How to Make Appealing 3D Illustration

How to Make Appealing 3D Illustration

Hi, My Name is Mark Lee and I am currently going to Gnomon School of Visual Effects. I want to share my knowledge about how to convert 2D art to appealing 3D illustration.

The goal of this project is to convert all visual elements you see in the concept art into simple and easy readable shapes in 3D. Also, to give 2D illustrated look using photo based textures.

Finding Concept art

When I find a concept art, I look for concept arts that have good storytelling in it. Some character concept arts are very well designed but with lack of storytelling. I personally think concept art with good stories drag audiences more and make them to look at it longer in time.

I usually spend 2-3 days finding concept art. I make a few lists of character concepts that I want to work on. This time I chose a concept art done by TB Choi. In this concept art, I liked the line of action, pose, facial expression, and proportion. Also, it has wavy hair that I could challenge myself in grooming techniques.  

Breakdown of Shape & Proportion

I don’t go too crazy gathering references in the beginning stage, but I focus more on breaking shapes and proportion.

I look very closely on concept art zooming in and out and try to think of the purpose of every single brush strokes. I break into big simple shapes and mark out the parts where I want to focus on.

Blocking out

There are 4 things I keep in mind when I work on stylized modeling they are - overall line flow, straight vs curve, plane changes, and thick to thin.

These should be very clear to read from the blocking stage. I keep each body parts separate in subtools, so I can get better and easy controls on each parts.

Even though the character is sitting in concept art, I start from a T-pose just to get more exact proportion (and I wanted to practice more like real production pipeline).

Modelling / Sculpting in details

Once I am satisfied with the block-outs, I start combining each subtools and sculpt.

After sculpting primary and secondary details,  I have to check which parts will bend or move after I pose the character because it will lose the details.

I check the shirt, pants, and fingers. I give more details on these checked parts after I pose the character. Then I do simple polypaint all over. Having polypaint on the character makes huge different to the look.

Modeling Props

I can now bring the model to Maya for retopo and UV. I also model desk and chair in Maya.

I had a chance to listen to Moran Tennenbaum’s technique about modeling environments and props while I was taking Stylized character creation class at Gnomon.

What I was inspired from her lesson was that every objects we see is never perfectly straight nor symmetrical, so it’s ok to push vertices a little to give more variances in shapes.

Posing / Resculpt

Once all projection is done, I use transpose master to pose the character.

I don’t want to breakup the shapes too much, so I pose the character very slowly repeating move and smooth a lot.

After finishing the pose, I resculpt and edit parts where it is broken while I pose. Then I get into secondary and tertiary details. This is the part I like the most where I can really push myself since what I make at this stage is what I see in render view.

I don’t think about where the final camera angle will be, I sculpt the model so it looks good at all angles.  

Texturing / Lighting

I first decimate the model in ZBrush and bring it to Maya. I try to find the right camera angle to match it with concept art using decimated mesh.

I can set up lights using this mesh. I used 3 lights only for this project. I tried to give it diffuse lighting just like in concept art.

Once the lighting is set up, I start texturing. I mostly use Mudbox and Substance Painter.

Before I get into texturing, I think of the history in the concept art, things like how a character’s behavior affects the clothes and make-up, how old the chair and desk are.

Having this in mind gives a more clear path to adding dirt and scratches for the right reasons.

I wanted to make the final render more like 2D illustration, I give a slight gradation to all texture maps. Having too much gradation makes it look like hand painted textures for games, but doing it slightly gives a nice cartoonish look to the textures.  


I use Dylan Ekren’s hair brush to block out the hair in ZBrush. I like to render characters with hair tubes too, but I wanted to make real hair for this character.  

I don’t spend too much time on making hair tubes look good because it gives a different look once it is turned into xgen.

First, I export hairtubes to Maya. I divide the hair tubes in parts (front right, right, back right, front left, left, and back left).

I export out a couple of curves for each parts and make them as guides in X-gen. I use clumping, noise, and cut modifiers to adjust the hair. I have to keep adjusting hair using sculpt guide tool.

Once I am satisfied with all hair parts, I can add flyaway hair curves.


This is the part I really like. Since I am publishing this as 1 single render image, I use Photoshop for compositing, so I can get better control on small parts too.

When I am using Photoshop for composition I composite as if I am painting on rendered images. I slowly add and edit each render pass. I add more contrasts and gradation which gives more stylized look. I used liquify tool to push hairline a little bit to match it with concept art.

Lastly, I put a nose texture which I think it gives 2D illustrated look.


This was my way of working when I make 3D illustration. I believe everyone has their own techniques to approach their goals.

There is no absolute way. I think being a professional is making your own path applying all the knowledge that you learned.

I hope this article somehow helps you and be part of your knowledge to make your own path.