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The Skinning Illusion

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avatar Roobus
Level 66 : High Grandmaster Pixel Painter

Skinning is all about creating an illusion; making a bunch of blank pixels on the surface of six rectangular prisms look like something else simply by adding color. Careful use of color can create the illusion of detail and three dimensionality. Beyond recognizing, and relating to, the character you are trying to portray in your skin design, features such as asymmetry, curvature, and gradients catch a viewer's eye and encourages him/her to interact with your posting. (There are several tutorials by PMCers on selecting palettes, hue shifting, and shading, so I won't go into those very important topics. Check the skinning forum for tutorials.)


I'll start with asymmetry. By asymmetry I mean not having the right and left halves of a skin be mirror images of each other. You can't do anything about this with the arms and legs but you should definitely consider it when designing the head and body. Asymmetry is most powerful at the whole body part level but definitely has impact at the neighboring pixel level as well. My "Hummingbird" skin has a high degree of large scale symmetry on the head and body while my "Transplant" skin has no large scale symmetry on the body. The head of the "Transplant" skin is symmetrical in terms of the layout of the eyeball but the shading makes it asymmetrical and gives the illusion of a light source above and to the right of the skin. If you inspect the hummingbird image closely, you will notice that the pixels on either side of the center line are not exactly the same color. Those to the left are a tad darker than those on the right. This slight change creates the illusion of a light source to the right of the image and makes the image appear not to be flat.


Using a darker gradient away from the centerline of the "Hummingbird" creates the illusion of the body being more cylindrical even though it is still a "box". By playing with gradients, hue shifting, and shadows you create the illusion of many different shapes. My "Turkey" skin appears to have a fat tummy while my "Red Panda" appears to have more of a feminine hourglass shape.


One of my more recent stylistic choices is to try to make heads look more spherical. I tend to go against the convention of making the gradient darken all the way to the corners and instead use a light-dark-light gradient. Comparing the heads of my earlier Emperor "Penguin" skin to my newer "Adelie Penguin" skin illustrates what I am talking about. I use a similar approach when shading shoulders.


One of the odder things I have done with symmetry is to rotate the head of my "Parrot" skin 45 degrees. Most of the comments I received on my parrot dealt with either liking or not liking its unusual head.


One last thing on symmetry. Too much symmetry can spoil the impact of a skin. Look for skins with strong horizontal bands running across the body and even the arms and legs. These are common on skins that use shading templates. The viewer's eye fixates on the banding and not the overall image. Diddling the color of a few pixels here and there can mitigate this effect and increase the appeal of the skin.

Curvature Illusion

Another illusion technique that I employ is what I think of as curvature. The editing and static previewer tools skinners use get us in the habit of seeing skins as orthographic projections (straight on views from front, back, and side). This severely limits creativity in general and really limits what is done with arms and legs. Since arm and leg surfaces are only four pixels wide it is nearly impossible to create interesting details or get much in the way of a contrast gradient. I like to increase the amount of canvas I have to play with by working around corners and edges. I actually think this approach makes skin much more interesting to look at during game play because we usually see other players from odd angles and not directly from the front, back or side. Notice how the "Turkey" wing wraps around from the front to the side. Likewise, the upper leg of the "Red Panda" looks like a curvy thigh.


This approach leads to some design challenges. On the "Turkey" and "Hummingbird" skins, I had to create feet and tails on the front and back of the skin. This works out well when viewing the skins from any angle other directly side on since you can't see the front and back of a skin simultaneously. If you view these skins from the side they appear to be floating.


Sometimes things don't work out so well, like on my "Sunflower" skin - it has a stem on each side of the leg. Sometimes things work pretty well like the "Parrot" skin and my "Santa in the Saddle" skin where it looks good to have the reindeer's leg wrap around the corner.


The curvature illusion goes beyond working around corners, it extends to using color to create eye catching arcs that can span multiple body parts. "Kitty Softpaws" has a continuous curve (dashed red line) down her back that stretches from the top of her head all the way to the bottom of her feet. She also has a curve that wraps around her body when seen from an off-axis view. Notice that the intensity of the curve varies from heavy to faint which makes the curve seem more 3 dimensional and allows the eye to puzzle out the continuation through the fainter places. The spherical head illusion, mentioned before, really adds to the curvature illusion. Curves that branch into secondary curves and tertiary curves give the eye more paths to follow. The "Orca" skin (on the right) capitalizes on curves as well. One of the things I tried to incorporate into this skin was a symmetry between the top of the snout and the bottom of the lower jaw.



Some viewers mistakenly believe that I am doing HD skinning because I go for smoothness and realism in my designs. The HD appearance is another illusion. By carefully blending colors in a gradient, it is possible to give the illusion of using pixels that don't exist. It may sound weird, but by picking intermediate shades, the eye is tricked into believing that the same pixel is two or more different shades - which it can interpret as more pixels. If you look at the area outlined in the "Hummingbird" skin, you will see some pixels that are intermediate between the surrounding green and the surrounding white. The eye interprets the pixel as partially green or partially white depending on whether you are focusing on the green body or white breast of the bird. Also notice the transition between green/white and red/white that occurs just below the shoulder. The two colors have about the same gray scale value where the transition occurs which makes the transition feel seamless. Looking at the closeup of the "Red Panda" arm, you can see a transition between red and black going on. By carefully working on the ratio of red to black in any pixel it is possible to make the eye think that a fairly smooth curve is present when the skin is viewed as a whole even though the pixels are quite jagged when viewed this close up.


A number of viewers have suggested that I move to making HD skins because they have more pixels and would allow me to create even more realistic skins. While that is somewhat true, I haven't made the move because the illusions I use would tend to breakdown at higher pixel count to box dimension ratios. In my opinion, HD skins don't look curvy, they look like pictures (highly detailed pictures) pasted onto boxes.

Concluding Thought

Now that I have explained some of the illusions that are possible, go out and look at your skins, and the work of other skinners, to see if you can spot the illusions being used either intentionally or unintentionally. Remember, knowing how an illusion works doesn't mean you are no longer susceptible to the magic it appears to create.

Comments : 65

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1 - 50 of 65

  • FabryFF
  • Level 40
  • Master Architect
  • June 9, 2018, 6:48 am
I can t see the illusions :,(
Wow cool!
  • FangABXY
  • Level 17
  • Journeyman Dragon
  • September 11, 2017, 8:23 am
Quite interesting. Will look here when I make my newer skins... provided that I can conquer my procrastination issues.
  • GiantNuker
  • Level 29
  • Expert Modder
  • February 29, 2016, 8:13 pm
Nice Skins!
  • enderman65
  • Level 12
  • Journeyman Miner
  • August 28, 2015, 5:58 pm
these skins all looked amazing!
wow.. these are awesome! What skin maker do you use??
I wanna know as well!
  • Shquaz
  • Level 17
  • Journeyman Dragonborn
  • January 1, 2016, 12:10 am
I think he uses MCSKIN3D developed by paril
thank u!!!!!
  • Bawne
  • Level 29
  • Expert Toast
  • July 2, 2014, 2:16 pm
i miss u :C
  • AquaGirl
  • Level 38
  • Artisan Musician
  • May 20, 2014, 3:18 pm
wow no one makes skins like you anymore, roobus
  • Dragonshayed
  • Level 11
  • Journeyman Dragon
  • June 25, 2013, 3:53 pm
good tutorial it didnt help me much since aint artistic an i mess up every few seconds when i try to make a skin but you know what you are doing
I like this tutorial alot. I was kind of doing something else so I didn't read through it very much but I like it.
It's really good.
  • pat58339
  • Level 22
  • Expert Artist
  • June 25, 2013, 12:04 pm
You sir... deserve an award, almost a noble prize.
  • Roobus
  • Level 66
  • High Grandmaster Pixel Painter
  • June 25, 2013, 1:31 pm
XD Thanks!
  • RedGlock
  • Level 17
  • Journeyman Taco
  • December 13, 2013, 2:42 pm
Noble prize in the category of education, for teaching thousands of people how to increase the realism of people's skins, making people happier, leading to a smaller suicide rate on this planet.
  • OreoVal
  • Level 43
  • Master Princess
  • May 13, 2014, 6:49 pm
Pretty sure it's *Nobel, after Alfred Nobel.
Wow, Amazon blog Roobus it went for the contest tutorial congrats your work is amazing please reply if you have something to say... YOU DESEREVE A SUBSCRIBTION :D keep up the good work
  • Roobus
  • Level 66
  • High Grandmaster Pixel Painter
  • June 20, 2013, 3:12 am
Thanks for your subscription and support :)
My Pleaseure :)
  • Happy Quack
  • Level 10
  • Journeyman Narwhal
  • February 10, 2013, 3:28 pm
how long did this take you to write this blog is super long!
  • Nixel
  • Level 15
  • Journeyman Button Pusher
  • February 17, 2013, 12:04 am
If you want a long blog, try mine!
  • EricValor
  • Level 19
  • Journeyman Prince
  • February 6, 2013, 9:24 pm
top skinner :)
  • Speedguy14
  • Level 39
  • Artisan Mage
  • February 6, 2013, 10:36 am
This is on the Contest "how to make skins" part! Congrats!
  • Roobus
  • Level 66
  • High Grandmaster Pixel Painter
  • February 6, 2013, 10:42 am
Thanks, I didn't know :D Hopefully, it will inspire some skinners to try new things.
  • Doughty
  • Level 36
  • Artisan Grump
  • January 30, 2013, 5:11 pm
This is amazing... I didn't read all the way through, but I got the gist of it... It really is an original and different type of tutorial and really puts attention on the parts of skins that truly make them stand out above others.
Great job, diamond from me
P.s. if you want to see some heavy curvature, look at my Lumiere skin... Haha, possibly overdone but oh we'll :P
  • Roobus
  • Level 66
  • High Grandmaster Pixel Painter
  • January 31, 2013, 1:19 am
Thanks for the support :D I'll check out Lumiere.
There are such things as skins with more pixels? How does this work? I thought that skins had to be a certain number of pixels for them to work.. please explain. (btw diamond added) (and favorited)
  • Roobus
  • Level 66
  • High Grandmaster Pixel Painter
  • January 31, 2013, 1:18 am
Technically, no - all Steve-based skins have the same number of pixels (unless you work with HD, which are not PMC uploadable). The illusion that I am talking about is the eye seeing the same pixel in multiple ways due to blending. When the eye focuses on one area of the skin, the pixel appears to be one color. When the eye moves to an adjacent area, the pixel appears to be the other blended color. Kind of like two pixels for the price of one. Hopefully that clears things up and thanks for supporting my posting :D
oh i get it.. btw i was wondering if you could PM me a few tips about shading.. i really am having trouble with shading no matter how many shading blogs i visit
OMG Love the sunflower!
  • Roobus
  • Level 66
  • High Grandmaster Pixel Painter
  • January 30, 2013, 3:38 pm
Awesome! I feel it is one of my really crazy skins. I think it looks like some sort of cool armor when in motion.
  • EmeraldAdmin
  • Level 7
  • Apprentice Engineer
  • January 30, 2013, 12:04 pm
nice skins.
  • Phrozenbit
  • Level 13
  • Journeyman Miner
  • January 29, 2013, 9:39 pm
Very informative, favorited too because it may come in handy. Thanks :-)
  • Roobus
  • Level 66
  • High Grandmaster Pixel Painter
  • January 30, 2013, 2:26 am
Thanks, I am glad to hear you found the blog informative :)
  • GarretSidzaka
  • Level 61
  • High Grandmaster Hero
  • January 29, 2013, 9:13 pm
wow im an old artist, but this is some good info

  • Roobus
  • Level 66
  • High Grandmaster Pixel Painter
  • January 30, 2013, 2:25 am
Thanks :)
  • coolkevin867
  • Level 55
  • Grandmaster Baconator
  • January 29, 2013, 7:42 pm
Amazing blog! A real eye-opener, I will think about this blog every time a make a new skin from now on :)
  • Roobus
  • Level 66
  • High Grandmaster Pixel Painter
  • January 30, 2013, 2:24 am
Awesome! Thanks for the feedback :D
  • Geppetto
  • Level 25
  • Expert Cake
  • January 29, 2013, 4:39 am
I believe this blog has an incredible potential for every skinner.
It shows pretty good the evolution of your style as well as deeper knowledge of art, nature and points of view.
So, it should be a basic guide for those who want to become better.
Well done!
  • Roobus
  • Level 66
  • High Grandmaster Pixel Painter
  • January 29, 2013, 12:51 pm
Thanks for the compliments, I feel like the blog has reached quite a few people. It will be interesting to see if skinning practices shift at all.
  • Geppetto
  • Level 25
  • Expert Cake
  • January 29, 2013, 8:17 pm
Tried to work after this...
pretty hard to leave old behaviours behing :)
  • Juggler37
  • Level 47
  • Master Necromancer
  • January 28, 2013, 8:16 pm
Absolutely brilliant insights.

Ugh, all this time I've been wasting my corners, and it's never even occurred to me to give skins underlying shapes. I've been drawing them as a collection of different parts, barely ever stopping to consider the connection.

I cannot wait to put these ideas in action. Thank you.
  • Roobus
  • Level 66
  • High Grandmaster Pixel Painter
  • January 29, 2013, 2:09 am
Thanks! I look forward to seeing your results :)
  • Hybrid Warrior
  • Level 67
  • High Grandmaster Warrior
  • January 28, 2013, 3:48 pm
One of the best articles I've read on skinning in ages. You really understand the founding principles of shading and depicting instead of just describing. Hopefully this helps any rising skinners get used to defining dimension in their skins instead of just adding gradation!
  • Roobus
  • Level 66
  • High Grandmaster Pixel Painter
  • January 29, 2013, 2:08 am
Thank you for the compliments, it is nice to know one's work is appreciated. Hopefully, some people will see that skinning is a form of digital art and can be expressive as well as functional for game play.
  • terreen
  • Level 32
  • Artisan Skinner
  • January 28, 2013, 2:52 pm
  • MrMcAwesumz
  • Level 13
  • Journeyman Architect
  • January 28, 2013, 2:38 pm
Also, don't forget a shading technique that involves slightly randomizing the shade of a certain color. This is really helpful when making a skin that looks natural to the vanilla texture pack and when you are trying for a gritty look on certain parts of your skin. This also looks absolutely GREAT on Steve edits.
  • Juggler37
  • Level 47
  • Master Necromancer
  • January 28, 2013, 8:08 pm
The phrase "absolutely GREAT" doesn't usually belong in the same sentence as "Steve edits."
  • MrMcAwesumz
  • Level 13
  • Journeyman Architect
  • January 29, 2013, 11:36 am
In this one it does. Proof: look at "Night Ops Steve" on my page. I made it as an experiment, and it turned out much better than I expected.
  • Xrunner
  • Level 28
  • Expert Dragonborn
  • January 28, 2013, 11:13 am
Mission mind blown: Accomplished
  • Roobus
  • Level 66
  • High Grandmaster Pixel Painter
  • January 28, 2013, 12:39 pm
Thanks for reading. Hopefully your mind has fully recovered :D
  • Xrunner
  • Level 28
  • Expert Dragonborn
  • January 28, 2013, 12:42 pm
Its getting better:D
  • Arty
  • Level 6
  • Apprentice Grump
  • January 28, 2013, 9:52 am
Very nice blog
  • Roobus
  • Level 66
  • High Grandmaster Pixel Painter
  • January 28, 2013, 12:38 pm
Thanks - it took me a long time to put it together.
  • Arty
  • Level 6
  • Apprentice Grump
  • January 28, 2013, 12:55 pm
I can tell!
Awesome, just awesome
  • Roobus
  • Level 66
  • High Grandmaster Pixel Painter
  • January 28, 2013, 12:37 pm
Thanks :D
  • Dralyona
  • Level 48
  • Master Dragon
  • January 28, 2013, 5:12 am
Brilliant. Just brilliant. I have actually recently been looking to make my style somewhat more realistic and less messy, but also more curved. Thanks very much for making this blog, I really appreciate it!
  • Roobus
  • Level 66
  • High Grandmaster Pixel Painter
  • January 28, 2013, 12:37 pm
You are very welcome. I look forward to seeing your style experiments :)
  • mischajay
  • Level 60
  • High Grandmaster Skinner
  • January 28, 2013, 4:56 am
Incredible! You are taking skinning to a whole new level, looking at it in a completely different point of view. I believe I haven't seen much like this on PMC yet. Just another sign of how this community is evolving, and, with that, the results get better and better.
It's not everybody's taste, but you're definately unique in this way!
  • Roobus
  • Level 66
  • High Grandmaster Pixel Painter
  • January 28, 2013, 12:35 pm
Thanks for supporting my post. My technique is a little different so I thought I would share it in the hope that it might spawn other new approaches.
  • jl70l7u
  • Level 45
  • Master Pixel Painter
  • January 28, 2013, 4:50 am
FIRST! This is a GREAT tutorial/explanation
  • Roobus
  • Level 66
  • High Grandmaster Pixel Painter
  • January 28, 2013, 12:32 pm
Thanks for reading!

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