Stylized designs. Where realistic materials and lighting meet exaggerated features and hand-painted surfaces.

Super Mario AAA Concept Process

super mario concept art tutorial

Here is a step-by-step process of a Super Mario concept art I did for practice. Including some dirty Photoshop tricks.

Concept art smarts used:

  • Photobashing for quick character ideation.
  • Liquify filter for quick shape correction without repaints.
  • Custom brushes.
  • “Selective Color” adjustment for quick color correction.

Let’s go…

Alright, step one: Proportions and pose.

There are plenty of ways to play around with proportions an poses. From thumbnails and silhouettes to fast sketches. Sometimes you just want to grab the right reference from a stock library you can use. However, with stylized characters like this, a few tweaks are in order. Using just super quick and dirty lasso moves I shortened and thickened the arms and made his hands huge. No need to worry about ugly edges right now, they will be overpainted later.

To properly capture the plumber’s iconic likeness, I just pasted part of an official promotional artwork on top of my Frankenstein creature.

photobashing concept art tutorial

Step two: Drawing on top.

For now, I’m happy with my character build. Maybe I change stuff later, but I’m ready to go to the next phase. Always keep in motion and do what comes to you first. Anything can be tweaked later.

I reduced the build layer opacity to like 40% so that black lines on top are easier to read and started drawing on top of my custom anatomical reference. Using “overlay” in a layer above, I separate different grey values, using different shades of grey. Note how you can still see many snippets of the photos below, but pants, skin and shirt are separated by value.

photobashing and overpainting

Now, I fill in my drawing with grey tones where needed. Mainly using the color picker here and grabbing shades from the photobash layer below. A moment later

mario triple aa concept art

Step three: Painting high priority details.

Now, I’m starting to get anxious about nailing down Mario in a AA context, so I need a benchmark for the painting. I need to paint a part of this layout to get familiar with the level of detail and quality I’m aiming for. So let’s paint the head. While I can draw plenty of support from the shading data from the photobash – using the color picker – this step is just plain and simple painting. Sorry, no secrets here, just practice and patience.

concept art process

Step four: More tweaks and first paint layer.

The current state of the head tells me where I want this painting to go. I can now fill in all areas of the layout with the necessary layers of paint to move on. What it also tells me is where I need to tweak the pose and shapes. The more I work on a painting the more I’m able to see and fix. For the first steps I was really able just to go with the flow, knowing tweaks can be done later and now is the time to get serious about some stuff.

character concept art step by step

Lasso and repaints are used to reposition his arms, while the filter>”liquify” was used to sculpt the painting of the head into something more round full. Here is a comparison gif for the before-and-after. Note how I did not repaint anything for the new fuller shape, just moved things around. Oh yeah, and a second ear helped (which I literally just copied-pasted from his left ear):


More detailed painting. Just working myself through all the areas of the layout. For the sledgehammer I used a photo reference, to get it right. The Bob-Ombs and painted within a circular selection, to get the spherical shape right. The smut on his arm is made with the first use of a custom brush in this piece, only regular round hard Photoshop brushes until now.

anjin anhut concept art

Step five: Coloring.

Now that I’m happy with the value painting, let’s add color. I pulled up official Mario Promo art, to have quick access to offial colors via the color picker tool. The colors are painted on a new layer, set to “overlay”.

by concept artist anjin anhut

Step five: Final Retouch.

Finally, some retouching… Same stuff a photographer would do to spice up their shots. Color correction via image>adjustments>selective color. I added some cyan and magenta to the blacks, making things more vibrant. Fire is painted using custom brushes again. Super thin blue rim lights add the final crispiness.

values painting to color painting tutorial

I hope this was a fun insight into how I sometimes work. Keep practicing and show your stuff. Bye.

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Stylized Realism

stylized game graphics with realistic shading

Stylized realism at first sounds like an oxymoron. Aren’t realism and stylization at odds with each other? Yes. And that is why it’s time that we talk about this hybrid art form, which got its big break through thanks to computer generated images.

While we can find examples of art with similar visual properties to stylized realism in the times before digital imaging technology emerged, the modern approach to stylized realism is very much technology driven. If I had to point my finger to who popularized it, I would point at Pixar, who in 1995 released Toy Story upon the world and changed our understanding of how cartoon animation looks forever.

toy story ... a human, aaahgh!

Audience praised the film for its photorealistic look (which in hindsight wasn’t that photorealistic, to be honest), while every character and location have been heavily stylized. Pixar didn’t even attempt to create a naturalistic look for their characters, wisely avoiding the still hard to conquer uncanny valley. The trick was to keep the artists stylizations in place – which made for expressive designs and animation – but rendering those designs and animations in the most photorealistic textures, shaders and lighting situations available at that time.

This is stylized realism.

key qualities of stylized realism

  • Stylized and idealized characters, spaces and objects.
  • Use of realistic materials, textures and lighting in 3D images.
  • Realistically painted materials and lighting in 2D art.
  • Traditional model making and puppetry, simulating realistic materials and lighting.

How official is the term “Stylized Realism”?

Not much. In contrast to many historically established art movements, genres and styles, stylized realism has no official manifesto or book written about it or other previously established classifications afaik. Especially in game development conversations, we usually tend to simply segregate realistic from stylized. We look at a game and if the game is realistic enough in our individual (and arbitrary) opinion, we label it a realistically looking game. Else, it’s stylized or cartoony.

hand painted textures

The devs of Team Fortress 2 refer to their style as “illustrative rendering”.

This rather popular hybrid art form is not definitively labelled yet. In my research I found terms like “illustrative realism” as well… but usually it’s just referred to as “stylized” without any attempt at distinguishing it from cartoon animation, cel shaded 3D, anime, comic art and other stylized art forms with different properties.

So, I’m putting my foot down here and stick with stylized realism, as it describes best what an artist is trying to do with this style.

The devs of The Witness are referring to their style of environment art as "stylized realism". via

The devs of The Witness are referring to their style of environment art as “stylized realism”. via

Discussion: Stylized? Realistic? Stylized realism?

There is always going to be disagreement to how realistic or stylized an image is. ..except if it is maximum naturalistic photorealism, which removes all and any artist’s stylization completely. But as soon as stylization is part of an image, consensus on categorization gets tricky. Different viewers value different things.

This photoshop recreation by artist Pixeloo on the left (with the Nintendo reference on the right)… is it realistic?


Some will say yes, because of the real photos used to build that illustration. Others say no, because no real person looks like that. Maybe the question is not getting us anywhere. If we ask for consensus on if an image is realistic or not – or stylized or not – we wont get it.

It’s important to understand realism and stylization as two opposite ends on a scale and not two opposite sides of border.

Older instances of stylized realism.

Finding older examples for stylized realism in video games is pretty hard. Stylized realism can only happen if technology allows for some degree of realism, but as an artistic decision, the creators added stylization. Much of older game art is not stylized. It’s often created with the ambition to be as realistic as possible and any deviation from realism is simply a product of technical limitations. Or it’s stylized but then simply wants to be cartoony.

As a rule of thumb, it’s worth comparing the ingame graphics of any game with what the studio released as promo art, box art and how cut scenes are looking. Using this tactic, you can spot many games “intended” look , compared to what was possible with real-time graphics technology at that time.

Below, Tomb Raider is the one, which was intended as stylized realism, while Max Payne and Resident Evil aimed a photorealism.


There are clean examples however. Like Tomb Raider above. But they are rare. In fact, the further we go back in time, the harder it gets to find those games.


The production of semi-realistic graphics is dependent on graphics tech. If I had to make a cut, I’d say that stylized realism goes no further back than to the 16bit era, where we still find examples of pre-rendered 3D sprites and digitized photos as well as claymation.

Stylized realism examples:

This gallery includes games, animation films and even at least one toy company who made it their signature style to simulate realistic materials.

adjacent genres / subgenres

Stylized Realism shares borders with these genres:

  • Cel Shading
  • Traditional Animation
  • Ligne Claire
  • Saturday Morning Cartoon
  • Us Comic
  • Comic Noir
  • Anime
  • Manga
  • stop motion
  • claymation

Disagree with some of my picks for the samples gallery or when and were I claimed stylized realism began? Good. Your idea of where realism ends and where stylization begins and how much overlap there is, is up to you. Just know that these tools are available to you.

Thanks to tumblr user Pizzaback for suggesting “Stylized Realism” as a name for this visual style.

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Overwatch’s Torbjörn Guide

Great references, step-by-steps and detail shots of Torbjörn from Blizzard’s Overwatch.

torbjoern torbjörn character design


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Character Surfacing

Some digital artists sharing their methods and choices when it comes to modelling and surfacing their characters.
Check the via links for more.

Michel Strömbeck on young Mike via
3d character design

ANDRÉ CASTRO on the Mad Monkey via
3d mad monkey tutorial
photoshop character design

Aurthur Mercader on a Minion via
3d character surfacing

Blizzard’S Winston from Overwatch via
overwatch character concept art

overwatch character design

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target concepts – Overwatch

A nice comparison shot between the early concept works to capture the feel of the map (inspirational concept) and then later some iterations of the visual target (how it was meant to actually look in the game and cinematics).

overwatch concept art environments

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