Developing Patterns: Texture Library

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Build Up Your Texture Library

Tom Arah shows you how to collect and create your own texture library.

Normally as a graphic designer the first thing you look for in a photo is a clear point of interest, something that will grab the viewer’s attention. However there’s a whole other category of bitmap images, patterns or textures, where this isn’t the case. This doesn’t mean that these patterned images are therefore dull and uninteresting – in fact quite the contrary as many, such as cloud formations or peacock feathers, can be extraordinarily beautiful. It’s just that because at some level the pattern repeats – say the veins on a leaf, or leaves on a tree, or trees in a forest - there is no single focus for the eye to grab hold of.

This lack of focus isn’t necessarily a downside for the graphic designer as it means that patterns can be used to provide interest and context without competing for attention with your foreground content. For the graphic artist, textures are even more important with common natural and manmade patterns acting as ready-made building-blocks for naturalistic work while abstract and artistic patterns can be overlaid and blended with other imagery to provide instant creative depth. For the 3D artist, textures aren’t an optional extra – as image maps they act as the materials that bring your model to life. Apply some window-based textures to a series of cubes, for example, and set them against a sky texture background and within seconds you’ve produced a believable cityscape of office blocks. Take away the patterns and you have nothing.

A good library of textures – natural, manmade, abstract and artistic - is invaluable for any designer or artist so how do you go about creating one? The first point to bear in mind is that natural and manmade patterns are everywhere around you so an excellent way to build a unique collection of high quality, high resolution textures is to do it yourself with a digital camera. Be warned though: once you get into the way of looking at skies, walls, water, leaves and so on for their own sake it can become quite an obsession.

Alternatively, you can take advantage of others’ photographic work via the Web. The temptation here is to use Google’s image search to trawl the entire Web for your images – until you remember the legal position regarding copyright and the low-res nature of most web graphics. The opposite extreme is to pay for a royalty-free high-resolution stock photograph via a site such as www.fotosearch.com. A sensible middle route is to build up a favourites list of sites showcasing the works of talented enthusiasts for free such as Mayang Murni Adnin’s collections at www.mayang.com/textures. The bandwidth costs mean that such collections tend to come and go or that the number of downloads are limited so you might be better with commercial sites which provide access to free texture images as an incentive to join their communities such as www.autofx.com and www.3dcafe.com.

The Web is a rich source of textures.

Downloading textures like this, as and when you need them and ideally for free, is great when it works, but it’s sensible to build up a quality-controlled collection locally too. There are plenty of texture libraries available on CD/ DVD ranging from the high-end professional options such as BrandX Pictures’ themed CDs (100 walls for $499 or an individual high- res wall for $240!) and Digital Juice’s extraordinary 48 DVD collection of 1600 abstract layered PSDs ($599) through to high-value collections from enthusiasts such as the full Mayang collection of 1400 high- res images on 3 CDs for $50. In this latter category I’m a particular fan of Harry Heim, who develops a number of Photoshop plug-ins via www.thepluginsite.com and is also a keen photographer. His various PhotoGalaxy 1600 and 2300 collections contain hundreds of themed high- res texture images, are royalty-free and cost around $20 per CD. He’s also a talented graphic artist and his Abstraction CD containing 1000 computer-generated images (excellent for use as overlays in Photoshop) also costs just $20.

Seamless Textures

So far I’ve been talking about standalone, high-quality, high-resolution images primarily photographs of natural phenomena in which a pattern repeats itself at some level whether that’s fractally as in a billowing cloud, irregularly as in patches of lichen on a stone, or more regularly as in a brick wall or patterned fabric. This last group of regular patterns is of especial interest as, if you isolate the element of repetition, you can then repeat this “tile” horizontally and vertically to cover any area. In other words you don’t need a high resolution original image to produce high quality output of any size. Even better, tiled patterns have huge advantages in terms of processing and memory overheads which are especially crucial when it comes to 3D work.

For the pattern effect to work it’s essential that the repeating tile is “seamless” so that you can’t see distracting lines of disruption where the tiles touch each other. The obvious apparent solution to this is to set your pattern within a larger flat coloured background but, when tiled, the end results simply look like a regimented grid. Instead the trick is to produce a seamless tile where the pattern overlaps the tile’s edges wrapping from one side to the other - the regular grid-based pattern is there but the eye can’t break it down so instead takes in the overall effect. The downside of this is that you’re not going to be able to simply crop your more regular high-resolution textures to produce a seamless tile. To build up a seamless texture collection you’re going to need some help.

A truly seamless tile leads to a pattern in which the underlying grid (highlighted here) is imperceptible.

Again the Web is an excellent resource – especially as seamless textures are ideal for web page backgrounds where one small graphic tile can be downloaded to produce a full page effect. And because the graphics you are dealing with are small, typically 256 x 256 pixels or under, and stored as bandwidth-friendly JPEGs, you aren’t going to be charged much for them. In fact you can find thousands of seamless tiles on the Web for free at sites such as www.pambytes.com, www.absolutecross.com and my particular favouritewww.grsites.com/textures/ where you can search for textures based on category or colour and even change the colours online. In most cases you can also pay a small fee to conveniently download the whole collection.

Downloading seamless tiles that other people have created from existing photos or from scratch is an excellent way of building your collection, but it’s almost inevitable that you won’t be able to find exactly the texture that you are looking for or that you can but the low resolution means that it is only suitable for screen work. More to the point, once you start collecting it’s very easy to become hooked in which case you can never have enough textures to choose from. The only solution is to start creating your own seamless textures. Thankfully this isn’t a problem as there are a range of texture generators available of which four in particular stand out for their amazing creativity and excellent value (each incidentally developed by a texture obsessive).

The first of my recommendations is Gliftic 4 ($34 from www.ransen.com). This is a strange and as far as I know unique program designed as an image idea generator. Essentially the program does everything for you – all you have to do is start the wizard and Gliftic will create a sequence of up to 50 seamless patterns for you to choose from. Of course some aren’t up to much but the hit rate is surprisingly high and you can simply save any tile that catches your eye to disk (at resolutions up to 2000 x 2000) or copy it to the clipboard ready for use.

Gliftic is a pattern and graphical ideas generator.

More usually, you’ll want to see variations on your chosen tile to see if you can make it even more attractive in which case you simply need to click the “Tickle” button and these will again be randomly generated. Alternatively, if you decide that, say, you like the general arrangement of one pattern and the colour scheme of another you can set these two parent patterns to “breed” accordingly. If you want to take more control you can specify: the particular form of pattern – Gliftic provides dozens of master patterns ranging from BioGrowth to Trellis; the particular interpretation – say the number of branches and their length; and the colour scheme – cleverly based on the colours in preset bitmap images.

A surprising level of control is there if you need it but Owen Ransen, Gliftic’s creator, is right to recognize that the program’s real strength is its ability to randomly generate the creative ideas for you - all you need to do is click. It’s a great kick-start to your imagination and to your seamless texture collection but it’s certainly not a panacea. In particular Gliftic’s strength is generating clearly designed, wallpaper-style patterns, but that leaves the whole area of natural and abstract patterns untouched.

Like Gliftic, Genetica ($135 from www.spiralgraphics.biz) is designed to generate seamless textures from scratch, but otherwise it could hardly be more different. You’ll certainly need to put in a lot more effort than just clicking a few times to make the most of it as the program is based on a “node-based procedural texture engine” devised by Alkis Roufas and similar to those you’ll find in high-end 3D packages. Essentially what this means is that you produce your texture by building up a recipe involving a few core ingredients and a few core ways of combining them.

Genetica’s recipe-based approach provides numerous benefits.

The best way to understand this is to work through an example. To create a realistic wood texture from scratch, you would start with the Wood Rings generator procedure which lets you specify settings such as the ring density, anomalies, and seed. You would then use the Combine procedure to add a new node to which you would apply the Noise generator to add some realism to the wood grain. And finally you would add the Colorize filter procedure to change the colour.

The first advantage of this recipe-based approach is that all steps remain live so that, in this example, you could create multiple wood textures simply by changing the Wood Rings and Colorize settings. In addition the textures are resolution-independent so that you can output the same seamless pattern at any resolution up to 3000 x 3000 and you can also zoom in and out on a texture to vary the level of detail at each size (crucial for creating realistic close-ups). Even better, once you’ve created the recipe, you can save it, or any section of it, for re-use. To create a floorboards texture for example, you could simply take your existing wood texture branch and combine it with a grid created with the Bricks ‘n Boards procedure. To get you off to a good start, Genetica comes with 100 preset textures and 100 texture components ready to use as building blocks.

This is the underlying principle and makes the program sound relatively simple – especially as there are just eight core generator procedures, eleven filter procedures and five combination procedures. But don’t be fooled. The building blocks are simple but how they are combined and interact is anything but – especially if you want to produce the best results. In practice the provided floorboards preset, for example, is nothing like as simple as I’ve suggested but instead depends on nested branches within nested branches each with dozens of nodes (and the Wood Rings option isn’t used at all)! Ultimately though what matters most are the end results and these are superb – in fact it’s difficult to believe that such photorealistic and naturalistic textures were created from scratch and are completely customisable.

Both Genetica and Gliftic are very effective in their very different ways, but the longer you use them the more you long for some hands on, interactive input. That’s exactly what PhotoSEAM ($35 from www.mediachance.com) provides. PhotoSEAM is produced by Roman Voska, the creator of the excellent Real-DRAW Pro, and it’s based on his work on another of his programs, the bitmap editor Photo-Brush. In fact PhotoSEAMis Photo-Brush but with a twist: whatever you paint onscreen is automatically seamlessly tiled.

PhotoSEAM is ideal for converting photographs into seamless textures.

The implementation of this is beautifully simple. The tile you are working on is presented in the middle of the screen surrounded on all sides by copies so that you can always see the overall patterned effect. The big difference is that you can simply paint over the edge of the central tile and this is automatically mirrored on its opposite side with all the visible tiles updated accordingly. In fact all the tiles are live so that you can freely paint anywhere on the pattern as a whole. It’s not just simple - it’s addictive. Especially as PhotoSEAM provides a good range of pressure-sensitive customizable brushes including PSP-compatible image hoses which make it child’s play to produce seamless textures based on multiple bitmap images such as a forest of trees or a pile of coins.

PhotoSEAM is excellent for building seamless textures from scratch but it really comes into its own for converting existing photographs. The key to this is the two-stage Tile Preparation dialog in which you first select a suitable section of your photograph and then interactively fine-tune the size, shape and angle of your tile while seeing the effect of your changes on the resulting overall pattern in real-time. This enables you to create the best starting off-point for your pattern but, even so, visible seams are almost inevitable.

The usual way to try and obscure these distracting grid lines is to use the Rubber Stamp tool to clone areas of the existing picture, and this is particularly easy thanks to PhotoSEAM’s ability to simply paint over the tile’s edges. You can also use PhotoSEAM’s Texture Pick command to quickly create a seamless texture from a section of the image that you can then paint wherever you want (the program also comes with a range of preset textures or you can load your own). Best of all, is PhotoSEAM’s unique Cross-Border Cloner. This remembers the areas of the image immediately outside the tile that you created on loading and enables you to clone them back in so that you are almost guaranteed naturalistic end results. It’s another example of Roman Voska’s brilliant lateral thinking and programming and worth the price of the program alone.

Of course the ideal would be a program that combines the best of PhotoSEAM’s hands-on design input with some of the pattern generating power seen in Gliftic and Genetica. And that’s exactly what Tobias Reichert has achieved with his Texture Maker 2 application ($69 from www.texturemaker.com). At first sight this looks broadly similar to PhotoSEAM with the same central tile surrounded by copies so that you can simply draw over edges and anywhere on the overall pattern. And, while there are none of the advanced brushes that make PhotoSEAM stand out, you can draw rectangles, ovals, irregular shapes and freehand lines and these can be filled with solid colours, gradients or a source texture (which enables cloning).

Much more impressive is Texture Maker’s texture generation capabilities based on Genetica-style procedures. Central to this is the selection of nearly 50 Generator procedures which can be used to produce a vast array of realistic patterns including bricks, clouds, grids, gravel, marble, plasma, stars, water and wood. In each case the level of control is astonishing offering shared handling of colour, embossing, blending (crucial for building up effects) and so on along with unique options for each effect. The amount of power can be daunting, but in each case a range of presets are provided and, because each procedure uses a random seed by default, you can simply click repeatedly to generate new variations much as you can in Gliftic.

This is just the beginning. Texture Maker also provides a vast range of procedures to apply to the pattern that you’re building up including bump-map based lighting effects, colour corrections, distortion and translation effects and various noise and other filters. In each case the procedure has been specially designed to maintain the seamless tiling of your pattern. And, if you decide to load a non-seamless texture such as an existing photograph, Texture Maker also provides a range of procedures for mirroring, blending and offsetting to make the texture seamless.

Patterns can be natural, abstract, man-made or artistic – here seen in the excellent Texture Maker 2.

As you realise just how central its procedures are to Texture Maker, it suddenly dawns that those initial solid, gradient and source texture fills are themselves just procedures that are applied to your pattern. And then it clicks that this means that you can apply any of Texture Maker’s procedures (130 in all!) not just to the pattern as a whole but as a rectangle, oval, irregular shape or freehand path. In other words, you can create your brick texture and then quickly erode each brick differently, or create a caustics-based water texture and then paint on further distortion!

It really is incredible creative power and that’s just in the main Texture Maker application. Alongside this Tobias Reichart also provides a wide range of supporting tools such as the beautifully interactive Multi-Texture Mixer, the Advanced Shader for adding 3D lighting effects, the Advanced Kaleidoscope for creating symmetrical patterns, the Gentex Genetic Texture Generator for breeding and mutating patterns, the ISampler for synthesizing new textures from existing ones and the Textractor utility for pulling out textures from existing photographs. Each of these tools is cleverly conceived, seriously useful and virtually an application in its own right - and to fully get to grips with them will keep you occupied for months.

In fact in many ways that’s the biggest problem with Texture Maker - and with texture collecting and creating in general: it’s so easy to get hooked building up your collection that there’s a serious danger that you’ll never find the time to actually use it.

Tom Arah

July 2004


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