How to Become a 3D Lighting Artist in 2022

by | Last updated Apr 13, 2022

lighting artist work - Academy of Animated Art students

Are you an aspiring 3D lighting artist? 

You’ve come to the right place. We’ve mentored hundreds of artists through the Academy of Animated Art, helping new CG lighting artists land their dream jobs at companies like Disney, Dreamworks, and Sony. The best part? They’ve done it in a year or less. 

If you’ve always been curious about working as a lighting artist, this guide is for you. You’ll learn:

  • Building your skills to become a 3D lighting artist
  • Understanding the salary range of a lighter 
  • Creating a lighting artist demo reel/portfolio
  • …And everything in between!

Want to learn more? Read on. 

What is a 3D lighting artist?

While a lighting artist can work on various projects, including video games, movies, instruction videos, architecture mockups, commercials, and medical visualizations, we’re focusing on lighting for animated movies. 

The animation team includes riggers, animators, texture artists, and lighting artists all working together to bring an animated scene to life. 

As a lighting artist, your job is to add depth to sets and characters with shadows, as well as provide proper illumination to bring out the scene’s emotion and, in some studios, to add surface qualities to objects.

Take a look at this time-lapse video to see just how powerful lighting is for animations:

Having a basic knowledge of artistic concepts, such as lighting and composition, is essential when building a career. It’s equally important to learn all about industry-standard 3D lighting software applications to become a successful lighting artist.


What is 3D lighting? 

3D lighting helps set the tone, mood, and atmosphere of the scene and gives the scene its final look. This is done by adding light and shadows in a computer-generated 3D environment using various software applications and tools to simulate light. 

You have to choose a different combination of light sources to highlight certain parts of the scene to evoke the right emotion, use light to set the mood to a scene, and represent real-life properties of a scene – such as times of the day. 

Lighting can be done using different software applications such as Maya, Houdini, Blender, Cinema4D, and 3DS Max.

For example, here are just a few projects our students have created:

lighting artist work

(Created by our student Ryan Hansford)

lighting artist work

(Created by our student Nicolas Balliett)

Are 3D artists in demand? 

Yes! Lighting artists are very high in demand, especially now that streaming services like Netflix, Disney+, and Amazon Prime are coming out with more animated movies. Netflix is making at least eight animated films this year alone, which is insane compared to how often these films were made before streaming services started coming out with their original features.

That said, competition is stiff in the industry, so it’s important that you have the skills and knowledge in the most popular 3D software applications that big studios use to stand out. 

How much does a lighting artist make? 

The average annual pay for a light artist in the US is about $59,535  to $68,250 as of March 2021. According to ZipRecruiter, senior lighting artists make as much as $93,500. 3D lighting artists’ salaries will depend on experience and skills. 

The average salary for a lighting artist with 1 to 4 experience is about $42,000. On the other hand, an experienced lighting artist with 10 to 19 years of experience makes an average of $125,000. 

If you’d like to know more about what a 3D lighting artist salary looks like, Mike discusses this at length in this interview with Voice of Passionate Professionals:



What it’s like to work as a lighting artist

What does a typical day look like at an animation studio? In between your lighting work, you get to go to screenings of animated films and do fun stuff at the office. Through our work, we’ve attended movie premiers in both New York and Los Angeles. (Highlight: That time we had the chance to stand next to Beyoncé.)

Or like this time when we got to cuddle with a baby kangaroo. 

3d lighting artist fun at work

That said, due to covid-19, most lighting artists now work from home. While it’s hard to say what this will look like in the future, it’s likely that it’ll be some kind of hybrid solution with both in-office and remote work. 

What does it take to become a 3D lighting artist?

To become a 3D lighting artist, you can either get a degree or learn through online courses. We prefer online courses because they’re more flexible, faster, and you might have access to industry professionals (we offer mentoring in our own courses). 

But before we look at how you can become a lighting artist, let’s take a look at what you need to know to become one. 

What are the most important things a lighting artist should know?

A lighting artist needs to have both technical and artistic skills. Here below, you learn the most important skills to learn for a successful career as a lighting artist. 

Technical skills and artistic sense

Lighting a scene has a technical and artistic side. As a lighting artist, your job is to illuminate a computer-generated scene. 

With your trained eye, you’ll enhance the tone, depth, mood, and atmosphere of a scene, factoring different elements to make the lighting as close to reality as possible such as the weather or the time of the day. 

To ensure that the lighting is as realistic as possible, you should have a deep understanding of different artistic concepts such as shading, composition, color theory, design theory, and perspective. 

You should know how light and shadow interact with each other in different situations to set the tone or the mood of the scene. Also, you need to understand the different CG lights to use and their attributes and dissect reference images to recreate certain tones. 

Applying the lighting requires technical know-how. That’s why it’s so important that you know how to use different 3D animation software programs to apply the lighting and render the final image. 

The 3D animation applications allow you to work with different hues and shader settings to create reflections, textured surfaces, and other design elements that add realistic effects to a scene. 

Having experience and knowledge about procedural shading, coding, and familiarity with applications such as Python, Maya, and Nuke can also help if you want to become a successful CG lighting artist.

Character lighting 

As the name implies, character lighting is a technique that adds light and shadows to a character or an asset. A big part of 3D lighting is character lighting because the play of shadow and light and the addition of specific design elements (capturing the eye’s wetness, the white of the teeth, the shape of the face, etc.) make the character look alive and realistic. If you’re not lighting your characters properly, the result may look flat, artificial, and harsh.

To light a character, you should have a deep understanding of different artistic concepts such as mood lighting, eye lighting, three-point lighting, Rembrandt lighting, hero colors, villain colors, shaping, and so much more. You need to learn how to use the key light, fill light, and rim light to control the light and shadow and make the character look believable. 

We explain these artistic concepts in our Character Lighting online course

The animation industry is a character-driven one. Learning all the basic artistic concepts will give you a solid foundation for a successful career as a lighting artist. All the techniques that you’ll learn from this lighting artist course will enable you to create a standout demo reel that hiring managers are looking for.

Environment lighting 

Environment lighting involves adding light and shadows to a scene to make it appear as realistic as possible. To light a scene and make it as natural as possible, you should know how light and shadow interact with each other in real-life daylight and nighttime scenarios, indoors and outdoors. 

Simulating natural lighting involves awareness of the environment around the scene, the direction of sunlight, soft illumination from the sky, the indirect light that blends different colors, and so forth.

If the scene requires artificial light from, say, a flashlight or a street lamp, you need to know how to simulate realistic light patterns and illumination in the scene for realistic results. You should also have a deep understanding of how light and shadow behave in underwater scenes, foggy scenes, snowy scenes, and more.

Our Environment lighting course is divided into two parts, indoor and outdoor lighting. This online course outlines all the techniques used by big studios to elevate environment lighting in various scenarios. 

Materials and shaders

Materials make objects visible in the first place, while shader defines how each pixel is drawn to a screen. Different 3D animation applications have different shaders to simulate different materials. And different shaders come with different instructions and attributes. These attributes define the appearance of an object.

Lighting a scene isn’t just limited to applying proper illumination; you’ll have to consider the kind of materials that the objects are made of and how these materials behave when illuminated in real life so you can apply the effects in a computer-generated scene. 

Some materials are reflective; others are refractive. Some objects have smooth and shiny surfaces and others have matte and bumpy surfaces. The attributes of the objects will influence the shaders and lighting choices that you’ll apply. 


In 3D animation, compositing is a process that combines all the visual elements into one image. The visual elements come from different sources, and the composition process is meant to give the illusion that these separate elements are a part of the same scene. The scene combines two or more render passes to refine the animation and achieve the highest quality. 

Compositing will require knowledge in animation tools such as Nuke and Adobe After Effects, just to name a few. It is also helpful to know how to use renderers such as Arnold, RedShift, Katana, V-ray and Octane. (You can find our tech courses for these renderers here.)

Adequate practice

Practice, as they say, makes perfect. No matter how creative you are, if you’re not spending time perfecting your lighting skills, you won’t go very far. You can always download assets online but if you want the whole playground, try investing in our Lighting Asset Library. 

How to become a lighting artist 

To become a lighting artist, you can either get a degree, learn yourself, or take an online course. Here’s what you need to know about each option. 

Getting a degree

You can take formal training by earning a college degree. We don’t necessarily recommend this, as most college degrees aren’t created for today’s job requirements. Plus, it’s an expensive route. 

A bachelor’s degree in Computer Animation costs around $40,000 per year. To be admitted to a master’s level program, you should have at least a 3.0 undergraduate GPA.

Some top animation schools include:

  • The California Institute of the Arts
  • School of Visual Arts in New York
  • Rhode Island School of Design
  • Ringling College of Art and Design
  • Savannah College of Art and Design

It’s worth noting that a bachelor’s degree takes about four years to complete and is full-time. Not a lot of animation schools specialize in 3D lighting. 

Learning yourself

You can learn all about 3D animation on your own by watching tutorials on various video-sharing platforms like YouTube and Vimeo. But you’ll need to have a deep understanding of the many artistic principles and hone your technical skills to understand these tutorials. 

It will take years to master the different software applications used for 3D animation and lighting and for that reason, we don’t recommend taking this route. 

Taking an online course

Taking an online course, like the ones we offer at our animation school, is a great way of mastering the artistry of 3D lighting at a flexible schedule. By taking an online course, you can learn at your own pace. 

Also, the courses focus on different aspects of 3D animation and 3D lighting, something that traditional animation schools do not offer. The best part? Taking an online course is more affordable than earning a degree in animation. 

Our courses

A great way to get familiarized with 3D animation and lighting is to read our book, Lighting For Animation: The Art of Visual Storytelling.

We also offer different lighting courses:

Our other courses help you specialize in different 3D animation applications such as:

All AAA lighting courses and tech workshops complement each other. 

You can sign up for a single class or multiple courses to build a solid foundation in 3D lighting. The great thing about signing up for a lighting artist course is that you can learn at your own pace. No matter where you are and what you do, you can squeeze in time in your schedule to learn about 3D lighting online.

We have a whole library of ready-to-light, high-quality assets that you can practice on. You can also add these assets to your demo reel to get attention from hiring managers. We’re always coming up with new characters to light each month. 

Best of all, investing in our assets library means gaining access to our lighting community. You’ll connect with other artists and showcase your work during our monthly lighting challenge. And you’ll also receive professional feedback from us!

As part of the course, we do regular lighting critiques. Like this one: 


Ultimate Lighting Bundle

If you’re ready to enroll in our school, but you’re unsure what course to take, we suggest getting the Ultimate Lighting Bundle. This course features a proven system that will help you get your dream job as a lighting artist in less than a year – even with zero experience. 

After spending more than a decade lighting animated movies for Blue Sky Studios, we’ve developed a system that will train lighting artists quickly. 

Our comprehensive system is designed to help you learn about 3D lighting at your own pace. The training session takes only an hour every day. You can focus on your day job and spend your free time training to be a light artist.

We knew that the system was effective, but the results blew us away. For the past couple of years, we’ve helped over 200 artists land their dream jobs at Dreamworks Animation, Sony Pictures, Blue Sky Studios, Reel FX, Giant Animation, and many more. 

One of our successful students includes Shane Sternstein, a Dreamworks lighter. 

Shane started in the animation industry before he found lighting and signed up for our course. 

You can learn more about Shane’s story here: 

You can see some of our student projects here:


How to build your lighting artist portfolio

Finally, you will need a demo reel to get your first 3D lighting artist job. How? Here’s what you need to know.

Create a demo reel

The first step to building a lighting artist portfolio is to create a demo reel. The demo reel is a series of clips that showcase your work. Your demo reel should include at least 5 of your best pieces of work. 

Most hiring managers spend hours watching demo reels, so keep the length under 4 minutes, ideally under 2 minutes for students. Never include unapproved work, avoid loud music, and have a breakdown of all the lighting work you did in every shot. 

Finally, your name, contact details, headshot, and website should be outlined in the demo reel. Take as much time as you need to polish it. 

Ace your interviews

Being comfortable talking about your work is essential, so you’re in the right headspace during the interview. Do your research, get to know the company, and dress up appropriately. In animation, the demo reel does all the talking, but it’s essential to be professional. 

Pro tip: Succeeding in interviews, negotiating an animation lighting artist salary, and networking are covered in our course bundle.

Over to you!

There you have it! Now you know what it takes to become a 3D lighting artist. 

We hope that these tips will take you closer to your goal of lighting animated films by big studios. Be sure that you’re starting your career as a lighting artist on a solid foundation by acquiring the proper knowledge and honing your skills. 3D artists are very high in demand and the work itself is fulfilling and fun. 

Now, we’d love to hear from you:

What is the #1 reason you want to become a lighting artist?

Let us know in the comments below. 


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