Balloon Animals

datetime July 3, 2018 11:49 PM

  1. Despite all appearances, I am, in fact, still alive.
  2. I didn’t post for 2+ months because the projects I started kept hitting walls of various sorts that prevented me from writing them up.
  3. It’s all good now, though.
  4. Today’s thing isn’t about army men, but it is very cute.

My sister is a better adult than I am. She has a more normal job, does normal human things like go outside and eat different food every day, and much to my relief, she volunteered to do the “family” thing. That last one was particularly appreciated for its effect of reducing certain lines of badgering from our shared mother, and the whole topic will be settled for good in a few months when Sandy provides my mom the grandchild she so stereotypically pines for.

There was a general assumption from the day we heard the news that I would provide some sort of decoration for the small mammal’s enclosure. I didn’t have a clear idea of where to start with this project, so I started where I usually do: Google Image Search. I punched in “Baby Room Mural”, and quickly saw some themes emerging:

  1. Animals
  2. Big trees
  3. The sky

Every single result seemed to involve some combination of those basic elements. Not wanting to stray too far from what seemed to be a pretty solidly established Baby Mural Thematic Canon, I spent a few weeks mulling over different variations, returning periodically to the search results for inspiration. Eventually my interest was piqued by one mural in particular:

The idea of a flotilla of animal-driven airships intrigued me, and once I started sketching I found it quite easy to come up with characters to fill out the canvas:

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I picked random cute animals I like, and sketched out different shapes of small airships for them all to drift around in. Naturally, the animals had to be dressed in clothes to teach them, and by extension the small human they would be watching over, a proper sense of shame.

I chose a Victorian aesthetic because tophats and layered dresses are fun to draw. However, I resisted the urge to go full steampunk with the designs, as smoke-belching steam engines clashed slightly with the flavour of woodland whimsy I was targeting. Instead, I made all of the ships muscle-powered through a variety of pedals, cranks, and seesaws.

Once I had a roster of characters, I needed to figure out the scene they would be arranged into. I intended to draw each figure with a vaguely accurate perspective shift depending on their position in the overall composition, so it was important to get an idea of each craft’s size and position.

Once I was happy with the layout, it was time to draw!

I briefly entertained the idea of creating the mural in paint, but this would require a week or more of solid time at my sister’s house, which is seven hours away from where I live. I likely wasn’t going to have that much time available, so I instead opted to create the images digitally and print them on vinyl, so that 98% of the work could be done at home, and the only thing I needed to do at her house was stick shapes to the wall.

Before we go any further, it will probably be useful to quickly run through the difference between a Raster image and a Vector image, as this project hinged pretty strongly on the interplay between the two.

  • In a Raster image, the computer breaks up the image into a grid of single pixels, and then records the exact colour in every one of those pixels. This lets you store incredibly detailed colour information– think of anything that comes out of your camera– but scales poorly.
  • In a Vector image, the computer records every object as an arrangement of mathematical points and curves. E.g., “A circle with a radius 10% of the total canvas width. The center is 25% of the way in from the left, and 15% down from the top. The circle is royal blue with a pale blue border.” Creating and recording every single element of an image in that way is incredibly time-consuming, which restricts you to much simpler images than what a raster image could hold, but lets you scale infinitely.

Here’s a quick illustration:

Both of these circles were created around 16 pixels tall. The circle on the left (labeled “R”) is a Raster image, while the circle on the right (labeled “V”) is a Vector image.

At their original sizes, they look about the same– a lot of solid white and black pixels, with varying shades of grey where they meet as the computer tries to softly blend things together.

However, when I scale them up 30 times, the difference is quite clear– the computer simply has to re-calculate the new position and scale of the circle and the letter V, and then re-draw them at the new sizes, just as crisp and clean as before. However, the Raster image scales very poorly; the system has a black pixel and a white pixel, and if you tell it to scale up, it does its best to spread some grey between the points it knows in what it figures is a reasonable pattern. This leads to very soft edges and distorted shapes, like the strangely bulging bottom legs of the R.

If this is a brand-new concept that is completely blowing your mind, you can read a much longer explanation here. For everyone else, I’ll explain why this is all relevant in a sec. πŸ™‚

All of the art was drawn on my Wacom Cintiq 12WX in Photoshop– a raster art program– because the process of actually creating art is far less painful in that medium.

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Once each figure was done, I used a process called Vector Tracing to transfer the art from Photoshop into Adobe Illustrator, which is a Vector art program. Vector Tracing basically has the computer scan over a raster image and make guesses about where it could place “math shapes” to replicate the same shapes and colours. Vector tracing is far easier than actually creating the art directly in vector, but it isn’t without its drawbacks– the system will take some necessary shortcuts, and details will invariably be lost or distorted in the transfer. In the example above, you can see how the eyes are a bit less round, and the thin lines inside the glasses are rounded and cut short. Small details like this get lost all over the image, so you need to be prepared to either accept that or spend hours fixing things manually after the trace.

I tested the process on the elephant here– my first finished line art drawing– and I was satisfied enough with the outcome to go ahead with the rest of the image.

My desire to include a tree in the image resulted in this piece, which has one of the airships doing final prep and one last supply run before taking off. The running figure at the bottom right gives you a good idea of how all of the animals were drawn– every one started out as a “bean shape”, because the bean is the irreducible core of expressive cartooning. All humour must start from there and build outward.

I mean, that’s just science right there.

Additional figures were filled out. I took pains throughout the process to keep the perspective lined up, with each ship viewed from a slightly different angle relative to the “camera”.

The fish are my favourite. <3

Wait, no. Scratch that.

Once the line are was complete, I filled in the colours. My sister provided me the colour code for the paint she was going to apply to the nursery– a pale yellow called “Straw Hat”– and I built a colour scheme around it: dull colours, nothing too bright or saturated.

Vector tracing can’t really handle gradients, so I kept the colouring to flat colours with a simple solid edge highlight. Highlights were positioned on each figure to point toward the sun at the center of the composition.

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Here’s the final Photoshop image with colour corrections applied. The vector tracing will only degrade things from here, so you can consider this the final “canon” image, with everything else being “production quality” duplicates.

At least, that’s how I look at it, and you’re welcome to join me. πŸ˜›

With the raster art finished, I started vector tracing again, but I quickly noticed a problem– when I traced a whole image, the system made a bit of a mess of the line art, blending the black lines into their surroundings (see the creepy grey eyes for an example). I didn’t like this at all– I wanted clean “ink lines”– so I tried a different method to get the art into Illustrator.

In a nutshell: I exported every figure twice– once as an image containing the line art, and then another containing only the colours– and then vector traced each individually. When I laid them back across each other, the outlines had the stark definition I wanted.

I still had to do a bunch of cleanup work to fix important bits like facial features and fine detail line ropes, but all in all, I was pretty satisfied with the transfer process. And once I had everything translated to glorious math, I was free to send it all off to be printed at several feet tall without any further loss in quality.

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My sister sent me the dimensions of the nursery walls, and I used those to determine the optimal size of the various elements. I scaled everything up to that size, and then arranged the various figures tightly together to minimize printing costs. Even packing them as tightly as I could, I still had a lot of white space left over, so I sprinkled 20 balloon manatees into the gaps.

It’s always nice to have something goofy available to hand out to interested parties. πŸ˜›

Luckily for me I didn’t need to go very far to have it printed, as there’s a decent print shop on my block. Very convenient. πŸ™‚ I made a PDF of the vector design, tossed it onto a USB stick, and then walked it down to be printed on sticky vinyl. I think the design was 5ft by 7ft, and cost something like $160, which felt pretty reasonable. πŸ™‚

I had to cut all the figures out by hand. I used scissors to cut out the larger shapes, and then an XActo knife for the cutouts. The backing paper behind the vinyl is tough enough to resist one pass from an XActo, so everything was held solidly together even when the plastic was cleanly sliced through.

There was some minor renovation to do on the room before we could get to the mural– I re-did the floor and baseboards, because I am a very helpful brother. Once all of that was out of the way, I stuck the pieces to the wall with painter’s tape to give me an idea of how they would fill the space. I spent about an hour un-sticking and re-sticking airships to figure out the optimal arrangement; initially everything was about 18 inches lower, but my mom and my sister agreed that the beavers needed to be high enough to not be blocked by the crib. Fortunately I had just enough space to move everything up. πŸ™‚

One sad note at this point: my design had always called for a fairly abstract horizon line and sun to be painted on the wall behind the stickers, but the Family Council debated this at great length and ultimately vetoed it; my sister and her husband don’t plan to be in this house for more than a few more years, and they’re worried that a permanent painted backdrop might put off hypothetical future buyers.

I think the lack of a horizon puts the layout off-balance, but everyone else who’s seen it says it’s fine and I’m just nitpicking, so I guess I’ve been voted incorrect.

Stupid democracy. ~_~

When it was finally time to hang the stickers, I placed tape around the edges of each shape and pointing toward notable landmarks (like the corner of the lady giraffe’s hat) to help me keep things from drifting too much.

Most of the stickers were fairly straightforward to place– I would hold the balloon while my brother-in-law kept his hands behind the lower areas to keep them from touching the wall before they were in place. I would stick the top down, and then slowly press downward until the balloon, then the ropes, then the riders, and finally the hulls were smoothly affixed to the wall.

This sticker, on the other hand, was a mother****er. >_< Four feet wide and just as tall, the thin vinyl absolutely refused to lay flat across the entire canvas. Even recruiting my sister for an extra pair of hands, it still took us something like 45 minutes to get down– we’d place part of it and start pressing down adjacent areas, but before we got very far, wrinkles and air bubbles would form, and we’d have to peel it back again (fortunately, the adhesive was very forgiving and quite happy to release the wall on demand). I actually declared defeat after about half an hour and said I would modify the design a bit– adding more branches to structurally reinforce everything– then reprint, re-cut, and mail it back down to them.

One minute later, my sister figured out that we should just start from the center instead of the top, and two minutes after that it was basically all stuck down flat.

I still stand by my decision to quit. OUTCOMES BE DAMNED. >:(

There was still some light distortion even after we got everything down, but we were able to “negotiate” any extra slack down out of the main areas and into the connecting ropes between them, which then let me cut the ropes and pull them tightly back into position.

And that’s… pretty much it, actually. Here’s a nice video and some pictures of the final result. πŸ™‚

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Concluding articles is hard, so let’s just do bullet-form takeaways today:

  • I like drawing and wish I had more time to do it.
  • I like this drawing in particular. I wasn’t traditionally into “cute” drawing until Yaum nudged me into Chibi sculpting a few years ago, but since then I’ve grown to enjoy making adorable li’l bean-shaped folks when the occasion arises. πŸ™‚
  • Manatee is best, followed by Fishies, followed by Piggies. This is the canonical order of goodness, and I will hear no arguments for alternate rankings. >:(
  • Vinyl is interesting. May have future terrain applications.
  • *stares at the missing horizon and frowns*

Aaaaand that’s it. I’ll hopefully be back on my monthly schedule again after this. πŸ™‚


3 thoughts on “Balloon Animals

  • Glen

    That’s friggin’ amazing. So glad I’m still following you after all these years–pure gold!

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