Cel Shaded Illustration

Cel Shaded Illustration

[Click for full size.]

This week, I discovered that I’ve been spelling “cell shaded” wrong my entire life. It’s actually supposed to be cel shaded. As much as I pride myself on grammatical nuances that few people know about, I will admit that I only cried for twenty minutes.

Then, after a long week of not doing much of anything, I drew stuff. Shocking for a cartoonist, huh? This week’s illustration, given the title of this post, was cel shaded. You can behold it’s purdiness (I’m from Georgia) to the right.


The heck is Cel Shading?

To be cel shaded is to appear both flat and three dimensional simultaneously. Oh wait, hang on. *turns off philosophical gibberish* Ah, that’s better. Now then, let’s define cel shading. At its simplest, it’s an artistic rendering style that creates shading with flat areas of color. If you want shading, a solid block of darker color goes over the base color. Cel shading invokes the ever-quoted “less is more.”

Ever played Wind Waker? That’s cel shaded.

Cel shaded illustration vs soft shaded illustration

While cel shaded illustrations tend to look simpler than realistic or “soft” shading, my experience says otherwise. With soft shading, the blending of colors does most of the work for you. Precise knowledge of light and shadow isn’t absolutely necessary. “Close enough” is good enough.

However, a cel shaded color blob even slightly out of place can completely ruin an illustration. That’s why 3D cel shaded graphics look so wonky when they move.

This week’s illustration took a few days to get it just right, so I might as well go over the process just so you can see how it works.


Illustration process mumbo jumbo

Cel Shaded Illustration Process 1

First things first: paper drawing. Then it gets scanned, and, with my not-so-trusty mouse (I can feel you cringing), I trace over the sketch in Flash. I would use Illustrator, but Illustrator sucks.

Anyway, after I finally coerce my mouse into giving me a passable lineart, I fill in the flat colors. I know I should invest in a tablet, but then I couldn’t see everyone’s faces when they find out I use a mouse and not a tablet. Also, a New 3DS is more important right now, and those suckers are expensive.

Once the flats are done, the cel shading begins. After failing for years, I like to think that I have some semblance of a working knowledge of light and shadow, so all I can say is study how they work in real life. And then, just like Van Doesburg’s cow, simplify.

Cel Shaded Illustration Process 2

Personally, I tend to use at least three different shades in addition to the base color, although you’re fine with just one. I overcomplicate things. A lot.

Highlights are an issue, too. Depending on how shiny something is, I’ll throw in multiple highlights (the hair here has three). While I didn’t do it here, there are times I make everything shiny just because I thought it looked cool.

Looks good, and it’s presentable as a finished illustration. However, I wanted to try something new (for me, anyway). Some illustrators add gradients to background body parts, so I thought I’d give it a go, too. I added some purple to the back leg and to the hair, and, while it’s a lot more complicated to do in Flash than it would seem, I think I’ll keep doing it. It looks really cool.

However, I felt it was a little unbalanced, so I came back and threw a little orange to the most front-facing body parts. You probably didn’t even notice it until I pointed it out.

Cel Shaded Illustration

Here’s the final product one more time.

If that wasn’t enough overcomplication, I even went an extra step beyond that: colored outlines. While it’s a very subtle change and usually isn’t noticed unless you’re looking for it, it brings everything together in the best of ways.

And, finally, we’re done. Now I can sleep.


…wait no. I’ve got class in a few minutes!

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