Lighting Tutorial: Creating Realistic Environment Concept Art

Xin Ran Liu, Art Director at Kitfox Games, shared his lighting approach to creating high-quality realistic environments concept art piece.


Do you wish to create dynamic and immersive interior environment concepts for the entertainment industry? Top industry concept artists use a variety of lighting techniques to create a high level of realism and depict a variety of moods in their interior environments. 

Taught by Xin Ran Liu, Art Director at Kitfox Games and concept art instructor at Syn Studio Concept Art School, you will learn:
A step by step method to convert a basic environment render into an immersive and visually appealing interior environment concept art piece. 

Adjusting the Render

The first step in this tutorial is to ready the base render image for a paintover. Using a Curves adjustment layer and painting on the layer mask with a soft brush, Xin lightens key areas to which he wants to bring attention. Adjustment layers allow you to easily modify your artwork while keeping it reversible. This is called a non-destructive workflow.

Adjusting the curves of the Image

The repeating lights along the walls help create what is called visual rhythm. This creates interest and helps guide the viewer towards a focal point, which in this case is the door at the back of the room. Using the values and contrast in your image to create visual rhythm is a key part of creating dynamic images. You can also use this method to bring in secondary fill lights.

The arrows of compositional direction Xin draws

Next, Xin reduces overexposed areas of the render by painting on a new layer in a medium grey using the Darken layer mode and a soft brush. By reducing the maximum brightness of your painting, you leave yourself room to add detail later in a more controlled way. Extremely bright and dark values bring attention to those areas of the painting and you should use them very carefully. Keep in mind that your art is going to serve as a blueprint for the environment and level artists.


The first stage of the paintover is to break up the large planes in your piece. Xin uses the polygonal lasso tool and a textured brush to create variations in the ceiling and floor architecture. Changing the elevation of your surfaces helps add interest and breaks up large and continuous surfaces. At this stage in the painting try not to get caught up in the details. Stay fairly zoomed out and work with a large brush. The purpose of this piece is to spark a conversation. 

Painting in the stairs

The next step is to create a distinction between certain areas and materials. Adding trim or edge elements can help frame certain areas and make them more distinct from one another. Details like this can also imply information to the viewer, such as the wooden beams Xin adds indicating this room was likely built by humans. Small elements such as rocks and cracks help show structure and break up continuous lines while maintaining the general layout of the piece. Props such as pots, crates, or debris can also be used to hide straight lines and harsh 90° angles, which will make your piece feel more organic. Xin also uses some of these elements to help frame his piece, which breaks off the flow of the painting and brings the eye back to the center of the piece. 

The painting how props and rocks were added

Varying the types of materials in your piece is another method to break up large areas, while also adding detail that doesn't obstruct the greater composition. Adding strong lines can also help clarify the perspective of your piece, which enforces the structure and balance of your piece. 

Next, Xin adds carvings, cracks, and chips to the stone pillar in the foreground. Carved elements and visual details are a core part of environmental storytelling. This is your opportunity to show world-building elements in your piece. Always take the time to do appropriate historical and cultural research on the elements you include in a painting. Implying certain elements of your piece have in-world significance helps make the visual design and shape language of your piece more enriching to the viewer. Diagonal lines of cracks and chips can also serve your composition by breaking up mostly orthogonal lines used in interior environments.

Another technique for breaking up large shapes in your piece is by adding texture with your brush strokes. To keep your piece looking realistic it is important to maintain a balance of harsh and textured edges. The use of the polygonal lasso tool for hard edges is an essential tool in Xin’s paintover technique. Because 3D renders tend to have sharp and perfect edges, keeping some of your painted edges sharp will help blend your paintover with the rendered geometry.

The foreground elements now have painted details

Mood and Atmosphere

The first detail Xin adds to this piece is the small points of fire which lead the viewer towards the focal point. This can be done in two ways. The technique Xin uses is by painting a small spot, then using the warp transform and smudge brush tools to give the impression of flames. The effect is a more whimsical flame. The other way you might add flames to a piece is by taking a black and white image of a flame and placing it on a Screen or Lighten layer so that only the light areas are opaque.

Xin painting in the fire

The next thing Xin adds to the piece is a light with a glow effect. This is achieved by using the polygonal select tool and a large soft brush. He then uses the smudge brush tool to soften the edges of the glow and fade out the light.

Xin painting in the glow

Using a similar technique, Xin adds windows and an exterior light with what is called god rays. The diagonal direction of the god rays helps add dynamic movement and rhythm to the otherwise orthogonal composition. They also help break up the large plane of the wall and point the eye towards the focal point at the back of the room.

The windows have been added

Xin now adds reflections to the smooth stone of the floor. Vertical surfaces that receive a lot of light, like the pillars, will reflect onto the floor if they are also reflective. Using the polygonal lasso tool to select the areas where the reflections would be, Xin paints in the reflected light of the torches. When painting reflections, it is important to think of the objects you are painting in 3D space while using your knowledge of perspective. These reflections will help tie together the composition and tie down the values of the piece.


The last step in this painting is to add small details in areas you want the viewer to focus on. Xin adds highlights using the polygonal lasso tool and paints in small candles throughout the piece to add rhythm and interest to the values of certain areas. These final details will help add polish to your piece, but be careful not to overstate them. They are a complement to your composition, not a focal point. 

The Final Piece


The process of painting over a 3D render may seem daunting at first, but with a few simple techniques, it’s possible to achieve a beautifully painted piece in a very short amount of time. Xin uses this technique as a concept artist to create multiple iterations on the same environment in a single day. If you want to learn more from Xin Ran Liu, or other professional concept artists like him, consider one of the many affordable online art classes or the intensive Art Bootcamp Program offered at Syn Studio Concept Art School.

Xin Ran Liu, Art Director at Kitfox Games and concept art instructor at Syn Studio Concept Art School

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