Lighting 2D art with normal maps

Christine Garner
Oct 2, 2018 · 5 min read

This article follows on from my previous article: Using normal and depth maps to create lighting effects in 2d art.

Disclaimer: I haven’t been asked or sponsored to write this article and I paid for Sprite Lamp and Sprite DLight for my own use.


Sketchfab 2d image of Jane the Elf

I’ve been making normal maps out of my 2D art using specialized software to create adjustable lighting effects for my illustrations. You could hand paint the lighting without doing this of course, but I thought it was a cool technique to try and I’m learning about texture maps in the process. It was a bit more time consuming to create the normal map as well as the illustration, but hand painting all the different lighting effects from scratch would take a lot longer without the normal map.

A normal map uses three colors, red, green and blue to signify the direction of surface normal's. Red, green and blue correspond to the X, Y and Z orientation of the surface normal in a texture. Normal maps are usually used in computer games and feature films to create the appearance of high detailed meshes. They are usually “baked” from high detailed mesh sculpts into a normal map texture, which can then be applied to a low polygon model creating the illusion of high resolution detail.

Over the last four days or so I have used a program called Sprite Lamp to create a normal map for this illustration:

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The illustration I want to create lighting effects from a normal map with. ©️ 2018 Christine Garner thimblefolio.com

This involved creating 5 grey-scale lighting direction profiles for the character, top; bottom; right; left and front (hand painted in Photoshop using the original illustration as a template).

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Hand painted lighting profiles for the normal map creation in Sprite Lamp: ©️ 2018 Christine Garner thimblefolio.com

This was an iterative and experimental process for me. Firstly I did not know whether Sprite Lamp would cope with the high resolution art I used, given that it’s main purpose is for making normal maps for small game sprites to add dynamic lighting in game engines. Secondly I had to keep redoing the lighting for each lighting profile so that they all looked consistent and made the output normal map look good.

It was a useful exercise in trying different lighting directions on my character, and one I will keep practicing in the future.

The diffuse map or color map had to be a PNG file with a transparent background and all the lighting profiles were fine as flat JPEGs.

I found it faster and more stable for testing to resize the artwork to a smaller size in the early stages of this process. When I was happy with the small preview I used the large diffuse map and the large lighting profiles to generate the normal map, the bump map and the ambient occlusion map. I exported the normal map for use in Photoshop.

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Texture map types loaded into Sprite Lamp. The normal, bump and ambient occlusion map were created in Sprite Lamp from my lighting profiles and diffuse map: ©️ 2018 Christine Garner thimblefolio.com

Sprite Lamp has a nice preview mode that lets you try different lighting conditions. I made a short video showing this:

Lighting 2D art with normal maps in Sprite Lamp

I also made a specular map by turning the diffuse map black and white, adjusting the values and painting the areas I wanted to shine more a lighter color. This made a big difference to how the light affected the character on areas such as hair, the eye and buckles.

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Lighting 2d art in Sprite Lamp renders: ©️ 2018 Christine Garner thimblefolio.com

I managed to get a similar look with the exported normal map in Photoshop, but things like specularity do not show up like in a 3D shader engine. You could hand paint shine and glow effects on top though with different layer modes. I painted in a highlight for the eye.

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Normal map lighting in Photoshop using adjustment layers: ©️ 2018 Christine Garner thimblefolio.com

Sprite Lamp gave me a lot more control for making a normal map for my 2D art than Sprite Dlight (which I discussed in my previous article), but it was more time consuming. For a fast solution Sprite D Light is really handy as well if you want to try this technique for quickly lighting or recoloring 2d art. They both have their uses.

Edit: Feb 2019: This was suggested to me from the author of Sprite DLight but I forgot to update this article sooner: Using Sprite DLight you can export 4 of the directional auto generated light maps and then refine them in your graphics editing program. After changes have been done put these into Sprite Lamp to generate the new normal map and make the process go a little faster.

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Normal maps created with Sprite DLight on the left and Sprite Lamp on the right.

There are lots more methods for making normal maps if you have a look on the internet, but I’m done on this topic for now (until I find something else cool about it anyway 😅).

Edit February 2020: I’m not done yet… keep tuned for more normal map articles. Also check out Laigter if you want a free Open Source solution for making normal maps from 2D sprites.

Thank you for reading this far and I hope it was interesting for you as well.

Related articles and videos

CG101: What is a Normal Map?
Photoshop 3D — Understanding Depth Maps, Bump Maps, and Normal Maps
Hexels Effects | Normal Map Lighting

The Art Squirrel

A publication for people interested in Illustration and…

Christine Garner

Written by

I’m a character designer working from Shropshire, UK. I write about topics that interest me and I think might help others. https://thimblefolio.com

The Art Squirrel

A publication for people interested in Illustration and digital painting.

Christine Garner

Written by

I’m a character designer working from Shropshire, UK. I write about topics that interest me and I think might help others. https://thimblefolio.com

The Art Squirrel

A publication for people interested in Illustration and digital painting.

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