In the Principles of Game Art Modeling, I have postulated the necessity of having visual references when you are extending parts of your target audiences’ world into the digital realm.  The referred extended realm can be in all sort of form; it could be a hyper-real racing circuit that found in Gran Turismo or even an oddly cinematic platformer’s environment, which resembling to Another World and Heart of Darkness.   No matter how odd it is of a scripted virtual world, its recipes of the suspense-of-disbelief are largely an interplay that weaves around all the earthly premises that we have seen in every day’s life.  Just go to look at Mindcraft, if you do not believe me 🙂

Remember, being a virtual world builder:

“Your purpose is to make your audience see what you saw, hear what you heard, feel what you felt. Relevant detail, couched in concrete, colorful language visual, is the best way to recreate the incident fiction as it happened and to picture it for the audience.”

– A twisted Dale Carnegie quote by me

Thus, the very first principle in game art modeling is to use a reference and model around the reference.  Although it is almost a universal practice to use a reference during the act of 3D modeling, nevertheless it is easier said than done.  Recently, I have encountered a new batch of students who are lacking of some fundamental expertise in utilizing their visual references; it cannot be blamed for they are STEM-educated than STEAM-trained. Thankful to this real life experience as it had given me an opportunity to write and reflect upon this matter.

So, how do you visually reference a reference during the stage of 3D modeling?

Before we delve deeper into the topic of visual referencing, I would like to clarify what constitute the act of referencing “something”.  First, in the craft of visual arts, the act of referencing to any predated body of work is simply not to recreate what is out there, but to avoid having a redundant product.  In the arena of fine art, a replica will not courted as a work of art but a slew act of piracy in capitalism (but except in communism).  Although having said so, why there are still many practitioners doing replica works?  For instance, there have been many talented artisans studying and emulating the infamous Mona Lisa. (See Carlson, 2010: a half-finished replica of Mona Lisa had a price tag of 10K).

Why they are doing it?

The answer is quite simple: it is all about mastery, as the act of imitating a masterpiece is the most direct approach in attaining the proficiency of skills.

So, students* you got the green light from me: learn to recreate by reference.  However, there is one criteria to this approach of doing: you must not copy blindly as if what you saw (as that’s pirating).  Rather, you should study your reference carefully for what to emulate and eliminate.

Remember the Principles of Game Art Modeling – Principles #3 Simplification!

The effort of game art modeling is to keep what is interesting in existence and amplify it with your own thoughts and ideology.  The result of such approach is to deliver a better design that adhered to common sense while resonating to the audience memory.  There are many ways to read a visual reference, and I am going to show you one of the approaches in reading a concept art during the process of modeling.

In this demonstration, I shall use a concept art from Halo which penned by Eddie Smith.  You all should really checkout Mr. Smith’s portfolio at his personal website at

Disclaimer: all the referenced visual elements are copyrighted to its own respective owner.  By adhering to the Fair Use Act, this visual demo is purely for non-profit educational purposes.

Step 1

First, open your selected reference in the Adobe Photoshop (PS).  Then, in the Layer Panel, simply create a new layer and rename that layer to wireframe_Study.

(Should you cannot find the “Layer” panel in PS, simply hit the shortcut key of F7).

Creating a new layer

Step 2

Select the Background layer while you are still in the Layers Panel.

  1. Do click at the icon of “Create a new fill or adjustment layer”.
  1. In the pop-up menu, simply select “Levels”, and you shall see a new adjustment layer of Levels 1 been created.
  1. Next, do double-click on this icon of Level as demonstrated in the following figure.
  1. In panel of Adjustment, simply drag its middle slider to the left.  The purpose of doing so is to lighten the Gamma level of the reference.  (Note: As long, the visibility of your reference is still within a perceivable range, there is no fix threshold to adjust the slider.)
  1. Now, hit the shortcut key – F7, for returning to the Layers Panel. With the layer of Level 1 still in selection, simply click on the “Lock” icon to lock this layer down. Next, let us focus on the layer of wireframe_Study by clicking it with your Left Mouse Button (LMB).

Creating a Level Adjustment Layer

Step 3

  1. With the layer of wireframe_Study selected, let us changed our foreground color to a much striking hue.
  1. To do so, just click on this “Set foreground color” icon, and pick a color that you like in the color picker window.  Due to my previously background and habitual practice in animation, I shall pick the color of blue that representing the Blue Pencil. You need not to follow this.
  1. In the toolbox, simply activating the Brush tool.
  1. Then, do change the brush size to a suitable pixel point.  In this context, I will use 7-px, but you can start with 4-px.


Tracing Workflow

Step 4

This is where the funs begin 🙂

Simply select a point that you wish to start, and then mark it down with one single LMB click.  After this, you must hold down the Shift key for continuously tracing through the “object” with straight solid lines.  You might need to zoom-in to your canvas from time to time for getting a clearer view during this process.


Step 5

The purpose of this tracing exercise is not to digitally recreate the drawing, but rather it is visual aid for helping you to “see” the true form of your source object.  Thus, you need not to trace it with details.  In fact, the outcome of this tracing exercise is to nail down the silhouette of your source object, and follow by charting its topological flow in wireframe mode.  This creative process is also another applied example for the Principle of Simplification, and it will help you to find a point of start during the modeling stage.

As demonstrated in the following example: by pinning down the key silhouette or the side-profile of this abstract structure in PS, I began to recreate the form of this object in Autodesk Maya from scratch without the need of setting up an image reference plane in the viewport.  There are many different ways to kick-start a modeling process; however, I always like to start with the simplest geometrical form that mapped to my vision.  As you can see, I started out with a 4-sided polygonal plane and only tweaking one of the vertices one time only!  Then, it is all about applying the same old Extrude function on the polygonal edges at different stages and some occasional use of Insert Edge Loop function.

Low Poly Modeling Breakdown 1 - Pillar

Step 6

After you have done constructing the side profile (or the silhouette) of your source object, now it is the time for extending it into a three-dimensional (3D) form as demonstrated in below.  The subsequent actions were all about adding edges with the Insert Edge Loop and subtracting the unwanted edges with the Delete Edge function.  After that, it is just about extrusion of different polygonal faces.

During the stage modeling, please uphold to the Principles of Game Art Modeling.  Do ensure this redesign game model is topologically perfect without N-GON, holes (unmerge vertices), Non-Planar, and Non-Manifold.  Also, do not forget about the principle of simplification; you do not need to build all the abstract details with polygon, as you can use the texture to fake it.  Lastly, you would need to keep an eye of the polygon count, and do respect the given limit.

Step by step Low Poly Modeling Breakdown for Sci-fi Pillar

As closing, I sincerely hope that you would find this method to be useful in your work.  This demonstrated method was largely a recollection of experience that I have gained through the training of wireframe drawings in 14 years ago.  I am always grateful to Mr. Tajalli for given us all the tough drawing assignments to solve during the design fundamental classes. Thank you, Sir!