If you've worked at a game studio, you're probably familiar with the term 'pipeline'. For the uninitiated, it's a fancy way of saying 'organizational plan'. In this post I'd like to argue the merits of creating your very own personal pipeline in order to solidify good working habits, save time, and avoid losing documents.
Pipelines are created to avoid problems down the road. When they're designed for a game, it's likely that the game doesn't have many files and documents yet. A year or two later, however, the game will have thousands of such files - so you can imagine the importance of a well considered organizational system. The same might be true for you. If you're a beginner starting out with digital painting, it's likely that you don't have many files saved. After a few years of painting you'll have hundreds or thousands of files. Do you have a system in place to keep them under control? To give you some inspiration, I'll go over my system and explain why I've made certain choices.
1) Automated Backup
Arguably the most important item on the list, a system of automated backup can help you avoid a really bad day. To be completely honest, I've only recently purchased an external hard drive with an automated backup... but it's long overdue. Bottom line: any system that relies on you remembering to backup your art files is not good enough. Your computer has a better memory than you do.
2) Folder Structure
If you only learn one thing from this post, make sure it's folder structure. This is where I sort my files into relevant categories, from basic to specific. At the top I separate media: web, photos, personal illustration, commercial illustration. Almost all of my art-related files fit into one of these categories. If I could go back in time, I'd add in an additional tier into these folders: year. Creating a folder for 2012, 2013, etc. inside of personal and commercial illustration directories would have made my life a lot easier. So if you're designing a system right now, you might want to consider these sub-folder. Another way to sub-divide might be categorical: characters, environments, etc. It all depends on what sort of work you're creating. For a while last year I was doing a lot of daily gesture drawing, and so I made a folder inside of Personal Illustration called Daily Gesture. Each day I might make a number of drawings, so I created sub-folders titled with the date (ex: Personal_Illustration/ Daily Gesture/ 2012_03_10/art.jpg). Designing your folder structure might take some time, but it's time well spent. This will serve as an organizational scaffolding for years to come.
An illustration is never just one file. With this in mind, each of my paintings starts with a project folder. I make sure it's named clearly, and generally create a few sub-folders inside of it:
ProjectName_ref is where I throw the photo reference I use for the project. If I make 2D patterns, stencils, or special textures they usually go in here as well.
ProjectName_working is where I keep my working files. Psd, Sketchup files, etc.
ProjectName_thumbnails is an optional one. If I know the image is going to be pretty involved, I'll often create a folder just for thumbnails. Since I'll probably make a number of these, it's nice to avoid cluttering my working folder.
ProjectName_export is where I like to put the web-size .jpg files. Especially If I'm working with a client, the .PSD file is not what they want to see, so this folder is where I put my flat sketches and final images.
3) Iterative Saving
As much as you might plan, painting is filled with unexpected surprises. For this reason, I love to practice iterative saving . This essentially means I'll use 'save as' instead of 'save' whenever I make a substantial change. The net effect of iterative saving is that you can return to old versions (like a magic time machine) - which can sometimes save the day. If you've watched any of my premium series you probably know that I start with many layers and eventually flatten down for refinements. When I know it's time to switch to the flat refinement, I'll save out a new version of the painting called ProjectName_flat.psd. At this point I'll close my previous version of the file, preserving the layered version in case I make mistakes and need to rewind a bit. Saving in this way can lead to a pile of .psd files before you're finished, so make sure you're titling them with readable names. Will you be able to return to these files in three years and decipher the titles?
4) Naming Convention
If you're working on a team, a naming convention is essential. For freelancers, it's less important - but I'd encourage it. The general idea is to have some sort of formula for the way you name your files - a format that you always stick to. Here's an example:
Let's break down the code. First is the project name - in this case it's a 'demonic curse' image. The next part (separated by an underscore) is the phase of the illustration. I might use 'sketch', 'rough', 'refine', 'postProcess' or 'final' in this segment. The next bit of the format is _b, which will help keep my iterations in order. I like alphabet letters, but some artists like to use numbers (make sure to use at least two digits if you use numbers). Finally, the last section is the 'note'. This is just a reminder to me that the image is red - maybe C and D were other colors, and I wanted to know at a glance. Why is this note at the end? For sorting purposes. If I let windows sort my files alphabetically, 'red' will not throw off the order. The order of the name's format is designed around the way windows sorts file-names. It might seem a bit over the top to name your files in this way... but it's worth the effort. Once it becomes a habit, you'll thank yourself years down the road.
What do you do?
These are not the only ways you can stay organized. I'd love to hear what special tips you use for organizing your own art files. Let's talk about it in the comments!