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Design Rendering Tutorial: Layer Breakdown

Architectural visualization and design communication have always interested me. The quality of visual representation and marketing In the first place could make or break your design. In the business of selling what are essentially ideas for a new built development, compelling visuals of your design become one of your most effective tools in engaging the client with the amazing vision you have for the project. After all, they do say a picture is worth a thousand words right?

Visualization adds value to your design with which to engage your client, the project team, and the community with the narrative of the building or development.

These tutorials will primarily revolve around the use of Sketchup, V-ray, and Adobe Photoshop for a start-to-finish rendering workflow, though the principal ideas behind it can be applied with other tools of the trade. Starting my portfolio at the tail end of my undergraduate degree in Architecture, I had the opportunity to revisit my old projects and render them again with the Photoshop and 3D visualization skills I picked up over the years. And as I continue to learn more throughout my career, it's my hope that posting my tutorial series can help other aspiring architects and current professionals hone their craft.

Let's get started.

This is a before and after comparison of my renders for one of my Arroceros Redevelopment projects: the Forest Center. (the other being the Pasig Riverfront Commercial Center, but more on that later)

You gotta start somewhere right? :)

As any student would have to confess to: the original image was produced under pressure, and rushed to meet a deadline. At the time, I hadn't yet found the quick, effective rendering workflow I now have. It was also around this time that I started experimenting with new methods of architectural rendering inspired by the tutorials of the amazing Alex Hogrefe of In fact, I highly recommend his website for any of you out there who want to learn more.

While I had designed the buildings extensively, my original renderings didn't really live up to them, so a few years down the line, I set out to correct that for my portfolio. And it was interesting, and a bit funny in fact, getting to relive that project for this tutorial series.

Initially, I wanted to work from the original high resolution source renderings and exported 2D graphics from V-ray and Sketchup. I toggled the style options for shadows, profile edges, and endpoints to get the source files I needed the following in .PNG form to save time and effort in cropping out the edges of the model. It's also important that the base images are the same size and dpi (I work with 150dpi so it won't lag my laptop too much when, although it could go higher for quality prints, or lower for digital formats or design drafts). Here I'm working with 3000x1200 pixels because I originally made the renders for large-format printing, but that's far above what's necessary for an online tutorial or a digital image.

Sketchup Line Render Without Endpoints and Profiles

V-ray Render with Proper Shadows and Solar Orientation

Angle the sun in such a way that produces dramatic effect, perhaps during sunrise or sunset hours. This varies from project to project, and site surroundings. In this case, I chose the angle of lighting I felt helped to highlight the architectural features of the building. Also try to be mindful about proper solar orientation for the accurate representation of shadows and shading performance. But in the end, it's up to you as the artist or designer to make that call.

You can also opt to render X-ray renders, Shadows only, and the like to play around with when you get to working on other advanced styles. You can even change the material of the windows if you want to easily select the window regions to play around with in Photoshop for some interesting window effects, for example:

Originally, I wanted to use this window selection-isolator to make night scenes for the project, but I ended up not going through with that idea.

For this tutorial though, we'll only start out using the basic Sketchup line render and the V-ray render.

You can start by layering the two renders on top of each other. Here I set the Sketchup line render blending setting on multiply on top of the V-ray render set to normal. You can see that the resulting picture is "darker" as a result of the layer combination. Layer order matters (which one is on top, or below) - everything composited on top will affect everything below it. You can typically view this at the lower right panel of the Photoshop Interface. If you were to put the normal layer on top of the multiply layer, nothing would happen.

The resulting image is darker when using multiply.

You can try duplicating the layers and changing their blending settings to overlay, screen, etc. (which might make the resuting image "lighter"), changing layer order, and tweaking their transparencies to achieve different effects. This is the bread and butter of compositing your individual renders together and you can play around and get a feel for it once you get this principle. This is key: Don't be afraid to get things wrong and experiment, everything can be undone with ctrl+z or the Photoshop history tab, after all.

You can then start adding the background and sky. I used stock photos of a sky and a tree line for this, but you can use actual site photos if you have them. You can even model your own background elements if you want to go the extra mile, but more on that in another tutorial. Make sure to match up to the "horizon" of your project. Everything below the model if you don't have the surrounding site ground plane can get covered up later on with some clever Photoshop work.

The following will now be referred to as the "base layers":

Let there be earth, and let there be sky

You now have the makings of a standard architectural design perspective, and moving forward, the sky's the limit (or is it? since we're past that already) we will begin work on making necessary corrections (not addressed in the model or reflecting a later design), or adding details, atmospheric effects, and entourage that breathe life and being into the visual. There's no specific order to these things, and you may find yourself revisiting different "steps" as you continue to refine your render.

We're next going to add some highlights to the model and the background. You can copy the layers and set them above the base layers, setting them to "screen" and adjusting layer transparency depending on how bright you want the highlights to be. Once you have the desired transparency, you can take the erase tool and subtract from the "highlight layers" to make darker colours appear again. This can be helpful when you want to highlight or emphasize certain parts of your visual to look brighter or appear as if they reflect light. Here is the result, and a break down of the "highlight layers"

Highlighted Composite

Turning off underlying base layers, these are the copied layers set to "screen" for the "highlight layer", later partially erased where darker colors are to appear in the final render

Following this, you can begin adding additional trees and background elements, in this case, a flock of birds to add an element of "movement" that in a small way, makes the scene more alive. Make it a point to look for .PNGs to use for clean cropping (otherwise, you have to crop the background manually). To avoid repetition, don't overuse the same assets (trees, people - i'm also guilty of this from time to time), but you can get around this make minor edits to them by changing their scale (quickly, by using Edit -> Transform or Ctrl+T) or layer transparency.

It's getting there, but where are the people?

More on the people later, we have to remedy the groundplane first. Normally, this wouldn't be an issue if you made it part of your mode - but let's say it's not particularly detailed or you had to rush the model for a deadline (as is often the case when the crunch inevitably comes). This method isn't restricted to grass plains, you can adopt this method for water surfaces, walls, and other features. Here, I made a rectangle in Photoshop, which I covered with a pattern overlay (found in the right-click blending options) of grass which I found on the internet. Make sure to set a proper scale depending on how you need it to be, don't forget you can always undo and redo this as you experiment on what looks right. Once it's set, right click on the layer and rasterize the layer style, this is key to the next step. You can then select the layer and transform it with the distort tool, where you can fit it to the corresponding plane on the image. as follows:

The same can be applied for the pathway (look for a pathway texture or image) and shadows (more on that later on)

With the Ground Plane and Pathway

You may have also noticed I added a shadow to the tree above. To do this, simply copy the layer, add a black color overlay (using the right-click on the layer for blending options). Rasterize the layer style and transform it (here, I just changed the height scale so it looks "flat" on the ground surface). From here you can change the transparency, distort it (if you need a different shadow angle), or make minor erasures (treating it like the highlight layer, you can control the extent and coverage of the shadow this way).

You can then add cars, people, etc. Again, it helps to find .PNG images for your library of people, cars, trees, fixtures, etc. I have my own go-to sites, but for now I'll recommend because they have a diverse selection. Look for sites like these, and try to hold on to those where you can find people of the locale of your project (most of my projects are set in Asia, the Philippines, and I'm trying to put this into practice), so while most of the resources out there depict Caucasians, make it a point to seek out appropriate representations of the people in the country of your project. With people you can highlight significant parts of your project, breathe life into "lifeless" corners, and better communicate what your design intent is for the activities it will host.

It's at this point, you might want to take a break for yourself, have fun and add a dinosaur somewhere in there. Don't do that for the final presentation though. The choice is yours.

It feels more alive now

It's at this point, you're probably tired already and might want to take a break for yourself. Go ahead and have fun: add a dinosaur or two somewhere in there. Don't do that for the final presentation though. The choice is yours.

I repeat, don't forget to turn off the dinosaur layers. It'll be a hard sell to your client when everyone knows they've been extinct for 65 million years.

Moving on, we only have to add a few finishing touches. While you can explore and experiment other styles, blur effects, etc. - for this example, I'll show how to add a visual atmospheric "bloom" effect, which can help add mood to your render. The following is actually a screen capture (print screen key -> ctrl+v) of the whole image, which I partially erased much like the previous highlight layer. This layer was set to "screen" with a transparency of 50%. After which, I went to filter and used a radial blur effect as can be seen below:

Visualization can be challenging at first, but it's a worthwhile learning curve when you understand the basic principles at work

The resulting image should be much like the final production render, which I'm showing here again:

Final Result

But working with the original render outputs, I still wasn't happy enough with the final result so, using the same principles, I went the extra mile to produce additional source renders for the new images that also allow me to showcase new views of my design. These allow me to "walk" people through the forest center when I present it to them: If you can, make it a point to make multiple key perspectives to communicate your design and market your ideas.

The Approach: Redux

From the Arroceros Forest Park Looking to the Portal

It was not my intent to produce perfectly "realistic" renders but rather, to artistically capture and communicate a sense of atmosphere and life for my projects, which could become invaluable in marketing your designs so they get to the next stage to completion. And for your client and other stakeholders, it's important for them to know where their investment is going, how things are going to be put together, what your proposed design looks like, "feels" like.

Of course, you can always produce realistic 3D renders, manual renders, and Lumion-rendered videos, etc. - hats off to you guys. The design sketch, the artistically-produced hand render does hold in it a direct physical translation of the designer's design intent and vision. There is indeed a time and a place for each rendering method and medium for each project and firm, but it's my goal to help those understand the principles, the art, and the craft of architectural visualization by publishing tutorials for this workflow involving Sketchup, Vray and Photoshop, which I feel are tools that, when used together, have so much potential in terms of stylistic control and freedom.

The first of hopefully many in a series of tutorials. Feel free to contact me or comment if you have any questions on the topic!


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