bkvoxel walked us through the process of creating the RELIEF project, shared the workflow in MagicaVoxel, and showed how the lighting and rendering were done.
Hello, I am bkvoxel and I have been doing voxel art for 5 years. I studied Software Engineering at university and just got my master’s degree there. During those semesters, I gradually became interested in making voxel art in MagicaVoxel, which became a way for me to relax from a large number of assignments. I really enjoy making voxel scenes from my own design, some beautiful photographs I’ve seen, or places I’ve visited in real life. I have made voxel models or renders for games, short animations, cryptoart projects, and interactive exhibitions. Currently, I am trying to transition from a voxel enthusiast to a full-time voxel artist.
My interest in voxel art initially came from the experience of playing Minecraft when I was in high school. I’m amazed at how players can simplify buildings in real life and then build them in the game. In the very beginning, I attempted to build some simple Chinese or Japanese architecture or houses from the Pokémon games. I have been a fan of pixel art and pixel games since I was a kid, and the process of converting those 2D pixel graphics to 3D models helps me find the feeling of nostalgia. These structures or textures made up of small squares/cubes delicately encapsulate the object's shape while leaving just the right amount of space for imagination. Meanwhile, voxel art offers pixel lovers the possibility of an explorable and playable world.
Some of my earliest works in 2018 (Houses in Pokémon Games)
If you have played Minecraft, you may know that some fancy shaders offer great light and shadow effects while requiring a good graphics card to achieve smooth visuals. I didn’t have a good laptop at that time, so I often felt pity for not being able to achieve a good rendering for my buildings until I found the lovely voxel editor named MagicaVoxel.
MagicaVoxel is a 4MB voxel editor with powerful rendering ability. In this software, you can easily build voxel scenes of a large scale, configure desired material for each part of the model, and give the model impressive light and shadow effects in render mode.
Model Mode: You can merge small components into a big scene
Render Mode: Configure materials and environmental light
MagicaVoxel Interface: Model Mode
MagicaVoxel (MV) has a straightforward interface. When you open the editor for the first time, you can see a blue cube on the screen. The cube is in a 40x40x40 frame, but you can extend the frame up to 256x256x256 to make large components. You can make bigger scenes if you click the little triangle on the top right to enter the world mode and press “+” there to add more frames.
MagicaVoxel Interface: Render Mode
In the render mode, you can configure the material of each color using the panel on the right. The strength and color of sunlight and environmental light can be set using the panel on the left. MagicaVoxel has so many interesting features such as fog, bloom, and HDR lighting that I cannot cover in this article. It is highly recommended that beginners spend an afternoon just browsing the interface and clicking on each feature to feel its functionality. I would like to share two pieces of advice with voxel beginners:
1. Start with small scenes.
Starting with small scenes helps keep everything under control. When building a small scene, it takes less time to finish modeling and texture painting. For example, in a small scene, two or three brown pixels can represent a simple rusty effect. When the scene is large, you may need to think about the shape of the rusty area, and the problem becomes more complex. You may spend less time finishing your first scene and then be proud of yourself. Starting with small scenes also helps beginners practice simplifying objects from real life. You don’t need to make everything in detail or assign a big size to a single item as the birth of pixel art happened when game developers tried to save ROM memory.
I completed BLUE LANE in a 256x256x256 frame
2. Start with handmade stuff.
As voxel art has been becoming mature in the past years, there are lots of shaders helping MV users to easily generate models such as plants, polygons, and terrains. You can also import existing models in other formats to MV. I don’t recommend using these tools at the very beginning because they can give you a good-looking result (also a comfort zone) in a very short time while you may miss the opportunity of exploring the logic behind scenes on your own. Hand-making voxel art may take a longer time, but it will help beginners get familiar with in-program tools, after which please feel free to use any shaders plus your skills to achieve surprising effects.
The Next Stop Series
“Next Stop” is one of the series I started working on last year. I used to have insomnia at that time and listen to my old playlists. When I finally fell asleep, the songs playing would throw different weird dreams at me, which consisted of familiar memories or weird imaginary worlds. This became my initial concept for this series.
“Next Stop” is a collection of voxel blocks where you go on a trip provided by “The Connection Company”. “The Connection Company” is dedicated to serving people suffering from insomnia. After grabbing a ticket, passengers travel from the origin block where their worries are visualized and visit other people's dreams to spend the long, long nights.
Next Stop #05 - EVERGREEN SPRINGS
Wooden materials are rare in dreams of robots. Please have a good rest on this small island with hot springs and plants.
Next Stop #12B - EVERGLOW
EVERGLOW is a corner full of memories and golden leaves. It is inspired by Nishishinjuku Street in Japan and Ranshu Goldfish. The block offers different kinds of Japanese cuisine.
Next Stop #12D - DR. WANDERING
Dr. Wandering is a rescue vessel in the open sea that rescues lost souls and recycles sadness from 2022. Rescued souls can choose to take conservative treatment or become white voxel cubes waiting to be given meaning when the time is right.
Next Stop #12E - RELIEF
The RELIEF Project
1. Start with references.
To start working on each artwork in this series, I make myself determine two things at the beginning: the style of the architecture and the main color of the scene.
I went home for this Lunar New Year, so I picked the traditional riverside houses in my hometown as a reference. In winter, the sky is more likely to be clear, so you can see the purple or pink sky during the sunset more often. Instead of using a purple and pink background, I let the light of those colors shine through the window from the inside.
I planned to add snow to the roofs but also I was afraid too much “white” would cover the details and make the scene boring. As a solution, I chose light pink as the color of the trees to balance the snow and surrounding colors.
I also needed some emitting items to adorn the whole scene. Colorful lanterns for the new year would be a good choice, which could also help to extend the color palette to make the scene more interesting. I used green and yellow lanterns and light signs as some eye-catching points.
A picture I took on Pingjiang Road in Suzhou
Next, I wanted some extra New Year vibes to this artwork. The first thing I came up with was the traditional fish lantern celebration in the Anhui province in China.
On the forehead of each fish lantern, there is a “王” (king) pattern to indicate a grand atmosphere. I added the pattern to the rooftop as an emitting sign. Also, I added some small fish swimming around the architecture.
2. Implement the concepts and merge the picked style.
As the overall style of this series is sci-fi and neon city, I need to add a “modern” feel to the purely traditional houses. Thus, I drew some reflective metal pixels on the wood parts and attached wires and power lights to them. The grids under the water also contribute to the “digital” feelings.
3. Bury a story.
Several days before I started making this voxel art, I saw a restaurant with beautiful fish tanks outside. Since I would have a restaurant and some fish in the scene, I could have a good story that the restaurant in this project is actually a fish protection organization. It takes the guests' rare fish and then releases them.
Me taking a photo of the fish tanks.
During the rendering process, I adjust the light power of each emitting item to avoid “light pollution”. If all items have the same brightness, there will be no visual center in the artwork. I have this concept in mind but sometimes I am not sure if I do this well myself. Then I changed the color of sun and sky lights to let the desired pink-and-purple light shine on the model.
You may notice the water with colorful light through it. To achieve this effect, I turned on the “TR-Shadow” option in the render more. Turning on this option will enable a feature that light can shine through transparent media such as water, glass, and other blend material. The emitting grids mentioned above are inspired by the mosaic tiles in the fish tank.
TR-Shadow off: light cannot shine through the glass on the wall.
TR-Shadow on: light shines through the glass on the wall.
Last but not least, I turned on the bloom effect in render mode. Emitting items will have a soft glowing effect on their edges, bringing the scene dizzy and dreamy feelings. However, I don’t want the size of bloom to be super large, which will also lead to “light pollution”.
It usually takes me two to three weeks to finish a voxel art piece, from collecting references to finishing the piece. A detailed idea will make it easier to look for related references. Sometimes an abstract idea in my mind takes me more than one month to find suitable references to fulfill the whole concept.
As I am interested in putting different styles or topics into the same scene, the most time-consuming step is finding references having pun meanings, which are expected to help me to merge two concepts that seems not related.
Hope you will have fun when playing with MagicaVoxel.