What is an isometric view?
An isometric view is a perspective view from a certain angle, in which all 3D objects have the same scale and the same point of view regardless of their location and distance.
Isometric view is quite popular in pixel art thanks to this particularity – you can duplicate an object in your scene without changing its size due to perspective.
But in Pixelart, especially in the game industry, the isometric view is a little bit different from the original geometry (where the axes form an angle of 120°). To get beautiful diagonals in pixel art, this angle is a little bit different, creating a so-called 2:1 isometric perspective.
As you can see, in real isometric perspective the line would look wobbly in comparison to the straight and regular line of the 2:1 iso.
How to set up your canvas
Ok, but how to set up my canvas if the angle is different from a true isometric perspective?
Don’t worry, with a lot of software (if not all), you can make a 2:1 isometric view and also include a grid to help you.
Here’s how to set up the isometric view in 3 different software:
- Photoshop (the most popular software since a long time in a lot of fields): Well, it is the most popular, but there is no option here to generate an iso grid… you have to do it yourself. Luckily, there is a lot of information and files on the internet to help you or provide you with ready-made templates.
TIP: If you know Photoshop well, you can make brushes with diagonal lines in the different directions of iso 2:1.
- Aseprite (The most popular software for pixel art): There is no grid here too… But with the line tool, holding down the shift key, you can get the right angle for the isometric perspective. You can easily create your grid or just draw your volume. Very simple to use. The best tool I know.
- Affinity Photo (The one I’m using): With this software, you are finally able to generate a perfect iso 2:1 grid directly. In the grid option, you can generate the type of grid you want, the number of sections, etc., and set up the magnetic grid option to snap your pixel on this grid.
Use the Pixel tool and the shift key to draw lines.
The importance of references
Before starting with the drawing, I want to take a minute to talk about the importance of reference images. In the minds of many (including mine, not long ago), the use of references is considered cheating. But how can you draw something good if you haven’t studied real-life images? How can you imagine a realistic stone if you don’t know what it looks like in nature? Furthermore, there are several types of rocks! So, use references, please!
And it works for everything! Portrait, pose, object, landscapes, animals…
Your best friends so far…
TIP: The easiest way to find references? Just go outside and look around!
Drawing the shape
So, after examining several stones and rocks and getting an idea of what you want, we can start drawing. In pixel art, and in drawing in general, there are two main ways to start a piece: drawing a rough sketch or painting with flat colors (of course, there are several middle ground between these two styles). The easiest way to start is with a rough sketch. Do it directly on your computer or a piece of paper; it’s up to you.
In isometric perspective, the grid represents the ground, and the objects will always have three visible sides. So, your rock will always show its top and two other sides, unlike classic perspective, where you can draw the object from different points of view (depending on where the horizon line is located).
If you are unfamiliar with 3-dimensional objects, do not hesitate to create a structure to help yourself. Let’s start with a simple box to represent your rock.
Now, you can work on this area to create something that looks like a rock. Use the green structure to separate your rock in its three views (top, front, side), and try to break the straight lines and create other faces to give your rock a better look.
TIP: Try to draw something that looks random, created by nature and time. If you made a group of rocks, give them different shapes and directions to avoid repetition.
As written in the tip above, we want to get something more random. So, it’s time to forget about the cubic shape. Try adding multiple volumes to get something more complex. You can temporarily add new boxes to help you create variations.
When you are satisfied with the shape of the rock, you can move on to coloring.
There are several ways to choose your colors! The first and simple one is getting a reference image. You can also find color palettes on the website Lospec.com, a good way to use limited colors as a traditional pixel artist. Or you can start from scratch and choose your tones.
TIP: When I choose a lighter or darker color, I also move the hue slider. Once you’ve chosen a direction for the lighter colors, go in the opposite direction for the darker ones.
TIP: Don’t use a pure gray, put some color in it to give life to your rock.
Now that you’ve chosen your palette, fill your rock with the medium tone.
TIP: put your sketch in low opacity to keep an eye on your general shape and idea.
Choose your light point
Another essential element in art is light. With a good knowledge of lighting, you will get a more realistic scene and, consequently, a more impactful art! Again, don’t hesitate to study the real world. Check out the internet, go out, play with your flashlight…
In isometric view, you can put the light source wherever you want as in any other perspective, but the most natural way is to choose a top light like the sun.
TIP: Put your light on top-right or top-left to create contrast on your object. It will look more three-dimensional.
Now take two more colors, one darker and one lighter than the medium tone. Keep in mind your boxes and the three-sided view, and start to put light and shadows like on a cube. Everything on the top will get light, and everything on the left will be in shadow.
Apply it to your rock.
TIP: Don’t forget the cast shadows. The objects above will hide the light for the underlying objects.
Add darker shadows to delimit the shapes. Remember to avoid regularity.
Now you’ve got a stone!
Details & polishing
You could leave your rock as it is and still be proud of yourself. Or you can add some details to give it more life.
This kind of rock is not smooth, so you can add some ribs to show the texture. Keep in mind the light.
You can add more colors to accentuate the contrast and give more volume to the shapes.
Now, go further and add cracks and vegetation.
TIP: Try to tell a story with your piece. It will be easier to know which details you can add and where.
TIP: Prioritize readability over the amount of detail, especially in small pixel arts.
Now, you have an idea of how to draw a rock in isometric perspective, or at least how I do it… because there are as many artists as there are ways to do it. So, don’t hesitate to take a look at different artists and keep some elements, to mix them and create your own style.
But keep in mind:
- Use references and study real life
- Isometric is a three-sided view of your object
- Avoid repetition
- Choose a light point and stick to it for lights and shadows
- Carefully balance readability and detail
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