Winter break has come and gone and just like my students in the new year...I'm back! Currently, I sit here looking out the window at blue skies and cold temperatures due to our first winter weather event of the season. I suspect it will lead to an extended weekend, but for that we will have to wait and see what happens. Regardless, we have recently experienced a lot of free time out of school which has allowed me to reflect on how I will alter the direction my students will be taking the remainder of the school year in order to keep my instruction relevant and up-to-date with industry skills and knowledge.
Over the years as a game design teacher, I have had the good fortune to be involved in numerous conversations and interactions with professional game designers. This has allowed me to consider the relevance in the content I teach, particularly in terms of the groundwork being laid in Scientific Visualization. As a result, I often change the lessons and instructions used in connection with this curriculum. This is one of the main reasons for my willingness to volunteer with this particular curriculum's pending revision. And, while I am thrilled that this course was able to open the door for classes like Game Art & Design and Advanced Game Design, a lot of the information included in Sci Vis is simply irrelevant to careers in the game industry.
Besides the name of the course, one of my concerns has always been the amount of science my artistic students receive in Sci Vis, which takes up the better part of the first semester. I have heard other teachers openly state that they completely skip this material. But I find that behavior irresponsible of anyone who claims to be an educator. There is some useful knowledge and skills in this part of the material and students need to understand it for their exams at the end of the year. This material also speaks to CTE's inclusion in STEM. However, such material often demotivates my artistic students from wanting to continue with me into game design as they fear such material will be droped into future courses as well. They take my classes because they want art, not science! But, we are past all that now and can fully focus on digital artistic skills for the remainder of the year. The areas of focus is the use of industry standard 2D and 3D digital tools, such as Photoshop, Illustrator and 3ds Max.
One of the first things I learned about the artistic portion of Sci Vis is the minor amount of focus it places on 2D digital tools. Photoshop and Illustrator are both very powerful tools and used widely throughout digital studios by professionals. They are the industry standards for all 2D artwork and there is a lot of it in game design. But, when I originally examined the curriculum, I came to realize several serious problems relating to the expected instruction of these tools when compared with how they are used in the game industry.
For starters, more attention is given to vector than to raster graphics. While this may seem logical due to constraints imposed on rescaling raster graphics along with differences in file size, the game industry rarely uses vector images outside of creating high quality components that are brought into raster images. Such items include graphics company/game logos, game icons, menu items, etc. In other words: most games tend to entirely use raster graphics and vector graphics only supplement the quality of the artwork.
The next problem I noticed is that the majority of the raster tools discussed in the curriculum focus more on skills used by photographers than those used by digital artists. Yes, it is important to know how to mask, crop, use filters and so forth, but there is little-to-no instruction on the use of drawing/painting tools in Photoshop. And that is where and how most 2D artwork is done by game production teams!
So, what am I changing this year? I am dropping much of the focus on vector graphics. Don't get me wrong, students will still be introduced to Illustrator and how they can use it create clean, scalable graphics. But our focus throughout the year has been and will continue to be on raster graphics and the use of Photoshop techniques to create digital artwork and paintings. That is, at least until we get to 3D modeling.
Another important change involves the use of drawing tablets. In the past, select students have used a drawing tablet in my classroom but I have never instructed them in doing so or how to customize the Photoshop interface for painting, instead of using the default workspace and settings which are more geared towards graphic design and photography. This year, that all changes.
A lot of the information that I am using with my students comes from a very useful and informative website: Ctrl+Paint. The site author, Matt Kohr, is a video game concept artist who is highly skilled in the use of Photoshop. His website provides an excellent resource for beginning digital artists by covering both traditional and digital drawing techniques. And, he explains everything in detailed and easy to understand video tutorial format...for FREE! In terms of painting with Photoshop, this is the absolute best resource I have ever found online.
So far, I have used Kohr's tutorials to help teach my students about the different principles of design through the use of orcs. I was also able to use the same techniques to teach them a lot of Photoshop skills and tools in a short period of time. Being a first-go at this method of teaching the material, I found out fast that I tried to cram too much instruction and skill practice into too little time. While I think this was a good exercise, I need to make several changes to it for future use. Now, we are gearing up to focus on digital painting techniques and I need to account for this being a new skillset for both my students and myself.
One concern I have involves some technological problems I have encountered with using the website's tutorials. I often like to provide students with direct access to video tutorials for use as a resource in my classroom. It helps them when they get stuck and I am busy assisting other students with problems they are encountering. Having access to such resources allows students to solve their own problems without relying on others, such as the teacher. However, we have a pesky Internet filter installed that blocks all kinds of useful tools erroneously and these videos are no exception. There are two commonly used websites for hosting video content: YouTube and Vimeo. Kohr hosts his videos on the latter. The problem comes in with the ability of the school system's IT department to control access to individual videos using the filter. They can control direct access to YouTube videos but not Vimeo and refuse to unblock the entire site due to some materials posted there not being school appropriate. I truly get it, but it is also very frustrating that students are limited in their lack of ability access a great resource because IT cannot effectively use the filter to block inappropriate material posted on the site..
The other problem that I have run into involves our drawing tablets. My classroom is outfited with several Genius MousePen tablets that were generously donated by a former student's dad. They are great for drawing solid lines but we have always had a difficult time with using pressure sensitivity to paint in a more natural manner. Even after updating the drivers and replacing pen batteries, some will not apply pressure sensitivity while a few simply refuse to work altogether or on specific computers. One solution I found involves moving the cable from one USB port to another in the computer or rebooting the computer. Generally, this helps when a tablet stops working. But, it is still hard to paint effectively without pressure sensitivity. We can simulate this by changing the flow and/or opacity settings on the brush tool, but it is not the same either in terms of natural painting techniques or overall quality. Perhaps it is time to request new tablets and move to a more industry standard item like a Wacom?
I hope it is clear from the discussion above that I put a lot of thought into keeping my students up-to-date both in terms of skills and content. I know I will be doing a lot of reflection on the importance and techniques used to teach digital painting skills to my students. So, look for more on this topic in the coming weeks!
I am a high school Career & Technical Education (CTE) teacher located in Durham, NC with a focus on game art and design. This blog provides a place for reflection on relevant classroom practices.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent those of my employer or anyone else associated with Durham Public Schools.