An alternative to downloading background files or using the backgrounds that come standard with Windows (or with add-on skinning software) is to create your own backgrounds. You can create backgrounds from scratch using drawing software or use photos you have taken or scanned (you can scan art you have created, as well).
Let's take a look at creating backgrounds with drawing software. Then we'll discuss how you can use photographs and scans as the desktop background.
Drawing your own backgrounds can be a lot of fun. However, the level of sophistication to which you can take these handmade backgrounds depends on your artistic abilities and the features provided by your drawing software.
For example, you can quickly create a background using Microsoft Paint. First, you should set the image size. On the Paint menu select Image, Attributes (see Figure 11.5). Set the appropriate height and width (for example, 800 for the width and 600 for the height).
Figure 11.5. Set the size for the image.
Now you can draw the image. Not being much of an artist myself, I tend to go for the abstract look, and Paint provides various shapes and fill and airbrush tools that allow you to create different shapes and color swatches on the background (see Figure 11.6). In the final analysis, however, Paint is fairly limited in terms of features.
Figure 11.6. Create a background in Paint.
After creating the background, save it to the folder you have designated for your background files. When you save a file in Paint, you have several choices for the file format (see Figure 11.7).
Figure 11.7. Select the format for your background file.
You can save the file as a bitmap (at different color levels), JPEG, GIF, TIFF, or PNG. The bitmap gives you the largest file size but theoretically the best look; although, depending on your monitor, I doubt if you will see a difference if you choose JPEG or PNG.
A useful feature Paint provides is the capability to set your drawing as the desktop background while you are working on it. Select the File menu and then select Set As Background (Tiled) or Set As Background (Centered). Just repeat this command when you make changes to the drawing and you get an instant preview of how your work will look on the desktop.
Portable Network Graphics (PNG) is a new patent- and license-free graphics file format approved by the World Wide Web consortium to replace the GIF file format, which poses some licensing issues for use on the Web (GIFs use a compression algorithm owned by UNISYS).
Realistically, if you are going to really get into creating your own backgrounds, you will need a graphics drawing package with a little more muscle than Paint provides. You can choose from numerous possibilities, such as Paint Shop Pro, Adobe Illustrator, and Macromedia FreeHand. Several freeware paint programs also exist that provide a greater set of tools and features than the basic Windows Paint program.
Certainly one of the most feature-rich graphics package is Adobe Illustrator (see Figure 11.8). Although it is certainly more complex than Paint, it provides features that enable you to add special effects and template items to your drawings. This can allow even an extremely mediocre artist (and I'm right there) the ability to create some very interesting desktop backgrounds.
Figure 11.8. Graphics drawing programs like Adobe Illustrator provide a feature-rich environment for creating desktop backgrounds.
The drawing in Figure 11.8 was created very quickly by setting the image size (800 ¥ 600) and then filling the canvas with a color. A filter was then applied to the canvas to create the textured look, and a custom graphics shape was used to create the shape in the middle of the canvas.
Illustrator lets you to save your drawings in a number of file formats, including BMP and JPEG. The default file format is .ai (Adobe Illustrator file format).
Drawing programs vary in price and some are relatively expensive. So, you should choose a software package that meets your drawing needs but also doesn't break the bank. A good drawing program is essential to creating custom skins for Windows. Take a look at Chapter 7, "The Basics of Creating Your Own Skins," for more about the tools you will need to create skin elements.
Using Photos As Backgrounds
An alternative to drawing your own backgrounds is to use photo files you shoot with a digital camera. If you have a scanner, you can also take advantage of hard copy photos, line art, or any other image you can fit on the scanner bed.
Because many digital cameras save their photos as JPEG files, you can apply a photo as the desktop background without any additional work. For example, I can take a picture of my cats right off the camera and apply it the desktop. Because of the size of the picture, I do have to stretch it to cover the desktop (see Figure 11.9).
Figure 11.9. Use any digital photo as your desktop background.
Depending on the resolution you had set on your camera, you might get mixed results when you use a photo as your desktop background. Stretching can sometimes distort the picture, and low-resolution pictures can look choppy or pixilated.
A way to ensure that your photo will look good as a desktop background is to shoot it at a high resolution. You can then use a graphics software package to either crop the photo or change the size of it so it fits the desktop.
A wide range of graphics programs exists, both in terms of features and price. Many new computers come with some sort of graphics programs, such as Microsoft Picture It (see Figure 11.10).
Figure 11.10. Picture It provides image editing capabilities.
You can use Picture It to crop or resize images (for example, I could change the size of my image to 800 ¥ 600). Picture It also provides special effects you can apply to the photo to make the background more interesting. After I get the picture the way that I want it, I can then save it and use it as a background.
In terms of high-end graphics software, Photoshop is one of the best. It is also expensive, however. But if you already own it or have decided to become a serious skinner, it provides a full-featured graphics editing program that is well-suited for photo manipulation.
Photo editors such as Picture It and Photoshop also supply the capability to touch up photos and cut, copy, and paste images to create photo collages that can serve as desktop backgrounds.