Substance Designer Studies with David Hartmann

Substance Designer Studies with David Hartmann

David Hartmann talked about his Substance Designer studies and shared the production details behind some of his recent materials.

David Hartmann talked about his Substance Designer studies and shared the production details behind some of his recent materials.


Hey! I’m David. I am a self-taught 3D Artist, originally from Canada, but I have lived in Europe for the last 20 years. I’ve recently moved to Warsaw, Poland, with my family and I am currently working as a freelance artist primarily as a Motion Designer. At the ripe age of 40 though I’ve decided to jump ship and change the career to the Games industry.

I have always been into 3D art since I was a kid. I remember my uncle showing me some 3D software he got from somewhere and it blew my mind! But at the time I couldn’t get my head around the interface which was very technical and not artist-friendly by any means.

When I graduated I went to study Electrical Engineering to work in animatronics for the film industry. This was my dream at the time but it wasn’t meant to be. Maths! Not my thing.

I then focused on Audio Engineering and worked for several years in the music industry before realizing my love for moving image (Animation) and design. So I honed my skills day and night to become the best that I could and eventually became a Co-founder and Creative Director of an Award winning Motion Studio called Werewolf.

This is the point where working in a creative agency, but not actually creating anything myself, really got me down. So I decided to go freelance and pursue my long-time dream of working in the Games industry. So here I am. Soaking up as much knowledge as I can, and learning all the time about game art.

Developing Skills in Substance Designer

I chose Game Art Institute because I wanted to hone my skills in SD and I thought it was a great place to learn from top industry people. Ryan Kingslien and I had a couple of conversations in the past about the boot camp but before diving into something as intensive as that, I thought I would kickstart my learning with the masterclass first.

The course was led by the fantastic Arvin Villapando whose insight into texture creation using Substance was second-to-none. He helped me push myself and develop textures with a critical eye and his support gave me the confidence and focus I was looking for.

By the end of the course, I wanted to have created 2-3 really good SD materials and a Sci-Fi prop inspired by Ghost in the Shell, which I completed with some minor changes for presentation purposes after the course finished.

I have been working in Motion Design and Visualisation for a long time. My texturing process was always to create my maps within Photoshop. Although I am comfortable in Photoshop, I always felt that the pipeline of working between apps to create materials was a drain on time and efficiency.

Since adopting Substance Designer and Painter into my workflow, the freedom to express myself artistically has increased exponentially. There is no longer a latency between creation and presentation. You work within the same space and can see your creations on-the-fly. For me, as an artist, Real-Time is the only way to work and Substance Designer helps bring the technical and artist sides of my brain together in a way that really excites me. This workflow allows me to prototype really quickly and make decisions that, in the past, would have taken a lot of time to resolve. SD is an invaluable tool in my workflow that I know I will only use more and more in the future.

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Technical & Artistic Sides of SD

When I opened SD for the first time I was super intimidated. I had no idea where to start and for some reason, the concepts seemed foreign to me. Upon further analysis, I realized I just needed to change my way of thinking with this Node based app and I came to the conclusion that I needed to use both sides of my creative brain; technical and artistic.

As mentioned before, I have used Photoshop extensively in my day-to-day workflow and once I realized that SD was basically a node based extension of techniques I used in PS, then I was in a better place to use SD.

I have tried to dig into more of the technical side of SD. Such as the FX-Map node and Variable nodes – but this just made my brain hurt. I spent way to much time trying to ‘Code’ bespoke nodes when there really was no need for it. I wanted to use SD as a creation app and this means I need Real-time feedback of what I am creating. So I steered away from the hardcore tech side of SD and just focused on the Artistic. Do you need to have crazy coding knowledge to use SD? No, not at all. There are far better people out there than me who can handle the heavy-lifting of the technical side who share resources online. So I focus on my strengths and use SD to my advantage and what appeals to me. That’s the beauty of the software. You can use either side or both. It’s really up to you and what makes you more efficient in the creation process.

The Tudor Wall Material

The Tudor Wall material is inspired by the fantastic SD artist Enrico Tammekänd. I saw his wall and wanted to have a bash at it.

For the cracks, there really isn’t anything special here. One of the most powerful nodes in SD is the Tile Sampler. What you can make with that is pretty incredible but also a bit of a drag on resources if used too much. You could probably use the Tile Generator here and it would be perfectly fine.

So the process is fairly simple: create a tile sampler node and dial in your settings. You want to basically create 1-pixel shapes randomly positioned and with varying luminosity. Plug that into a distance node and crank it up to 1000 or more, depending on the result you are trying to achieve.

From there it’s a matter of warping the shape using the Slope Blur and Direction Warp nodes along with noise. Perlin and Cloud noises are super flexible but whenever using these nodes, I would suggest changing the Seed value. I see loads of people just plug in a noise node and not change this value and it starts to make materials all look a bit too Designer looking. And remember, you can crank the settings above 10. So go for it and see what results you can get!

The final crack map looks something like this:

In the Tudor Wall, it was a pretty simple process. Unlike my paving stone cracks where I blended multiple Tile Samplers and used a Histogram Scanned Distance node to mask out certain areas that gave me a more varied and realistic result.

This approach allowed me to use the various samplers as masks to hide cracks I didn’t like or just problem areas. It also created a nice layer stack of small, medium and large shapes. You can see the final map here:

For me, this is a far better approach to creating really nice cracks that are various and feel like they belong in the real world but it does take a little bit longer to get that final look. Well worth it though.

As for the plaster, this again is just stacking several noises together and using directional warps to achieve some nice distortion in the noises. Using the Clouds 2 and BnW Spot nodes along with a couple of bespoke nodes I used creates some great and complex shapes.

One of the bespoke nodes was created by Chris Hodgson, one of the great SD creators out there, and it’s called MultiDirectionalWarpNN and MultiDirectionalWarpGreyscaleNN. These are great nodes for messing with the standard noises or any shapes you are creating like cracks or rocks.

One of the nodes I used to give the plaster more of a layered look was a Quantize Greyscale node. This gives you a nice stepped effect like in the map below:

Again, this is using SD noises like Clouds, Perlin and patching it through the quantize node, with a little Blur HQ. You can create some very nice effects which look great on natural materials including materials that would have erosion or wear like old plaster.

The Padded Walls Material

Here, the trick was in a lot of little blurs, gradients and subtle blends using Multiply, Subtract and overlay. Also blending loose noises to create the large flowing fabric shapes.

Large Creases:

Fabric Folds:

Final Height Map:

These blend modes give you a nice light transition that you can build up from a 50% Uniform grey node.

I am still playing with the best way to blend detail into height maps. So, sometimes I start with a 50% grey or v:127 Uniform Node set to 16 bit and use that as my base. Anything black applied to that grey layer creates crevices and anything above 50% into white will create peaks. This is how I used to build my maps in PS so sometimes it feels natural.

But lately and for this project, my process was a little different. I would create my basic shapes, add a little blur or bevel, then Histogram Range at the end of that chain to blend into other shapes. This process works the best for me at the moment and gives me the most control as the Histogram Range position & range parameters can do most of the work.

Tile Sampler Possibilities

Some micro-patterns can be added with Tile Sampler node, again ? This is one of my go-to nodes. It reminds me of MoGraph in C4D a lot and has all the same parameters as the Cloner Object and Effectors. So I feel right at home using it.

But first, I create the basic shape by blend a Ridged Bell & Gaussian Shape scaled on x. Then I pass that through a Direction Warp node using another Gaussian Shape node to distort the shape and soften it with a Blur HQ.

Final shape:

This is then sent through a Tile Sampler and adjust the amount on X & Y, scale and rotation. Histo Range if you want and blend in. In this case, I just used Levels to lower the whites and set the blend mode to add/sub.

Tile Sampler Output:

And you get something like this:


Adding reflectivity was pretty standard for the Padded Wall material:

I create my height information first and then create my roughness from various information within that including some additions like dirt & dust. I do find that you need to exaggerate this sometimes to get that really great response seen in a lot of high-end renders. But I tweak that in post by just adjusting the levels in Photoshop. I do this only sometimes, especially if I just want a quick fix.

Others are a lot more complicated as it really all depends on the material at the end of the day. I do think that the contrasts on the map need to be exaggerated at times and layering up your noise appropriate to color and height information is key. You are telling a very crucial story with your roughness; is it new, is it old? How has it been used? What are the weather conditions? Etc. So spending time on your roughness map is really important. But I do believe you need to do it in conjunction with your color map. It’s good to get the base from your height but there are details in your color that will change the roughness response such as dirt, discoloration from age etc.


Toolbag is my new best friend. I love this app. It’s great for all sort of work and super quick even for animations.

I did a project last year that was a complete flythrough of a College using Toolbag as my render engine. It was a leap of faith as the project was huge but it still delivered really quick renders. You can see that project here.

I have also used it for product renders for large fashion brands. One of which was for New Balance shoes which you can find here.

And I extensively use it for all my presentation work. The setups are really dependant on the subject matter but I always stick with a 1-3 point lighting set up to start.

My favorite feature is the ability to add lights directly into the HDRi settings which are fantastic for quickly getting some nice lighting scenarios on-the-go. I also play a lot with other HDRi images rather then the presets you get from Toolbag. There are so many resources online where you can get free HDRi’s so there really is no reason not to. It will make your work stand apart from the rest if you take that extra step.

Light is one of the most important aspects of 3D art. You can have the best material in the world but without great lighting to tell the story, it will just fall flat and be unappealing. So I usually spend a lot of time lighting my images.

A couple of tips when lighting. Make sure, if lighting with 2 or more lights, to test the lights out individually as well as together. Sometimes the lighting gets a bit muddy and you keep tweaking and tweaking and your image just doesn’t improve. By doing them one-by-one, you can remain focused on the story you are trying to tell and keep your lights optimized.

Don’t be afraid to really boost the intensity of your lights in Toolbag. You’ll be surprised how far you can push it and still retain a lot of detail in the highs.

Use bloom minimally and the same with chromatic aberration. These are tropes that should be used sparingly if at all. These effects come from traditional film photography. We add them because digital is super clean and these phenomena are what we are used to seeing in the old mediums. But, as we are in the age of digital, these effects don’t exist unless artificial put there in post to help tell the story. Make sure that these effects help tell your story and not the other way round. I see these setting cranked up all the time and it just muddy’s the image.

And one last thing, always increase the size of your light. This is super important. By changing the width in the light setting you will start to get a nice shadow fall-off that feels more natural rather than the hard stepped edge you get if you don’t increase these settings. And don’t be afraid to increase the Length X and Length Y settings. Especially if you are doing props. This will create a softbox light that would be great for Rim lights or even Fill lights.


Thanks for reading and please get in touch if you would like to chat about anything Game related. You can catch me at:

David Hartmann, Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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