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The VDI challenge is always a challenge because it is mean to finish an amazing illustration in a short time. This project has some alternative steps to get an amazing result with basic tools. We will need to know about the basics of modeling, compositing, and lighting (we’ll make a length explanation of that), and you need love the cute characters and want tell a history with little elements. Of course, I’ll be using Blender!
Investigation & moodboard
We love to make art, we love to begin drawing, but we need to do research in the first step of a project – why? Because even when we see the movie many times, seeing it again can give us more information than the first time we see it.
I know, I know, what happens if we don’t have time to see it again? Don’t worry; just researching some images can give us information to create a fantastic image too. I only researched some images in this step, with the purpose to find the most recognizable elements of the Studio Ghibli movie.
Now is the time to sketch. Sketching helps you bring your ideas to the surface so we can see them. You can decide if you want to spend a lot of time on this step once you understand your process. For me, it’s only rough, but if you can add some extra details here it can be amazing!
When I select my main elements, all I do is create a simple sketch with my elements as the focal point. Don’t worry, this isn’t my final composition, it is only a composition I’ll use like reference.
Blocking & basic shapes
Good blocking is key for having good final art. For that we need to place all our basic shapes simulating some of our details, like boxes, walls, or plants. In particular, to simulate a character place a sphere, though this won’t determine the shape of your character, only the space they will inhabit. One tip would be to try to be as close to the final image as possible, but only with basic shapes and the minimum of deformation. That’s to say we only need to use native shapes, without extrudes or bevel deformations.
Be crazy with the details
The spirit of a good illustration are the details, which is where you can become hypnotized for hours trying to find them all. But, how can I put lot of details in my illustration? We need to know you can’t just place random details because you’ll lose the magic behind an image. Firstly, I recommend you know the place where your image is – in my case, Japan, and a traditional Japanese house. After that you can make a list of all the elements you can normally find in that place.
Light sketch? Yes, maybe it sounds weird but this is a process to select your main light’s intensity. To help with this step, you can make the scene grayscale. for that all this step is make in grayscale. I recommend in this step to select the intensity, direction, and position of your main light. Also I recommend you do all the lighting in Eevee because you can see the changes in real-time.
Creating the characters was one of the easiest things in the process. This is my current style, but it wasn’t always that way. You only need to understand the anatomy of the world you are working in to describe the process. I love cute worlds, and there are some basic rules: the head is bigger than the body. You can create many cute characters if you make it like a child, with soft shapes and short arms.
For the advanced lighting we need think about color theory, and of the image’s mood. Here I want to make a scene at night. I know that my environment shadows are going to be blue. I also know that I will need a soft light in blue to create blue shadows. My main light needs to be the direct contrast of my environment – the color theory aims to a yellow/orange color, which says my main light can be of that color. We need to make the little lamps emissive to help viewers focus on our characters.
Materials & more details
When the lighting looks good we need to add materials, but not randomly. Normally my materials are without advanced textures, because I love that type of art, instead I need put attention into the colors of the illustration, especially having in mind how it can help our lighting set. The dominant light color in the composition is warm. For that our materials color needs be warm too, especially in the place where the light has high presence. To create another natural frame we can put cold material colors around our characters, in zones where the shadow has presence.
From Eevee to Cycles
Until this point, all the lighting and materials work has been created using Eevee like render engine, and Eevee is okay, but to give a better lighting result we’ll change to Cycles. It is important to know Eevee does not work like Cycles – both will have quite different results. For that we need to change the values of some lights, especially our main light. The changes are big, but it is important to take special care with the purpose of our lights, thinking of shadows and details. Many materials will change too, but this step will only take you an hour.
Render & post-processing
Yes! All the work has carried us to here, the render time! The values are common: 2800×1575 px, 180 samples (we’ll use the denoise if necessary), RGBA, and 8 depth color. When our render is finished we need to use our composition window, and to give a really cool look, I use a “Lens Distortion” node and a “Glare” node. The values are totally customizable, but for the lens node I use the “Fit” option, and for my glare node I use the “Fog glow” in a medium value.
Finishing the image
We have finished our image, and only need to add an extra – but very important – detail. The post-production can be done in Photoshop or Procreate. In my case, I used Procreate to adjust the Color Balance, Curves, and to add contrast. After that our image is ready to be published in all the places we want!
Top tip 1 – Keep the composition clear
Normally if you use characters, you will need to give them extra attention, using props to create natural frames. It can be flowers, wood, or some extra props. Try to get the lines of that prop to point in direction of your characters.
Top tip 2 – Create the props in another file
Many times, when we have doubts about the type of assets we can find in a world, the most convenient thing is to model it in another file. Don’t worry to make them all the same. When you import it to your project file you will need to modify it to give a visual variant.