Jan 2, 2024

2D Character rendering methods

We will take a step-by-step approach to learn one style of rendering for 2D images that will elevate our images


In this document, we aim to demonstrate how to render 2D illustrations to add more volume and life, enhancing their overall appearance.

The mission

We will take a step-by-step approach to learn one style of rendering for 2D images that will elevate our images from this:

Mountain Special - flat model
Special Oni - flat model

...to this:

Mountain Special - rendered model
Special Oni - rendered model

This method can be applied to any and all images and can be experimented with and expanded upon to better fit the style and preferences of any artist.


  • Clip Studio Paint

What is 2D rendering?

Rendering in 2D helps you take your image from flat to full of life and volume. It’s the step where shading and lighting are added to the piece to make it pop out and feel complete.

Different artists have different methods of rendering, depending on the kind of final results they are aiming for. Today, I will show you my approach for a fast but effective rendering effect with lights and shadows.


Step 1: Color your image with flat colors

To begin our rendering process, first, we need to have the line art and the base flat colors of our character ready, as seen in the example image bellow.

Flat colors reference image

Step 2: The multiply layer

It is no secret that many, if not most, artists use the multiply layer to create shadows that blend in with the image more easily. To add a multiply layer, first, create a new layer in Clip Studio Paint, set it to multiply and clip it:

New layer
Set to multiply
Clip it

By clipping this new multiply layer, we ensure that it will not be able to draw outside the limitations boundaries of our illustration.

Clipping activated
No clipping

Now that we have all the preparations ready, we need to pick a shading color. Depending on the tones of the illustration, you should choose a color that ranges from pink to blue, with pink being for a warmer image and blue for a colder one.

Due to this, many artists tend to pick purple since it is a neutral in-between color that allows more flexibility to lean towards any other ambiance with ease.

Pink layer
Purple layer
Blue layer

Once we have picked our color, we adjust the opacity so that it is not too dark:

No opacity regulation
Opacity regulated

Step 3: Sculpting the face features

Once we have applied our first multiply layer, using an airbrush eraser, we are going to erase on the areas of the face that are more raised than others to create the illusion of 3D volume in our 2D image.

These areas typically include the cheeks, the tip of the nose, forehead, lips, hair and other details like the horns on this image. The best way to approach this step is to have some references of faces to see which areas are higher and which ones are lower.

This step is mostly to map out the 3D features of the face, which is why you typically don’t need to worry about directional light here.

Eventually, you will reach a stage where you are satisfied with he progress, and the face already looks like it has more volume. Feel free to change and regulate the opacity of the layer as you go, and do not be afraid to make mistakes. Things can be easily corrected by drawing over them again with the same color of the layer or by simply pressing CTRL+Z to undo. Experiment and try things until you are satisfied.

First multiply layer sculpted

I decided this was my stopping point for this layer. I sculpted the volumes of the face and added emphasis on the expression to make the figure feel more real.

Step 4: Depth and light

For this next step, we do want to keep in mind what the directional light of our piece is going to be, as we want to add further depth by darkening the areas where our light source wouldn’t be able to reach.

Many artists draw a small symbol of light to know where the main light of their image comes from.

With our light source selected and represented for ease, we make a new multiply layer and are going to emphasize and darken the areas where light would have a harder time reaching. This usually includes areas under the hair, under the lips, under the chin, etc.

Light source
Depth shadows

To me, these shadows always feel a bit too harsh, so with an airbrush eraser, I will fade some shadows and blur the edges.

Faded in depth shadows

Step 5: Subsurface scattering

Skin is not fully opaque; it lets light pass through and changes color as this happens. This phenomenon is called subsurface scattering, and it brings so much life into images it is always worth remembering and incorporating into your illustrations.

Subsurface scattering example 01
Subsurface scattering example 02

To add this effect to our illustration, we will need to alpha-lock both of our multiply layers.

Alpha-lock settings

Next, we will pick a pink-like color, and with an airbrush brush from our program, we are going to softly color the edge of the shading on the organic areas of our character.

Right after adding the pink, we are going to pick a somewhat bright and saturated orange color, and with a slightly harder brush, we are going to color the edges of all the shadows.

Pink color shadows
Orange color shadows

To consider the shadows done and add just a small bit more depth and tone, we can add a small bit of light bue to the shadows.

Blue color shadows

Step 5: Light!

Let there be light!

To brighten up our illustration, we finally arrive at  the part where we can add lights ad highlights to our piece. Now the lighting will change the mood of the piece and tie it together with the environment, so it is best to have some good references on hand to know the kind of light we wish to achieve.

Reference by Devin Korwin on Twitter

To make these light effect, we will make a new layer over our multiply layers and change the settings toAdd (glow) and clip it, as we did with the shading.

Glow addition

Once again, depending on the general mood of the illustration, we can pick a warm light with yellow or orange tones, a cold light leaning towards blue and white, or we can use artificial lightings that can come from neon sources like neon lights and such.

Blue/cold light
Yellow/warm light
Green+magenta/neon lights

You can play with colors, tones opacity and even mix different light sources to create different moods and effects on the piece you are making.

Once again, I highly recommend using photographic references with the lighting, as it will give you the chance to add more details to the kind of light you want to create, like more subsurface scattering light effects by adding some red rimming to the warm lights.

Subsurface scattering details

Step 6: [OPTIONAL] Overlay layer

One of the last details/effects I like to add to my illustrations is an overlay layer that acts as a filter of some kind to finish the atmospheric effect. This is done by simply creating a completely new layer on top of everything — clipping here is optional. Change the layer settings to Overlay and select a color or even a combination of different ones.

Overlay layer addition

Remember once again to use warm colors for warm environments and colder colors for cold environments. Although sometimes combining one layer of a cold color with several others can achieve the desired effect.

Warm overlay layer result
Cold overlay layer result

Warm overlay layer settings
Cold overlay layer settings

Feel free to try matching different colors and tones, shifting the opacity and even erasing some areas to  get the effect you want.

No overlay layers
Three overlay layers

Three overlay layers settings

Final comparison between the two

Finally, we can check the results of our hard work. On the left, we can see the first stage of our image with its flat colors, and on the right, we can see our final render.

Flat colors image
Final render

This is one of many ways to render a piece, but in my experience, this is one of the fastest yet effective ways to render organic beings, specially characters designed for PFP projects and such.

The best way to find your style to render is to try things out, tweak them and test them. Perhaps you want a darker ambiance, or you want less shading. Some artists do overall paint-overs as rendering; it all depends on the time you have available, your patience and the final look you are after.

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