What does a texture feel like?

Whether you’re considering reality or the world of 3D models, textures give life to the objects around us.  Without them, we can’t visually determine what anything is made of.  In reality, texture refers to the visual pattern painted on an object, but also how that object feels to the touch.  Is is rough, smooth, hot, cool?  In the 3D space, we can only provide a visual representation of texture.  As long as 3D artists do their jobs correctly, this is not much of a problem.  Our brains are able to make very educated guesses about how an object feels, given what it looks like.  This connection in our brain starts developing at infancy and continues throughout our lives.  After we have enough years under our belts, our brain is able to make predictions based on our past experiences.  If you see a heating element of a stove glow red, your brain knows immediately that it is hot.  There was a time in all of our lives in which this was not the case.  Perhaps we had to touch the element and burn our selves for the experience to stick in our minds.  How ever it happened, the experiences are there.  It’s these experiences that artists can exploit to not only show the viewer something, but to convince the viewer that the object feels a particular way.  Consider the following image:

wood01

This is a nice wood texture I found on photosof.org.  They have many free photos available for personal use.  This looks fine and is adequate for many different uses.  Being a visual art form, the viewer has a great sense of what this object looks like.  Unfortunately, this is where many amateur 3D artists stop.  They incorrectly think that the visual component is the only component.  In fact, when an art critic views a painting, they claim it to be great art if it makes them feel something beyond the oils on the canvas.  We need to create something evocative.  Something becomes evocative when the viewer starts filling in the pieces of story that the artist intentionally left blank.  In the picture above, we have a wooden slab.  What is this piece of wood used for?  There are so many possibilities that the viewer gives up trying to figure out the right one.  To get the viewer thinking, we need to give them more information.  Imagine that you are a carpenter.  Being a professional wood-worker, you could say exactly what kind of wood this is.  You would also know the most common uses for this wood.  Your above-average knowledge in this area allows you a deeper understanding of what is meant by this image.  Most people are not carpenters.  Everyone, however, has seen wood before.  They have felt it, smelled it and maybe even tasted it.  This is the experience that I mentioned earlier which artists need to exploit.  So, how do we provide more information?  We have to look at the non-visual definition of ‘texture’.  We need to show the viewer what this piece of wood feels like.  The simplest way to do this is to add a bump map.

wood02

Making this bump map is quite simple.  In Gimp 2.8: Colors->Desaturate, Colors->Auto->Stretch Contrast.  This turns the original image into a grey scale version of itself, but it also ensures that the greys fill the whole spectrum from white to black.  This will result in the most effective bump map with the least effort.  This result is nice.  We see roughness and we can imagine how it feels.  This is good, but we are not done yet.  What was this board used for? The possibilities are still endless.  How about this:

wood03If you look close, you will see lots of knife grooves.  Suddenly we are able to imagine what this board was used for.  We can imagine someone cutting meat or fish.  If we are looking at this from the correct angle, we can even determine that the person using this cutting board was left handed.  When we notice this, our minds immediately construct a person standing at the board, cutting whatever kind of thing that pops into our head.  My mind places various kinds of meat on the board because that has significance to me.  It wasn’t a conscious decision.  My past experience includes many hours of butchering, so that’s is what the board is used for.

At this point we have done a lot with textures.  I want this board to look weathered and old.  While I’m at it, I will round the corners and make it look more like a household cutting board.

wood04

We now have something that looks distinctive.  A few stains go a long way to weathering something.  Since the use of this board is no longer in question, the viewer starts considering the peripheral information.  We can now speculate as to the board’s age, feel, and even smell.  The viewer will even find that they are trying to figure out what kind of meat made that stain.  It’s that age old mantra, “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know”.  As the designer of this image, I have to think about what I want the viewer to think about.  I need to make mindful decisions about what I include in this scene.  If you add too much detail, then you may not leave room for the imagination to work.  Consider the following:

wood05

Is this knife required to get the point across?  The viewer already assumed that a knife was used on this board.  By showing the knife, this image has become nonsensical.  Let’s expand on this idea:

wood06When we look at this picture, we start looking for context.  There is no mystery left, so we start looking for the reason this image even exists.  What is the point of it?  That is a question we should all ask ourselves before we start any project.  The main take away message is that a texture can tell a story much better than a model can.