, by Caigu

Chinese Water Painting Style in 3D: The Scroll of XianShanLouGe

Caigu outlines his technique for recreating a traditional Chinese water painting style in 3D.

  • Interview

It’s a great pleasure to be able to share my work The Scroll of XianShanLouGe. Let me introduce myself a bit. I’m Decai Li from China, though I tend to be known online as Caigu. I’m a digital artist at Kudos Shanghai working on Legends of Runeterra; my job is to work on the champion Level Up animation sequence environment and lighting.

This particular artwork is named The Scroll of XianShanLouGe (The Scroll of Fairy Mountain and Buildings). XianShanLouGe is an old Chinese work referring to the place where gods live. It depicts extraordinary scenery within a magnificent world. And this work is presented on a traditional scroll.

The Scroll of Fairy Mountain and Buildings

The Inspiration

This artwork all started from the GGAC (Global Game Art Contest) , an annual competition of digital artists. The theme for the contest I participated in was Holy Spirits among Mountains and Seas. So I decided to create something closely related to the theme; my artwork contains mountains, sea, spirits, and creatures.

The use of the scroll was my way of trying to replicate the feeling of traditional Chinese painting; I’m trying to express my idea in a traditional way. Lots of illustrations combine modern constructions with traditional scenery paintings; this style of artwork is the source of my original inspiration. But those illustrations are in 2D, so I try to visualize them in 3D. I’ve designed some creatures, like kun (a type of legendary giant fish), deer, and fairy cranes. They are the spirits in the world of the scroll, and they are protecting people.

Reference illustrations

The story is that, when nature is so broken by humans, and far from recovery, people would imagine there’s a utopia where there’s no trouble, no disasters, and where they can share the space peacefully with all the animals. In return, the spirits of that place guard the humans. It’s a state of mind that all people might dream of.

The Process

After I’d decided the design and the story, started production. The main pipeline was: 3dsMax for low-poly modeling – ZBrush for high-poly modeling – TopoGun topology – Substance Painter for texturing – render using Marmoset Toolbag.

Some process images:

Design diagram (above)

ZBrush models

Substance Painter texturing

Toolbag light test

Adding background and title

Problem Solving

The texture and color combination was challenging. It’s hard to texture the feeling of water painting; it can’t be too realistic or too shiny. The hand-painted matte glaze does a good job of creating this effect; my trick is to raise the roughness value for everything except the golden parts up to almost 1.

The control of overall color is the key to the color combination. So I take a reference from Qian Li Jiang Shan Tu. And the background buildings have a gradient from cyan to blue, which makes the whole picture more cohesive.

Reference image by Qian Li Jiang Shan Tu

Regarding the creation of the mountain, water, and clouds, it’s a great challenge to replicate illustration in 3D. I had to get lots of references. My approach was to sculpt them in the most traditional way, without any small details, because small details would affect the whole picture. The small details enter as part of the texturing process, instead.

Mountain, water, and cloud references

Without roughness and metallic, everything depends on the albedos. I think this part is the most fun for me; I use various brushes from Substance Painter to create a hand-painted style. I particularly like the  Charcoal Strong and Dots Erased brushes.

I use Substance Painter a lot at work, and on my personal projects. It’s very useful and easy to learn. Artists can create a lot of amazing things with this software.

Another interesting part of this scene, I feel, is the people. They are the soul of the project. They bring life to the whole scene, and draw your imagination into this piece of work. The characters I placed in this scene are very simple in style, to match the overall style of the whole scene.

People playing in the scroll, watching the sky.

And that’s my work; I hope everybody likes it! Special thanks to all the people helped me in the process of creating this artwork; their help really made my work shine!

Meet Caigu

Decai Li, also known as Caigu, began drawing as a child, and won a series of art contests throughout school. He studied animation design and production at university and, more recently, has joined Kudos Shanghai as an environment and lighting artist.

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