Texturing a Polar CliMATe Scientist in Substance Painter

Texturing a Polar CliMATe Scientist in Substance Painter

William Ruhlig described his workflow for creating the Polar CliMATe Scientist project that won him the first place in the Meet Mat 2 competition and shared his take on Substance Painter.

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Hi! I'm William Ruhlig, a South African artist and indie game developer.

I originally began my career as a digital graphic designer at a company called Trigger-Isobar here in South Africa. Since then, I’ve moved more into freelance work and my own passion projects – I am currently working on developing my own game (it’s about isolation on Mars, which feels eerily appropriate right now). I like to keep my creativity fresh, learn new skills, and participate in odd competitions. Over the last few years, I have done a bit of animation training and teaching at the University of Pretoria where I studied a degree in Information Design. I’ve always had a passion for illustration, games, animation, and 3D art, but beyond the design experience, I’ve been primarily been working and learning independently.

You can follow me on Twitter, Instagram, and Artstation. (I’m still working on expanding my digital presence, so there may be other channels like Patreon and YouTube in the future!)

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Polar CliMATe Scientist: Inspiration

I’ve often used the handle Pikkewynman online, it means “Penguin Man” in Afrikaans (one of the 11 official languages in South Africa) – so, with the proportions of the MeetMat Model, I thought it would be interesting to try to make some sort of a penguin design. Initially, I was going to do some sort of aviator penguin, with those old World War 1 goggles and a leather jacket but one of my close friends reminded me of a fun meme with a penguin and some scientists. I thought it would be great to change my guy and from there it was a lot of fun turning him into the best climate research scientist he could be!

Texturing the Head

The face took a lot of attention, mainly on the height data, and the face was all hand-painted! The biggest tip I have for painting displacements is working with a very low opacity soft brush and slowly layering up, otherwise, you might not have enough control and will make just sharp-edged strokes.

The fur was actually surprisingly simple to set up but took a lot of tweaking to get a nice look. I used a fill layer, isolating the area I wanted with a mask; in the fill, I used the fur generator on the height field with its settings adjusted to be very small and detailed. I used a couple of these layers and then tweaked the result in a layer above using the same mask and height on passthrough, with a levels adjustment to tweak the height. I also did one or two additional layers with some randomization in the mask to make the fur have some more uneven clumpiness. I used the height data to add subsurface scattering to the tips of the fur to give it a more realistic feel. The color of the fur comes from a simple clouds generator overlayed on the color. I used a LOT of layers to finish it.

The goggles were also hand-painted, but with more emphasis on the more manufactured lines to make it really feel real. I used colored glass with a high metalness for the iridescent reflections, and finger smudges for that extra realism and grunge.

Texturing the Jacket

The first step I took in the project was switching the texture resolution up to 4k. It might have slowed down my computer incredibly (it’s ancient, by the way) but the amount of extra fine details it allows you to add was totally worth it. You could probably adjust this setting later into a project to avoid the slowdown if you are using Substance materials and filters only, but I was using my own painted bits and didn't want to lose quality on those. The base texture comes from one available on Substance Sourcecotton polar fleece – but that's a bit boring as is.

I began by using a dirt generator to add some imperfection over the whole jacket because wear-and-tear add a more realistic feel. I found a free alpha pack for cloth folds and wrinkles that I used for the base shapes and then used the normal soft brush to paint over and smooth out the folds. I also used the smear brush a bit here.

I then used some stitch brushes from Substance Share and painstakingly went over all the areas adding in stitches one-by-one with height data and a cotton thread texture. It was the same process for the patches on his shoulders. Working with symmetry helped speed things up a bit here. The snow in the folds of the clothing was created by taking all the height and normal data that had been produced and using a combined mask of ambient occlusion and 3D position generators to isolate the places I wanted the snow on. This way, when I changed things, it would adapt to the underlying layers so I didn't have to repaint it from scratch.

Jacket Patch

Did you know those iconic red polar jackets are a specific brand? Canada Goose Expedition Jacket – I took a lot of reference images of scientists on Google and from the Canada Goose website itself to ensure a natural and realistic feel. Those jackets also have iconic patches for their expeditions, so I made my own "penguinified" one. That was the only thing I made outside Substance Painter, a basic logo and text layout which was then completely redone with stitching and coloring in SP.

Reference material is always the best way to get more natural results in my opinion. I didn’t try to create any specific color palette but tried more to match the colors of the references.

Advantages of Substance Painter

I think Substance Painter is an incredible tool. Being able to export textures packed for specific game engines or other tools is so convenient, but what I really loved was the layering, anchors, and filters. Being able to make a mask using specific properties from other layers and apply effects to specific channels is incredibly powerful. I used it for all sorts of things, the snow piling onto exposed parts of the model, or adjusting the fur length, they’re simple but core features for me.

The addition of displacement and tessellation in Substance Painter really allowed my imagination to go wild, and I tried to make the most out of it for this project. Without these awesome features, there would have been far less freedom to completely modify the silhouette of the MeetMAT model.

Learning Software

Not sure if you’ll believe me but… This was actually my first project in Substance Painter!

If you want to learn Substance Painter, I think the best way to do it is to open the software and try everything. Try all the brushes, filters and generators, see what they do, mess with all their options, combine them… Experiment! I do this with any software I use, and it really speeds up the learning process. Tutorials are great for specific techniques, but to actually learn you need to try and create something. This contest was a great learning experience for me.

I found Substance Painter incredibly intuitive. Looking at other artists and seeing their breakdowns can also be very inspiring. The one main thing I learned from a tutorial was from the actual MeetMat2 competition announcement video where they discussed anchor points. That was very useful, and I might not have thought of using them otherwise. There are probably still many more features to learn in the future! Substance's YouTube channel and magazine have very useful short learning videos/articles too.

With global events being what they are, and many of us staying indoors, now is a great time to open Substance Painter and mess around. For those who are keen, as far as I understand, they have reset all the trial versions. So be like the CliMATe Scientist, and explore!


I really want to thank Substance and Adobe and all of their sponsors and partners in this contest. It was an amazing experience and there are many incredible artworks that came out if it! Congratulations to all the other winners and entrants!

William Ruhlig, Digital Artist & Indie Game Developer

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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    Texturing a Polar CliMATe Scientist in Substance Painter