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How to improve your game art instantly (with my own examples).

You’re an indie board game developer. You don’t have the money to hire an artist, or maybe you know your way around a stylus and you want to produce your own art for your game. I’ve got a tip that will improve your art instantly in a vary tangible way. You’ll have to do a bit more work when you’re setting up your art, but it will save you time and energy in the long run, and your art will look ten times better. I’ll have an actual example of my art improving because of this tip below.

Get reference photos.

I’ve drawn stuff for a long time. I’ve always doodled, drawn from my imagination, and created fantastic worlds on paper. I’m pretty good at it. I’ve taken scads of art classes, and I’ve drawn and designed and painted constantly for years. You’d think that I would be able to “make stuff up” instead of drawing from photos.

Myth: Great artists are so good, they just draw from their imagination.

I’m going to be vulnerable here, in an attempt to convince you that you can do better art.

I’m going to draw a character from my imagination, right now. I’m just going to sketch him out. He’s a planned character from my game, a faceless fellow in a trench coat. Here we go:

Screen Shot 2014-08-01 at 7.55.15 AM

Not bad, huh? I’ve got some nice details, I’ve got an interesting posture, and it looks ok. It would be easy to take this picture and develop it into a full painting without another thought.

Read on, though.

Truth: Great artists know to draw from references.

I know, this isn’t exciting, especially. Coming through royalty-free photos or taking your own photos is busywork, and you want to get on to the real fun of painting/drawing!

Wait, do you want to improve your art? Are you really willing to put in the time to make your game look fantastic? Then follow this advice, because it works. Here’s the proof – here’s my drawing of “no face” with a reference photo:

Screen Shot 2014-08-01 at 7.53.28 AM

Just about the same amount of time invested, and it looks so much better, in several ways: he’s more lifelike, he’s more realistic, more fluid and alive, and he’s got more (and better) realistic details. When you draw from references, you don’t just draw a generic image that you happened to have stored in your head, you draw a real person, and that makes the drawings more interesting.

But where do you get reference photos without spending a bunch of money?

0. NOT Google images

Don’t even think about it. You don’t own the rights to those pictures, so just don’t go there. If someone could look at your drawing and tell that it was based on a picture that you don’t own the rights to, you could really get in a mess. Don’t go there.

1. Take your own.

This is always the best option. You can often get exactly what you want, and you don’t have to worry about someone suing you for using their photo. Do this, if at all possible.

2. Free pictures

There are a few places where you can get royalty-free pictures for nothing. Here’s a few of my favorites:

MorgueFile – Free photos. Morguefile doesn’t have a huge selection, but it’s totally safe to use the photos.

DeviantArt Stock – Photos on DeviantArt are not all free. However, many artists put photos up that they allow you to use. Check the text below the image. Sometimes they just want you to ask permission, sometimes you can just use the image. BE WARNED: make sure that the image is available for commercial use before you use it, if you’re planning on selling your game. Many artists allow you to use the photo for personal or DeviantArt-only use. If you’re not sure, contact the artist!

Wikimedia Commons – Lots of old photos in the public domain.Check the permissions on this site. Sometimes attribution is required, sometimes use isn’t allowed at all. Just check.


Sometimes when you have something specific in mind, you might have to frankenstein some photos together. That’s totally cool, it still works if your reference is from several photos. It will still make your art better.

Any questions? Any other sources of great reference photos? Let me know!


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