Creating Ink-Style Materials in Substance Designer

Creating Ink-Style Materials in Substance Designer

Marcus Johnston overviewed his workflow in Substance Designer and talked about the production of his recent materials in ink style.


Hey there, my name is Marcus Johnston, I hail from a sleepy little village in the Yorkshire Dales and I’m a 3D texture/environment artist. I’ve participated in a number of online competitions: ‘The Terrier’ for the Hum3D Weapon challenge, most recently the Artstation ‘King Arthur’ challenge in the rendered prop category (2nd place, very chuffed), and way back when ‘The Devoted’ environment for the Cubebrush WORLDS 3D challenge. Besides all that I love to just mess around in Designer and try to learn new things right now. I've worked as a freelancer on the side, but currently, I'm on the hunt for an industry job, so hit me up!

Idea Behind Ink-Style Materials

Since Inktober started, I’d been challenging myself to create a daily substance for 30 days. The challenge was almost over and I was running out of ideas so I thought of doing some dumb, simple ‘traditional’ style material that would be a breath of fresh air. I’d been enjoying creating some stylized materials so I thought it would be easy to follow along with that kind of style. And yeah, it was an excuse to not get the pens out, guilty as charged...

4 Inktober Materials

How to Start

I’d gotten into the rhythm of doing things pretty fast and hacky with these materials, so don’t expect clean graphs or efficiency.

I always start a material by trying to visualize beforehand all the steps I’ll need to do. Just sitting down and taking a moment is a great way of preparing yourself for the dreaded BLANK GRAPH. If you’re not so familiar with Designer then it’ll probably be easier for you to just throw down some nodes that seem like they might do what you want and then just fiddle. Designer is made for fiddling, so fiddle.

At any rate, I’ll usually throw down a tile sampler, clouds, or random grunge, maybe shove some stuff into the Non-Directional Warp Node - whatever gets the brain in gear really. Then, we do the tried and tested ‘Big to small’. I won’t get into all of that because it’s been done before. Height info, then color, then roughness. Tried and tested.

Setting Up the Base

Setting up the base color is quite simple: I always just start with a base, which in this case is slightly off white for the paper. I then decide what I want to feature. With the sandy rocks material, I wanted different shades of ink for different areas of the heightmap, highlights, cavities, shadows, light facing info (which will simply reinforce the effect of the shadows), and lastly, I wanted some subtle ink splotches for a little artistic touch.

For the height info, I just use a histogram select node to mask out the values that I want, whack up the contrast and then plug it into the base color. I use histogram select basically everywhere, especially in the color map, it's fabulous. 

For our highlights we need some normal information, so plug your heightmap into a normal node, then shove that into a curvature or curvature smooth - both will do similar but different things for you. Then, once again pick your values with histogram select. Sharp corners are white, deep cavities are black, and flat surfaces are grey. This is the true meat of my base colors.

For shadows, there's a juicy little node called, funnily enough, 'shadows'. It does exactly what it says on the tin. Set your light angle, shadow distance, and sharpness. Histogram select. Bam.

Our light facing direction is obtained from the 'light' node, fancy that eh? This can be used for all manner of directional effects, moss, etc, but we're gonna use it to reinforce our shadows with a hard, sharp directional mask. Set the highlight glossiness and levels high, the same direction as our shadows, and now we have some shadows with impact!

To add our hatching we simply run some lines through a tile sampler and blend that with the masks we just created.

Ink splotches are as simple as they come: a splatter circular with some randomized values and a transform node to place it nicely in the composition.


There are a million and one ways to create rocks, and with these textures, I tried to create them in different ways. I'm not too fond of creating individual rock shapes and then scattering them with a tile sampler. If I can, I like to do things all at once.

So here I just create some separated shapes by blending together various noises. I’d usually just use a gaussian noise or something similar to create the shapes of the individual rocks. At this stage, I’d run it through a flood fill and use the various flood fill nodes to then multiply and sculpt the individual rocks. Flood fill mapper grayscale places a gradient that I scattered with tile sampler around each rock, then I use a min/darken blend node that shaves pieces off the rocks. Afterward, it’s just a few other minor tweaks to the shape, chipping chunks off and all that. Finally, it’s simply a method of height blending them over the sand.

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Possible Challenges

There weren’t really any challenges per se with this material, although of course, whenever you’re trying something new out in Substance Designer you’re always wondering how it’s going to pan out. Luckily, this all seemed to be going rather smoothly. The watercolor texture I did was a little more tricky with setting up the base color and all the various masks involved for that. Usually, whenever I hit a stump or roadblock in a material, it's always best to take a short break from it then tackle it again with a fresh mind.


In Marmoset Toolbag, I have a massive lighting and presentation template that I pulled together. It contains different variations of HDRIs, different lighting setups, and objects to apply the textures to. I always tend to start off lighting with a 3-point setup and see how far that can get me. Afterward, I’ll experiment a tad more with different warm/cold color variations of light. I try to use the least amount of lights I can, although sometimes adding another rim or key light can really lift the presentation.

Mood-wise, I wanted to create the feeling of a desk lamp overhead casting a shadow onto the paper. This also mutes a lot of the shadows which reinforces the baked-in shadows that we put into the color. It’s paper so best to show it flat right?

And then I tend to always use the ACES format in tone mapping with the settings listed, just to juice up the final renders.


If you want a more in-depth look at one of these materials, I’ve created a full tutorial where I create the iconic AKIRA blast in this style from start to finish. I like the idea of just having one long video and showing all my thought processes, mistakes, and little techniques that might be useful for a lot of people. As a result of this, it's a pretty lengthy and dense tutorial that covers a huge range of aspects of material creation. So if you’re interested, make sure to check it out, I’d greatly appreciate it!

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Lastly, if anyone has any questions or queries, don't hesitate to contact me, I'm always happy to help!

Marcus Johnston, 3D Texture/Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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