go through the study plan. Another great book is Harold Speed's "The Practice & Science of Drawing"; although it lacks a proper study plan it will give you several points of view on drawing and painting.

But, back to the topic at hand. As Victor said; you will want to practice hand drawing, because it will force you to learn perspective, shadows, textures and similar. Indeed, I don't think you should concern yourself overly much with the digital part yet (actually, I wouldn't be able to say since you've not said nor shown at what level you're at except "simple drawing", which is vague enough to not mean anything :P ); what you're training would be the base for everything else, and without a proper foundation you won't get very high. A quick word of advice: don't throw away your sketches/drawings. Save them -- at least for a few years; whenever you feel like you're not making progress, look at your first ones and you'll be astounded at what a distance you've come.

Hand drawing (and by this I mean with any media: charcoal, graphite, pastels, conté, silverpoint, pen and ink, marker, what have you) will probably be enough for pretty much everything except sprites (sprites could probably be made either by hand or by doing some fancy magic with 3d models -- it's not an area I will claim any expertise). Backgrounds can be made in any media, but watercolours are nice and very rewarding once you've learned them. I remember a few (10-15) years back when I asked a friend of mine how she did her amazing watercolour paintings... Because I'd never been able to produce anything like it; the answer was simple enough: practice, and letting the painting dry before continuing with the next part of it. Not getting the brush wet enough, or getting it too wet -- those parts were just part of the learning curve.

Once you're comfortable with hand drawing and painting/backgrounds, you're pretty much done with the analog part. Learning the software necessary for digitizing it is another step altogether, and one where the same thing repeats itself: practice, practice, practice. Find a good book or two dealing with your software of choice, and start learning (lynda.com has some great video tutorials for photoshop). It's less work, in my opinion, to learn how to digitize something -- software is just a tool, just like your silverpoint or graphite. It's a means to an end, it's not the end result itself. One thing though: when you start using software, get a pen tablet. The ipad and its ilk are horrible at the job, but wacom's intuos, cintiq or even bamboo pen&touch will be worth their weight in gold when it comes to digitizing or any job in photoshop. Mouse and keyboard are great input methods for a lot of things, but not drawing (besides, the pressure sensitivity alone is necessary for a majority of operations).

Alex Shepard's advise, "practice like crazy" is true. His way is one way, another is the way I learned it way back when: pick a subject -- easier things when you're starting out, then draw it for 30 minutes, without looking at your sketchpad. If you feel that you're losing the connection between subject and paper, take a second to glance at your sketch/drawing and reposition the pen. Because drawing is being able to draw what you see, not what you know is there.

Before people jump down my throat on the "it's less work to learn how to digitize something"; I realize that it might sound a bit arrogant. Learning the magic that photoshop can do requires a lot of practice and effort, and don't even get me started on 3D modelling because that's just way out there. But learning to use it passably is a lot easier than learning how to draw a person without it looking like it's from some forgotten horror show. In my opinion.


You should learn hand drawing. It's the very first skill you should have to draw anything at all. Learning to draw with hands you get notion of perspective, textures, shadows, etc.

Access websites like DeviantArt and CGTextures to get inspiration and see examples. Drawspace it's a great website that covers almost all aspects of drawing.

After you should be able to easily identify how you can do icons, sprites, animations, etc. With a scanner you can visualize your sketches on a screen and adapt it to your game.

  • \$\begingroup\$ So your answer is essentially "practice drawing things you see, and focus on hand-drawing"? Scanning is not sufficient for icons, IMO, because they need to be very precise. \$\endgroup\$ – ashes999 Sep 6 '11 at 13:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, but they dont came from void. All icons need a hand sketch. Google some good icons and logos tutorials, all they start in pen and paper. \$\endgroup\$ – Victor Debone Sep 6 '11 at 13:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ Great answer all in all, I gave it a vote-up, but I don't see how the scanning technique is practical at all! All the artists I know work in programs, have you tried scanning a picture to use it in a game? How does it look? If it's OK I would be very interested to use this! \$\endgroup\$ – jcora Sep 6 '11 at 13:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @bane it works very well. In the pre-tablet era (late 90s), this is essentially how we did art. We came up with decent sketches, digitized them, and coloured them layer by layer. It's much quicker to do it straight on the PC with a tablet these days though. +1 for the Drawspace link. \$\endgroup\$ – ashes999 Sep 6 '11 at 13:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ The intent is not to use the scanned imaged, it's to build your game art on top of the scan. Put it on a layer on photoshop, for example, create a new layer, and start drawing and adapting it to your game style. And of course you can jump this step if you have a tablet. \$\endgroup\$ – Victor Debone Sep 6 '11 at 13:58

To be honest, and I don't know if this is the "right" answer, but even to create quality 2D sprite art requires significant artistic ability and skills. That being said, it's nothing that can't be taught. The whole notion that it's all "natural talent" isn't true. You can start by learning how to draw with this tired and true book, The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: A Course in Enhancing Creativity and Artistic Confidence. I think this book serves as a great launch board to develop artistic abilities (or at least I'm told). As with anything, it all comes down to practice, practice, practice.

Hopefully that's helpful. I feel your pain and I'm constantly in the same boat as you.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Excellent answer. I agree about talent; those who are talented, we can never reach their level, ever (especially when they practice). But we can go pretty far through hard work. \$\endgroup\$ – ashes999 Sep 6 '11 at 13:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ have you actually read this book? How did it help you? \$\endgroup\$ – ashes999 Sep 6 '11 at 13:48

A good source of tutorials and practice methods can be found here.

From my limited experience and as pointed out in the accepted answers above, practice makes perfect.


I'm not so sure hand drawing is the way to go. I've found that I'm much better at art with the mouse than I am with hand drawn art. I think the key point is practice. If you're going to practice something a lot, it should be using the tools that you're likely going to be using: a mouse and keyboard.

I'm not an artist, but I think I'm getting better. I've been going through tutorials and modifying existing art. Both develop your knowledge of the tools. Recently when I was creating a texture for a 3D model, I neglected to save the texture file before closing Blender, textures and models are different save operations :(. Anyway, I had to re-create the entire texture from a blank canvas. I think this ended up being a good thing, it gave me practice. Based on that I'm likely going to create multiple versions of every texture, every time. Starting from scratch each time.

Good luck with your art!

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for mentionning tutorials, I just draw whatever. Although I disagree that mouse is easier; but I'm far more practiced at drawing by hand, so that's probably why. \$\endgroup\$ – ashes999 Sep 6 '11 at 16:12

In my weird opinion, impose so many constraints on yourself that you start achieving something which looks stylish just from the constraints! :-D

That's what I'd do if I get to go indie again and develop games (kind of my retirement dream). I used to do that as a teen a few decades ago drawing all my sprites and tiles and writing my own music. Back then I could kind of pull it off because the market was saturated heavily with very amateurish looking artwork and sound in CGA graphics, like this:

enter image description here

And that's really what got me into game development and design back then because many commercial games didn't really look like they were being illustrated and scored by pros. I felt like I could really compete with the commercial games out there just working from home and doing all my writing and music and graphics and programming. If I was born a couple of generations later, I might have never bothered, since commercial games these days have such amazing graphics and sound from teams of elite pros. They look like Hollywood films or something. I don't understand how the young ones these days find it in themselves to try to compete in the market now with all these huge games out there, though I'm happy to see that they still exist.

I did practice drawing a lot and took up a second visual arts major but was never good enough to consider it professionally. I got some sketches like this in ballpoint which is probably my best stuff (was easy to draw a sleeping subject):

enter image description here

I actually feel like I draw better with pen and ink than with graphite or charcoal and it's probably because it's a more constrained medium. Similarly when I tried to paint, I wasn't so good at it but I did better when I just scribbled digitally without trying to blend or anything like this:

enter image description here

And I think that's because I'm not good enough to paint with soft brushes and stuff, but if I constrain myself and just make myself scribble with something more like ink with hard lines, it's easier to hide the fact that I don't know what I'm doing. In fact typically the more I impose constraints on myself like forcing myself to draw with just black and white with ink and not all the subtle variations of value you can get with graphite or just scribbling with colors and not using soft brushes, I get better results because the constraints make it easier for someone without skill to do better. I ended up going down the programming path instead in continuation of all the game dev. Now I actually write software for artists to use with dreams of getting back into game dev but only because there is a resurgence of indie games again (I got sick of big company work).

But if I could go back to game development, I think that's the way to go. By constraints, I mean like using those big-blocky retro-style pixels for example. Or maybe you can even use 4-color CGA palettes! I actually like that... dunno, maybe I've got a heavy case of nostalgia glasses. But I tried processing some photos the other day to make them use 4-color palettes (but with blue and orange instead of purple and cyan), and I think they look cool:

enter image description here enter image description here

So working with a 4-color palette is like a hardcore restriction but I could more easily hide the fact that I'm not such a good artist if I was drawing using such a palette, and especially if I was drawing blocky pixel graphics.

And maybe some people think that kind of strategy is overused these days in indie games with a retro-style resurgence, but dunno, I still find those games fun and they do end up communicating a consistent design language which leads to a sense of stylistic consistency.

So that's kind of my funky suggestion: impose so many constraints on yourself, basically tie your hands behind your back, until what you analogically draw with a pencil using just your mouth starts to look competent given all the restrictions you placed on yourself. The audience can't know you're not so good at drawing if they're watching you draw with your hands tied behind your back and drawing stuff with a pencil in your mouth, so to speak.

Similar kind of thing with music if you do that. I find if I just restrain myself a lot and keep it super simple like not use many instruments and maybe just like a bass line and some drums and sounds, I can kinda hide the fact that I'm drunk and have no idea what I'm doing like this: https://vocaroo.com/i/s1k7kLy45bi6. Of course a pro could probably tell, but maybe I could fluke it to ordinary people.

And my suggestion is really all about fluking -- not to produce great art or music or anything but something that might be able to fool a regular person and make them believe that you're not completely incompetent. And for that I find it helps to restrain yourself heavily, use super simple palettes, blocky graphics, very few instruments for music and sound, etc, just as I was forced to do back then when I was a teenager in the 80s due to technological restrictions, only now I would do it on purpose.


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