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Stylized Prop Art: Modeling and Retopology in Maya

Harley Gresham talked about the production of a stylized Chieftain's Axe prop modeled in Maya and ZBrush, textured in Substance Painter, and rendered in Marmoset Toolbag.


Hi! I'm Harley Gresham, a 3D Environment Artist from Australia, currently working at Senju Kobo in Tokyo, Japan. This is my first job in the game industry, and I only started this month (March 2020)! Senju Kobo specializes in background art outsourcing, from concept to final render/asset. We do work for a variety of clients in different fields including gaming, advertising, animation, and more. I'm currently working there as an Environment Artist while also providing English support for the company. We're looking forward to working with more Western companies, so give us a look!  

Learning 3D

I initially wanted to be a Level Designer, so I took a major in Games Design at SAE Institute Brisbane in 2014. However, I ended up enjoying art more, particularly environment art. But, because of the tough state of the game industry in Australia at the time and a desire to travel, I came to Japan to try English Teaching and I ended up staying there! It was only in 2017 that I started seriously learning 3D. Since then, I've learned pretty much everything online through various tutorials on the internet and various Discord communities. More recently, I took an online mentorship with Dylan Mellott at The Mentor Coalition. I highly recommend people take mentorships like Dylan's and participate in communities on Discord. It's crucial to get eyes on your work, and it's far less lonely too!

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Chieftain's Axe: Start of the Project

My goal was to challenge myself and explore Maya in time for my new job in March as well as learn more about stylized art. I made a chest prop for a Borderlands 3 competition in December, and it was so much fun it made me want to do even more stylized work. So, I took Dylan's mentorship as I liked his stylized weapons

We started by choosing 10 possible concepts on Artstation, and Dylan narrowed it down to 3 based on what he thought we would benefit most from. Maksim Ukolov's Warrior Axe was the final choice. I can't say I drew from too much real reference this time, except for the skull - I needed some deer skull photos to help me with the parts not visible in the concept. Aside from that, I found it helpful to look at Stylized Station, 3dEx on Youtube, and games like Paladins, Overwatch, and Fortnite to better understand what differentiates stylized art from realism. Of course, though being stylized, these games do not have the same style, but there are certain universal aspects like silhouette, edge detail, and color choice that you can pick out.

Modeling Stage

I started the blockout in Maya, and following some revision, I took it into ZBrush for the high-poly. I did the smoothing in there too, as I'm not confident with Maya's hard-surface high-poly methods quite yet.

Initially, I had some trouble with capturing the shape in the blockout because I was spending too much time adding in extra polys for every little bump on the object. Dylan gave me some great guidance and I started over. This time, I went for a simpler blockout that still matched the silhouette, but didn't go into too much unnecessary detail. It is very important to match the silhouette as much as you can, as you can save a lot of time later on in retopology but you can create unnecessary trouble for yourself if you over-complicate the blockout. That's a skill I think you can only learn from practice.

I modeled the axe head flat, then simply pulled the verts so that I could get that lovely sharp edge it has in the concept. Then, in ZBrush, it was a simple matter of using trim smooth border, Orb's crack brush, as well as a bit of hPolish and claybuildup to beat up the surface a bit and introduce some smaller details. This gave the normals interesting information to catch the light when it reflects off the axe head's metal surface.

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As the skull is an organic object, I didn't fully block it out in Maya - I gave myself a good base to start with and then built it up in ZBrush.

As for the handle, that was perhaps the easiest step of all. I started with a cylinder, bent it a little, then masked it with the standard brush in ZBrush, inverted the mask, and did a negative inflate. Finally, I chipped away at some of the edges with trim smooth border and then did a claypolish. Easy, right?

By the way, if you're looking for a good Maya addon, I highly recommend Malcolm341's Maya Scripts. They solve so many niggles for me in Maya and make the workflow much smoother. I recommend picking up his $20 pack. I'm still discovering useful functions the more I use it. 

Retopology & UVing in Maya

Retopology was fairly simple for most of the pieces, except for the skull and axe head. Fortunately, Maya's retopo tools are pretty robust, so you can rely on the quad draw tool to do a lot of the work. As for the other parts, since I matched the silhouette closely when modeling in the beginning, I saved myself a lot of time with retopology. There was one issue with baking the skull, but it just took a few times of going back and forth from Maya to Marmoset Toolbag with different unwraps, more polys, and different smoothing to get what I wanted.

UVing is also pretty good in Maya. I used Malcolm's handy unwrapping scripts in conjunction with the 3D cut and sew tool to get through most of the way. I recommend checking out his Youtube videos on UVing in Maya to get a better idea of the process.

Retopology and unwrapping are still a bit of a struggle for me at times, and I'm sure I would've been stricter with my polycount if it was a game prop. But, given the fact it is a portfolio piece, we can get away with a little extra polycount. After all, it is better to capture your high-poly than introduce normal errors by being overzealous with reducing polycount.


In Substance Painter, I prefer to use generators to get through 80% of the way. I find it's best to leave your texturing as non-destructive as possible until the end of the process so that you can iterate very quickly. And, If you find any baking problems or just errors you never noticed before, it's very handy using generators rather than wasting time repainting your custom masks.

My basic stylized workflow is to start with a base color, then a gradient, some color variation for surface information, curvature to hit the edges, and then some further surface details. From there, you can layer on further effects. Any stylized artist will tell you that a gradient is an incredibly useful layer. As an example, if you've ever looked at any of the TF2 characters, you'll notice a gradient from bottom to top, light to dark. This attracts the eye to the more important parts of the character. And, although this is a prop, you can apply the same technique for good results. As for the curvature, start with a thick edge, even if it may seem a bit too much at first. You want this because you're going to cut away at this edge, and you can always pull it back later if you find it necessary. One thing to avoid though is having too much of an "outline" on different parts of your mesh, so just pull it back and cut away at some edges.

I think should mention some of the extra materials I used. I made the base color of the bone with SoMuchMaterials. If you haven't seen this already I definitely recommend picking it up. It's just amazing what you can do with it. 3dEx and Stylized Station also have great tutorials on building a basic stylized material that you can apply to pretty much all of your stylized work. You can also learn a lot from the realistic materials that come with Painter by looking through the different layers and experimenting with how the material uses generators, fills, masks and so on. They might be intended for realistic work, but you can definitely find useful layers for stylized art too.

Rendering in Marmoset Toolbag

For the rendering stage in Marmoset Toolbag, I always stick to a three-point light setup from the HDR. Generally speaking, I usually take the overall environment brightness down and push the individual lights up a tad. This just helps you get stronger shadows and a more noticeable color from the individual lights. You do need to be careful with how much you push these values though since you should avoid washing out your colors completely. An earlier version of my render had this problem. Lastly, I added an orange rim light to make the image a little more dynamic. It was feeling a bit flat without it, and Dylan suggested highlighting the axe head. In this case, it was a great choice.

For the post effects on the camera, I use the Heji Tone Mapping and boost the exposure quite a bit. Be careful not to blow out the values too much, but generally higher saturation looks good for stylized work. And, a vignette is a very easy way to make the image look a little more interesting, so why not give it a go? I don't like to add too much sharpening, but a little of it helps pick out some of the finer details. Marmoset Toolbag is just such a fantastic piece of software. I'm sure if I can make a nice render with it, you can too!


If I were to give some general tips for stylized art, I'd say it's really important to keep clean, clear silhouettes. It might be tempting to add more details, but a clean silhouette should be your focus. The surface normal detail of stylized work can be kept relatively simple. It's best to keep clean surfaces that you can later texture by hand or with generators. This is what I did with the cloth and leather parts of the mesh and I think it turned out pretty well.

Another important thing to keep in mind for stylistic work is to keep your edges relatively thick and consistently sized in your high-poly. Realistic high-poly work is usually much tighter, but for stylistic work, we need the thickness of the edges for our curvature map, and to keep our edges nice and distinct at a distance.

When texturing, you can use some roughness variation, but keep it subtle. The same goes for height detail. I use it as a slight accent on certain parts of the mesh, not too much, but a tiny bit does a lot to make patterns and shapes pop. We can also cheat a little when doing metal and pull its value a little lower than you would normally do for realistic work. This might break the PBR guidelines, but the result matters more! And, speaking of metal, don't just go for the obvious silver, gold, bronze colors we associate with metal, try playing with some other color variations, too. Little highlights of orange, purple and blue can add a lot of interest. Just take a look at some real-life metal reference and you'll probably notice it. With stylized texturing, you should always think about how you can exaggerate real-life colors to push your piece further.

Harley Gresham, 3D Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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