Creating Painterly 3D Scenes: preparing assets for NPR

Figure -1- Orange Life Study modeled to look like a painting

What Makes Something Look Like a Painting?

I am going to go on a minor philosophical tangent.

Figure -2- Japanese Train Station by Lorenzo Drago in UE5
Figure -3- The Story Book by William Bouguereau
Figure -4- a photograph looking like a painting by Joanna Kustra


“We dont need to show every single branch on the tree (…) but show its properties” said Luis Antonio in the Art of The Witness. Look at the two examples below.

Figure -5- a photo realistic tower, from the Art of Witness by Luis Antonio
Figure -6- Same tower, but textures have been simplified
Figure -7- Texture studies of Draw box, a popular drawing teaching curriculum
Figure -8- Brilliant texture works. Simple brush strokes by Zhu Da on the left, middle, water movement texture by Hiroshi Yoshida, right, brilliant portray of the marble by Sir Alma Tadema


Colors in a painting are deliberate, carefully chosen and restricted. I could write a whole blog on it, which I have. So give that a read as I won’t repeat myself here. A lot of the stuff I mention in that post is about creating harmony and visually pleasing images. In real life, there are way more than 1 to 4 hues, and the saturations and values are all over the place. Yet, I still claim picking colors like a painter is more realistic. While it is true that the real world is full of chaotic and irrelevant colors, that is not how our brain saves that memory, and once recalling it, not how it remembers it! Remember what I said about realism and conformity to our mental image of the world: that mental image is mostly made up of memories since the present makes up such a small part of our mind. That is why some film directors don’t visually plan scenes how they would really happen, but how you would have remembered them happening!


I love the image below. The first time I saw it was on a tweet from Morgan McGuire, with a line “This is the reality we are trying to match”, within the context of rendering and render engines imitating films.

Figure -9- Harry potter set with elaborate lighting direction

Edge Quality

Even doing all the above, you can immediately tell 3D CG apart from a painting due to edge quality. An edge is the area of transition between one section to the other, which differ in their colors. These transitions have various softness. Some are sudden and harsh, others gradual and soft. Look at the self portrait of Rembrandt below as an example and see if you can see the hard and soft edges.

Figure -10- Soft and hard edges, Rembrandt self portait
Figure -11- 3D models in Sketchfab with soft edges around their borders


We render our scenes based on the assumption of a mathematically perfect pinhole camera. This camera has a shutter setup where images are captured from a frozen point in time and space. Unfortunately, human vision doesn’t work like that. The image we form in our mind is an integration which spans across different spatial/temporal perspectives and even memories and emotions dating back years. Or expressed in simpler terms, we don’t have shutters which open and close, our vision is a lot more dynamic, constantly changing where it focuses and what it captures. We don’t observe a frozen world, but always one where time is flowing and things change. Our brain takes a continuous stream of information, and creates a coherent image of the world. The brain goes back and forth in time (or at least our fake mental perception of it), adjusting our memories and manipulating our perception of time and space.

Figure -12- works of Tintoreto, Van Eyck and Davinci, all using multiple perspective projections with different horizon lines
Figure -13- screen shots of the game Nine Parchments, notice how many different perspectives are combined in one image!
Figure -14- different horizon lines for different objects


Photorealism is perhaps more concerned with making games for cameras than humans. As machines integrate themselves more and more in our lives and how we understand the world, perhaps the difference between the human and machine experience will become irrelevant. For now though, paintings still look more real to me than photos. Games can take some notes from painters. By carefully composing lights, colors, textures, edges and spaces, games could deliver visual experiences that go way beyond what is on the screen.



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