Modelling Tips: Painting the Past

This is a general tip list for 3D production and assumes the artist has at least a basic grasp of post-production.

We’ve all done it at one time or another; scoured a search engine or Pinterest for hours on end, drooling over some of the 3D art some fantastic person or the other has posted up on there. ‘It looks like a painting’, we say to ourselves repeatedly, as though trying to convince our brain that it is not, in fact, simply a product of maths. That is, a series of geometric lines created using algebraic expressions and an elaborate co-ordinates system intended to give the impression of favourable aesthetic.

What’s that? You’ve never done that? I don’t believe you for one second. Not, that is, if you’re interested in 3D art to even the smallest degree. Since you’re on this blog reading this drivel, I’ll assume you are. So let’s continue.

I was always obsessed somewhat with the creation of ‘paintings’ through alternative medium. One of my favourite movies of all time, Barry Lyndon, establishes a strong oil painting composition; you believe it is genuinely the work of Constable or any other great landscape artist; not of some guy behind a camera. It was remembering the experience of watching this movie which encouraged me to give it a go myself on a few renders in a recent project I completed… afterall, how hard can it really be? 


This isn’t the first project I tried it out on. I have, somewhat successfully, incorporated it into past projects too.

Well, without copious amounts of post-production, it is fairly hard as it turns out. But so you can benefit from my many head scratches, here’s a concise list of things to consider when going for a ‘painted’ aesthetic in 3D:

Tip 1: Be mindful of the appropriateness of your subject. Sure, anything can be given the treatment if you know what you’re doing. But since you’re reading this, I’m going to assume this is your first rodeo. So keep it simple & orthodox; historical landscapes are an obvious choice here, though close studies can work too. For instance, a simple bowl of fruit on a table or something even simpler than that.


Sometimes, conveying movement; be it from the smoke or the blades in this scene; can make an image look more dynamic.

Tip 2: Consider how close to realism you want it to be. For example, do you want it to be a realistic painting or a more stylised one? This will heavily impact your decisions later on so decide now. I personally went for a more realistic impact, as the temple below demonstrates, though I can imagine that simply exaggerating the motifs used could produce a more stylised approach.


I made some of my renders look almost like miniatures, while in-keeping with the painted aesthetic. This seemed appropriate for the subject.

Tip 3: Don’t assume you can relax on the modelling just because it’s a painting. Great painters generally have an extreme eye for detail; cutting corners on the modelling will only gimp your overall look later on. So don’t do it. If you think a detail is required to make the object look better, do it. People will more easily forgive a missing cornice or wrong breed of tree in more stylised work, but you still need to get the material of the brickwork or the colour of the colour of the grass right regardless; don’t go full experimental yet. On the other hand, don’t add erroneous detail for the sake of it and try cramming this into your final image. The image above, for example, has a broken pillar lying on the ground which took me a good half hour to model. Can we see it? No. Does it matter to the aesthetic? No. Aesthetic before detail but detail is still crucial!

Tip 4: Texturing is the most important thing here. As with any good model, it’s the texturing which will ultimately determine if it’s a turd or a rock-star render. With a painted look, this becomes even more true as 2D art relies on an object’s texture to tell the story; there’s no modelling under the surface; it truly is just the surface! And so it is here, that it’s the texture which will interface with the lighting, the texture which will give the surfaces character and of course, the texture which will be what people see before anything else. Even simple texturing can work, though; so long as you understand what it is you’re after from the final product. For instance, simple solid colours could be used in a modern art piece so long as the concept is on point!


Texture and light come together to make a rusted old shield the focal point of this render; the model itself is really very basic.

Tip 4: Lighting ties everything else together. Lighting needs to come before composition and shot selection. I know this may seem backward to usual photographic logic, but it’s really the best way forward here. How can you set up a good composition if you don’t know where the light is going to be? In 3D, we’re completely free to set up any kind of lighting whatsoever; a freedom only afforded in live action to the most top-end production studios. So use it! For achieving a painted look, you need to ensure lighting looks as natural as possible, while also taking on its own form. A lot of classically painted imagery relies on shadow or volume to give it a realistic feel; in 3D, we don’t always have to do this; it’s a luxury of the trade, I guess. But if you want to achieve the painted look, you will need to make it absolutely clear where light is coming from and how it’s interacting with objects; the render above is a good example for this. Have several strategies lined up too; ie, different types of weather etc. This is vital for the next step.

Tip 5: Composition, Composition, COMPOSITION! I won’t go into the fineries of artistic composition here as this is a blog post, not a photography book. Needless to say, it’s extremely important you get this right. A fun way of doing it in 3D, I’ve found, is just ‘visiting’ your model; finding all the best angles which are most pleasing; then seeing how it looks under various light strategies.

Vickers Hangars 2

A moody image showing a truck and airfield hangar against an overcast sky. Simple, yet thanks to its interesting composition and use of light, effective too.

While we’re on the subject of composition, if you find yourself unsure of what a good shot looks like I would suggest immersing yourself in a spot of research. Every great image has a commonality, regardless of genre; composition. Even artwork made famous from using ‘bad’ composition has nailed something in its execution. A general rule to start off with might be to consider the story; the ‘narrative’, if you will, of your scene. Once you’ve established that, you’ll find that choosing on a valid angle or type of viewpoint becomes significantly easier. For example, I wanted this shot to feel isolated and foreboding; it is, afterall, set during WW1. In another similar shot involving an abandoned truck of the same model, I tried pushing a value of hope:

Dead Truck

The airfield in the distant background and the clearing skies give a sense of hope and feeling that all is not lost. This is how you need to approach composition. I also cranked up saturation in this image, for reasons made clear below.

Tip 6: Post-Production saves time! Sure, we could do all of the following in our modelling application of choice, but why? We’ve modelled and textured, set up lighting and created shot which is pleasing to the eye. Now we need give it that final series of touches which suggests it’s a painting. Don’t worry if you’re new to post-production; these are very simple tips which the smallest google search should be able to instruct you further on:

  1. Contrasts: Establish contrasts; be it colour or light. This is very important as most artists will verify. Ensure your composition speaks to this too, as in the above examples.
  2. Go easy on the filters: The only ones I ever use are de-noising to soften the image or remove sampling grain and highlight priority to give darkened corners; emulating photography. This is my style, you need to find yours; but try and keep artistic filters sparse as very quickly you’ll find the work is no longer yours, but whoever coded the software’s!
  3. Don’t be afraid to use crop! Art has no standard size and this is especially so with painted work. A good artist recognises that they don’t need to fill up the canvas to create a great image. A good piece of cropping can improve composition, focus the eye and even alter the narrative! A bad piece of cropping can also destroy a perfectly good image. So use sparingly, but by all means, don’t be scared of doing it.


That about wraps this up. As always, let me know if there are any burning questions by contacting me via the R&H website:




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