Texturing and Shading in Animation: Definition, Process & Challenges

a year ago   •   5 min read

By Gwénaëlle Dupré
Photo by Peter Herrmann / Unsplash

Food without texture is like a blank canvas, lacking the richness and depth of flavors that make it enjoyable. The same holds true for 3D models: without texturing, they would appear flat and lifeless!

In this article, we explore the crucial role of texturing and shading in animation. We break down the process, the people involved, and the techniques used to breathe life into 3D models. Let’s discover the secrets behind the mesmerizing visuals of your favorite animations!

What’s Texturing

Texturing is the process of adding surface details and colors to 3D models to give them a more realistic or stylized look.

Texturing goes hand in hand with shading, to create the appearance of different materials. Shaders are programs that determine how light interacts with the surfaces of 3D models, and they are used to create a wide range of effects, from simple flat shading to complex materials like skin, fur, water, metal, plastic, wood, or fabric.

Why Texturing

Texturing is key in the 3D modeling process, as it adds realism to 3D models.

By applying textures and shading to 3D models, animators can create the appearance of surface details like bumps, scratches, and imperfections that make objects look more realistic and believable, as well as a variety of materials like metals, plastics, and fabrics, and more advanced effects like reflections, transparency, and luminosity.

Using the right texture helps communicate important information to the viewer. For example, a raining scene will look more realistic with textures including rain drops.

Texturing can also save time and resources―applying textures to 3D models can act as a substitute to complex modeling shapes. This is something you can easily notice in old-school games: instead of modeling leaves one by one, a texture is applied to the tree polygon to create the illusion of a tree full of leaves.

Who Does Texturing

A texturing artist is responsible for creating textures. They work closely with the modeling and shading teams to create realistic and / or coherent textures.

It isn’t uncommon to have a single role combining texturing and shading called look development artist.

How Does Texturing Work

Texturing involves applying 2D images, called textures, onto the surface of 3D models to create the appearance of surface details like color, pattern, and material properties. Texturing typically happens after the 3D model shapes are created, but before they are rendered.

The process can be divided into four main parts:

  1. UV mapping - A UV map is a 2D representation of the 3D model's surface that is used to apply textures. The UV map shows how the surface of the 3D model would look if it was unwrapped and flattened into a 2D plane.
  2. Texture creation - Textures can be created using a variety of techniques, including painting, photography, and procedural generation using software. They can be used to create the appearance of a wide range of materials and effects.
  3. Texture mapping - The textures are applied to the 3D model using the UV map. The texturing artist aligns the texture image to the UV map so that it appears correctly on the surface of the 3D model.
  4. Texture adjustment - After the textures have been mapped onto the 3D model, the texture artist may make adjustments to the textures to ensure that they look correct in the context of the scene. This may involve adjusting the color, brightness, or contrast of the textures, or adding additional texture layers to create more complex effects.

Once the texturing is complete, the 3D model can be rendered to produce a final image or animation.

Shading follows a similar process, but focuses on determining how light interacts with the surface of the 3D model, based on the physical properties of the object like the surface texture, reflectivity, and transparency of the materials being represented.

Texturing & Shading Techniques

Texturing involves a variety of techniques that are important to understand the complexity involved and how to plan the work throughout the animation project accordingly:

  • Procedural texturing - To create textures programmatically using mathematical algorithms and functions. This technique is often used to create complex patterns and natural textures like clouds, rocks, or water.
  • Image-based texturing - Applies images onto 3D models to create realistic surface details.
  • Painting - Using digital painting software, for stylized or artistic textures.
  • Stenciling - To selectively apply textures to specific areas of a 3D model by using a mask or stencil.
  • Texture blending - To blend multiple textures together to create complex surface details like rust or dirt.
  • Normal mapping - To simulate the appearance of bumps and dents on a flat surface by using a 2D image that encodes surface normals (vectors perpendicular to the surface of the 3D object in a given point).
  • Displacement mapping - To add geometric detail to the surface of a 3D model by using a greyscale image to deform the surface geometry.
  • Tiling - For pattern textures that can be repeated seamlessly across a large surface like a floor or wall.

Shading has its own specialized techniques as well, controlling how light is reflected and absorbed:

  • Phong shading - Calculates the shading of a 3D model based on the angle between the surface and the light source. It is often used for simulating the reflection of light on smooth surfaces.
  • Lambertian shading - A basic shading technique using diffuse reflection laws to simulate the appearance of matte surfaces.
  • Ray tracing - Simulates the behavior of light rays as they interact with surfaces in the scene, for highly realistic shading effects.
  • Blinn-Phong shading - A modified version of Phong shading that is more efficient and provides better results for surfaces with complex shapes.
  • Toon shading - Uses simple, flat colors to create the appearance of 2D cartoon animations.
  • Cel shading - A type of toon shading that adds bold, black outlines to the edges of 3D models to create the appearance of comic book or hand-drawn animations.
  • Subsurface scattering - Simulates the way light interacts with translucent materials like skin, wax, or marble.
  • Ambient occlusion - Simulates the way shadows are formed by indirect lighting and ambient light.
  • Anisotropic shading - Simulates the appearance of brushed metal, hair, or fur by using a directional lighting model.
  • Global illumination - Simulates the way light bounces off surfaces and illuminates other objects in the scene.
  • Image-based lighting - Uses images of real-world environments to accurately simulate lighting and reflections on 3D models.

Part of the work of a look development artist is assessing when to use each technique.

9 Best Practices For Texturing

Texturing is complex work. There are a number of best practices you can use to keep your team workflow under control and deliver high-quality work:

  1. Use high-quality textures - Always use high-resolution textures that are appropriate for the size and complexity of your 3D models. Low-quality or low-resolution textures can make your models look blurry or pixelated.
  2. Pay attention to scale - Make sure your textures are properly scaled to match the size of your 3D models. This is particularly important for textures that feature repeating patterns or tiles.
  3. Keep it simple - Don't overcomplicate your textures with unnecessary details: keep them simple but pay attention to the most important surface details.
  4. Test your textures in different lighting conditions - Test your textures under different lighting conditions to ensure that they look good in all situations.
  5. Optimize your textures - Large textures can slow down your 3D models and make them difficult to work with, so reduce their size or use compression tools.

Using a production tracker tool like Kitsu is also important throughout the animation pipeline lifecycle:

  1. To plan your textures in advance - Before you start texturing your 3D models, it's a good idea to create a plan that outlines the materials, colors, and surface details you want to achieve.
  2. To use reference images - Reference images can be a valuable tool when creating textures. Use photos, drawings, or real-world objects as a reference to ensure that your textures are accurate and realistic.
  3. To document your work - Keep detailed notes on your texturing process, including the tools and techniques you used. This will make it easier to reproduce your work in the future and help you improve your skills over time.
  4. To stay consistent - Maintain a consistent style and quality across all your textures to ensure that they look like they belong in the same scene.


Texturing and shading is a vast topic! The laws of physics are complex to simulate, after all. Hope this article provided the overview you needed.

If you are a texturing artist, a shader artist, or someone who simply enjoys learning about the animation industry, we invite you to join our Discord community. Here, you can connect with fellow artists, share your work, and learn from others in the industry.

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