Saturday, 17 August 2013

Re-live the 80's with Illustrator.

I developed a design brief for my students that requires then to recreate their own work in the style of the 80's arcade pop-culture.  Its a great era and one that seems to be fairly popular even today with its pixel-art, rainbow electric graphic design asthetic and just the fact I grew up in that era also helps... :D

While its easy enough to create pixel-art in a bitmap editor such as Photoshop, Windows Paint or the Gimp - For some real flexibility artistically, Illustration software like - well - Illustrator is a better choice.  Because its vector based, pixel shapes are crisp and square.  They can be rescaled without pixel artifacts or antialiased soft edges.  And it can be manipulated with transforms, 3D extrusions and more without losing quality.

That means groovy poster art, alongside the usual pixel-level bit map export.  Some examples below show a range of ways that we can make the classic invader into a variety of visually interesting styles in Illustrator.  Of course, we can also export the original image in actual screen res. pixels too for those actual bitmap projects (ie. like game makers, etc).

Illustrator gives you plenty of "scalable" styles - great for posters, etc

Hows it done?  Isn't Illustrator all about curvy vectors and typefaces?

True - but obviously its also capable of simple shapes.  One way to create artwork is to use squares, however another more "pixel art" approach can be done with just two tools -The Rectangular Grid tool, and the Live Paint Bucket...

Just two tools is all it takes - you'll be back in the arcades in no time!

Yup - just two simple tools and a little time "painting" pixels is the same approach as we would in a bitmap software package, except obviously these images are scalable and stylize-able without losing quality (since they're vectors, not pixels).

Start with the Rectangular grid tool.  Click once on the artboard (rather then click-drag) and you can set up the grid numerically.  In this case, you want to keep the shape square for now, and use an even number of grid lines to create nice square pixel shapes.

In this example, the grid would be 100mm x 100mm, and an 8 x 8 "pixel" layout.  For the video game character in my example however, I used a 16 x 16 grid.  Yes, I realise that the invader graphic has less pixels, but a few more don't hurt in case we want to draw more details or other items.  We'll clean those up later anyway.

Paint them pixels!

The process is pretty simple.  Once the grid is created, it's automatically selected.  If you accidentally clicked off the grid and deselected it - just reselect it so that our Live Paint Bucket tool can convert it to a Live Paint group. Then - just set your fill colours and click-drag the tool over our grid to paint those pesky pixels!  Yup - easy stuff, eh!

I'm done.  How to I clean this up now?  Its still got loads of grid lines!

As I said at the start, it doesn't hurt to have a few extra grid lines available...  But when we're done, we'll want to clean it all up and remove those extra's.  Simply do the following:
  1. Select the grid object
  2. Set the stroke color to None.
  3. Under the Object menu, select the Expand option.

Expanded - and those empty pixels are gone!

What this tool does is expand the object out to vector shapes.  A nice effect here is that any part of the grid that has no fill and no stroke will simply be removed altogether.  That leaves us with the pixels.  Of course, that means if you have any pixels that have to be white, make sure to fill them with white (its kinda tricky to remember - after all a white background looks, well, white!).

Now you're set! You can play with various effects, strokes, transformations and more to create sexy 8-bit style artwork.  If you plan to apply effects to the shape rather then the pixels (flat shapes to extrude, or even to export to files for importing into other applications (such as 3D modeling software)) then don't forget the Shapebuilder tool (under the same set of tools that we found Live Paint Bucket hiding) can be used to merge all those pixels.

Have a blast and create the past.  If you do create anything cool, please do post a link to your work in the comments below.  Enjoy!


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