Realistic & Stylized Materials for Environments

Realistic & Stylized Materials for Environments

Dean Scott talked about the production of materials for Abandoned Bridge, Ice Spa, other scenes and their presentation in Marmoset Toolbag.

Dean Scott talked about the production of materials for Abandoned Bridge, Ice Spa, other scenes and their presentation in Marmoset Toolbag.

The video features Ice Spa scene by Dean Scott


My name is Dean Scott and I’m a self-taught 3D environment artist from Salisbury, Maryland. My background is in fine arts and I originally got into 3D modeling to create scenes and still lifes to paint from. I quickly found that 3D art was very satisfying and could be a career in itself. My professional experience began with an internship at Mohawk Games and I’m currently on contract at OVFX / Outlook Company as a look-dev and surfacing artist.

Abandoned Bridge

Approach to Materials

Something I always pay special attention to while painting is surface and color. To further push the quality of paint as a material I would read extensively about painting mediums and different ways to prepare surfaces. I’d get almost as excited talking about painting materials and pigments as I would when painting. This parallels my interest in the more technical sides of environment art. My go-to tool for this is Substance Designer as it allows me to deal with sculpting and color in a very unified way.

Almost all the materials I’ve built were developed for use in specific scenes. It’s sort of like learning music – the chords I know on the guitar are from songs I’ve wanted to learn. I shape my knowledge and the “repertoire” will increase as I tackle new scenes. When I sit down and start creating a new material, I collect both real-life references and examples of other similar materials that have been made. My references come mainly from Pinterest and photos taken as I walk around my neighborhood. I look for materials on Artstation, including realistic (ex. Daniel Thiger’s) and stylized (ex. Clayman’s) sides of the spectrum. This way, I find out what I like and dislike, and what I think will fit the style I’m going for.

Stylized Painted Planks

In stylized work (for example, Stylized Painted Planks), I pay close attention to large shapes, the roughness value range, the amount and clarity of color, and the strength of ambient occlusion. Using the curve node heavily really allows me to carve large wood shapes and make it look as if the wood went through a chunky sawmill. As I work, I also try to make connections between node functions in Substance Designer and brushes in ZBrush and ask myself questions like “What sort of alpha would I use on a brush to carve something wooden?” I don’t think I set a particular stylized route for this material, but the curve node really pushed me in that direction. It’s working for me sort of like the clay polish feature in ZBrush.

The color map for this material is simply two colors of slight saturation and value difference layered through a subtle, dusty mask.

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Uniting Environment Elements with Materials

When building a scene in Unreal, one of the main things I’m concerned about is the material and object transitions. In my last scenes, snow works kind of as a work-horse material. I height blended snow on to the stone wall, dithered the snow pile edges to create a soft transition to the floor, and used the snow as a transitional material on the icicles and ice columns. The latter instance is courtesy of  Victor A’s free distance field blending shader. I modified the shader by adding Fresnel-based emissive controls specifically for my ice assets (shown in the red box), a technique I learned from Timothy Dries in this article.

I decided to let emissive drive the look of the ice rather than subsurface scattering. It seems to provide a similar glowing result. The emissive is made in Substance Painter and is based on curvature. In the Unreal material editor, I make use of a master material that allows me to layer more emissive using Fresnel as a mask. I realized very quickly that when you start using a lot of emissive, the color white starts to look gray, so I added slight emissive to all the snow and ice materials in my Ice Spa scene. This really helps the scene feel cavernous and not dingy. The light in the hallways has a red emissive material while the interior has blue emissive on the ice mesh edges.


The shader for the snow tiles consists of two slight variations of the tile being blended through a world aligned mask (I can control the tiling of it) and uses parallax occlusion for a very clean illusion of displacement.

Plaster Material

The plaster material graph is relatively simple since I relied more heavily on grunge maps. I wanted to try Curt C. Smith’s Grunge + maps since they provide a lot of customization within a single node. I also used Kay Vriend’s refine noise node to soften noise in the final height map and Justin Wagner’s JW cracks V2 node for cracks in the plaster. My process was to take bits from different grunge maps that felt like plaster. Since this material doesn’t have a lot of surface depth, I try to keep the range of the height map close together. This would also enable me to add more layers either over or under the plaster if I chose to do so later. The trick for getting many surfaces to play well together is to save space for each one, usually via selective masking. I want to use a lot of different noise without the material feeling overwhelmed.

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In terms of color, a great way to get some interesting color variation is by using transparency on one gradient map and then overlaying it on a separate gradient map (shown in GIF).

Snow Material

The snow material uses a very fine flaky noise that gets slightly added and subtracted from the height map in order to give the snow a soft pillow-like look. The blown-out gloss spots are made by the same tiling noise to give the effect of single crystals catching the light. These spots are layered on top of another roughness map that is based on the normals. The diffuse color is subtle since snow is mostly white. I used the handy dust node to layer some fine color and the shadow node to layer in a bit of blue. For the tiling windswept snow that makes up the roof, I borrowed one of Daniel Thiger‘s nodes “Smearing” and the technique used in his windswept dunes material on Substance Source.

When I’m making any material that I know is going to tile, I consider how I can break it up with other objects or textures in the engine. The windswept snow tiles well in the Ice Spa since the base mesh is already undulating and is broken up by the icicles and columns.

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Presentation in Toolbag

For material presentation in Toolbag, I’ve got a few lighting setups that work well for me. If one doesn’t work, I just try another and add minor tweaks to get a good result. It’s imperative to treat each material case by case. The amount of displacement, the color, and roughness will dictate your lighting setup. For example, you can pump up the light on a rough stone surface but for glossier ice, you may need a more glancing light angle. I use HDRI Haven when the out-of-box Marmoset maps don’t work for me. They’ve got a great collection of free (donation-based) HDRI images. For lighting, I start by rotating the sky and then moving my mouse around the HDRI to find a good fill light. The HDRI I used for the cobblestones can be found here. I’m a fan of the “warm on one side, cool on the other” lighting setup, so I’ll set up two spotlights to do that – one from the top right and one from the bottom left usually. I’ll then change the shape of the light a bit depending on how crisp I want the shadow falloff to be. Adjusting either the length, width or height slightly will usually result in softer, more diffuse light. For the background, I put on a moderate vignette, and usually layer a dusty, grainy image behind the sphere in Photoshop.


Dean Scott, 3D Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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