Okay. You've found a picture that perfectly captures yourself, and you've even come up with a witty caption to boot. Now you want to turn it into one of those nice little fancy shmancy 100x100 LJ icons.
However, you may have noticed that yours don't turn out as nicely as some others. You may be asking, what can I do to make mine look better?
Well, as you may see ahead, there may be quite a bit more.
As a note of warning, though, this pertains directly to icon making in GIMP. I highly recommend the program, which you can download for free at www.gimp.org. It is the best free art program I have found, and thus far it has not left me desiring a more advanced one in any manner.
Let's begin by constructing a base, shall we?
Images to make bases from are not difficult to come by. They are scattered all over these forums, with a wealth of them found in the Screenshot & Quote du Jour thread. Also, you can just find them by searching on Google. However, give thought to your image choice. It is a step that most people do not much thought or consideration, but choosing a suiting image for the icon can have a large impact on the quality of the icon. For this demonstration, I will be using an image of the mother of the best character in the anime.
I believe I picked up this image while browsing an image thread on Serebii, but I do not completely remember; I like to check a large number of sources for icon-worthy images.
Now, the initial crop can be a rectangle, but if you want to make best use of the 100x100 limit then you should probably crop it in a square of some sort. Remember, this will be resized after, so don't worry about what the dimensions are, just that they are even. Try to capture all of the image you feel is necessary, but if possible try to position it so there will be room for text. If this is impossible, don't worry, since there are other ways to make text stand out. If you don't want text on your icon, you can ignore making room for it and crop whichever area you feel to be best looking.
Once cropped, do not just resize it to 100x100. Sure, you will still have your image, but you can make it a lot better.
See, here it is merely resized. It works for an average icon, but the best results come if you put a little more effort into it.
First, notice that the original screenshot is rather grainy. This can be fixed by using the Selective Gaussian Blur Filter (found under Filters > Blur > Selective Gaussian Blur) set to a radius of 2 pixels. Below, I show the filter being used once, then again.
After this, resize to 100x100. It will be blurrier than the original, but we're not finished with it yet.
The reason why you wanted to get rid of some of that graininess is because it will really stand out when you go to the next step.
Now, using the Sharpen Filter (Filters > Enhance > Sharpen) we're going to make the details come out. Allow me to demonstrate the effects of multiple usages of a Sharpen Filter used at 25%.
Now, you may wish your icon to not be quite this sharpened, but I personally like the details on my icon to be very distinct. Still, any amount of sharpness makes the image much more clear and the details much more visible.
Look at the difference that made compared to just resizing it!
Just like the eye doctor's office. Which is clearer, 1 or 2?
Now that we have the base, it's time to start modifying it. There are many different things you can do to this base. For example, one particularly fun effect is the Supernova (Filters > Light Effects > Supernova). Here is a blue Supernova set at the upper right corner of the icon (100, 0).
However, that glare's a bit distracting, so here is the Supernova set beyond that corner, with the X value above 100 and the Y value in the negatives.
Much better! The light is shining down on Lola, but not glaring in her face. Remember, to be subtle is not always a bad thing.
Still, as much fun as the effects are, there are a lot to cover, and I'm merely trying to stick to the basics in this tutorial. So, I will move to quite possibly the easiest and most useful tool in adding mood to your icon: The Filter Pack (Filters > Colors > Filter Pack). For all of the effects you can do with the tool, it is important to keep in mind the tone of your icon and whether or not the effects compliment that tone.
First, you can tint your icon different shades.
As you can quite clearly see, every color changes the mood of the icon. Red and Yellow make the icon warmer, while Cyan and Blue cool it down. Yellow, Green, and Cyan lighten the icon somewhat, while Red, Blue, and Magenta darken it. In this instance, Yellow, Cyan, and Blue seem to be the most suiting to the icon, with Yellow and Cyan making it more innocent, but Blue making it more serious.
Next, there is the saturation.
It is not difficult to tell that the less saturated it is, the more serious and dramatic it is, and the less saturated it is, the more lively and silly it is.
However, you may notice that the saturation there is very strong. If you wanted saturation, but not to such an extreme degree, you could easily tone it down a bit: Before using the filter, right click on the layer of the base image and select "Duplicate Layer". Then, increase the Saturation once on one of the two layers. After that, select the top layer, and notice on the "Layers" floating menu that there is a drag bar labeled "Opacity" with a percentage value next to it. This bar will become your best friend. Change the Opacity of the top layer to a value between 0 and 100 to only partially view the layer by that amount.
Here is the Saturation dampened by a normal layer set to 50% Opacity:
There! Much more colorful, but a lot easier on the eyes.
The final thing you can do with the Filter Pack is make the Value lighter or darker.
Obviously, a darker image has a darker mood and a lighter image has a lighter mood. It is important to keep in mind with this that the dark detail will surface much more on a lightened image, and the light details will surface much more on a darkened image.
This feature also allows us to increase or lessen the contrast. To lessen the contrast, set the Affected Range to Shadows and make the Value lighter, then set the Affected Range to Highlights and make the Value darker. To increase the contrast, do the opposite: set the Affected Range to Shadows and make the Value darker, then set the Affected Range to Highlights and make the Value lighter. Here is a comparison between the normal base and a base with higher contrast:
Once again, a higher contrast will increase visibility of details, while a lower contrast will hide them.
By using the same method, you can make it look like light is shining on the character. Light is usually found in yellow, with a blue shadow cast, so if you give Highlights a Yellow tint and Shadows a blue tint, you give the impression of light. Here is a comparison between the normal base and a yellow light base:
This one is particularly well-paired with an increased contrast.
Mixing and matching these effects are the best way to get your icon to look the way you want it to. For this, I'm going to use both the partial saturation from before and an increased contrast.
Let's compare this to the normal base, as well as the icon resized with no effort to make the details stand out.
Lola's looking her best now, I think!
Now, before adding text, many people find it helps an icon a lot if you add a border. GIMP has no square tool, so instead it must be done manually. Make a new layer. Using the pencil tool and the one-pixel brush, click on one corner of the image. Hold shift and click on another corner to draw a straight line between them. Continue around the icon until you return to the original corner. Tada, you have made a border.
However, a solid black line can be a little rigid and boring, don't you think?
If you're just going to do a line, you might as well have it blend into the picture a little more. This can be done by decreasing the Opacity of the Pencil Tool. Here's the border again, drawn with the Pencil Tool only set at 50% Opacity. (Remember when you do this to, at the end of the border, click on the pixel directly before the one you started on rather click on the first one again. Every time GIMP draws a line, it draws another pixel onto the starting point, increasing the opacity on that one spot. Two pixels in every corner will not look bad, but you might as well avoid putting three in the same corner.)
This is more subtle than the solid line, and therefore is somewhat gentler on the eyes. It is a small difference, but it can make a difference, particularly on very light images.
From here, we can do several things. For one, we can draw another box directly inside the border using the pencil tool at an even lower Opacity. By doing this, we create a fading effect with the border. Here's one with a second line at 25% Opacity.
Or, again using light lines to make it blend into the icon more, we can give the icon a bit of detail and therefore a more personal touch. Here is an example of extremely simple detail, just some extra lines with boxes in the corners.
This is Lola we're talking about, so perhaps some fancier detail is in order? I'm going to try a design that's a bit more fun.
This may look fancy, but it's not. Mostly, it's just very tiny ovals.
Since there are little holes in this design, I'll take this opportunity to show you transparency. This is only available for .gifs and .pngs, and unfortunately for .pngs I've found that the transparent part of them show up as black in Internet Explorer. Still, .pngs are much nicer than .jpgs, particularly in their ability to incorporate partial transparency, so I'll use them for this section of the tutorial.
Creating a transparent section is easy: select the area you want to go away, and hit Ctrl+K. (However, this may fill it with your current Background Color; if this happens, duplicate the image and delete the former layer. I have personally found no other way around this.)
Now, to punch out those little holes in the border.
That wasn't too hard, huh?
Now to show you the partial transparency. Rather than just deleting the section, I'm going to take an eraser with a big brush set to partial Opacity and run it all over the section. Here, I'll use 50% Opacity on the box between the outer border and inner border.
There are a lot of things you can do with this. Remember to feel free to experiment!
Now, Text. Generally, unless you are using a pixel font, you want to keep Anti-Alias on...
Unless, you know, you want your text so sharp you could cut yourself on it.
There. It's much more pleasing on the eyes now, don't you think?
One easy way to help it stand out is by putting a blur behind it. The most effective way to do this is to select all the text (this can be done using the Select continuous regions tool set to 255 Threshold and with Select Transparent Areas unchecked), increase the selection area by one pixel (Select > Grow, set to 1 pixel), make a new layer, move this layer behind the text, fill it with a color that the text stands out against, (Fill tool, set to Fill Whole Selection), return to selecting the entire layer, and then use a Gaussian Blur Filter (Filters > Blur > Gaussian Blur - I admit I do not know the difference between IIR and RLE Gaussian Blurs, but I use IIR). You should result in an effect like the one below.
I reduced the opacity on the layers, however, to make them both more subtle.
There is a use for the sharp fonts in the non-Antialiased fonts in this manner, however. If you do the same thing...
...then merge the layers, select and remove all the black, and then reduce the opacity...
You can make the text have a ghostly effect. Be careful when using this, though, since it can be very difficult to read if not used properly.
One of the best ways to make a font stand out is to give it a one Pixel outline. However, unfortunately, I have found no way to do this except by hand using the Pencil Tool. Still, the effect is generally worth it.
There. Hard to believe how much it took to do that, huh?
Well, this concludes my tutorial, and...
...what's that you say? You want to know how to make an animated icon?
Oh, if you insist.
Animated .gif icons are tricky for one specific reason: They are difficult to keep beneath the 40KB limit. Remember you can reduce the file size by reducing the number of colors, which is done by Indexing the colors (Image > Mode > Indexed) to a Generated Optimum Palette of a set number of colors. Using this, you must try to find the most number of colors you can have to make the .gif under 40KB.
Anyway, onto the actual method.
First, to animate a .gif, you must create multiple layers. Each layer must be one of the frames in the animated icon. For this one, the frames will be...
Now, at the end of each layer, I'm going to add "(1000ms)". This tells the animation how long to play the layer. I'm saving it as a .gif, and GIMP will ask me if I want to merge the layers or save it as an animation. Obviously, I want the animation.
This results in the following animation:
Oh, but that's a bit too slow for such a simple animation, don't you think? So, to speed it up, I'm going to change the value of the end tag, making "(1000ms)" into "(250ms)".
The animation is now:
The time can vary as well. For example, on the next icon, the first and second frame were set to (1000ms), while the second two were set to (2000ms).
The most important thing, though, is making sure the icon isn't too fast to be read, unless for some reason you want that effect.
Yeah, you get the idea. (Actually, though, this demonstration icon might be more confusing if you did have time to read it.)
One last thing: If some layers in the animation have transparency and others do not, you might encounter some problems. The animation is mostly done by overlapping layers. So, let's say I wanted to shrink Lola into nothingness...
Oops! That didn't work!
However, this is fixed by adding "(replace)" to the end of the layer name. So, with this added...
The previous frames disappear! And so does Lola! (Hmm, this makes me think of the shrinking into the world sprite animation at the start of Pokémon games...)
Well, ladies and gentlemen, that concludes this icon tutorial. Hopefully now you know a few things about how to build a better icon. If you still have questions, feel free to ask, and I'll do my best to address them.
Otherwise, have fun making icons!