Professional Services
Order outsourcing

2D Art in 3D: Tips for Sketch & Watercolor Effects

Emma Koch discussed her career in 3D and shared her approach to sketching and watercolor effects in her amazing fan arts.

1 of 3

Introduction and Career

My name is Emma, currently, I am a freelance 3D and game artist working with Outerloop Games. I started working in the industry at Halfbrick Studios on post-release Fruit Ninja primarily as a graphic artist. Following my time there, I worked at Defiant Development on Ski Safari Adventure Time, Hand of Fate 1 & 2, and another unreleased project primarily as a UI artist, with a variety of other generalist responsibilities.

I discovered 3D when studying game development nearly 10 years ago. Once I was introduced to digital sculpting, I think that was a game-changer for me. I wasn’t able to establish a role in the game industry as a character artist or even as a 3D artist primarily for many years.

However, I got my foot in the door by applying for a junior artist position at Halfbrick and was a UI and generalist artist for the most time of my professional career in game development. 3D art largely for me has been a hobby more than anything, I just loved doing it. I wanted to do it for a job, but the circumstances I found myself in for a variety of reasons kept me in a different role, and also I didn't feel as though I was skilled enough to ever make it as a 3D character artist. I was happy to be working in games at all so I went with the flow, still working during my free time on making 3D characters that I wanted to make based on amazing concept art I found online.

Making art that I wanted to make and being able to actually do it was one of the best creative feelings I had ever experienced, and I suppose, you could say I was addicted to the joy of wanting to make something and then getting there eventually. There's an endless parade of extremely awesome and inspiring artwork that amazing people on the internet make, and as long as they keep doing that, I feel pretty strongly motivated to want to make a bunch of it in 3D. Time is quite plainly the hardest thing to come by these days for those!


I think my sculpting workflow is more or less what everyone else stresses when you sculpt. I start with primitives and simple shapes, push and pull them until they are like loose pieces of clay outlining the forms I want the character to take on. I rely heavily on concept art as I don’t have a strong conceptual design background. I try to really get an understanding of the character, the mood, the vibe I get, the joy sparked from the concept.

The concept art is a huge aspect of the process, it delivers much more than a blueprint of what to make. It tells a story; it captures an essence, and that’s the kind of thing I try to retain when making the model. There's a number of ways to save time when sculpting, especially in ZBrush, which is kind of cumbersome and slow to use sometimes with the given interface.

One thing that saves more time than anything is to create custom UI panels that you can bind to a hotkey. I put all my most frequently used buttons and sliders in a single menu that I call upon with the TAB key.

Another way I save time just for personal fan art models is just simply by using matcap materials from ZBrush to render my models. This way, I don’t need to retopologize or UV unwrap most things, which are extremely time-consuming processes themselves.

Since I’m producing a personal fan art project, I tend to reserve doing all extra steps for actual game assets that need to be highly optimized for the engine. Using matcap materials allows me to play with the stylization of a model very quickly and get a much more NPR style of rendering, which can alter the look and feel of the model enormously. I often do tests with this step fairly early on to highlight any major issues more difficult to see otherwise. The remaining parts of the process tend to be some post-processing added in After Effects.


The Sketch Effect

This sketch effect (Concept art by Trudi Castle) has been something I've been refining for a little while in some After Effects style mockups. The first time I experimented with it, it simulated roughly sketched lines but I didn't feel as though it retained the really unique almost crayon-like quality to the original concept art. The second experimental attempt in this piece, I worked on ways to make the lines seem more stylized and chunky and also less just like lines that were straight moving back and forth that, to my eye, looked too obviously like the procedural noise just being applied as an overlay.

The way I approached it this time was using the same first steps previously, thinking about it in a screen space format to create some animating anisotropic noise in After Effects that gets masked to the characters and foreground elements and not the background (Step 1). Then, to produce more of a cross-hatched look with the scribbles, I masked the anisotropic noise with some other fractal noise (Step 2), so it would appear patchy. Following that, I duplicated the layers, rotate the anisotropic noise on my second layer and invert the fractal noise mask so it fills the exact same gaps the first layer was masking (Step 3). Step 4 was to improve both the thickness of the lines by blurring and to restrict the levels to bring thickness out and also to add an additional warp displacement over the top of the two layers combined to give a bit more of a hand-drawn cartoonishly styled look.

Overall, I was happy with the improvement this piece came to over the first attempt on the Chomp Chain model. Hopefully, future iterations improve the style even more. The journey of learning the versatility of procedural noise is a very deep and long one - there seem to be endless ways you can creatively use noise to generate all kinds of unique effects. Ultimately, I'd like to learn more about creating proper shaders to achieve similar looks since many of the same principles remain the same, although my technical art skills are definitely not as strong.

The Watercolor Effect

This one was a matcap material, matcaps, or "material capture", allows you to create a surface material and lighting in a single texture, completely faked for the purposes of giving quick visual feedback to the sculptor while creating the model. These matcaps can also be utilized for NPR style rendering, which is largely what I use them for besides sculpting. Comic artists, for example, can create simple materials that emulate the classic graphic and comic style novels and apply it to the entire model without working on UV coordinates.

For this Oddish character (designed by Caomor), I hand-painted a matcap texture, which is rendered to appear spherical to resemble the concept art texturing, and just applied it to the mesh to see what it was like. It alone wasn’t exactly the look I was looking for, but by adding some animated patchy noise, it gave the colors more of a watercolor feel, and that was closer to my goal. I got to experiment slightly more during Inktober with a couple of models using a new ink wash effect I was trying out.

About Cheryl Young 3D Fan Art

The dark outline was the inverted hull method made by using duplicate meshes with flipped normals, an inflation of the total mesh with a new color, and ensuring backface culling is on. This way was necessary for me to achieve the style (concept by Cheryl Young) by giving the thickness to the lines, and it gave me more control over the shape of the lines overall compared to other outline methods. The additional stroke encompassing all of it was adding in post effect, just as a regular stroke.

Working on the 2D Effect

The basics I’ve found, and I feel not all that experienced with this but just observing the concept or style you’re trying to emulate. If you can deconstruct, what is visually layered in an image, you can consider ways you could fake these same looks but using procedural elements or clever tricks.

Learning procedural texturing methods, I think, will consequently teach very well how to make noise a useful creative tool when aiming for style. Learning about shaders and procedural texturing were two things that really helped me to learn how to peel away the layers of a style and break it down into its core pieces. Seeing what kind of post-effects a game adds on top of things and how much of a difference they make to the look and vibe just unlocked my mind as to what could be done in order to represent the model better.

Sometimes, the exact style isn't what you're trying to achieve, either, it kind of feels like language translation a bit but with art styles, you have to get the message across, but it doesn't necessarily come down to a perfect translation. The exact same word might not exist in the alternative language, but there is surely a way to translate the same thing, the underlying message or sentiment. The same I feel is the truth of 2D art styles in 3D. You just have to keep assessing the feel as it develops. If it's meant to invoke nostalgic feelings, adding some hallmark artifacts of those eras that can help set the mood for the viewer.

If it's meant to feel like a 2D cartoon or drawing, making the frame rate like hand-drawn animation can also help. Amassing a lot of smaller complementary effects can really drive the look and feel of an artwork.

Emma Koch, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

Join discussion

Comments 0

    You might also like

    We need your consent

    We use cookies on this website to make your browsing experience better. By using the site you agree to our use of cookies.Learn more