Leah Douw talked about her fresh take on small 3D dioramas with a 2D look crafted in Blender and a little bit of Gravity Sketch.
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Hi! My name’s Leah Douw. I’m a 20-year-old German-Australian VisDev and Background Artist who’s just starting out in the games and animation industry.
In 2019 I graduated from a public art high school in Munich. Instead of going to university, I decided to take an alternative route, take self-study online classes, and develop a portfolio over the course of 2020 while working part-time at my Dad’s company ‘Emotion Media Factory GmbH’ as a 2D and 3D Generalist.
The company has always been quite present in my life so it was exciting to finally be able to contribute to the work and help out where I could. In the short time span of a year I’ve worked on several international multi-media projects for which I’ve created concept sketches, stage designs, ArchViz renders, VR content, did compositing, and lots of other stuff.
Experience with Blender
The first time I used Blender was in 2018 back when 2.80 was released. I just wanted to create simple block outs to paint over but Eevee got me hooked. I always kept my distance from 3D because rendering seemed so complicated but when I found out I could see everything in real-time in Blender I just had to learn more.
Blender is my favourite 3D software to use because of that immediate visual feedback. But I think the biggest reason why I like using Blender so much is the community and the endless amount of tutorials. I’ve tried using other software like Cinema 4D or Maya but it’s nearly impossible to find decent and up to date tutorials online. So for someone like me who decided to study on their own Blender was the perfect option. And it just keeps getting better with every update.
I had some crashes, but that's probably because of my old GPU. It could barely handle all that real-time rendering. I currently don’t own a strong PC. I’m using a borrowed laptop from work and even though it’s quite powerful for other things, it’s not very suitable for real-time rendering.
Art Studies: Mixing 2D and 3D
I’ve always been interested in “breaking” the 3D medium and see how I could use it to create artwork that doesn’t necessarily look like 3D. At its core, my approach for 2D and 3D is the same. 3D simply gives me another dimension to work with. You’re not bound to a camera angle and can move around freely. I wanted to find a way to translate my painting style into 3D to make my workflow faster and looser but without sacrificing the style choices I would usually make during the paintover phase.
Working in Gravity Sketch
So far I haven’t used VR a lot to produce art. The Alley artwork was actually my first attempt to create a whole scene in Gravity Sketch and it worked out surprisingly well. It’s a lot more like drawing than you’d think! I started with importing all the reference I needed into GS and then made a quick line sketch. I then blocked everything out and just kept going for a while. I didn’t go too much into detail and added a lot more later on in Blender. While exporting the obj I was actually quite lazy and kept it all in one object. Once it’s in Blender I clean up unnecessary vertices or meshes and separate objects if needed before I go on.
In a lot of my 3D work, I use these stylised shaders from Kendrick See. They give you a lot of control over shadow colour and intensity and simply look great! On top of that, I use additional lights to create gradients and shapes, sometimes even going into the negatives to create artificial shadows. I decide on a camera position quite early in the process to stay consistent with the variety of colours and check if it all harmonises. It often helps to start out with complementary colours or monochromatic and then add more variety to it as you go. Having separate references for colour and light is helpful as well.
Filling the Scene with Shapes
I often use lattices to distort objects. It makes it seem like the perspective is slightly off and therefore looks more handmade. For my Gravity Sketch piece, I even used a lattice on the whole scene to make it more narrow and vertical.
Since my scenes are quite reliant on the compositing, I render frequently to see what is still missing. Rather than coming up with props to add in, I’m thinking in shapes and colours. It’s kinda like putting down paint with a brush. If I want to clutter a scene I simply add blocks or planes or cut out shapes with the knife tool. The outcome is the only thing that counts!
Most of the animations are procedural. I like to use the wave, simple deform and displace modifiers for that. You can create a lot just by using noise textures or loops. Sometimes, I use Grease Pencil to add some additional hand-drawn elements but I mostly animate them with modifiers as well. If anything needs to be animated by hand I like to create a copy of it first in case it goes wrong.
I render everything with Eevee. If I want to edit certain objects separately in the compositor I create a view layer for them but most of it is all in one layer. As mentioned before, I use a lot of lights in my scene. Nothing is baked into textures, everything is real-time and procedural.
The compositor is where all the magic happens! The basis of the painted look is a dilate/erode node to which I’ve added a Prewitt filter to generate the outlines. To create more variety, I set up several dilate/erode nodes with different values and mask them by hand. I do the same for the outlines. With a glare node, I add in light streaks and then round everything up with some film grain on top. Masking is really the key here. Without it, everything would look too uniform. I like to use curves in the viewport as well to get more intense contrast and colours.