Can you illustrate children’s books with 3D software?
Updated: Aug 20, 2021
Have you ever seen children’s books illustrated with 3D digital art?
I am not talking about those books derived from famous 3D animations. They tend to be just a byproduct, together with all the other merchandise, generated by the animation company. I am talking about all the other children’s books you can find in a bookshop or library.
Since I am trying to do it, I thought it would be good to provide some insights into this question.
I am a great advocate for the idea that the medium does not determine the quality of the illustration. It is the artist that makes good art. And in illustrations for books, it is visual storytelling that matters. The medium is just one of the several tools used to tell that story.
Nevertheless, I believe there are practical reasons for the publishing world to not have explored 3D digital art. I will discuss some here, present what I am doing in my illustrations and why am I even doing it in the first place.
Marketing trends and business risks...
The publishing world is a business. And as such, it tries to avoid risks. Historically, children’s books have been illustrated by techniques such as ink, watercolour and acrylic paintings. Check the illustrators from the Golden Age of Illustration (from 1880’s to 1920’s), such as Arthur Rackham and John Bauer. And, unlike the movie or animation industry, there was less market pressure to try new ways to do it. Just ways to do it faster. And 2D digital painting is ideal for this, since it can mimic the same techniques or produce art that is familiar to the audience of the books.
Besides following the accounts of many children’s book illustrators, I’ve been browsing bookstores (physical and online) and children’s sessions in libraries for a while. You can notice changes in the style of the art, but not much in the media used to create it.
Also, most (if not all) children’s book illustrators are not trained in 3D digital art. They are usually trained in fine arts or graphic design. Only recently have we started to see courses dedicated to children’s books illustrations, such as those offered by the Society of Visual Storytelling (svslearn.com). And these focus on 2D art. Its a self-feeding cycle between industry demands and the training one wants to get to serve the industry.
Then why aren’t the 3D digital artists doing it? Probably most of them are busy with other kinds of works, such as 3D animation, vfx for movies, motion graphics, modeling and sculpting for games/miniatures, editorial and branding illustrations. Since it seems that 3D digital art is not part of the publishing trend, they may not even look at it as an opportunity to work with.
Why am I doing it then?
I was inspired a lot by the work of Steve Ferrera (https://steveferrera.com/, @steveferrera). Not only the final pieces that he produces, but his approach to making them – creatively reusing random materials that he collects. Steve was creating this series of sculptured scenes, and photographing them to illustrate his own book, “To touch the sun”. He is still producing it, and I really love his process. I related to it and to his style.
Behind the scenes of Steve Ferrera and his team. Setting up a huge scenario for one page of his book “To touch the sun”. On the left, the final photo that will be used as the book illustration. Images used with Steve Ferrera’s permission.
But for several reasons, I couldn’t do the same. I am not a sculptor and don’t have the proper physical space and materials at home to practice and do it. So I resorted to doing it in the digital world.
I am continuously developing my skills in different media, including ink, watercolour, acrylics, 2D digital painting (I use GIMP, Krita and Procreate), and 3D digital art (Blender). I am quite comfortable with creating illustrations with 3D digital art, so I thought I should give it a try.
With some sketches at hand, I took advantage of several things that you can do digitally, that are more challenging (or impossible) to do in the real world. As I started creating the pieces, I fell in love with each scene. It just felt like the perfect fit. The visual feeling that I wanted, which was inspired by Steve’s work, was there. Slowly, that beautiful story that I had in sketchy concepts was being brought to life.
One of the illustrations I created for my story. This was the second scene I had created and fell in love with the process. It was entirely created in Blender (blender.org), except that I had to convert it to CMYK, for printing, in Krita. Image copyright by Biosteam Studio.
Will it be more expensive, because it’s 3D digital art?
I don’t think it should feel or be more expensive. Good illustration work, whatever the medium used, should not be cheap, and that is it. It should have a fair price that is related to two things:
One is the value that it adds to the book/product. I’ve learned this from Chris Do (The Futur - video 01 and video 02). This should be your pricing goal as an artist.
Second, the value it needs to have for the artist’s profession. It should be based on all resources spent on the work, including your time, materials and what you need to live a basic life. This should be the lowest you can go, if you’re willing to take the project. You just need to find the publisher or self-publishing author that is willing to pay your price. Easier said than done :P
So... is it less valuable since it’s computer-made?
First of all, it’s not computer-made. The computer can’t even turn on by itself. Thinking that going digital makes it easier and therefore less valuable, because the digital has buttons and things get done for you... It is like telling a watercolour artist that he/she didn’t make it’s own paper, its own paints, its own brushes, therefore things were already done for them. Yes, there are some watercolour artists that make their own paints and paper. There are also some digital artists that can develop their own digital painting and sculpting tools.
I guess we don’t even need to discuss the increase in books illustrated with 2D digital painting methods. The bottom line is: there are things that are easier in analogue media, there are things that are easier in digital media. The opposite is also true. Both of them, if executed well, require a lot of detailed work, dedication and effort from the artist. A good artist can create good art with the medium he/she chooses to do so. Therefore, I hope this kind of reasoning stops here.
Now, what is really interesting is that there are children’s books illustrated with 3D analogue media. These illustrations are created with a combination of sculptures, cut paper and dioramas. They are photographed, and the photos are used as the illustrations. Artists such as Steve Ferrera (steveferrera.com, @steveferrera), Antje Damm (@antje.damm) and Kelly Pousette (@kpousetteillustration) are producing work in this way. The very own inspiration for my starting this is a good example.
Antje Damm makes illustrations with paper cut dioramas. Some of them are made inside match boxes. Check more of her work on her Instagram @antje.damm. Images used with Antje Damm’s permission.
A diorama made from paper cut pieces, by K Pousette Illustration. After creating such detailed dioramas, the artist still needs to work on the lights and photograph them for creating book illustrations. Check more of her work on her Instagram @kpousetteillustration. Images used with Kelly Pousette’s permission.
But this is a bit of a novelty, or at least it’s not as frequent as 2D illustrations. Seems to me that the publishing world is just starting to explore this medium. It does add a unique look to a book, especially when placed among the many others following current 2D trends. And, as with its digital equivalent, I believe the same risks are also accounted for.
Creating dioramas, sculptures and cut paper scenes is very hardcore. It may take longer and be more costly than a watercolour or acrylic illustration. You need the physical space, a lot of materials and gear. One illustrated page made with paper cuts does not use only one sheet of paper. Creating a sculpture that doesn't work for the scene, or cutting a character wrongly may require redoing it from scratch. This makes the “can you change this and that” feedback more complicated. It may require more sketches, concepts, and even “drafted” versions of the 3D scene, before the artist can start to make the final piece. Add to this the need to have photography skills and equipment, because the final illustration is the photography of the whole sculpted scene. Is there a need to hire a photographer for that purpose? That will be included in the production cost.
3D analogue artists working on their crafts. This gives us an idea of how much physical space and materials are necessary for creating 3D illustrations for a children’s book. On the left, Steve Ferrera sculpting a mountain that will be part of a scenario for his book, “To touch the sun”. On the right, K Pousette Illustration studio, showing some of her materials and paper cuts. Images used with the artists' permission.
I believe that this can be the slight advantage that 3D digital work has, when compared to 3D analogue work. You can have sixteen scenarios without taking any physical space (except the computer setup); you can make things float in the air without the need for wires; your digital water will not wet and destroy the scenario and characters; and, in some cases, you can change the colour of the main character clothes without having to sculpt an entirely new version. That means you can dedicate more time to other aspects of your visual story.
Everything else in the process is very similar to the analogue 3D artist. I start my work with sketchy concepts (usually ink and some watercolour). I personally like to keep them loose and have the freedom to explore them a bit more in Blender (blender.org), the free 3D software I use. I create everything as assets, in the same way a sculptor would make piece by piece for his scenario. Then I assemble everything to create the scene.
Some of the sketchy concepts that I created for my story.
A portion of the interface and the 3D space in Blender, showing some of the assets that I’ve created for the illustrations in my book. They were made using two different 3D modeling methods, known as “low poly” and “digital sculpting”. Each illustration is a scene where I create the landscape and fill it with the assets according to the composition I plan.
Here, photography and visual storytelling skills have an important role. I need to plan the position of the characters, lights, and other elements of the scenario, the angle of the camera and so on (i.e. composition/lighting/colour palette). And things can change a lot when I go from my 2D sketches to my final 3D piece. There is a lot of testing. Once I am happy with it, I can render the final version of the illustration. This is equivalent to taking the final photo of your diorama, with the difference that taking the final photo (after all the hard work with composition/lighting...) is the click of a button and you get the image, while rendering can take some minutes to several hours. Then, after that, as in photography, the image is post-processed.
Is everything going to be so perfect and lack a human touch then?
No... that is up to the artist and his style to stick to very precise creations or let some errors take over.
I am currently in love with adding textures to my 3D models. But I do it without much control over the accuracy in which the texture is placed on the model. So, it looks (quite) imperfect, and brings that touch of organic creation to the whole thing.
Detail showing an imperfect placement of a texture. The texture is based on a photo of a forest ground, and it should look like that on the scene. Without fixing its placement, the texture can be stretched by the surface. That is a good way to generate random effects. The texture is freely available from 3D Textures (3dtextures.me).
Another way to do it is by using physical simulations to create some effects. These are real physics calculations used to mimic phenomena such as the behaviour of water or of particles being blown by the wind. Like in the real world, a water splash or pollen flowing in the air will not be in perfect shape and motion. It feels more random and controlled by nature.
Using a particle simulation system to create fungal spores blown by the wind. I use this simulation instead of creating hundreds of spores and placing them in the “air”, one by one. The position of each spore is not defined by me, but I can tinker with the parameters to achieve desired or very random effects. Some spores are highlighted in the Blender scene.
All of these are artistic choices, made by me. It is as human as it can be. It is as controlled by other factors as watercolour is controlled by the interaction of water with the paper and gravity. These are just the tools that I use to develop my art and create my world.
Is it worth it?
These are my thoughts at the moment. I am not finished with my book, so I can’t determine it’s success. I may not be able to pinpoint the causes of its success or failures. But I will definitely revisit this question again after the book is out.
For now, I can only say that I am loving the process of creating illustrations in this way. And I am also loving the outcome of each piece. The journey is being worth it.
I hope you enjoyed the reading and let me know what you think of the point presented here.
If you missed it
Here are the links to the websites/social media accounts of the artists whose work was mentioned here:
Steve Ferrera: steveferrera.com and @steveferrera
Antje Damm: @antje.damm
Kelly Pousette: @kpousetteillustration
I would like to thank the artists that granted me permission to use images of their work here: Steve Ferrera, Antje Damm and Kelly Pousette. Check their works on the links provided.
The opinion/point-of-view presented in this post is entirely mine.