ASCII Art Tutorial by Susie Oviatt

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Table of Contents

  1. What is ASCII art? or "ASCII stupid question, get a stupid ANSI."
  2. The CANVAS, or "Targon's secret."
  3. How to start, or "Whaddaya mean, just start tapping keys?"
  4. Sources, or "Where do I find pictures to try?"
  5. Choosing Characters, or "Which characters do I want to use?"
  6. Small pictures, or "Good things come in small packages."
  7. Big pictures, or "Bigger is better, right?"
  8. ASCII Art Protocol, or "Gee, this is neat, can I show my friends?"
  9. Printing up ASCII Art -- or "Eww. Why does this look so bad on paper?"

1. What is ASCII art? or "ASCII stupid question, get a stupid ANSI."

What is ASCII art? Basically, it's creating pictures using the letters and symbols found on a regular keyboard or typewriter. Trust me, the computer keyboard is MUCH easier to use than a typewriter. Related art can be done with ANSI (sometimes known as "higher ASCII") characters, but since those don't show up on Aladdin or GEnie, I've never played with them. Most everyone has seen some sort of ASCII art, either in regular ASCII Art topics, (such as in the Family RT), as part of the opening screen for various RoundTables, or as part of a cute little signature by the members themselves. This is a sample of a signature ASCII art:
               (   )   "Birdie" 
My pictures are done for the computer screen, and look best on a screen that is set for a dark background and light letters. Viewing the pictures on a light background with dark letters (either on the screen or on paper, printed up) makes them look a little like photo negatives, light where it's supposed to be dark, and dark where it's supposed to be light. Just keep in mind how your pictures will be viewed, while you're creating them. Some of the pictures I've done will "translate" just fine to a different setup, some don't do nearly as well.  

2. The CANVAS, or "Targon's secret."

One of the very first ASCII artists on GEnie, TARGON, came up with the idea of creating a "canvas." To make it easier to put your characters where they need to go, start with a blank canvas. In most word processing programs, (including Aladdin's text editor), the cursor can't be moved somewhere it's never been before. That's fine if you know exactly where you want each character, and can type it in perfectly the first time, but if you need to experiment, like I do, you'll want to move that cursor around with your arrow keys.

The canvas consists of a screen full of lines, and the lines consist of nothing but spaces you've tapped in with your spacebar. This is the way I made mine:

First, go to the program you plan to use to make your pictures. Since I use Aladdin, I'll describe the procedure I use. While offline, go to a reply screen, such as the ASCII Art topic in the FAMILY BB. (Category 3, topic 18.) Hit "r" for "reply." When the screen comes up, draw a line of dashes across the top, and then hit the enter key oh... about twenty times or so. At the end of the screen, draw another line of dashes across the bottom.

Go back to the top of the screen, press the down arrow once, and start hitting the space bar. When you get to the end of the line, use the down arrow to get to the next line. Do not hit "enter" again, and do not let the line of spaces wrap around. Hit the space bar again, filling the next line with spaces, and again when you get to the end of the line, use the down arrow key to get to the next line. Continue doing this till you've filled all 20 lines with blank spaces.

At this point, it would be wise to "save" the "canvas" so that you don't have to go through this every time you want to do a picture. To save a file on Aladdin, you hold down the control key and tap the K, then the W. A little screen will pop up, asking for a name. I chose the name "canvas," but then, I'm an original thinker. :) From then on, when you want to create a new picture, you can "recall" the canvas by going to a reply screen. To recall the canvas using Aladdin, hold down the control key and tap the K then the R. You'll see that little window come up, asking for a file name, and you type in the name you gave your canvas. Then hit enter, and the canvas will be on the screen. For those who would rather skip this step, I've included a canvas at the end of the file. Since most of my pictures are rather large, the canvas is larger than I've specified here.  

3. How to start, or "Whaddaya mean, just start tapping keys?"

Now you're ready to begin creating your picture. The first thing you need to do is make sure your text editor is in "overwrite" mode. In Aladdin's default setting, that means you'll need to hit the "insert" key one time. This way, each character you tap into place will overwrite the blank space. If you do not have your text editor in overwrite mode, each character you tap in will be inserted between your spaces, and the lines will begin to wrap almost immediately. If that happens, don't panic, just delete the extra keys, press the "insert" key and start again. I guarantee you, you'll notice quickly.

Another pointer to remember: If you've tapped something in and you don't like it, or if you've made a mistake, do NOT erase it using the backspace key. The backspace key will delete that space, and it'll offset the rest of that line by one. You may not notice that if you've only backspaced once, but if you've backspaced a dozen characters out of the way, you'll have a line that's shorter than the rest by that many spaces.

If you want to correct a mistake, just use your arrow keys till the cursor is on the space you want to change, and tap in the character you want. (Again, make sure you are in overwrite mode.) If you forget and backspace an error away, hit the insert key again, then hit the spacebar till you've added back in the spaces you accidentally deleted, then hit the insert key again to go back to overwrite mode.

Oh, one more thing... For some reason, it's best to leave the first space on each line blank. Your art will look fine while you're creating it, but when it gets uploaded to GEnie a character on the very first space of the line will cause the following lines get shifted over one space, and that's enough to mess up a picture. This is especially true if you have used any asterisks (*) as first characters on the line. The asterisk is used on GEnie to say, "The following is a command, not part of the text." People viewing your work won't even see that line.  

4. Sources, or "Where do I find pictures to try?"

Most of us have some little doodle we've done for years... I've always drawn little elephant fannies all over papers and scraps. I'd suggest that you translate YOUR doodle to ASCII art as your first piece. It's familiar, and you'll know if it doesn't look quite right. Play with it till you're satisfied with it.

For your next piece, choose something simple. You'll have an easier time, and you'll build your confidence. Children's coloring books are a great place to find simple pictures to try. While you're finding the sorts of pictures you enjoy doing, you'll be developing your very own style of ASCII art.

One of the greatest things about this particular art form is that each style is so distinctively different. Once an artist has the basics down, you can almost tell WHO did a picture before you see their name at the bottom of the screen. Some of the ASCII Artists you've probably seen at one time or another here on GEnie are TARGON, PHOENIX, TSUEX, and RIKROK. All of these people have very individual styles. Some pictures look like drawings with ASCII characters, some look more like paintings. They're all delightful.

Holiday pictures are my favorites. I can find samples from newspapers, comic books, coloring books, art books, and sometimes from my own imagination. Most of the time I need a pattern, even if the finished product doesn't look anything like the original. It gives me an idea of where to go first. :)  

5. Choosing Characters, or "Which characters do I want to use?"

First of all, your choice of characters depends on what effect you're looking for. If you are "sketching" with ASCII characters, you'll want to pay special attention to the following keys:
         / ` " ' \ , . _ - = ~ ^ ; | 
Notice that all of these characters have been entered on the same line, but many are in different positions on that line. The apostrophy is higher on the line than the comma, for instance. Keep this in mind as you "sketch" because sometimes that small difference is enough to make or break your picture.

If you are going for a more filled in look, such as I do in my pictures, you will also want to keep in mind the relative value of the characters as far as light and shade go. Look at the following characters:
          @ # $ & X % > / ; : 
Notice that when you are using a dark background, light letters, that the @ and # keys provide a lot of light. You would use these characters to highlight your work. The : and ; let much less light through, so those would be the characters you shade with. If you are working on a reverse screen, with a light background/dark characters, the opposite would hold true.

Keep in mind, too, that for detail work there are several characters that are very similar, but subtly different, and can add just the right amount of contrast to get the effect that you want. For instance:
        S $    : ;    % X    0 O 
One more thing that will help you get the look you want is the relative height of capital and lower case letters. When you need a line to taper a bit, using a lower case letter is sometimes the perfect "bridge" between high and low characters. For instance:
        S s    X x    O o   @ a 
To taper these lines even further, when a very gradual decrease is wanted, use both of these methods, somtimes using them more than once. For instance:
        Ss,..,sS          or    -=*@*=-     or     .,%,. 
        SSss,,..,,ssSS    or    ..,,;;|;;,,.. 
Also remember that what is low on one line can be the perfect bridge for something high on the line directly under. This is especially helpful when you're creating signatures of some kind... For instance:
                 ;;  .;'                 ;; 
                 . `';,.  .;. ;.   ,;;;, .;.  .;;;. 
                  ';.  ;;  ;; ;;   ',,.   ;;  ;; ;; 
              ,;;;.;;  ;;  ;; ;;   .  ;;  ;;  ;;'' 
             ;;   ';;;;'   `;;';;' ';;;'  ';. `;;;' 

6. Small pictures, or "Good things come in small packages."

VERY small pictures can be a lot of fun to do. Just remember that with those tiny ASCII pictures, a LOT is left to the imagination. Sometimes a suggestion of what you're looking for is the best you can do. For instance, the following was done on only two lines:
It's certainly no photograph, but most people will recognize this as a wheelchair. Another fun use for tiny ASCII graphics are for signing off e-mail, especially during the holidays. For instance, during the Christmas season, I like to sign letters off with one of the following:
                 ### ### 
                 ### ### 
It's important to remember that many RoundTables on GEnie (Such as the FAMILY and Personal Growth RoundTable) frown on the use of excessive ASCII art in regular topics. This is due to the fact that users who are visually impaired and use voice synthesizers have a heck of a time with this stuff... For instance, a blind user coming across the top Christmas miniature would hear, "lesser than, backslash, o, O, o, slash, greater than..." And that's only the FIRST ROW! Can you imagine how irritating that would be?

Some voice synthesizers do not "pronounce" punctuation, but they do pause for many punctuation marks. For instance, if your little ASCII picture consists of a lot of periods and commas, the voice synthesizer will pause for each. If there's enough there, the user may think that he or she was discontinued.

If you are on a RoundTable and you don't know what their policy is, it's best to preface any ASCII art with a warning phrase, placed a line above the actual art: "WARNING: ASCII Art to follow." And don't be offended if it's returned to you. There are many ASCII Art topics on GEnie, and your work is VERY welcome there. :)  

7. Big pictures, or "Bigger is better, right?"

Though a large picture can be a little intimidating, it is often easier to do than a small picture. Large pictures give you room to add detail. If you are doing a picture on, say, ten lines, you don't have as much room to develop curves and angles. Your work has to be much more precise, and it's not always possible. On the other hand, on a large picture, you have much more room to develop not only curves and angles, but also shading and highlighting.

Where do you start on a large picture? Well, first of all you'll probably want more than one "canvas" to work on. Just add another canvas or two on the end of the previous one so that you have plenty of room. Get rid of the excess lines between them with the "control-y" keysequence.

Some ASCII artists consistently start with the eyes, if the picture HAS eyes. Personally, I start in a different place each time, but most often I start on what will give me the most problems. For instance, on the tiger I started with the nose. I'm not exactly sure WHY that nose was such a bugger (sorry, couldn't resist... :) but once I got that done, I figured I could finish the rest of the picture. Other times, when there isn't an area that I feel I need to start on, I might start at the very top, so that I can get a relative feel for the width and length of the picture.

Once I've started the picture, I will most of the time go ahead and tap in the rest of the basic shape. Afterwards I'll go through and add the highlighting, shading, and other detail work that I want. Sometimes when you're sitting so close to the screen, tapping in the pictures, NOTHING you do looks right. If that's the case, stand back from the screen.... Or squint your eyes. Or if you wear glasses, take them off for a moment. Many times you'll see the picture "come together" when you try one of these little tricks.

When you're finished, make sure you save your picture. You save your picture the same way you saved the canvas; hold down the control key, hit the K and then the W. When the screen comes up, give your picture a name. That way you can bring it up again whenever you'd like.  

8. ASCII Art protocol, or "Gee, this is neat, can I show my friends?"

ASCII art IS neat, and it's great to get it in the mail. Kids (and the kid in all of us) enjoy watching it download, as the picture takes shape right before our eyes. Though I can only speak for myself, I don't mind at all when pictures are "shared" with others. Some of my pictures have been to many different countries, on many other continents, and that tickles me. Though tastes differ, appreciation of art is something everyone has in common, especially in such a fun, unexpected form as ASCII art. What I do ask, though, is that my name be left on the picture. If you KNOW the source of the art, include the artist's name. It's not enough to put in a line that says, "yes, it's stolen."

There have been times in the past that I've received my OWN artwork back in e-mail to me, along with a note that says, "See, you're not the only one who can do this stuff..." Even more irritating is seeing my own picture with credit given to someone else. This stuff may not be as "important" as some great literary work, but ASCII artists DO spend an hour or more on each picture to make something that will give others pleasure. Give them credit.  

9. Printing up ASCII Art -- or "Eww. Why does this look so bad on paper?"

Why is it when we print up this ASCII art it looks sort of squatty? One reason is that the "characters per inch" is different on the paper than it is on the screen. In old "typewriting" terms, "Pica" print is ten characters to the inch. "Elite" print is twelve characters to the inch. The screen is fairly close to "elite," the default pitch of many printers is closer to "pica." The printer will print the line character by character rather than inch at a time. The difference isn't much, but when the picture is six inches wide, that means when it's printed, it'll be seven and a half inches wide. Thus, the "squatty" look. To correct it, when you print out the work, change the default pitch to something that is closer to the size on the screen. If you play with it enough, it'll work out.

The second reason ASCII art may look a little strange on paper is that it may have been created for a dark rather than a light background. (Paper is light. :) For instance, if I create a picture, using the @##@ characters as highlights, it's easy for you to see that on a white piece of paper, those characters are actually DARK, not light. The solution is to either 1) keep in mind HOW the picture will be seen. If your picture will be seen mostly printed up, work on a light background with dark characters while you're creating it. 2) Hand the picture to a child to color. They can fix anything. :)

See Susie Oviatt's ASCII Art  

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© 19xx tutorial and pictures by Susie Oviatt

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