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Making an Art Site Useful

I’ve been rethinking my web page: How to make it more useful – for visitors and for myself. And I want to start it as a project: Learn as I go and share what I learn.

It hit me recently that although I add content to my website since over a decade, it never has been really useful. I simply never considered what I’m aiming for – and just added my pictures and thoughts, because that’s what everyone does, hoping somehow people would find it and like it. But there is no clear reason to actually seek the site.

I want to change that. I will make a proper plan for the way forward: What do I want to reach and how do I get there? And as I work through it, I will share my efforts and results – maybe making my statistics public. Would be fantastic if I can get fellow artists to join, and share their opinions and own experiences.

art page mind map

I tried to make a little overview of how my site content connects in the web…. yeah it wasn’t that useful for me either.

It’s not that my site is pointless. When I show it to potential clients, they’re often impressed with the content and presentation – and that helps me to convince them to hire my services. But that’s not really what the world-wide-web is for, right? This should scale globally: I should be able to get much more visitors and get them engaged enough to eventually make some income: Either through the site, or through selling on the site – or though finding more clients.

If my art would just make everyone swoon and fight to buy it, then all this might just go by itself. There are artists like that – but I’m not one of them. People like my art, I get compliments and I sell semi-regularly. But people like a lot of other art as well. To ever live just from selling my personal work will be a tough challenge. I’m working of course to improve my art at all times – but a good website is simply part of the job. Let’s see it as a piece of a puzzle – and let’s start sorting the first pieces:

The Situation

  • Right now I receive on average 1500 unique visitors per month. That’s 50 per day.
  • I tried ads, but with the numbers above it’s not even bringing the hosting costs back.
  • I have the webshop, but it’s actually still a bit of a hurdle. Again: With this number of users and the fact that they’ll actually have to need an artwork – and then go through the hoops to order – it would just not be enough for a steady income.
  • In other words: I didn’t have a clear and working “call to action” – something I could ask of my users, so that I could sustain this site. That’s actually the core of the problem I see – I was aimless, and the visitors didn’t get an aim either.
web stats 2015

Monthly unique visitor statistics for one year until today. Averaging at roughly 1500 per month.

The Goal

At the end it is all about fixing the call to action – if I don’t have that, then even having visitors would be useless. … and I’ve already started working on that recently since I discovered patreon. That’s a website for asking for monthly support by users – and this really lit up the light bulb in my head. Some weeks ago, I’ve added prominent buttons here as my call to action. And that should be the part I’ll lead my users to, if they’re happy with the content.

Of course the more people that visit, the more they can see my “support me” request, and click the red button. So next I need to to drive the visitor amounts up. I’ll have to look into Google and Search Engine Optimization – how can I be found more often by users in my target group…

Call to Action

My current call to action in the sidebar.

… and for that just paintings aren’t enough. First off – google doesn’t work just with images, it needs a context it can understand. And it’s unlikely that art-lovers would just type “ink painting” for example, to find nice art. I myself come across art I like when searching for other topics, or reading articles about the craft, and then fall in love with what I see around it. So I think that’s the way I have to go here: Create something that people look for, and then give them content they’ll appreciate a lot and show my art around it – so that some might feel it’s worth supporting me.

Which brings me to the aspect of conversion rate: How many of my visitors will go through and do the action I call for? Since I added the “support me on patreon” buttons, one or two people click it per day. That’s a 2 percent click-through rate. Though it’s not the actual conversion yet. The users then would have to sign up there and pledge, so it’s an extra hurdle no visitor has taken so far.
Let’s say it like this: To get 2% to click the button you want ain’t a shabby first step. There was some interest there to support me. If I could just ten-fold the visitors, then that should give room for actual conversions.

The Steps

So these three things I want to figure out in the coming time: Have people seek my content, have google list it for them, and then covert some to supporters.

Part 1: Offer something people seek

For the first “offer something people seek” part, I want to create tutorials – especially about the ink and line-art works I do recently. I had to read up a lot anyways.
And in an recursive twist I will use this series to publish my steps of making this site useful. including about my efforts to enhance my patreon project. What I learned about the technology and about user behavior might be interesting for other artists.

Part 2: Make people find the page

That means optimizing for search engines mostly – how to make google see your content, and rank it for good keywords. I’ll have to reshuffle my links and page-layout a little bit. Some aspects of social sharing and such will be part of it as well.
But I’m not starting from zero here, I have 10 years of looking at my web-stats after all (metrics can also be something to talk about).

Part 3: Convert!

Let’s see how my new call to action will fare. A-B testing about different buttons is something I already started, and I can share the results. My patreon art site itself will be part of this. I will have to enhance it to make people that check by there also pledge.

That covers it for now. I’ll go into the exact steps in other feature articles. I hope this all sounds interesting. That I’m writing this from the bottom of the mountain looking up rather than already standing on top of it, means that readers should take my ideas with a grain of salt. But it also means that I can honestly test my theories – and should they not work, it’s a useful lesson as well.

Caromble! into the Wild!

Finally I can proudly announce that after six years of work we’re releasing our brick-breaking indie game Caromble! on Early Access!

I’ve been five years part of our one-day-a-week effort to create this on this for me … and six for the programmers. That’s 312 Fridays! And we’re still not quite done, since this is a version we’ll improve until the final release in a couple of months. If you want to support us, and maybe give us feedback – head over to the Caromble’s Steam page:

Here you can check our new trailer:

We sold a few copies since the morning, and one of the first reactions we got was “That game is fun… ALOT of fun”. We even scored a neat Caromble! review already. And the graphics style and the physics often get compliments. Good start.

Happy Caromble Team

Time to celebrate! …a little.

Early Access means though that it’s not the full version. It’s for us to ask for help with finding bugs, optimizing the engine and content. It contains the first levels… but every buyer will get the rest step by step as we’re finishing it.

Marketing will be one of our next challenges, since we have zero budget. And we notice that it takes a lot of time. But since people really like our explanation videos, it seems we’re learning.
Please check it out – and any feedback and share will help us a lot.

Caromble Early Access

Caromble! Early Access Artwork

Medieval City Map Illustration

This fantasy city view is similar to the medieval towns map I’ve shown before. It didn’t give it the old hand-drawn map look, but since the other post is one of the most popular content here, I thought I put this one out too.

medieval imaginary cityscape with palace, map

This imaginary cityscape is more epic in scale – showing more of a capital with palace and manufacturing areas.

Medieval city palace detail

Here is a detail of the palace/castle area. The map is based of a complex 3d model that I then heavily edited in 2d.

Science of Color

It’s time to mothball some of our traditional color theories, as science shows that they are wrong. Here’s a look at some newer approaches – and some discoveries when looking back to ancient times.

Here is a talk by Stephen Palmer getting some interesting results when testing what colors people like – and why. One tidbit: Artists have different color taste (liking strong colors more)… but change their preference quickly.
He mentions how older theories about color are wrong. Though some contradictions remain: Much of our likes and dislikes are learned from our environment… yet babies seem to have the same preferences.

He also finds strong cultural differences (who would have thought Japanese don’t like red?) and that goes deeper than one would expect.
A radiolab series of podcasts about color dives into that, starting with how color perception works, and why some people can simply see more different colors.
Especially fascinating is their feature on the color blue, and how some colors just weren’t even known in ancient history… at least they weren’t ever mentioned. I have some quote in an entry about color perception – which also links the video of the Himba-tribe, who can’t visually distinguish some colors because they have no names for them.

From personal experience I suspect that the researchers ignore brightness too much – maybe because we live in a world centered around print and screens. I have a slight form of synesthesia, and once listed the numbers I experience as colors. For me there the brightness plays a big role. The sky is super bright compared to other blue objects. I think it’s natural to see and name it as a very different color.

And maybe people in 2000 years might wonder about color words we use today. “White” as skin-color for example is rather strange – no painter would pick white to paint Caucasians. Same for so-called yellow, red or black skin. There used to be very different distinctions. In the Minoan culture (roughly 3500 years ago) the male skin is usually red in paintings and female skin is white. Which was in line with Egyptian traditions. And for metals, they painted gold as yellow, silver as blue and bronze as red.

Minoan Fresco - Palace of Knossos

Minoan Fresco (1700-1450 BCE) – Dolphin, Palace of Knossos, Crete
Lots of blue here, but somehow in the … beaked dolphins?

In the comments on the podcasts are some more interesting counter points:

  • In ancient times wine used to be thicker, and was thinned 20 times for consumption. So it would actually look black.
  • The bible does have some mentions of blue, called Tekhelet – which isn’t pointing to all things blue, but specific items (like the sapphires with that name).
  • People who live in the sun a long time will get “yellow” coronas and lose the ability to see purple and blue hues. (That’s why old ladies try to get the yellow out of their hair and then go too far in the other direction and dye their hair blue or purple. To their eyes their hair looks yellow even when white). This might have happened to scholars in ancient desert or Mediterranean cultures (e.g. Greece). The authors are most likely an adult and after years of exposure got a yellow tint in their corneas and thus a filter that blocks blues and purples.

Ink Sea

A drawing I mostly made at “The Open Draw Amsterdam” – took me 6 sessions though, I believe.

So it’s one of the unplanned line-arts – just starting from trying out some materials. Namely dip pens, which led to lot’s of ink drips, that I then incorporated in the picture.

I have a work-in-progress version as well as the high-res for my supporters on my patreon art page. Exclusive previews on my next drawing will follow shortly.

Ink Sea - drawing

“Ink Sea”, various ink techniques on A4 marker-paper

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And since Gail Anne Howard made such great photos at the event, I’ll add this here…

Thomas Schmall drawing

…showing me doing the first steps on the drawing.

Goblin-packed Fantasy Illustration

This was supposed to be the cover for a game, that sadly got cancelled before release. It’s from a while ago (I’ve posted somefantasy characters for it earlier) and now that I had more freedom on the format, I gave it a final touch-up.

Fantasy Illustration - Goblin Dungeon

“The Goblin Dungeon” – digital artwork (2015)

Since it was the central art piece for the marketing, this went to a thorough process. With a good briefing, and enough time to go though the proper steps. So I’ll post them here as a sort of tutorial.

The central theme of a hero surrounded by fellow goblins, makes it easy to start. I just made a lot of sketches to get familiar with the characters, get into the flow and find ideas for layouts. This is all very loose and playful, which will fit the mood the artwork should bring across.

Goblins pencil sketches 2

Lots’o’lil sketches.

Goblins pencil sketches 1

…and even more. Doing this in pencil instead of digitally makes sure that I can’t do too much detailing and redoing. This keeps the process quick.

Pencil sketches - Dungeon Hero

Some hero sketches – different poses that communicate action and that he is in control.

I can then also just use the drafts to put together a layout sketch for the whole artwork. The faster these steps go, the more time is there to try around and find more ideas. In a way this is the most important step – even with many changes, the core of it will stay intact and guide all other decisions for the details.

Fantasy Illustration layout sketches.

These are three layout designs – of which the last one was chosen by the client.

Color Blockout - Fantasy artwork

Using the sketch I provided two possible color versions to choose from.

After the first option was chosen, it gets serious! It’s good to have an accurate base from now on, so that there are no big reworks necessary later. I used a 3D application to make a simple blockout of the room, so that the perspective is believable.

3d dungeon blockout

The 3D layout with a perspective grid, so that painting along it becomes easy.

Again I’ve picked up the pencils. This time to draw design all necessary details for the main character.

Hero - Detailed Lineart

One should not get too stuck to it (I changed the arms, head and legs later), but if the elements work in the drawing, it’s a good bet they’ll work with color too.

Illustration - Final Layout

This is already quite close to the result.

I went with the same process for the background characters: lots of sketches with different poses and perspectives to chose from.

Background pencil sketching

Sketches for the “Meatblobs” that attack in the background.

Putting it all together.

Marketing Illustration - Context

All elements are included here. The final use should always be kept in mind – so that there is room for elements like logos or screenshots. And ideally keep room on the edges, in case any unforeseen usage comes up.

The rest is the grinding: It doesn’t change much per hour of work, but it’s necessary for a convincing look. The more important and bigger the marketing use will be, the more time can go into the details. It’s open ended in a way – so it’s a good idea to keep the final resolution in mind not to overshoot.

Goblin Fantasy Illustration - Details view

Close-ups of some details.

One last thing are the after-Effects. I’ve made a gif below, naming each step I did in the effects pass. I exaggerated some, so hopefully they show in the animation. Of course the step wont save a bad artwork, but you can squeeze quite a bit out of it. After correcting colors and adding little glows and sparks I also added some noise for example. Usually not a fan of it… it’s really over-used in illustrations at the moment. But it adds a slight movie-like flair to it.

After FX animation for Illustration

This animation is showing the steps of the “post processing”. Some are effects subtle, so the bigger version behind the click will show them better.

As the game didn’t come out, there was no need for adding text anymore. That allowed me to tighten the composition, so it works well on it’s own. For example I shortened the stairs compared to early versions, and broke them up so that the sharp lines are gone. Now they are tilted so that they are leading they eye more around the heroes. And I think it hints a bit at their power that the stones are crumbling beneath their feet.
To save you the scrolling, I’ll put the final result here again. Hope you like it.

Fantasy Illustration - Goblin Dungeon

Hand Drawn Medieval Town Map

Due to imaginary public demand, I’ll publish the pencil drawing of the medieval town map that I posted earlier.

This one I used as overlay to give the highly detailed 3d picture a more old time look. I got some requests about the other map, so just as with this one: It’s under the creative commons license. You can use it for free if you also share your product for free. I have also higher resolution versions if needed. Anything you sell needs a permission for usage.

You can of course hire me if you need illustrations in that or other styles. Would love to do an high quality ink map one day.

Pencil Fantasy Town Map

A little town in a forest. The version with the mixed in illustrated towns map is here.