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Hello, my name is Lamar McHaney, I’m a freelance 3D environment artist living in San Francisco. I recently finished a personal project Wizard’s Cottage to add to my portfolio. In this article, I will share my thoughts on the development of it.
About Stylized PBR
My last contract was around August 2019 -I worked on an RPG for an outsourcing studio for about 6-7 months. Working with this studio, I learned how to produce work faster. The project was planned to be stylized and I was prepared for hand-painted texturing in the workflow following the diffuse theory. However, they were doing stylized PBR and this is something I haven’t done before. The first thing I learned is that stylized PBR is similar to regular PBR but you can be more creative with the colors by adding stronger hues, saturation, contrast, etc. Rather than using Substance Painter generators to add detail, we would use AO and Curvature maps as masks for fill layers. I thought it was odd, but every studio has different ways of doing things.
Using this method gives you a faster loading time when using smart materials or opening projects. Unfortunately, I can’t show anything from that project, but my most recent personal piece the Wizard’s Cottage was based on the work I did for that contract.
How the Wizard’s Cottage Started
The Wizard’s Cottage is an exercise I did in college for concept art class. I tend to do it regularly as a practice when I’m trying new techniques or learning new software. In 2014, I made a wizard’s cottage based on concept art (image 1) I found on Polycount. The scene was made in UDK (image 2).
I’ve prepared another scene in UE4, just a blockout, for a more realistic take. However, I knew that this approach would take too long to produce the artwork. I haven’t posted anything on my Artstation for almost 4 years and I needed to show what I’ve been working on without showing the actual work.
I began working on the project by concepting the idea, generally starting with shapes in the thumbnail form. After making about 20 thumbnails, I chose 5 to make in full concept.
Goals & General Workflow
For this project, my goal was to create a stylized wizard’s cottage diorama. My reason for this project was to display my ability to produce work at the level of a mid-senior environment artist. I also wanted to put together a timelapse video of my texturing process, while approaching this piece similar to the work I did in a previous contract.
More than that, I wanted to show what I’m capable of producing within a short amount of time. I approached this project as a contract or studio work. I gave myself a deadline, there were limits set on the texture quality, polycount limit, clean modeling as well as intention to get consistent feedback and make changes based on it. It’s good practice to treat your personal work as if you’re in a professional setting.
When starting any project I go through the following steps:
- phase 1 lighting
- full modeling
- a post for critique
- ZBrush high poly modeling
- phase 1 texturing
- phase 2 lighting
- a post for critique
- phase 2 texturing
- a post for critique
- final texturing
- final lighting
- and a post with the final project
I like to consistently post the work in progress because it’s important to get feedback from your peers/fellow artists. As an artist, you can become blinded by your work. After all the hours you put in, you might start thinking that your work can’t be improved as if you've thought of everything - but you’re wrong. The 3D community is exceptional and we should use it to produce better work. We have plenty of forums, blogs, videos, and tutorials that are shared among us. We are always ready to help each other improve the craft of 3D art. Even with my finished piece, I still think there are some things I could do to polish the stylized look.
Now, let's move onto one of my favorite parts of the process - looking for reference. I’ll spend an entire workday getting the references. There are so many great artists/studios that put out some really inspiring works. Most of my reference was from artists at Airship Syndicate, Blizzard, Riot Games, and some freelancers. The references were found on Artstation. Michael Vicente’s work on Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm was especially great.
I also found a really good piece of concept art from OKU. The colors stood out the most to me in this piece.
Using PureRef, free software that gives the user an endless space to store all their references, I was able to set my images all in one place.
My models were built in Maya, starting with the low poly. In order to achieve good texture resolution, the scene was separated into 4 texture sets. The exported low poly models were used in ZBrush to create the high poly models. I used Michael Vicente’s free Orb brush pack to sculpt the high poly detail.
Once the high poly models were done, I began baking the detail in Marmoset Toolbag. To get proper bakes, I separated everything into groups. That's something I learned from the texture baking tutorial on Marmoset’s website (image below is from the tutorial video). I started with low-resolution bakes to check for mistakes, most of the time there are a few. When the bakes were done I headed into Substance Painter.
After looking at some of the references I gathered, I reshaped my concepts to have more contours. I decided to push forward with the shape below.
Once I saw this shape, I was excited to move forward with the concept.
Recording the Process
Before I began texturing, I’d also decided to record my texturing process. I purchased an affordable capture card from Amazon, AVerMedia AVerCapture HD, on sale for $80. The capture card allowed me to record using my laptop while I worked on my desktop. The laptop held the processing strain of recording, while my desktop was able to perform normally.
The most challenging part of this project was doing the recording. It required understanding the correct video bitrate, remembering to stop without moving the camera in Substance Painter, or making sure I have enough hard drive space for the video. At one point, I recorded for 4 hours but the file became corrupted and unusable. After that, I learned the best strategy was to record for an hour. Every hour I would stop recording, take a 15 min break, and begin recording again. I used OBS to record on the laptop. OBS is free open-source software for video recording and live streaming, it’s mainly used by Twitch streamers. When I was done texturing and recording, I had over 60 hours of footage.
All the materials had to be stylized. I created 5 tileable materials in Substance Designer before heading into Substance Painter: a flat grass, wall, wood, and dirt/sand texture. Each piece was made separately in ZBrush before heading into Substance Designer.
Here is what some of them look like:
The wall texture was referenced from Kiki’s Delivery Service.
While working on the modeling, I was watching the movie. I couldn’t come up with an idea for the wall texture and thought that a simple brick wall wouldn’t make sense. There was an idea to make a rock clay texture, but that didn’t turn out well.
I went back into ZBrush, started working on the flat surface, then moved on to see what it looked like with a few added bricks. As mentioned previously, I like to separate everything in ZBrush before heading to Substance Designer. In ZBrush, I switch the document size to 4096 x 4096, refocus the canvas, change the material to NormalRGBMat and go to the render tab to click on “Best”. After the render is complete, go to the document tab and click zAppLink button.
zAppLink will take the ZBrush canvas as an image, then place it directly into Adobe Photoshop. The size will be based on the document size of ZBrush, in this particular case, 4096 x 4096 pixels. In Photoshop, I save out the images as .png, then jump into Substance Designer. To be honest with you I’m still new to Substance Designer, but I was able to put together a texture I was happy with. There were 2 variations.
I followed this workflow for all the tileable materials in the scene.
I didn't plan to make the interior of the cottage because it was out of my time frame. I wanted the windows to glow as if there was some activity happening inside. My roommate was the one who said there should be sparks and fireworks coming from the chimney and I thought about how I could do that in UE4. The first thing that came to my head was to use a panner, but Marmoset doesn’t have a panner. Wrong. After googling “if there was panner in marmoset”, Marmoset’s add-on page popped up. The add-on page contains custom shaders and plugins, some are free. The custom panner shader was created by Danilo Paulo, it’s available for free on Gumroad. I used the panner on both the sparks and smoke coming from the chimney.
The windmill was animated in Maya, I exported each piece separately as an FBX file. FBX file holds a lot of information including animation. The emissive lights on the doors and windows were animated in Marmoset.
The project took a month to complete. The editing of the timelapse video took additional 2 weeks. The most time-consuming part was the texturing stage. Hand-painted textures have a particular flow. You’re literally painting like Bob Ross on a 3D object, it’s fun but stressful. My workflow helped me stay focused on my goal. Like any other project, I make sure to put my best foot forward with the knowledge and skill I have.
I should mention that one of the big things that help me achieve a more stylized look is to add more saturated colors and use more color theory to better fit my composition. These are things I’m trying to get better at. I can improve my skills by studying and practicing, so I’m constantly analyzing others' work, reading articles on new techniques or software, and practicing those ideas in my workflow.
Thank you for taking the time to check out this article and my work. I really appreciate 80 Level and everyone who’s trying to improve themselves. If you want to check out more of my work, you can find it on Artstation or Lamarmchaney.com. I’m currently looking for a paid job, so if you need an environment artist for your team please feel free to reach out to me. I hope everyone is staying safe and using this time to become better at their craft.