Peganthyrus' Lair

How To Screw Up Your Images
a case study

Have you ever done something digitally, and found that the end result was just too perfect for your tastes? Sure, nice smooth colors and perfect gradients have their attraction, but sometimes you just want to make things look positively rotted.

Case in point: a composite I did as a throwaway gag for this very website. It's accessible at the bottom of the page about this site, by clicking on any of the three links at the bottom where I show the conventions for link colors. Go take a look at it.

That image is made of three basic parts. You can guess what they are, but I'm going to insult your intelligence by showing two of them to you: a scanned photo of a corner of my RL apartment, and a flat-toned drawing of me. The third element is an alpha channel so my wings can be (a bit too) translucent.

Now, normally, I love flat colors. Flat colors and the occasional subtle gradient will cover most of my coloring needs. But in a case like this, where I wanted to match the feel of the background and not look like, well, a drawing pasted on a photo, something had to be done. Either I could get obsessive over detail on the drawn part, or I could destroy some of the detail in the photo. I tried a bit of posterizing, but when I scaled it down to the target size, the distortion wasn't noticeable enough to work. Then it hit me: the Cheap Digital Camera look. A little bit of grainy shadow painted onto the shirt and pants, and I was ready.

There's more to getting a really horribly JPEGed image than just setting the compression near the high end of the scale, though. When you do that, important details get lost, colors smear all over, and the image becomes incoherent (although this can be interesting in and of itself; try it sometime). More importantly, it doesn't become incoherent in the particular way I wanted. So, instead of saving it as a JPEG, I rendered it out as a 256-color GIF. Then I loaded that GIF back in, and saved that as a decent-quality (about 85 on a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 being best) JPEG. And loaded that JPEG, took a look at it, and rendered that out as yet another GIF. After two or three iterations, I saved the image as a JPEG at several different compression levels, and wound up going with one of the lowest-quality ones, as it had just enough detail that things like the red of the mouth didn't vanish into grey, but was muzzy, abused, and pleasingly fouled up so that it looked like a quick grab from a very cheap digital camera, or from a low-end video stream grabber. I'm still not happy with the integration of the drawn part with the photo - it's still very clearly a picture pasted into a photo - but now they've been abused as a single entity, and have been somewhat unified as a result.

Technology makes perfection too easy. The hard part is working out new sorts of imperfection that are only made possible by the new toys.

*Art Technique
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