If you are looking for specific tips use these buttons down below to jump to your favourite section in this article.
1. Tell us a bit more about yourself?
Hello, thank you for having me! I’m Rachel Noy and I’m a Senior 3D Environment artist at Jumpship in Guildford, UK. I have previously worked at studios such as EA Criterion, Lionhead Studios, Playsport Games and Climax Studios, on franchises such as Fable, Assassin’s Creed and Battlefield.
I’m a self taught 3D artist, I used the university of YouTube and help from friends! I’d done a fine art course at college which I enjoyed, but I never dreamed I could actually make a career out of art so I did English at university.
I really enjoyed my English degree, but I always felt like I didn’t have a direction I wanted to head in in terms of a career until I met my partner, who is a game designer.
When he came home from work and would talk to me about his day I realised that the games I had always loved weren’t just made by one guy programming in the dark in his bedroom, and that there was a whole industry that didn’t just include programmers, but artists and animators too.
It was really inspiring to hear that many people were able to make a living from their artwork but I had never dreamed I could have been one of them until I met some of his workmates and found out that they all had come from different backgrounds at different stages of their life.
With a lot of encouragement from my wonderful partner I struggled through with a bunch of 3d tutorials but the subject is so broad I really struggled to find out where to start. I think guided learning and paying for the free time to learn one of the best points about university, you’ve constantly got people ready to steer you in the right direction and catch you if you fall. You can get really lost in self-teaching if you’re not careful.
There’s a lot of really good resources on the internet now (like this site!) but back when I was learning there really weren’t many clues on what I’d need to learn how to make game art at all. I wasted so much time going in the wrong direction and could have been studio-ready so much quicker if I had just asked industry artists for help steering me in the right direction.
Luckily my partner had seen that I was struggling and introduced me to one of the amazing environment artists from his work who was kind enough to spend some time chatting with me. He helped me in a lot of ways, but the thing that helped me most was him saying, “if you want to be an environment artist in games, you’ve got to make a really good environment in 3d and put it into a game engine, there’s no point making a prop in Maya, taking a screenshot and expecting an environment artist job”.
"...if you want to be an environment artist in games, you’ve got to make a really good environment in 3d and put it into a game engine..."
I try to remember that advice when I’m making my portfolio and try to avoid anything that isn’t furthering my skills in environment art as long as I want to be an environment artist. I appreciate generalists a lot, but personally I’m trying my best to become good at environment art, focusing on quality rather than quantity rather than spreading myself too thin. It’s already such a broad subject and I struggle to keep up enough as it is, making it even broader would have been really tough.
2. You have a pretty unique style in your personal work, what makes you gravitate towards it?
Thank you for saying so!
My rule for doing personal work in my spare time is that it has to stay fun. When you have a scene on the go where you think, “I really want to go home and spend some more time on this even though I’ve been fiddling around in a game engine for most of the day already” rather than it being a chore I think the enthusiasm shows in the final product.
In case you hadn’t guessed, I really love animated films, especially anime. I appreciate the fact that they celebrate the mundane and quiet moments, unlike in a lot of Western media where something is happening 100% of the time to keep people engaged.
After a hectic day at work I like to create these calm spaces that I can relax into. It sounds silly but I prefer to pick a vibe I want to create and go from there. I find painting and looking at foliage calming, so a lot of the time there’s elements of both in my scenes.
I really enjoy using watercolours, pencils and gouache, so quite often I apply some of the techniques I’ve learned while using physical media into my 3D work and textures. They require a slightly different way of thinking compared to traditional 3D game art methods, and I hope that you can see the difference in a 3D scene that has been created with these in mind.
Maybe you can’t! Either way I have fun and learn new things while making my scenes, and that’s all that matters.
3. What makes stylized art in general so appealing to you?
I really love the feeling of painting textures and find it really relaxing. I enjoy photo realism too but one of my favourite things is getting a cup of tea, putting my headphones on and sculpting or painting.
Maybe I’m romanticising it too much but I love it when you can see each brushstroke you’ve made going into your work. It just feels more personal and hand-crafted to me. Photorealism requires just as much skill and time, but it’s fun in a different kind of way.
In a broader sense I think the main thing that is appealing to me is that you can allow your personality and taste to be exposed a bit more in stylised work. You can embrace happy accidents more freely as the art direction generally has a bit more wiggle room to deviate from the reference, whereas a real-world object is a real-world object and the goal is often similar, making it as life-like as possible.
I enjoy taking in a piece of reference, running it through my head and deciding how I’d stylise it towards the style I’m going for and seeing if I manage to achieve it on the other end. Sometimes I get pretty close, a lot of the time it’s way off, but either way it’s something I’ve had to think about a lot and I find that really engaging.
I love experimenting and tinkering with things and I find different art styles allow me to try different things each time. Brilliant for an artist with a short attention span!
In my quest to try to figure out how to break down and convert a traditional watercolour style to 3d, I found one of Mateusz Urbanowicz's paintings that I really liked and attempted some 3D fanart of it. Studying paintings and art books in the media that you are trying to replicate in 3D is so much more useful than trying to guess what it should look like.
Here is a link to Mateusz Urbanowicz's book and website, one of my all time favourite watercolor artists!
4. What are the most important steps in creating your own stylised scenes?
Define your style early. It doesn’t matter if you change it half way through if it’s not working but if you make each prop with a different style you will probably end up with an incohesive mess. Although photorealism is very challenging in some ways, the main benefit is that a lot of the style is already set for you in real-world rules and having reference to follow.
In stylised art you still have to stick with certain set rules to get things to work properly in a game engine, but there’s so much that is up-for-grabs style wise. Even if you are intending to go for a chaotic mess no one's stopping you, but commit to making a chaotic mess and own it!
5. How does your background in 2D help you in your 3D scenes, if at all?
I’m not very good at 2D artwork at all, but I enjoy trying it out. The obvious answer is I find hand-painting textures much easier than people who don’t paint at all in their personal projects or for fun, but that’s a skill that is fairly niche I guess.
Texturing, composition, colour theory and things like lighting and values are all something you can learn without knowing how to draw, but something you are forced to learn to render an image from scratch using a pencil, paints or whatever. I think it can all be learned separately but a lot of it doesn’t naturally come through learning 3D. 3D artists really have to make an conscious effort to learn traditional art skills that can be transferred into their work.
The 2D skill I most struggle with is composition. A lot of people who are really into photography find this so easy as it’s one of the first things you think about in photography and they practice it with every shot they take. It’s really important and multiple art directors have told me I need to pay more attention to it, it’s tough but I’ll get there eventually I hope! Maybe I need to take up photography...
6. I can see that you get inspired by other traditional artstyles, how do you go about translating them to 3D?
Usually the first thing I do is grab a massive amount of reference images and pull them into something like PureRef. From there I group them up into different categories of what I want to keep from them and try and pick out my rules for translating them into 3D.
The first thing I decide is, “what medium is this environment in”?
For example, if I was modelling a stylised fork, do I want to make it look like it’s been painted on paper or do I want to make it look like a real fork? If I want it to look like it’s on paper then I use the PBR values for paper and paint, not for stainless steel, as a watercolour painting isn’t made out of stainless steel, instead the way you paint onto the paper suggests steel.
If I used the real world metallic value for stainless steel on a fork in a world where everything else has the roughness and metallic values as paper, it would reflect light differently to the rest of the scene and could look like a fork glued to a bit of paper, (unless I had done something technical to make the fork’s metallic reflections render differently, but that’s a whole other style rabbit hole you can go down).
For a more specific example, in my Dream Car scene I knew I wanted to make some dogs in a truck, and I fancied trying to execute it in a way that might end up with the mood of something similar to a Studio Ghibli style. This meant I scoured for images of animals in Ghibli films, grouped them up, noticed that most of the characters and animals have black outlines around them, and put that on my style guide list to follow.
For the truck I went to see if there was a truck in a Ghibli film anywhere (there was, conveniently), I went and found some real world reference for the truck I wanted to make, and I also found general mood images and colour references as to what kind of palette I fancied having at the end. Once I had narrowed down the ref I wanted to use for the truck and dogs I picked out some key things about the general environment, like the types of green they use, the fact the grass always looks really soft, and that the mood in all my reference pictures was serene and airy.
I wanted to make the grass really fluffy and inviting to sit on too which took a lot of experimentation with the lighting and modelling. I wish I had made some flowers now too rather than just sticking to the grass, but that’s a lesson for the next scene! In the end I made the grass in a completely different way to how I usually make foliage for games, but I think pushing myself to experiment and not being afraid to scrap my previous attempts paid off.
"It’s easy to feel overwhelmed but if you plan your style and keep your scope flexible your scene can become less scary."
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed but if you plan your style and keep your scope flexible your scene can become less scary. I focused on the truck first, knowing I could make that into its own scene if I wanted to. This scene started off being much bigger and I still have some abandoned props ready to be used in another scene, but I chopped it down as my day job ramped up and I realised I would never get it done in time before I got bored of it.
It’s better to ship something small and finished than spend loads of time on something you’ll never finish in your personal work. A massive, polished scene is the dream but sometimes it just doesn’t happen and that’s okay.
Some reference images for my “Dream Car” scene:
7. What are some workflow tips that you can share when working on these 2D inspired 3D pieces?
The number one thing I would say is don’t let tools dictate your art.
This is different in a studio obviously, but in your personal projects the final image should always be your main goal.
We all need to learn our tools and keep up with current technology as our industry is so fast-paced, but there’s a slippery slope in trying to learn one of the numerous tools that you might never have to use in a studio and neglecting learning art fundamentals that will have a much longer shelf life.
Some of the tools I used when I started in the industry have become obsolete, but I still use some of what I learned in art classes 15 years ago in my job today. I love Substance Designer, Speedtree and Megascans and have used them a lot in studios, however I rarely use them at home if I think they won’t speed up my workflow because I love painting in Photoshop and bashing textures together the “old-school” way. It’s less flexible, but I can get the exact texture I want quickly while also improving my painting skills.
I see a lot of people doing amazing stylised substances and of course you should learn it if you want to use it, but don’t think that you HAVE to use it on EVERYTHING. If you just really want to paint some bark, paint some bark, no shame. It’s your personal project and you can do whatever you want.
Noone’s going to mind that you don’t know a tool inside out if you have an amazing image that shows other transferable skills on your personal portfolio. That’s the beauty of personal projects.
If you have a hero tree in your scene and you want to spend some time getting it right, it doesn’t matter if you do it in zBrush, Maya, Blender, 3DCoat, Substance Painter, make the trunk in Play-Doh and 3d scan it, whatever, it just matters that you get a badass looking tree in your scene that is the one you wanted to have in your scene.
There’s so much pressure in having to subscribe and buy art tools, so many more than designers and programmers ever have, and I hate to see people feeling like they are priced out of an environment art job because they don’t have the tools. Blender is free, GIMP is free, zBrush has a free trial, just use what you can afford.
I still use a Wacom from 2003 that I got for free in all of my art pieces to put things in perspective. Use whatever tools you have at your disposal to reach your goal, don’t let tools restrict what you can do.
"...don’t let tools dictate your art."
8. Which fundamental art skills are crucial for your environment art creation process?
There are so many and no one can be amazing at them all, but there are definitely some easy environment art wins to be found in some of the following areas of study. I’m going to critique my own Tokyo Cat Cemetery scene with fresher eyes than I had at the time to illustrate some of these points. I find it quite useful to go back to old artwork of my own after having time to reflect on it.
This is the knowledge about the relationships and psychological and physical properties of colour. This is useful when deciding the mood of your scene, when lighting your scene, and when texturing your props.
Orange is vibrant, green is soothing and is linked to nature and growth, blue is calming, grey can be melancholy. There are warm colours and there are cool colours, and each colour palette has a unique mood to bring to your scene. Picking your colours wisely can benefit your scene greatly. I said earlier that I love to create calm scenes, this usually means that I use a lot of blue and green in my work. Green and blue are next to each other on the colour wheel and therefore are analogous colours, which can be used to create a sense of unity or harmony with one another.
Although my blue and green felt serene, due to a lot of questionable decisions I had made with my scene, I struggled with drawing attention to the statues at the back. To help draw the viewer’s eye to the back of the scene I used complementary colours as a tactic to add contrast.
Complementary colours are opposite each other on the colour wheel and using them together creates a clash visually. I used red leaves to draw the viewer’s eye to the statues and red flowers to draw the eye to the cats, but unfortunately this negates the harmonious feeling I might have had if I had kept the scene blue and green. In hindsight I would have preferred it personally if I had used another trick to guide the eye because using a clash of green and red didn’t suit the mood I was going for, but it’s a lesson I have taken into my new scenes.
Lighting & Values
Values are basically how light or dark something is, understanding of this will aid your composition and lighting. I quite often take a screenshot of my work in progress scene into Photoshop and look at my values. To do this I flood fill a layer in white above my screenshot and set the mode to ‘Color’. A lot of people just desaturate their image but the result is not accurate if you do it this way. For a more detailed explanation this page is really good.
The difference is subtle in this scene but in other scenes it may be more extreme.
You can see here that my values are pretty messy. This creates a lot of areas of contrast in my values, and these generally draw the eye. You can see that you notice the lantern by the path on the left a lot more than the one to the right in the above image and even in the full colour version because there is more contrast in the value within that space. I tried to use the areas of contrast to guide the viewer’s eye and feel like I did an okay-ish job on the path as I’d hoped, but I had made such a cluttered scene that it was really difficult to balance everything else.
I’ve photoshopped a couple of variants I could try if I wanted to re-light this scene, firstly with focus on the path and statues, or secondly with more focus on the city buildings and cats. Hopefully you can see from these that experimenting with the grouping of values can make a big difference to the focal point of your scene.
Composition is a hard one to master, but if you do manage to get a grasp on it your scene will read effortlessly in the way that you want it to. Composition relates to the position and framing of your objects, values and lights. All of the above feed into the composition of your scene, and it’s a tough thing to balance.
I’ve talked about values and lighting which get you a lot of the way to having a good composition in your scene, but framing your scene to its focal point is an essential skill too. You may not think that you’ll use these skills but in my day job as an environment artist in games I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve set up a camera in the entrance of a scenic level and had to compose my scene around it to make it read how the designers and my art director wants it to read.
A quick and easy way to check your framing is to overlay a rule of thirds grid. Some engines such as Unreal Engine 4 have a mode to overlay one in-engine. The rule of thirds is a guideline for composition, where you divide your scene into a 3x3 grid. Objects of interest can be aligned to this grid to create tension and interest, rather than just centering an object in the middle of a frame. There are different uses for different guidelines of composition, and there are even uses for centring an object in a frame, but by studying art fundamentals and photography books you’ll be able to be inspired to create compositions that work for you.
You can see that I framed the path, statue and cats pretty much on the intersection of the thirds and kept the city skyline in its own third, but there’s a lot of polish that could have gone into the smaller elements of the composition. Although I intentionally made a busy scene I did not make things easy for myself composition-wise by doing this as there are so many things competing with one another for attention.
Sometimes visualising the depth buffer in your game engine can be a quick and dirty tool to show you where your foreground and mid ground are, and how well-grouped they are (ignore the errors, this is an old screenshot!).
There are numerous photography books that tackle the subject of composition, but check out this page for a basic explanation: Composition for artists
Every scene has its own story to tell. Often art directors will look out for environment art portfolios that can tell a story through the environment alone. In this particular scene my main goals were to contrast the natural cemetery and the built-up city, and make it seem like the cemetery was its own little bubble where nature was in charge and people are not. I did this by having the only human-like forms in the scene being the statue looking over us and the remnants of humans through the gravestones, having a hint of humans but no living ones in the scene.
I wanted the cats to raise some questions as to why they were there, and what they were doing there. If I wanted to show a more human touch I could scatter some food bowls around, or maybe putting a lost scarf or something on one of the graves would have indicated that humans had been there recently to pay respects. There’s a lot of different ways little things can bring a story into a scene and it pays to think about them before you start your scene.
This is a hard one to explain in one small article, but it’s worth reading up on. It’s basically how an artist chooses to convey a 3D shape. For some it’s in rendering light, others silhouette, others more abstract.
If you gave a city scene to an artist and asked them to portray it, you would find that the finished image would vary wildly depending on whether you gave it to a street photographer, someone drawing it in pencil, or Picasso, for example. The way you portray form in your 3D scene is entirely up to you and it’s yours to experiment with. The main thing I wanted to experiment with in this particular scene was a watercolour style. To do this I looked at a lot of watercolour paintings and tried to figure out how the artist plays with form.
I realised that in a lot of watercolour references for my scene the artists often leave how something reads up to the silhouette of the object, so it doesn’t matter if the inner paint bleeds into each other. This is how I figured out the basics of my art style for this scene. I did this by modelling the silhouettes I wanted, but kept all my albedo and normal map textures for the ‘in-between’ really loose.
There are so many books you can look at for advice and inspiration, but I find reading traditional art guides (for example Color and Light by James Gurney), and exposing myself to art by people way more skilled than I am through art books or photography Twitter accounts really helps me to find tips and tricks to use in my own work. There’s a whole internet full of amazing artists out there, why not pick your favourites and try to analyse what they do to see what you can learn from them?
9. How do I find my own style?
Firstly, don’t worry too much about finding your own style. In our industry, being able to adapt to many different art styles is often a lot more beneficial than having a signature style. Trying to emulate other styles as best you can, whether they are from a game, movie, book, real life or a mix of all of the above can help you figure out what you like to do.
One you know what you have fun making, you’ll end up doing it over and over again and you’ll have unintentionally and naturally found your style!
10. One piece of advice for other people that read this
Don’t be afraid to fail. Stylised art (like any art) is difficult, but the more you do it and learn what worked for you and what didn’t the better you’ll become. We’ve all got those bad props and scenes that we crack open to show our coworkers for a bit of a giggle, but we’ve all started from the same place.
Try to focus on bettering yourself and your art, but don’t focus on comparing yourself to others. Never be afraid to ask for help while being polite and respecting other artists’ space, it’s the quickest way to learn. Compete with yourself and cooperate with others!