Non-photorealistic rendering

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A normal shader (left) and a NPR shader using cel-shading (right)

Non-photorealistic rendering (NPR) is an area of computer graphics that focuses on enabling a wide variety of expressive styles for digital art. In contrast to traditional computer graphics, which has focused on photorealism, NPR is inspired by artistic styles such as painting, drawing, technical illustration, and animated cartoons. NPR has appeared in movies and video games in the form of "toon shading", as well as in scientific visualization, architectural illustration and experimental animation. An example of a modern use of this method is that of cel-shaded animation.


The term "non-photorealistic rendering" is believed to have been coined by the SIGGRAPH 1990 papers committee, who held a session entitled "Non Photo Realistic Rendering"[1][2] The term, however, has received criticism; some criticisms include:

  • The term "photorealism" has different meanings for graphics researchers and artists. For artists, who are the target consumers of NPR techniques, it refers to a school of painting that focuses on reproducing the effect of a camera lens, with all the distortion and hyper-reflections[definition needed] that it involves. For graphics researchers, it refers to an image that is visually indistinguishable from reality. In fact, graphics researchers lump the kinds of visual distortions that are used by photorealist painters into non-photorealism.
  • Describing something by what it is not is problematic. Equivalent comparisons might be "non-elephant biology", or "non-geometric mathematics". NPR researchers have stated that they expect the term will disappear eventually, and be replaced by the more general term "computer graphics", with "photorealistic graphics" being used to describe traditional computer graphics.[citation needed]
  • Many techniques that are used to create 'non-photorealistic' images are not rendering techniques. They are modelling techniques, or post-processing techniques. While the latter are coming to be known as 'image-based rendering', sketch-based modelling techniques, cannot technically be included under this heading, which is very inconvenient for conference organisers.

The first conference on Non-Photorealistic Animation and Rendering included a discussion of possible alternative names. Among those suggested were "expressive graphics", "artistic rendering", "non-realistic graphics", "art-based rendering", and "psychographics". All of these terms have been used in various research papers on the topic, but the term NPR seems to have nonetheless taken hold.

The first technical meeting dedicated to NPR was the ACM sponsored Symposium on Non-Photorealistic Rendering and Animation (NPAR) in 2000. NPAR is traditionally co-located with the Annecy Animated Film Festival,[3] running on even numbered years. From 2007 NPAR began to also run on odd-numbered years, co-located with ACM SIGGRAPH.[4]


An example of NPR used for technical illustrations

Three-dimensional NPR is the style that is most commonly seen in video games and movies. The output from this technique is almost always a 3D model that has been modified from the original input model to portray a new artistic style. In many cases, the geometry of the model is identical to the original geometry, and only the material applied to the surface is modified. With increased availability of programmable GPU's, shaders have allowed NPR effects to be applied to the rasterised image that is to be displayed to the screen.[5] The majority of NPR techniques applied to 3D geometry are intended to make the scene appear two-dimensional.

NPR techniques for 3D images include cel shading and Gooch shading.

For enhanced legibility, the most useful technical illustrations for technical communication are not necessarily photorealistic. Non-photorealistic renderings, such as exploded view diagrams, greatly assist in showing placement of parts in a complex system.


An example of a non-photoreal rendering of an existing 2D image. Original may be found here

The input to a two dimensional NPR system is typically an image or video. The output is a typically an artistic rendering of that input imagery (for example in a watercolor, painterly or sketched style) although some 2D NPR serves non-artistic purposes e.g. data visualization.

The artistic rendering of images and video (often referred to as Image Stylization[6]) traditionally focused upon heuristic algorithms that seek to simulate the placement of brush strokes on a digital canvas.[7]

Arguably, the earliest example of 2D NPR is Paul Haeberli's 'Paint by Numbers' at SIGGRAPH 1990. This (and similar interactive techniques) provide the user with a canvas that they can "paint" on using the cursor — as the user paints, a stylized version of the image is revealed on the canvas. This is especially useful for people who want to simulate different sizes of brush strokes according to different areas of the image.

Subsequently basic image processing operations using gradient operators[8] or statistical moments[9] were used to automate this process and minimize user interaction in the late nineties (although artistic control remains with the user via setting parameters of the algorithms). This automation enabled practical application of 2D NPR to video, for the first time in the living paintings of the movie What Dreams May Come (1998).

More sophisticated image abstractions techniques were developed in the early 2000s harnessing Computer Vision operators e.g. image salience,[10] or segmentation[11] operators to drive stroke placement. Around this time, machine learning began to influence image stylization algorithms notably image analogy[12] that could learn to mimic the style of an existing artwork.

The advent of deep learning has re-kindled activity in image stylization, notably with Neural Style Transfer (NST) algorithms that can mimic a wide gamut of artistic styles from single visual examples. These algorithms underpin mobile apps capable of the same e.g. Prisma

In addition to the above stylization methods, a related class of techniques in 2D NPR address the simulation of artistic media. These methods include simulating the diffusion of ink through different kinds of paper, and also of pigments through water for simulation of watercolor.

Artistic rendering[edit]

Artistic rendering is the application of visual art styles to rendering. For photorealistic rendering styles, the emphasis is on accurate reproduction of light-and-shadow and the surface properties of the depicted objects, composition, or other more generic qualities. When the emphasis is on unique interpretive rendering styles, visual information is interpreted by the artist and displayed accordingly using the chosen art medium and level of abstraction in abstract art. In computer graphics, interpretive rendering styles are known as non-photorealistic rendering styles, but may be used to simplify technical illustrations. Rendering styles that combine photorealism with non-photorealism are known as hyperrealistic rendering styles.

Notable films and software[edit]

This section lists some seminal uses of NPR techniques in films and software. See cel-shaded animation for a list of uses of toon-shading in games and movies.

Short films
Technological Threat 1988 Early use of toon shading together with Tex Avery-style cartoon characters.
Gas Planet 1992 Pencil-sketching 3D rendering by Eric Darnell.
Fishing 2000 Watercolor-style 3D rendering David Gainey.
Snack and Drink
Short films created with Rotoshop by Bob Sabiston.
Ryan 2004 Nonlinear projection and other distortions of 3D geometry.
The Girl Who Cried Flowers 2008 Watercolor-style rendering by Auryn.
Feature films
What Dreams May Come 1998 Painterly rendering in the "painted world" sequence.
Tarzan 1999 First use of Disney's "Deep Canvas" system.
Waking Life 2001 First use of rotoshop in a feature film.
A Scanner Darkly 2006 "a 15-month animation process"
Video games and other software
Jet Set Radio 2000 Early use of toon-shading in video games.
SketchUp 2000 Sketch-like modelling software with toon rendering.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker 2002 One of the most well-known cel-shaded games
Valkyria Chronicles 2008 Uses a number of NPR techniques including a sketch-like shading method
XIII 2003 done as "comic"-like as possible
Ōkami 2006 A game whose visuals emulate the style of sumi-e (Japanese Ink Wash Painting)
Guilty Gear Xrd 2014 Fighting Game using cel-shaded 3D characters with limited animation to imitate the look of 2D sprites
Vue Xstream 2015 3D environment creation software featuring an NPR renderer with various traditional art style emulating presets.
Return of the Obra Dinn 2018 A 3D game rendered in a unique monochrome, pointillist style.


  1. ^ Chairman-Baskett, Forest (1990-09-01). "Proceedings of the 17th annual conference on Computer graphics and interactive techniques". Siggraph. ACM. ISBN 978-0897913447.
  2. ^ Simon, Schofield (March 1994). Non-photorealistic rendering: a critical examination and proposed system. (phd). Middlesex University. Retrieved 2018-07-03.
  3. ^ CITIA, ©. "Site officiel du Festival et du Marché international du film d'animation d'Annecy". Retrieved 20 April 2018.
  4. ^[permanent dead link]
  5. ^ Drew Card; Jason L. Mitchell. "Non-Photorealistic Rendering with Pixel and Vertex Shaders" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-06-15. Retrieved 2010-03-08., extracted from Wolfgang F. Engel (1996). Direct3D SHADERX: Vertex & Pixel Shader Tips and Techniques. 87Wordware Game Developer's Library. Wordware Publishing. ISBN 978-1556220418.
  6. ^ Image and Video-Based Artistic Stylisation. Computational Imaging and Vision. Springer. 2013. ISBN 9781447145189.
  7. ^ Kyprianidis, Jan Eric; Collomosse, John; Wang, Tinghuai; Isenberg, Tobias (2013). "State of the "Art": A Taxonomy of Artistic Stylization Techniques for Images and Video". IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics. 19 (5): 866–885. doi:10.1109/TVCG.2012.160. PMID 22802120.
  8. ^ Litwinowicz, Peter (1997). "Processing images and video for an impressionist effect". Proceedings of the 24th annual conference on Computer graphics and interactive techniques - SIGGRAPH '97. pp. 407–414. doi:10.1145/258734.258893. ISBN 0897918967.
  9. ^ "An algorithm for automatic painterly rendering based on local source image approximation". 2000.
  10. ^ "Painterly Rendering using Image Salience". 2002: 122–128. CiteSeerX Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  11. ^
  12. ^

Further reading[edit]

Some key papers in the development of NPR are:

External links[edit]