Create a Cartoon Still Life with Beginner Cel Shading

Still Live Main
Computer graphics and other artist use a method called “cel shading” to make photorealistic images look like comics or cartoons. Here’s a simple “still life” cel shading idea for all ages to try. All images: Lisa Tate

One of the latest video games to get a movie is the RPG Borderlands series, and although the idea for a movie has been in talks for awhile, the announcement of director Eli Roth coming on board has made it more of a reality.

Borderlands isn’t a game intended for younger players by any means, but even those who don’t play the game have noticed its faithfulness to maintaining a comic book look just from the advertisements and merchandise.

While many new roleplaying video games have gone out of their way to make things look as incredibly real as possible, games like Borderlands remind us this is a make-believe world by keeping the broad black outlines around the backgrounds and the characters. In computer graphics, the process of making photorealistic image more cartoon-like is called “cel shading,” and many fans of games like borderlands, are bringing this method into the physical world, by cel shading props, costumes and other items. It will be interesting to see if Roth is able to successfully capture that look on the big screen.

Whether you love Borderlands or don’t want your kids anywhere near it, crafters of all ages can still enjoy a making a simplified comic-book cel-shaded style Still Life Image with only everyday objects, a little patience, and a lot of acrylic or craft paint.

I recently tried this myself, and discovered three main rules as a complete amateur artist while create a beginners’  cel shaded still life…even without using a photo filter.

One: Keep it simple. Find some very basic items (plastic or real fruit), bowls, simple flowers, etc. that have simple shapes and colors. Blocks, soda cans, and simple picture frames are easy to do. You can even craft some shapes out of cardboard. Avoid any figurative items (animal shapes, action figures, dolls) for your first go round.

Simple Items
Find simple, everyday items for your first still life attempt.

Two: Paint everything with flat (non-glossy) paint. Cover all surfaces with solid colors of acrylic or craft paint, keeping them as simple as possible. Let them dry completely. Use a felt tip marker or thin brush to trace over every angle, detail and edge with a black outline. You can even add extra lines to the shapes (like dots on oranges or lemons), but don’t go too crazy. Remember rule Number One.

Paint your items in solid, flat colors, then add details with black felt tip marker or paint.

Three: Try to create some “outer” outlines. With boxes or items with flat edges, it is easy to draw a black border along all the angles and edges, but with more irregular shapes, you might have to “touch up” a few round outer lines with either black felt tip pen after the photo is printed out, or (for those with steady hands) use a thin “brush stroke” outline took in a photo editing program. Either way, adding some black lines to the finished picture will make it look a little more cartoon-like.

If you set this up right, the kind of camera won’t matter, be it a smart phone or a cheap instant camera. Here’s my final result. I added a few items from a Borderlands cosplay my teen made out of corrugated cardboard and acrylic paint.

with outline
Final “cel shaded” still life, with some outlines added.

The cosplay community has taken Borderlands cel shading styles to the next level. Take a look at makeup artist Jody Steel using only some face and body paint, and some cutout enhancements to turn herself into the smart, tough, and incredibly insane Borderlands character Patricia Tannis:

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