Design Studio: Project 1, Episode 3

20 04 2011

This week was busier than I would have liked, what with tax day and Portal 2.  I did want to give you a quick progress update however.

I tweaked some of the major areas in my deck and public turf area, refining shapes, and moving the parking slightly.  The combination of the changes create spaces that are more vibrant, draw your eye towards the areas you want to look, and have good spaces created for gardening and herbs (Sea Foam Green).

I then set about working on the back yard area.  I knew I wanted a path leading out to my private space and to the river edge.  I also wanted to include screening and a place for flood water to be cleaned, infiltrated, or at least slowed down.  I also wanted it to be something visually striking.  I have created a raised decking path and small deck area, above what is essentially an infiltration basin.  It would be planted with drought tolerant plants  in higher, normally feet-dry areas, and wetland plants in feet wet areas near the bottom.  What really sets it apart, however, is a small detention basin at the base of the wild area.  This should remain filled most of the year, and is edged by stone, creating the look of a rectilinear pond in a biomorphic wetland.

What you end up with is a geomorphic series of spaces for people, witch overlap with biomorphic and rectilinear in areas where the human space interacts the most with the “natural” areas.

This is still all conceptual, including the rough sections, so for next week I am hoping to get down to brass tacks and start doing the detailed design work.

Until next week.


Graphics VS. Design, and what I learned from video games

24 01 2011

A few weeks ago I posted a blog asking for critiques on some 3D models components I had made.  I posted it on IGN, WordPress, and Land8Lounge.  The response was fairly low, and I tried posting it as a discussion thread on Land8Lounge as well.  This got some helpful comments, but it also possibly inspired a thread that brought up the issue of rendering VS. design in Landscape Architecture.  This question came up a few weeks ago at a networking event for NYC landscape architects, and I talked to a few different people about it.  It made me wonder: Why is it that designers often have a negative reaction to “high end” renderings?

If I said I had never seen a rendering and assumed that the graphic quality was hiding something I would be lying.  I think this often comes from past experience, either in firms as CAD monkeys, or in school.  We, I think, have all had a presentation where we worked our ass off to the last minute perfecting a design, leaving little time to get perfect graphics, so we go out with what we can, trusting our peers and other trained professionals to see through the pencils lines to the heart of the design beneath, only to be disappointed.  We have also all had the time when we have seen the person slap together a half-assed design, but with pretty pictures, and when we are counting on our bosses and teachers to see it, they instead get “blinded” by the crisp lines, hypnotized by the texture work, and in a trance from the shadow quality.  I think it’s this shared experience that leads so many of us to distrust pretty drawings: we all know just how easy it is to lie with graphics.  Whether it is drawing a plan that doesn’t show steps because they client didn’t want them – even though it’s not physically possible, screwing with perspective sizes, or hiding views that you don’t want noticed.  We know the tricks all too well; in part because we use them to some extent ourselves.

We choose a rendering style based on what we want to show and not show: Computer graphics traditionally show a Utopian version of everything – where it all looks fresh from vacuum -packaging, but it makes the space look more contemporary to clients; Hand graphics hide views by simply not drawing the far background, but show more flow and life in the space.  We choose views that may not show the space in the best ways, but show a feature we want to emphasize over others.  It’s a limit of non-physical models – you have a finite window onto the world, you are going to be careful about what you choose to show to show off what you want to be seen.  The problem is, we need a way to easily communicate to clients, and in forms other than physical models, and clients who have not been trained as designers get the best feel for a space through perspective drawings.


So the issue becomes not graphics VS design, because it never really was outside of designers’ heads.  The issue is how can we make graphics that communicate effectively, and manage to not fire off alarm bells in designer’s and client’s brains.

Personally, I choose to concentrate on computer graphics over hand graphics not due to a lack of skill (believe me, if I put the time into drawing that I have put into rendering I’d be pretty good with a pencil), but because in my mind, it is the most honest form of representation.  If I model everything the way it is – which I can with no extra effort – I know exactly what I will see from a given view.  I can put a camera inside your eyes when you are sitting on a bench, and if you would actually see a sliver of that utility box, it’s going to be in the rendering.  The problem is, it would still set off alarm bells, all because of an effect that is becoming well-known in the media worlds of movies and video games.

The “Uncanny Valley” is an issue that became most well-known a few years ago when the movie “The Polar Express” came out.

The Uncanny Valley

It’s the theory that as things become more realistic, they become more familiar, but only to a certain point.  Once things become TOO realistic, small things that are wrong make us cringe and react negatively.  In “The Polar Express” the thing that set people off was the eyes.  For all the realism the characters had, from mannerisms created by directly copying from actors in Motion Capture suits, to careful texture work, the fact that the eyes didn’t glisten correctly gave them a dead look, and made some people instantly see, instead of a heartwarming children’s story, a movie about a train filled with zombies… (note to self – Make a movie about a train full of zombies.  “Brains on the Orient Express”?)

In the ensuing years movies, and video games, have dealt with this issue in one of two ways.  Some have gone the route of making themselves, while beautiful, purposefully unrealistic.  This brings thoughts of movies such as “Up”, and games such as “Little Big Planet 2”.  Neither of these tries to be realistic – the characters look like cartoons, but with realistic flesh-tones (or woven sack-tones in the case of Little Big Planet), elements.

Little Big Planet

The other method is to continue to push the boundaries of realism.  Movies like Avatar skirt this method by having realistic aliens that we have no internal reference for as digital characters.  Where true realism is pushed the hardest today is in gaming.  Games like Uncharted 2, Heavy Rain, and Read Dead Redemption push realism in gaming past where it has been before.  As some of the best looking games widely available, they all have one thing in common.


Uncharted 3

None of these games are set in pristine areas.  They all are set in places that have been lived in, that have wear and tear, grease and grime, chips and gashes.  I think this is one of the essential things to making a convincing 3D rendering, and one that doesn’t make you think you are being tricked by graphics.  The splinters out of the wood crate, the dirt on the boots, the powder burns on the pistol, all give it a realistic feel.

Red Dead Redemption

If that detail is paired with a render engine that has more than 1/30th of a second to output, it would give amazing results.

And those are the kind of results that I think we, as designers/graphic artists have to work for.  Gone are the days of the pristine landscape with rows of identical, perfectly pruned trees.  If we want buy-in from clients, and from other designers, we need to show all the blemishes on the face of our designs.  Whether it’s the ugly light industrial building that is visible through the trees, or the mottled color in the bricks, these are some of the things that A) will affect the spirit of place and B) that will create a sense of life in our renderings.

Are hand graphics still valid? Of COURSE they are.  Neither hand graphics nor computer graphics is inherently “better”.  They are just different.  The grime and dirt of the world in computer graphics is no different then adding a little of every color to a tree in a Mike Lin style render.

It adds a little depth, and a spark of randomness that is what makes the world what it is.

Uncanny Vally image from

Little Big Planet 2 image from

Mik Lin image from

All other images from

Tuesday Tutorial Re-boot: To line or not to line

11 05 2010

When starting a digital rendering, just like with a hand rendering, the first step is always to create the lines you are going to render within.  Generally people use lines directly taken from AutoCAD for digital renderings as these are the “cleanest” lines, and allow for some shortcuts such as exporting each area as its own file.

This method, which I have used often, involves turning every layer off except 2 – one framing the layout window, and one with a single rendered material (turf, pool edging, brick patio, etc.) You repeat this with every material, then bring them into Photoshop, and create a single drawing with the different areas as layers.  The advantage is that you then can use the magic wand to select even the most complex shape in a single click, regardless of how it will intersect other layers.

The end product is a clean rendering that has good line-weight, and reads easily.  The problem is you also have a drawing that has perfectly straight black lines, which add neither realism or soul to the rendering.

The second method is to forgo lines altogether.  Use the method described above, but turn all the cad layers off before saving (and make sure you selected both the area inside the lines, and the lines themselves to insure there are no gaps in your rendering).  This moves you a step more natural, as you have slightly blurred edges between materials, making a more aerial-photographic look to the rendering.  This may serve well in certain presentation settings (when trying to show the design blending in with existing conditions for instance), but the lack of hard lines, and of line-weight, greatly reduce the readability of the design.

In general, I prefer a third method that is less efficient, but gives – in my opinion – far better results than either of the other methods.  This involves printing out your full design, doing the line-work by hand, and then scanning it in to render from.  This involves a few levels of added difficulty, as to have a single person render they need to be equally skilled with Photoshop and a pen, a large-scale scanner is nearly a must, and there is another time-consuming step added to the process.   The added style, in terms of having a drawing that reads well AND has soul, more than outweighs the challenges in my book.

I said a large-scale scanner is nearly a must because it can be done with a traditional 8.5 x 11 scanner, but the line work must be far more precise, and line-weights are much harder to balance at a small-scale.  (I am using a small scanner for this project, and a .1 with a straightedge is significantly thinner than a .05 freehand drawing lines less than half an inch in length.)  Some of this may be due to the fact that I am slightly out of practice on my hand rendering, but some is also the difficulty of small-scale work.

One thing I like to do to simplify the process is to first draw the ground plane with just material borders, scan that, and then fill in any detail (line hatching for decks/paving if desired, or, in this drawing, the flagstones), and rescan the whole drawing.

This has two main advantages.  First, it allows you to still color as a block, and then add the detail later, when it doesn’t slow the rest of your work.  Second, it allows you to tweak the line-weight on those detail lines.  This may play a role even when working with a large format scanner, but it is a lifesaver when working small format.

This way you can, after cleaning up the scans and making the white areas transparent, you can delete the outer edges of the detailed scan’s lines, reducing the line-weight, and increasing readability.

One of the tricky parts of this process is how to make the black lines the only thing on a layer, so you can render behind it and have the black lines not edges with a light gray halo.  The first way you can do it is by selecting the white areas, deleting them, and darkening the other areas.  This can often lead to white/gray artifacts in the black lines.  The better way is to use masks/alpha layers.  First we have the scanned image:

The first thing that needs to be done is cleaning up the white areas.  The easiest way to do this, along with darkening the lines, is by increasing the contrast of the image.

Once you have a sharp black line on white, go to Image->adjustment->invert.  this will give you a negative image, with what was black white, and what was white black.  Then go to Image->Adjustment->Hue/Saturation and desaturate the image.

This step is necessary to make it into a masking layer, and it also allows you to more easily see areas where the black lines (now white) are slightly gray and transparent.  You can now tell if you need to up the contrast even more.  Then make an additional layer of solid black.  Open the masks window by going to Windows->Masks, and click on the icon for “Add a Pixel Mask”.

Select your inverted layer, Hit CTRL+A to select all, and CTRL+C to copy the image.  Then select your black layer that now has a masking image (Shown with a white box in the Layers palette).  The way to paste info into you mask layer is by clicking on the Channels tab of the layers palette.  At the bottom of the list you will see a layer that is not active and is pure white.  Turn on and select the layer, then hit CTRL+V to paste your image data.

By turning off the masking/alpha layer, you now have a layer that is pure black with transparency for your textures to shine through.

The only remaining thing is that if you do need to edit the layer, you don’t edit the black layer, you go into the channels, turn off the RGB layers, and turn on the masking layer.

Then you edit this layer.  So if you need to delete a line, delete it here, or paint over it in black here.  This is also where you will thin your detail lines if you need to create more line-weight.  The easiest way to do this is by using the magic wand with “contiguous” unchecked.  Then go to Select->Modify->Expand.  A little trial and error is needed here to find the right amount to reduce the line-weight without erasing them.  Once you have the right amount of expansion, make sure black is your background color, and hit delete to reduce the line-weight.  If you’re my method of a main line layer and a detail line layer, each will be set up this way, in one folder on the top of the layer stack.

Next time I’ll go over turf, and give the technique I use to erase the tiled look patterns normally create.

Tutorial Tuesday- Reluanching May 11th with this gem!

4 05 2010

After about a week and a half of fine tuning techniques, taking tens of photos for reference use, and taking hundreds of screen shots, my relaunch of Tutorial Tuesday is imminent.  This time, I am adding a twist to the formula.  Last year, I came up with the idea of doing the tutorials based on a single project, and walking you through my process.  This started with my SketchUp models.  Unfortunately, soon after I began making the project model, intended to be a base for a new website, I decided to go in a different direction.  However, starting next week, you will get a step by step walk-through of how I went from this:

to THIS:

As always, I am looking for feedback not only on my method of tutorials, but also the content and end results of my methods.  I am making these tutorials so people will have the jumping off point that I never had.  I want people to find new techniques, grow what I do.  I have spent countless hours growing these methods, all I ask from you in return is that you spend a few hours developing ways to improve these techniques, and let me, and the other readers, know what you did.

With that, I’ll see you next week!

Fresh Start on Rendering Techniques

2 04 2010

Last summer I started blogging tutorials on my new rendering methods in the hopes that it would A) help people looking to do Photoshop plan renderings a starting point to work from, B) cultivate some conversation on other people’s techniques, C) show how much work goes into any given rendering.  This was (I hope) successful on at least the first and last count.  However, the conversation I was looking for never really started… except in my own head.  As I finished my Master’s thesis at the end of 2009, I had to render some additional views of my 3D Studio Max model, and realized how unhappy I was with the textures I had used previously.  Colors were over-saturated, tiling artifacts were fairly obvious, and everything just looked off to me.

That lead to some experimenting with different methods of doing things.  I had started to play around with using images for my textures some while still writing my original tutorial series.  I had mixed the photo with color overlays to soften the image and give it more of the tonal quality I had been looking for:

While this solved SOME of the problems with my original method, it still relied heavily on my own eye for color selection. I know this is not my strongest skill when it comes to trying to think of something like: what color is grass, overall, REALLY.  I can describe it perfectly well, but when it comes to picking the right color in Photoshop, I just seem to get lost in the sea of options sometimes.  It also does not solve the problem of repeating texture tiles.

My latest iteration involves not just an image with a color overlay, but two images tiled at different scales and a clipping layer (which deletes portions of the upper layer) with a pattern that tiles on yet a different scale.  This creates a photo-realistic texture that is accurate in color, and is virtually tile free.

(Note: Please pay attention to the turf areas- I never re-textured the other areas )

This method is what I will focus on for my next set of tutorials.  I also am going to set these tutorials up in a slightly different way.  I have a residential project that I worked on in school that was made completely in model- no plans whatsoever.  I always wanted to go back and create a rendering for the project as I was very happy with both my design and my model.  So, as part of my impending website redesign I am going to go back and, from model photos and the original site survey, create a plan for the design, that I will then render in photoshop.  The stages of this rendering will become the different tutorials- Turf, Gravel, Slate, Water, Native Grasses, Shrubs, Roofing, Woods, Cars, and Dirt.  Some things will be made by scratch, some will be textures.

So, once I have the base drawn and start getting to work on this rendering, you will be the first to know- by way of NEW TUTORIALS!

What do YOU want to know?

14 11 2009

Sorry for the break in my posting schedule, After the ASLA conference I was in bunker-mode finishing my thesis project, which I successfully defended at the end of October!  So, now that I only have a few edits left before publishing, I am going to get back into the groove.  The thing I am wondering is, what do you want to see posts about?  I have tweaked my photoshop rendering methods based on my 3D Studio Max work, so do you want to see more posts about plan renders? or are you more curious about how to bring that SketchUp model into 3DS Max to punch it up?  Maybe you wonder what type of tech might be helpful for your firm, or want more insight on how it works?  Or do you just want to see what video games I, as a member of the creative field, find to be a good creative outlit/muse.  Let me know, and feel free to suggest other ideas.

I’ll be back soon with a post just as soon as I revise some thesis text…

ASLA Annual Meeting: See you in DC!

22 09 2009

Each year the American Society of Landscape Architects has an annual meeting, and this year it was in Chicago.  I’ve gone to three of the last four, and must say that this was one of the most enjoyable weekends.   Some of that may be caused by my circumstances surrounding each meeting. (Minneapolis I was still in Grad School and a week from presentations, so my mind wasn’t fully there; San Fransisco I had just graduated and had an interview set up that I was to busy freaking out about to enjoy myself) This year I am working retail, have been out of the field for just over a year, and am feeling… disheartened.  So to go to a convention center for four days straight, see talks about all the things that used to make up my daily work life, and talk to nothing but people who do what I love doing was great.

There is also something to be said for the fact that I have learned how the whole thing works a little more each time as well.  I know now that If I don’t want to go broke eating lunch at a convention center, I should bring my own.  I know how to read education session descriptions a little better to see which ones are going to be about things I already know, which will be informative, and which will be inspirational.

Don’t let my learning curve dissuade you; the conference each and every year was a great experience.  Being in a building with 5,000 other LAs is amazingly powerful.  Plus where else do you not only get to see projects that have influenced you, but see, just walking down the hall, people like Ken Smith, Peter Walker, Michael Van Valkenburgh, and Shane Coen. You also can finally meet all those people from other parts of the country who you talk to on Land8, and see your former classmates who have spread around the country. It may not be cheap to pay your own way, but it is entirely worth it.

I realize that I probably sound like some sort of cheesy commercial right now, but the truth is, I really just want to thank everyone from the ASLA who makes this meeting work as well as it does, and I want to thank all of the firms that do come to the meeting.  There are a lot of firms that see networking within the profession as talking with the enemy, not a chance to grow, learn, and teach.  That is part of why it means so much to see the heavy hitters at events like this.

So principals, once I get my resume and portfolio tweaked, expect to see my work on your desk, I’m coming. Everyone else, I’ll see you in DC.