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Tutorial: Adventures in Cel-Shading

If you weren’t already aware, last month Gearbox made the long-awaited announcement for Borderlands 3.

Of course, with this epic new announcement comes all the cosplay feels so what better to talk about than the art of cel-shading.

What is cel-shading?
Cel-shading is an animation technique where three-dimensional objects are rendered to appear two-dimensional and thus have a hand-drawn feel like a comic book in 3D.
This style in video games has actually been around since the early 90’s and can be found in games such as Parappa the Rapper for the PlayStation and later in 00’s with the Fear Effect games.

However it is not just the drawn textures that create this look, it is also all in the shading and lighting techniques. Thus the term “cel-shading”.
My personal introduction to the cel-shaded look in video games was with the epic Borderlands series. Not only is this style hugely effective and now popular in gaming it is also used to great effect in television shows such as Archer.

Vamp Rouge Cosplay Lilith costume comparison

Of course, this style of cartoon-turned-3D art caught the attention of cosplayers and is a wonderful way to elevate your cosplay from not only looking and dressing like a real life version of an animated character but also appearing animated in real-life, mirroring this 3D cartoon magic.
My first attempt at using cel-shading as a make-up and fabric-painting technique was in 2014 with my Lilith “The Firehawk” costume from Borderlands 2.

Lilith is one of my favourite video game characters and while I am still very proud of this costume and my first cel-shading attempt I have since realised there is one key aspect that would upgrade the look of this costume. SHADING.

Photo by Food and Cosplay 2014

My Lilith costume took months of slowly adding black outlines to all elements of the costume with fabric markers and paint. For the makeup I first applied “normal” make up in Lilith’s style and used black eyeliner to add the drawn lines to my features. While this worked to a certain extent and still creates a striking look if I were upgrading this costume I would take the time to think about lighting angles and enhance the thick black lines with white highlights.

Dahl pistol from BL2 – Photo by Food and Cosplay 2014

Despite the lack of depth this costume still incorporates one of my favourite props; my DAHL pistol, which was created with a base of spray paint, acrylic for the details and a black sharpie on all outlines and edges.

Two years later, in 2016 I decided to attempt another cel-shaded character, Mallory Archer from the FX adult cartoon “Archer”. This time around I took notice of the lighting that gives the figures their 3D appearance in a 2D world instead of just relying on my own 3D existence to draw black outlines onto. I first made Mallory’s dress, sourced the belt, handbag and shoes and noticed from reference pictures the areas of grey for shadow and set about painting the shadows onto the entire outfit. As this required A LOT of paint and fabric paint generally comes in very small containers I purchased some “fabric medium” to mix with normal acrylic paint. This is designed to turn regular paint into fabric paint and works wonderfully.

Malory Archer – Photo by Carlos Adama Photography 2016

Vamp Rouge Cosplay as Malory Archer – Photo by Jon Fisher Photography 2016

I also incorporated the shading into my makeup by contouring my nose with a taupe eye-shadow and covering half of my neck and face with this shadow as if there was a light source coming from one side of my body. This, along with using varying thickness of black outlines gives the look more depth than just drawing simple outlines. Mallory also has some areas of white highlight on her lips and other characters from the show have many more areas of highlight on their clothing and hair.

The only real-life problem that you will come across with manually adding light and shadow to your costume and make-up is that you have to pick a direction the fake light is coming from and stick to it. For animation this works because the light will shift from frame to frame but when walking around a convention hall in real life your makeup may be styled with shadow on the left and your fake light source on the right yet you may stop for a photo with the sun shining from your left side. Unfortunately this is an unavoidable pitfall of bringing an animated character into the real world but it doesn’t make final look any less impressive.

As the use of real-life cel-shading has become more popular in the cosplay community so has the artistic skill level and attention to detail of the cosplayers.
Check out this intricately shaded Handsome Jack by Mary & Feinobi cosplay.

Photo by So Say We All Photography

And this stunning Tiny Tina wig by LMcosplays.

In conclusion, if you are thinking of adding cel-shaded detail to your costumes, pay attention to the thin/thick changes in outline, remember to add white highlights and think about the direction of your “light-source” how it hits creases in clothing and angles on your face, play about with light and shade and have fun!

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