“Where do you get your textures?” is something I’m asked from time to time. I have a huge stock of textures for modding and graphic design. I used to scour Google Image Search for hours, then have to check the copyright permissions on every image I found. It’s frustrating finding the perfect image only to find you have to shell out ten dollars for it or make do with something else. In the end I’ve found it better to make them myself whenever I can. There is a lot to it however, which is why this post will come in several parts.
Building a solid texture library will take some strain off finding them every time you start a project. I started my library with a free download of low resolution textures, which are no longer good enough to use even in my hobby work, but it gave me a solid foundation to learn from. It came with folders filled with tiling metal, stone, wood, leather, cloth, water, and so on. It taught me how to value a simple textures that don’t out-shout the content they’re meant to compliment, which I’ll talk about in Part 3: The Big Picture. It also taught me how to kludge a handful of lesser textures together in Photoshop into something serviceable, which I’ll cover more in Part 2: Making Textures. But mostly it taught me what to look for as I roam with my camera – a texturer’s best friend.
Even a semi-decent camera is enough to get started. I would love a professional camera with a macro lens, but I can’t afford one so I make do with a simple snapshot camera I got for less than a hundred dollars. I also have a tripod, which I don’t carry around with me, but use at home to minimize blur when I take photos of small objects like buttons or bits of plant matter I’ve dragged inside so I can photograph them against a matte background. The matte background makes it easier to crop the object out of the photo, which can be as simple as a sheet of black or white paper laid out on a table. If you want to get fancy, you can even pull the sheet up so it covers the back of the object as well – in case you need to photograph it head on instead of top down. You can even get fancy with your arrangements and make photo collages you can use as the design itself, but I prefer doing all that in post production.
I take most of my photos while I’m out. You never know when you’ll run into interesting bricks, or bark, or wooden beams. I make whole field trips to capture bits of raw nature in digital form. I enlist friends and family for their collections of interesting things. My mother quilts and my father blows glass, among many discarded hobbies that produced their own sets of well-worn tools and trinkets. I also have my own collection, a set of jewellery tools and metal sheets. I have a huge photo collection of scratched metal and rust, and through my journeys, acquired textures of wood, bark, rocks, water, and tons of plants. You can collect floor tile samples or fabric swatches. There’s a whole world out there to gather through your lens and turn into art.
I’ve found taking photos for textures is completely different than your regular snapshots though. So here are some photography tips for texturers:
- Go out on an overcast day. You’ll get flatter looking photographs, but that’s what you want. Too much light washes out the texture and shadows blot it out. You’re not after the most interesting photograph, you’re after the texture alone. Even the color of the object is not that important, because you can fix that in post. What you can’t fix is not being able to discern the texture at all. I often use my own shadow to even out the light on an object before I photograph it.
- Watch out for yourself in the photo! Whether it’s the outline of your shadow or your reflection on a shiny surface, avoid accidentally photobombing yourself. This can require standing at awkward angles. Sometimes you have to compromise between a perfect shot with you in it, or a slightly skewed texture that’s clear. I almost always settle for the latter, because skewing can be fixed easily in Photoshop, but a blurry picture of you holding a camera in front of your face while wearing a bright blue sweater reflected right in the center of your image is a lot more messy to deal with.
- Get the object from different angles and in different light conditions. My favorite indoor photo spot is by a window, with just enough diffuse natural light to keep everything visible, and a bright lamp to highlight something when I need to. I mostly photograph without the flash, but do a few shots with it just to see if it does anything interesting. Different light conditions can completely alter a texture. I use my flatbed scanner to grab flat fabric textures and all the art papers I’ve collected over the years, but even then I sometimes take photos of the same object to get it under different light conditions. The difference can be dramatic.
- Keep everything, and keep your files organized. Keep it unless it’s a blurry mess. If a photo you took isn’t right for your current project, it might come in handy later. Throw what you can’t classify into a misc or discards folder and check it from time to time so you remember what’s in there. Everything else should be labeled so you can easily find things when you need them. Also make sure you can tell your stuff from the stuff you’ve downloaded, and don’t lose your credits or permissions. I know from experience, it’s no fun having to toss half your textures because you forgot where they came from and what you can legally use them for.
- Don’t forget to photograph the boring stuff. Often a simple texture works better than a more interesting one, especially for background textures. You don’t want everything in a model or on a page to jump out screaming, “Look how awesomely textured I am!” You have to review everything you’ve done in context, which I’ll talk more about in Part 3. For now, remember to gather a few humble shots of dirt, wooden planks, sack cloth, or what-have-you among the more glamorous stuff.
- The first place you should look is around your home. I’ve often found myself desperately searching for the perfect texture online only to find it in front of my face. Probably because I’ve grown so accustomed to my own stuff that I take it for granted. Not only that, those objects are the thing that form my impression of what a wicker basket or chair should look like, the ones we grow up with become our ur-chair or ur-basket. Gathering these objects and using them to make art can be a personal thing, a form of self-expression as valid as painting.
You want photos, even if you don’t use photo textures, for reference. You could paint bark textures in illustrator by hand, but most people trace that kind of thing for a reason – it gets the job done in less time. Not everyone has the time to lovingly craft every element of a design by hand, and there’s nothing wrong with that. To anyone who scoffs at tracing, thinking its something people only do if they can’t draw – you can see from my portfolio that I can draw, but I trace whenever I can. Most texturing and layout design is a form of collage, taking separate elements and arranging them together on a background.by