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Art Director and Concept Artist Thomas Vaulbert is always looking for better and more efficient approaches to his concept design workflow. In Sergio Castaneda’s 3D for 2D Artists course, he found the best way to create beautiful and effective scenes, including:

  1. Workflow Approach
  2. Design Brief
  3. Design Reference vs Art Direction Reference
  4. 3D Preparation
  5. Block Outs
  6. Lighting
  7. Texturing
  8. Rendering
  9. Post-Processing in 2D Software
  10. Conclusion

Hi, my name is Thomas Vaulbert. My background is in industrial design as a mechanical engineer, but I decided to join the entertainment industry. So I attended FZD school of design and became a concept artist. Now, I’m an art director working at Science X Games, a GameLab situated in a Polytechnique school where I work on a Pixel Art puzzle/platform game inspired by particle physics. To keep in touch with latest practices and workflow, I like to enroll in a CGMA class every couple of years. I’ve been really satisfied with them and today I will go back on the processes I learned in Sergio Castaneda’s 3D for 2D artists course.

Reveal, a Pixel Art puzzle/platform game by Science X games (in game footage).

1. Workflow Approach

Before starting any project, it is best to have a process, a workflow, clearly in mind. This ensures that you know how to get to the end of your project.

By using simple steps, I can control how my project is going on. If something doesn’t feel right, the process helps me go back a few steps and fix what is not working.

Sergio Castaneda’s 3D for 2D Artists course at CGMA helped me define the workflow I use on a daily basis, I hope it will help you too.

2. Design Brief

One of the most important parts of my day-to-day job is to make sure I understand the design brief. Indeed, I am not producing concepts for myself, but for a client and/or my team that will rely on the decisions/solutions I find. Thus, I need to make sure I know the constraints and freedoms I have to solve my team’s/client’s problem.

For that first part, I force myself to write everything down on a Design Board. For a personal project, I feel like having all the answers in my mind is enough. But it’s not! If I don’t write everything down, I can get distracted by an email, a phone call, a colleague or something else. Then, I might forget what could have been the best idea for the design I am working on. Also, the simple fact of writing everything down frees my mind for more ideas and seeing them on paper often calls for more design solutions.

Example of a Design Board, week 03 Assignment.

Finally, writing everything down feels like explaining my concept to someone else, which forces me to see the weak points in my designs that I otherwise would not notice until much later. In Sergio’s course, every week comes with a new design brief, which a perfect occasion to practice this.

Example of a Design Board, week 04 Assignment.

3. Design Reference vs Art Direction Reference

First of all, I prefer to us two kinds of image references: design reference and art direction reference. Design reference include real-life images like nature, cities, people etc… whereas art direction reference can be keyframes from films, TV shows video game and other artists images…

I prefer to start with design references in order to avoid being influenced by other artist designs. From there, I start sketching some ideas for the concepts I will need.

Example of the Design Reference, week 06 assignment.

(Tip: if you are unfamiliar with a subject matter, it a good idea to study your references by drawing them. That will help you understand the main volumes and silhouette, the placement of the details, and the functionality of certain parts.)

Once I have clear ideas for my concepts, then I can start gathering art direction references that match the composition, lighting and color I am aiming for.

If you are a student searching for other artist images for your goal, try to find people that are in the industry but who have an experience level close to yours. If you use well-known artists as references, it can get overwhelming and frustrating. Don’t forget that they have being doing this for years, even decades, so matching their quality of work is nearly impossible when starting out.

Also, be careful not to spend too much time gathering too many references you won’t use!

Example of Art Direction Reference, week 06 assignment (Concept Arts from The Last of Us Part II by Naughty Dog).
Cabin in the wood, week 06 assignment.

If you want to focus on environments, check out CGMA’s Environment Concept Design course taught by Freelance Concept Artist/Illustrator Simeon Schaffner.

4. 3D Preparation

3D can take time, so being prepared is a must. I usually start by making a list of I what I’ll need to model versus the assets I can probably find online and therefore don’t need to model. Just like searching for references, looking for assets can be a rabbit hole. So I only allow myself a defined amount of time to gather my assets online.

Sometimes during this stage, I realize that I need some assets that I haven’t designed yet. In that case, I go back to sketching. I find it more efficient than trying to design assets while modeling them.

As I mainly focus on environments, I try to find characters online and auto animate their posture using Mixamo.

Example of quick silhouette sketches used for modeling simple form assets, week 01 assignment.

5. Block Outs

It is finally time for 3D!

I always start with the big shapes to check my overall composition and ideas. Then, once I refine those shapes, I move on to medium shapes. Then I refine again and finally add small shapes.

Example of 3D block out, week 03 assignment.
Example of 3D block out, week 04 assignment.
Example of a scene done with assets made from simple shapes, week 01 assignment.

Read “4 Scenes to Enhance Your 3D Skills: From Viking Huts to Nightmare Fantasies” for more 3D techniques.

6. Lighting

I usually add lights early on to test my composition as soon as possible. It’s also a good idea to do that before all the details and textures, because depending on your hardware your computer may start to slowdown drastically at this point.

When I am satisfied with the lighting, I add little details that will either help tell the story or make the design more convincing. For me, this is a very fun part. It’s literally set-dressing.

Lighting and Set Dressing, week 02 assignment.

7. Texturing

Now it is time for texturing! In most cases, the assets I find online are already textured, which saves a lot of time. For the part I modeled myself, I try to avoid having to deal with UV unwrapping because it can be too time consuming. I would rather do procedural material using blender shader editor or just project the textures I find online as « box »  around my model. Most of the time, it does the trick. And even if it isn’t perfect, I can paint over it in post-process.

One exception to use UV unwrapping is by using the technique from Ian Hubert on his series of « Lazy tutorials »

Victorian Interior, week 03 assignment.

(Tip: only use 4K textures for very important elements like your focal point. The size of your texture exponentially increases the time for a frame to be rendered. It really slows down your computer when navigating your scene).

8. Rendering

Finally, I render my scene between 2000 and 3000 pixels wide with really basic settings, otherwise it can take too much time.

Example of Crypto Matte and Mist Passes, week 07 assignment.

I usually render a few compositing passes that will help me in post-processing such as « mist » to easily create fog effect, and “crypto matte » (or Id map in other softwares) to quickly select parts of my scene.

Example of Mist Passes, week 04 assignment.

9. Post-Processing in 2D Software

Last but not least, I post-process my final rendered image in Photoshop. This allow me to correct some issues quickly, like matching the color of my scene with my art direction reference, fixing texture issues, correcting lighting, and so on. It is also much faster to add nice VFX details such as glowing items, fog, lightning, god rays, etc.

Example of before and after post-process, week 04 assignment.
Example of before and after post-process, week 06 assignment.

To end the process, I paint over some unimportant details to direct attention toward my focal point. Plus, I can add a bit of texture using blend modes. Also, if your scene feels too much like a 3D render, painting over can help add more details and narrative.

10. Conclusion

Having an efficient process is the key to achieving good work. The first three steps (design brief, gathering references, and 3D planning) are essential to succeed. They are the foundation of the design, and without them the design will most likely collapse. 3D helps to speed up the process by making things more photorealistic and accurate, but it only works if you know exactly what we are trying to achieve. Also, like with most skills, efficient 3D workflow for 2D art takes time to master. I know I still have to practice it all over again and again and again…

Lost Temple, week 04 assignment.

Final Thoughts

  • Sergio Castaneda’s 3D for 2D artists class at CGMA is a really well done course to learn 3D in general and blender in particular. Yes, it is demanding and sometimes there is a lot to learn, but the results worth the effort.
  • Sergio is sharing all his tips and tricks in blender which is such a powerful tool. This class definitely helped my on my journey to master this program and refining my process.
  • There is still a lot to learn though, as an example, right after my class finished, blender released a new feature called « geometry nodes » which is a all new way of modeling for me and will be my next endeavor!
Sci-fi scavengers, week 07 assignment.


CGMA provides comprehensive instruction for Art, Games, and VFX industries in a variety of courses for a range of students, from 2D and 3D artists looking to supplement their college studies to industry professionals looking to stay up to date on emerging trends and techniques in the field.


Enroll in CGMA’s 3D for 2D Artist course taught by Freelance Concept Artist at One Pixel Brush Sergio Castaneda.

If you want to focus on environments, check out CGMA’s Environment Concept Design course taught by Freelance Concept Artist/Illustrator Simeon Schaffner.

Read “4 Scenes to Enhance Your 3D Skills: From Viking Huts to Nightmare Fantasies” for more 3D techniques.