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What is cel shading and why is it so popular?

Cel shading is a very popular rendering method in the 3D and in the 2D world.

Cel shading, often miswritten as cell shading, is a 3D render style that gives the appearance of a stylized 2D style rather than realism. Cel shading is characterized by color blocks. It does not have any gradients making the render look hand-drawn on a 3D mesh.

Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about this popular style.

What does cel shading do?

How does cel shading work? What does it do?

Cel shading simplifies the shading and lighting in a scene, which reduces the number of gradient tones. Instead of smoothly transitioning between light and shadow, cel shading uses a more flat and uniform approach. This technique emphasizes bold, well-defined lines and distinct areas of color.

That’s why cel shading mimics the look of hand-drawn illustrations.

In the image below you can see the difference between a realistic style and cel shading:

what is cel shading

The result is a cartoony look. Do you remember those cartoons from the 00’s? That’s basically what cel shading is. Manga and anime use this kind of style all the time.

Why is cel shading so popular?

Cell shading became popular because big games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, Borderlands, and more use this type of rendering. Also, mixing 2D with 3D is very appealing to a lot of people.

Due to the popularity of anime and manga other art forms have been copying this style as well. Simplified animations have always been attractive to people.

A lot of character artists also use cel shading although they may just refer to their style as ”stylized” or 2D art. Think of animations like Totally Spies.

Benefits of using cel shading:

Lots of 2D artists use cel shading. And for good reason!

Benefits of using cel shading are:

  • Evokes a sense of nostalgia
  • It’s a style that attracts lots of people
  • The style is easy to ”read”

As you now know: Cell shading is basically simplified shading. Like the illustration I made below:

See how I only used one shadow value?

Why is it called cel shading?

The term “cel shading” finds its origins in the world of traditional animation. In the traditional animation process, animators used transparent celluloid sheets, often referred to as “cels,” to create characters and objects.

These cels were painted on one side, and when placed over a background, they allowed for the separation of characters from the scenery.

When the animation industry transitioned to digital techniques, artists sought to replicate the distinct and visually appealing look of hand-drawn animation. They wanted to recreate the appearance of characters and objects as if they were still being drawn on cels.

To achieve this effect, digital artists developed a rendering technique that simplified shading and lighting. This way gradients became solid blocks of colors. This technique captured the essence of traditional animation’s visual style.

Since it paid homage to the classic cel-based animation process, the term “cel shading” naturally emerged to describe this new digital rendering technique.

What is cel shading in 3d art?

Cel shading in 3D art is a rendering technique. Usually, anything made in 3D will look very realistic. But when a cel shader is applied, the objects and their textures will look like they were hand drawn. Even though everything is in 3D, a cel shaded object will look cartoonish.

The reason why artists and game developers love this style is because it’s a visual homage to traditional cel-based animation.

Is cel shading the same as toon shading?

Yes, there is a difference between cel shading and toon shading:

Cel shading and toon shading are not the same although they are closely related. Cel shading is a rendering method that simplifies shading and lighting. Toon shading is a broad term for a non-realistic or stylized look.

Cel shading is a rendering method that simplifies the shading and lighting in a scene to create visuals that resemble traditional hand-drawn or comic book-style artwork.

You can think of Japanese anime or manga.

It achieves this by reducing the number of gradient tones, opting for flat and uniform areas of color, and bold outlines. The result is a visually striking and often cartoony aesthetic.

Toon shading, on the other hand, is a broader term that encompasses various rendering styles aimed at achieving a non-realistic or stylized look.

While cel shading is a specific subset of toon shading, toon shading can encompass other techniques as well.

These techniques might include cross-hatching, stippling, or other styles to mimic different visual styles found in comics or animations.

So, cel shading is a type of toon shading, but not all toon shading is cel shading. Cel shading is a technique that closely replicates the appearance of traditional hand-drawn animation, while toon shading is a range of stylized rendering methods used to achieve non-realistic or stylized style.

How do you use cell shading?

If you want to use cel shading in art all you need to do is keep it simple. You only need 3 values: A highlight, a mid-tone, and a shadow. Cel shading does not make use of smooth gradients.

There is also a lack of detail. Although using textures, especially when drawing digitally, is preferred.

In short, here’s how to achieve that cel shaded look:

  1. Color in your base color
  2. Add shadows in a shade darker than your base color
  3. Add highlights in a tint lighter than your base color
  4. Start adding texture
    • I use a noise brush that is either slightly darker or lighter than my base color.

Be sure to minimize the amount of values that you use. If you’d like a more detailed process of all the stages a (stylized) drawing must go through you can click here.

When you working in 3D and want a cel shaded look it requires a whole different approach. For this, I recommend checking out this video:

Cel shading examples

Here are examples of art that uses cel shading (both 2D and 3D):

I hope I informed you enough about this popular type of art. Lots of 2D artists use this as well as 3D artists. Feel free to sign up for my art newsletter so you can get articles like these mailed to you at the end of each month.

See you next week,

♡ Laura

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