Saturday, November 15, 2014

OSR Art Friday: Editing Batten (a long post with too many pictures at the end)

This post will be annoying to some of you in that you were probably expecting a pretty color picture. Instead you will be getting many black and white pictures.

And the featured artist of the day is not some 1970's luminary but well, meOr rather, the featured artist is the brilliant John Dickson Batten, but the post is about what I did to him.

And if that doesn't irritate you enough, be warned, I will be doing some bragging (explained below).

The post is about how I edited the illustrations of Batten to better suit their inclusion in my four booklet game, Seven Voyages of Zylarthen. The bragging is not how about how great I am compared to you. I am not great compared to you. I expect that most of you reading this post are more experienced/adept/talented at editing illustrations than I am, and that many of you are familiar with illustrations programs that I haven't even heard of. No. I'm bragging because I did it. I did it. Knowing nothing about editing or graphic design, and being generally uncoordinated and not artistic, I nevertheless figured out (temporarily) how to (arguably) do a passable job at it. That's an accomplishment I want to brag about.

A few months ago I said this about Batten:
Finally, in regards to setting, I should mention the artwork of Zylarthen. There are close to a hundred pieces, all by the same artist--the turn of the century illustrator John Dickson Batten. I said elsewhere that once I had chosen the works of Batten, the art actually began to inform the setting and even the writing. Batten's works appeared in children's fairy-tale books. But appropriately enough they were also from a diversity of sources--English, Celtic, general European, Middle-Eastern and Indian. In my humble view, the art was not merely the best art I could find for free, but was in fact precisely right for what I was trying to do. I couldn't have paid for anything better. To the extent that Zylarthen as a visual or physical product succeeds it does so due to Batten. But equally importantly, to the extent the setting and tone are interesting or attractive is also I think due to Batten. Indeed, he deserves an entire post, and will get one soon.
In the review of Zylarthen on the Save or Die! podcast. DM Liz paid the product one of its finest compliments do date (I think). To paraphrase, despite the fact that the art was public domain from approximately a hundred years ago, each piece still seemed appropriate to the subject or the page. It enhanced the work rather than looking just tacked on to fill up space. (Then her husband emphasized the point by making a joke: "hey what's that 57' Chevy doing there?")

I think it worked for three reasons:

  1. The art itself. Now, Batten didn't draw illustrations for dungeon expeditions, obviously. But the exotic, fairytale vibe was exactly right for what I was trying to do.
  2. Having drawn hundreds of illustrations for nine books, there were enough of them so that I could make informed choices as to appropriate pieces to use.
  3. I edited most of the illustrations. Obviously many of them worked on their own without any (or hardly any) touch ups. But I think if I hadn't edited the rest, they would have looked forced or slightly inappropriate. The editing was a crucial part of the process.

And some of the editing was for tone. Many of Batten's fairytale drawings were comical. I didn't want a severe tone, but I didn't wan't it silly either.

So part of this is bragging (see above). Again, not I'm so great, but, rather I did it. Most of it was just whiting stuff out, which is easy and actually almost cathartic.

I used the free program Gimp. I only learned 5% of it, but it was all I needed.

In a handful of cases I actually pasted a few images. In two instances, I actually drew small bits of my own. Once I actually sketched a foot.

But the main message is, it wasn't hard. If I could do it, you can. I suspect many of you could almost do it with your eyes closed.

So enough of these boring words. The rest of the post will feature a long line of actual examples. I think this sort of thing is interesting, but you are pardoned if you think it goes on for too long.

Before precedes After:

To me, the odd hand angle was reminiscent of the Judges Guild "Flying Turkey".

The Ducks were silly.

The original was too busy.

This was one of the only cases where I pasted something in (I duplicated the dagger). I don't know. I thought a second dagger might be more effective in combat than a mask.

Better just a corpse than a corpse with a silly man standing over him.

I love this monster. I think it's a Solian.

This was ironic in that I took a fantastical drawing and made it more mundane. The Boar went from two heads to one.

From silly to (hopefully) sinister.

The original was too well-known to leave as is.

Pure greed.

Dungeons don't have beds. Okay, maybe they don't have curtains either, but still...

The original was fine but the bird didn't fit.

This was my second choice for the magic cover. The first was a great drawing, but it just didn't seem to work on its own. I think this one works. I liked the contrast in that it was the only cover not featuring a person.

Away with that little man!

I'm not sure this totally works but people seem to like it.

These bottles were lifted from various places.

Okay, I'm proud of these drums (look on the top). Also, note that I removed the lute from the otherwise identical picture on the back cover of Volume 4 (see the blog heading picture). It just seemed too much. But that's probably just me.

I'm sort of proud of this. I edited out the arm and of course re-angled it. But the design in the center is obviously kind of screwed-up, especially if you look at it closely. I banked on readers not looking at it closely, mentally processing it as "oh, a rug", and then quickly moving on.  

Too many angels, or bird women or whatever.

I like this sullen creature.

Again, the original was too busy...

So there it is. Part of the method to my madness. Perhaps exposing the method was too much--oh dear, the magic is gone! But I figure we're all adults here and are enough interested in the craft of game design such that the above might be entertaining and useful.

It's not perfect. I know that. But we tried. This is part of how we tried...


  1. Thanks for sharing that. The artwork was a big factor in me enjoying Zylarthen so much. My particular favorite goes hand in hand with my favorite piece of writing at the end of the book of monsters, the girl hugging the dog.

    1. I like this aspect of the writing as well.

    2. Thanks to both of you. It's very gratifying to hear that. And I'm glad those words resonated as much with you as they did with me. I wanted to be strong and unmistakable without alienating or offending anyone. I don't think anyone else has explicitly mentioned that line or the handful of other similar ones, and certainly no one has been critical (though people may be simply being polite). The only source to mention the general point was a French commentator who wrote:

      Le jeu possède d'autres particularités, notamment il est fortement coloré par les convictions philosophiques et religieuses de l'auteur (catholique humaniste), sans être pour autant pontifiant.

      Google translates it as:

      The game has other features such it is strongly colored by religious and philosophical convictions of the author (humanist Catholic), without being pompous.

      I'll accept that. :)

    3. Upon consideration, I'm not sure I'd quite agree with "strongly colored", though I guess it depends on what is meant by "strongly". As I hinted above, the idea was to make it clear for those who wished to see it, without being annoying or too "strong" for those who didn't. I'd like to think that's what the reviewer meant.

    4. I think "strongly colored" is accurate from a Christian humanist point of view, though I wouldn't say it's strongly Roman Catholic necessarily—not in a sectarian way anyway. and certainly not strongly colored in a evangelical triumphalism sort of way.

  2. To echo a comment from Google+, you put forth an image of your preferred box cover (and maybe back). And on a related point, I'm thinking of making a box, with dice, as a Christmas gift; do you know where one can get a box that fits digest sized books that'd work?

    1. It's funny you ask, Hugh...

      After basically finishing the game in mid-December 2013, I had exactly the same idea, and I thought it would be a quick and easy task. We live in downtown Chicago within a mile of three large craft shops with all manner of boxes and tins. Also I am a cigar smoker and I know of a number of shops that give away diverse boxes. However, after literally two full days of searching (with the booklets crammed in my parka for testing purposes) I found nothing that worked. Or rather, there were plenty of boxes, but none of them held the books quite right. They were either too jammed in or the whole ensemble looked sort of random. Frankly, this surprised and depressed me. I ended up getting the FedEx store to use their machine to shrink wrap the four booklets together, which actually looked pretty good.

      But you may have better luck. I'd love to hear about it if you do.

    2. I was afraid of this. I suppose I could make something out of card stock, but I'm horrible at measuring then cutting a straight line.
      I'd still need an image to affix the lid though.

  3. You've got a good eye for editing. That's a much more solid effort than what I did when I found pictures for Flying Swordsmen. I did a bit of editing, mostly for monster pictures, but a lot of the other illustrations were just slapped in as they were, hopefully fitting with the content of the pages.

    1. I think they look great and not just slapped on at all. Whether they were public domain or not (and I wouldn't have had any idea since all of them were unfamiliar to me). And I think the "authentic" look gives the work an air of quality and mystery that you wouldn't have had had you paid some guy to draw a bunch of flying swordsmen, wizards and shamans or whatever.

    2. Thanks. I do tend to be my own worst critic.

      A few of the pictures in Flying Swordsmen are not public domain (I did the frontispiece and the map, Dylan Hartwell did the sample characters, and the cover piece was donated by Daxiong). But all of the rest are PD.