Emulating Andrew Wyeth's Painting in 3D

Michael Maloney analyzed the art of Andrew Wyeth, a well-known American painter of the 20th century, and talked about the way he tried to capture the essence of one of Wyeth's paintings in 3D.

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Overview & Intent 

My overall goal was to interpret Andrew Wyeth's original work “Perpetual Care”, not to replicate it. Given that I am not one of the American Masters of Painting, nor am I under the impression that I could become one in 2.5 weeks I had to complete this piece, I chose to capture the spirit and the mood that I see in this work rather than make an exact copy. 

To me, Wyeth is the Sad Country Music of painters. His scenes are beautiful but often carry an air of desolation or loneliness. I've heard people say that his work is "without atmosphere" (in a positive way), in that it has a rather infinite depth of field where he wants it to, and lacks a definition of distance or volume in space that's usually created by atmospheric fog or other techniques to fade the far-away objects. His colors are muted, and he prefers the beautiful but barren landscapes of the rural northeast over the overt grandeur of other places. 

Wyeth was a master renderer who balanced large shapes and volumes laid furiously on the surface with the most minute details, diligently applied with drybrush. He was known to hone in on small details and obsess over them - he often painted every blade of grass by hand. I find that in many of his works I can see at least one area of photorealistic quality - it might be the way the light hits a patch of wallpaper or the small of a woman's back, but it's always there. 

So instead of copying this exactly, I established several guiding principles based on my interpretation of the work: 

  1. Composition (Wyeth was known for being unconventional with composition), proportion, scale, and lighting are of paramount importance.
  1. When in doubt, add more details (do this with textures, not geometry) or variety - don't get lazy.
  1. Aim for creating the same kind of texture and character by sticking to his color palette and hand-painting with a physical paint simulation where possible.
  1. Go nuts with vegetation.

In summary, I think Wyeth was mistaken for a realist by many of his contemporaries, but his work was an interpretation of the real, not an attempt at replication. That's what I tried to capture in this scene. 

Reference 

Putting together reference images is not something I’m consistently disciplined with, so I made it a point to build up a pretty good collection of them for this project. I had the painting as my central reference point, but then honed in on certain details I know I’d need to look at in isolation (clapboard, windows, doors, gravestones) and arranged them all on a PureRef board. I also took other bits of Wyeth paintings to elaborate on the details that weren’t very clear in the main painting, such as grass and vegetation. 

I’d consider the color palette part of the reference here, and I researched Wyeth's palette instead of trying to sample colors from images of the painting - it turns out a lot of people aren't very good at photographing paintings. With his colors (converted to RBG as closely as possible) at my disposal, I could maintain consistency across the scene and across texturing programs. 

Blockout 

It was easy to focus on shapes, and I started with some simple blockouts of the major elements of the scene. I had a harder time than I thought I would in matching the scene camera with the "camera" in Wyeth's painting since, well, there isn't a camera. Instead, it’s Wyeth’s masterful eye, and he takes subtle licenses with depth and perspective that are hard to match exactly. 

I tried initially to work out the focal length and camera placement manually, but gave up pretty quickly when I remembered there’s a great addon for Blender called fSpy (formerly blam) for doing just that. It took me about 5 minutes to match everything up once I got fSpy and its associated addon installed. I still had to tweak things a little bit, but this made it much, much easier to match the shot (still not exact) with the painting. 

After I had the initial shapes down, I flooded them with the main albedo values I wanted to use in texturing - basically, a value study like you do in drawing and painting. At this stage, I had also done some work to get the lighting down so that I was choosing color values intelligently and could bring the lighting into Substance Painter when it came time for texturing. I used an HDRI from HDRIHaven and added a directional light to do some highlights that weren't coming through with just the HDRI. Painters have a lot of flexibility with light... 

Initial Blockout / Values Blockout & Camera Fix:

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Modeling 

I made all the models in this scene from scratch, except for the foliage in the basket. I found the roses in the comments on a YouTube tutorial (though I textured them myself), and the leaves are from Megascans, though I painted over them in Krita. Overall, nothing fancy in this stage, just box modeling. I wanted the details to be in the texture painting, not in the geometries. I didn't sculpt at all and used booleans pretty sparingly. However, using my guiding principles, I did go nuts on vegetation, creating almost 20 unique foliage objects. 

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Texturing 

This was where the majority of the time on this project was focused (probably 50 aggregate hours), and boy, did I learn a lot about all the holes in my UVing technique. 

I usually don't spend a ton of time organizing UVs unless I'm using trim sheets or tiling textures to cover large surfaces. I use Substance Painter for prop texturing, and it's pretty forgiving if you're somewhat intelligent about UV layouts. 

Here, I needed every object I hand-painted (most of the assets, though a few background ones were procedurally textured) to be laid out so that brush strokes in Krita would continue predictably from one surface to any of its adjacent surfaces without breaking. I basically laid out each object's UVs as if they were on a sheet of paper, working from the bottom of the object to the top. I used the free Blender addon called UV Squares a lot to help flatten curved surfaces so that brush strokes would be directional by default, and I could predict a change in direction to create contour where I wanted to. There were some minimal issues with normal artifacts and stretching, but nothing bad enough to spend a large amount of time moving individual vertices around on the UVs. 

Once my UVs were done, I settled (after about a day of trial and error) on the following workflow for texturing: 

  1. Import model into Substance Painter, bake normals from high poly where needed, as well as other maps to drive mask generators 
  1. Create additional height details, largely procedural 
  2. Flood fill each of the objects with colors from Wyeth's palette to match the values assigned in blockout 
  1. Add procedural details (basic color blends, black on edges, moss placement, etc.) using the micro height details and baked maps to drive mask generators where necessary 
  1. Export albedo, normal, roughness, metal, and height maps 
  2. Bring albedo map into Krita (except for the handful of assets I procedurally textured) 
  1. Paint fill areas with Krita watercolor and blending tools 
  2. Paint drybrush details similarly 
  3. Export albedo map finished in Krita 
  4. Import all maps to Blender, set up material (note - I did use SSS driven by albedo in the Blender shaders for the vegetation, but I didn’t author subsurface maps in Substance Painter
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I chose Krita for painting because it's free, good, and I've been trying to learn digital painting with it for about a month so the interface was familiar. It also has pretty good watercolor simulation, which is apparently hard to find. About three days before I finished, I read about ArtRage, and I'll definitely be buying that if I keep up with digital drawing and painting. All that said, I could have used any one of a variety of tools for this, but I chose Krita because it was familiar and accomplished what I needed from it quite well. 

Layout 

Also nothing fancy here. I replaced the blockout elements with their finished counterparts using a handy Blender addon called Copy Attributes, tweaked lighting, and covered the ground mesh with foliage using a separate particle system for each class of vegetation, weight painting the ground to apply them diligently. 

Compositing & Finishing 

I did very little compositing for this scene because I don't really know any compositing tricks aside from color grading and basic things with brightness, contrast, saturation, etc. 

I didn't use any "artistic" filters to create any of the textures or apply them to the render - the painterly character is entirely created in texturing. Most of the color grading and exposure comes from the camera, and I used Blender's film setting with the Agfa Agfacolor Vista 800 preset applied. I desaturated and brightened the image with Blender's compositor, but applied no other effects. 

In Closing 

Overall, I’m very pleased with how this turned out. It was a pretty huge challenge I wasn’t entirely sure I could rise to, but I’m proud of myself and I gained a ton of confidence during the process. 

I actually have one question about the painting that I haven’t been able to answer: 

Is the “Father” headstone really there at this church? Does anybody know about that? Wyeth had a very strong relationship with his father, N.C. Wyeth, who died tragically in a car wreck. I’ve been wondering about that detail - did he put it in the painting to (potentially) memorialize his father, or is it actually there? That's a pretty significant choice if he did. I have one blurry picture of the actual cemetery at this church (the First Baptist Church in Cushing, Maine) but I can’t tell. The stone is there, but it's impossible to read the writing on it. 

Michael Maloney, XR Technologist & 3D Artist

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    Emulating Andrew Wyeth's Painting in 3D