Author: Susie Oviatt (can't find the original article URL)
Susie Oviatt's ASCII Art Tutorial
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
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
@ # $ & 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
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.
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
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
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,
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. :)
ASCII art collection Animated ASCII art collection