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KukerMat: Interpreting a Bulgarian Costume in Substance Painter

Nikolay Marinov did a breakdown of his MeetMat 2 entry KukerMat that won the first place in the student category.


My name is Nikolay Marinov. I am 22 years old and I study Computer Engineering at the University of Ruse, Bulgaria, though currently, I'm at the University of Coimbra, Portugal, doing an exchange program for my final thesis.

At the moment, I’m working as a Junior Environment Artist at V Media and I also recently became a part-time Texture Artist at KitBash3D. Since the last interview with 80 Level, I’ve been trying to get better at making procedural materials with Substance Designer and gest a grasp of different software solutions like Houdini and Gaea.

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MeetMat Entry: KukerMat

I’ve been waiting for Substance to announce Meet Mat 2 for a long time because during their first competition I was quite new to the world of CGI and didn’t have enough knowledge/skills to participate. I knew that the majority of people would try to make Sci-Fi Mats so I tried to think of an original idea that would let me work on multiple different materials and let me push the limits of Substance Painter. I thought that it would be interesting and original to show the world something traditional from Bulgaria.

My MeetMat: KukerMat represents a traditional Bulgarian costume worn by men who perform rituals and dances to scare away evil spirits and bring good health to the village. That has been a tradition in Bulgaria for many centuries. I gathered a lot of references, combined different ideas I had in my head, and started working on it. The hard part was that I took something scary and had to portray it on the Mat, which is generally quite a cute 3D model. I wanted to keep the whole aesthetic of a plush animal but preserve the main features of the Kukeri.

Face & Horns

The face was the hardest part of the whole project. I made everything in two days and spent another five days on the wooden mask. I think I made around 40 different variations of it. The people from the Experience Points Discord channel helped a lot with their valuable feedback. Also, as mentioned above, it was hard to make everything work together to maintain the scary look of the real world masks and make it cute enough for the Mat.

The horns were definitely my favorite part of the project. I usually don’t use Substance Painter that much and that was the first time I tried the displacement option in it. Due to the nature of the competition, I knew that If I wanted to make horns I would have to use displacement. I carefully sculpted the initial shape of the horns with a couple of alphas and then made a couple of separate layer stacks with different materials. I switched between each one of them to paint the pixels around the displacement. That way, when I cranked the tessellation up, these materials stretched with the height and I used the tessellation artifacts as an effect to texture the side of the horns.


The suit is entirely referenced from traditional Bulgarian clothes called “nosia”.  Personally, I found that the best way to work on this project was to divide the layer stack into height layers and layers for everything else. I used a lot of the grunge alphas that come with Substance Painter to paint and erase spots where I wanted height. It made everything look really natural.

For the different materials, I just used noises that I know in Substance Designer. One of my favorite parts of the process was doing the wool on the legs. I stared with Gradient Linear 3, Perlin Noise, and Blur for the Height and used Cells 1, Blur Slope, and Blur for the details of the texture, plus a lot of hand-painted height details with the alphas as I mentioned earlier. Because I didn’t have time to make the Height perfect, I controlled everything connected with height with Levels. For other materials, I usually like to start with a smart material and change absolutely everything in it. I do it in order to have something to work from rather than creating everything from scratch - it makes the creative process a lot better. The external alphas I used were made mostly in Substance Designer because I’m a lot faster in it than in Photoshop and I can easily preview the result there.

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I dived deep into a lot of books and information available online about Bulgarian Kukeri so that I had enough references to understand how I wanted to represent the idea on the Mat. I made sure that every color I used was consistent with the rest of the colors used on the body. I tried to reference a lot of children’s books and toys because I wanted to have the general feel of a plush toy when I looked at it. There is a really cool custom node in Substance Designer that lets you preview the color palette of a bitmap and I used that to see if everything was consistent. But there are also a ton of websites online that can give you the same result.

Preparing the Render

It was quite hard to render the project Iray because I mainly use Marmoset Toolbag 3, Unreal Engine 4 and on some occasions Blender Cycles. My main problem was that my project became quite big with about 800+ layers so changing the parameters took a lot of time while I’m quite used to real-time renderers that show the effect instantly.

In any renderer, the main thing is to make sure your lighting is on point. Here you have to depend a lot on HDRi environments so the first logical step is to find one that suits your project. For me, the studio environments were the best options because you could easily set up 3-point lighting with them. Then I had to figure out a good color for the background that would make my model pop but wouldn't be distracting. After that, I had to set up the field of view, focal length, and post-processing effects. I first started with the Color Correction tab to get good overall contrast, then I moved to the Tone Mapping tab and set up the Mapping Factor to Sensitometric. After that, I added some Vignetting and lens distortion. The final thing I did was to add a color profile – everyone else might know it as Look Up Table (LUT). I used the redlog profile with the white point set quite low.

Tips for Learning/Working in Substance

When I first started watching tutorials on Substance Painter, I started with the ones from Tim Bergholz, specifically the Battle Mech one. It’s a comprehensive tutorial that helps you get started with the basics in no time.

As I said, I mainly use Substance Designer but the same tricks could be applied in Substance Painter as I did with the KukerMat. Another great place to start learning these tricks is from Daniel Thiger’s tutorials.

A lot of general stuff I learned about Substance comes from a really talented artist Abderrezzak Bouheda - he took the time to help me understand some of the core principles of the software.

Whatever you’re doing inside Substance Painter or Substance Designer, remember that you first have to gather a lot of real-life references. Then you can go on Artstation and look if someone has made something similar. Chances are that they have and you will probably find a small breakdown that will help you grasp the core principles of the process.

When you start working on your piece, you have to separate your reference images so that you could tell the Macro details, Mid details, and Micro details apart and also to take as much time to get your Roughness Map right. Most importantly, you want to have clear shapes that convey lots of details without being too noisy. Most of the feedback I got from people who liked the KukerMat was that it was really detailed. But these details are not distracting and they read well with the shapes, colors, and overall composition.

Nikolay Marinov, Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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Comments 1

  • Anonymous user

    great competition entry and very interesting breakdown and background information on the creation.  good work. ?


    Anonymous user

    ·4 years ago·

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