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Thais Del Rey shared a detailed breakdown of her stylized diorama WindRunner Legacy inspired by World of Warcraft lore. In the first part, she covered planning, concepting, modeling, and sculpting stages of the project as well as UV mapping. In the second part, she’ll focus on texturing, painting, lighting, and presentation.
Hi, my name is Thais Del Rey, I’m a 3D artist from Brazil but currently live in Texas. My main focus is stylized and hand-painted game environments but I do enjoy trying out a little bit of everything when it comes to art and new tools. I’m a recent Game Art graduate from Full Sail University and most recently joined the Airship Syndicate Environment Team!
I’ve been doing game art for only 2 years so far but art, in general, has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Since I was very little I loved drawing, painting, and creating so I knew I wanted to work with something like this. I started learning digital painting about 8 years ago and my biggest inspiration has always been fantasy worlds and stories. My favorite thing is to work with unique concepts of things that don’t exist in real life and I think that games are a perfect field for that.
I’m also very interested in the technical side of games so I am always trying to implement new procedural tools in different workflows for my stylized projects. As a hand-painted artist, being more on the traditional side compared to nowadays realistic graphics is definitely a little intimidating, but I do believe there is a good side to this and that it’s important to adapt and implement new techniques in the workflow to keep the style alive and optimized.
Defining Your Goals
When starting a project, I like to have a very well defined theme and goal before I start developing it since this helps to avoid a lot of stress later on. It is much harder to change the theme in the middle of the project than in the initial exploratory phase. The planning part was something I always had trouble doing since organizing a whole project can be very confusing and often overlooked. I highly recommend this extremely helpful book by Alex Galuzin if you also have some trouble planning your environments and want to approach it in a smarter way.
For the Windrunner Legacy project, my goal was to make a 3D hand-painted diorama and the initial theme would be the older High Elves structures from World of Warcraft lore. I was particularly inspired by exploring the visual concepts of High Elves structures in their prime before joining the horde when they were still part of the alliance since this is a part of the prologue that leads to the current game.
The absolute first thing you want to do is to collect a lot of references. I have a more chaotic approach to this stage since I like to spend a long time on Google, Pinterest and Artstation researching and collecting all the references I think will be helpful or related to the theme and drop it all on a folder. Sometimes, I can end up with around 300+ images by the end of the process, and probably only 15 of them are really useful so you don’t have to do the exact same thing.
In the end, I select only a couple of images and make a quick collage in PureRef. The trick is to face reference-gathering like research to try to get really familiar with your choice of the theme and a little more specific with your goals.
In this project, this was when I decided to include some more lore by adding the pedestals for the Windrunner sisters to display their bows as an artifact of some sort. By getting specific with your theme, you will start to have a more interesting and appealing idea with a solid foundation and will be able to implement cool visual clues rather than just have a really broad theme like Elves.
Concept Art and Design
After refining the idea and collecting some reference I moved to the concept art phase. Your theme should dictate your design choices and shapes. I still have a lot to learn about concept art and design and I’m definitely not qualified to teach but my advice would be:
- to study the fundamentals of art and principles of design
- to focus on big, medium and small shapes
- to balance between curved and sharp lines, areas of rest and areas of high detail
- to look for some ways to create interesting silhouettes, Shape language, and common archetypes
- and many other essential things such as negative space, focal point, symmetry, asymmetry, values, color, patterns, architecture, materials, textures and etc.
These are all things you should try to keep in mind when working on a project. There is always something new to learn and as an artist, you will never stop discovering new things. So don’t feel bad about not knowing everything, just practice it at your own pace, observe what masters do, be open to critique and actively apply what you have learned to your projects. And you will start to see some improvement!
Dioramas are very interesting, appealing, and fun to make and are a great way for environment artists to showcase creative ideas in a more compact and efficient way rather than committing to a fully open environment. Since they don’t need to be completely efficient and playable, they allow you to add all sorts of visual elements and focus purely on the look and composition. Here’s a video made by Anya Elvidge, she makes amazing dioramas and this video is a gold mine of information about it:
I don’t have a very defined process for concepting. I usually just start with small, quick and rough thumbnails to brainstorm and test out some of the ideas I had during the reference-gathering. At this stage, try to focus on the big shapes and the silhouette: you want it to be readable and with a defined focal point since the beginning. After that, I just chose a couple of the thumbnails I liked the most and started refining the design little by little until I was happy with the overall picture.
I decided to block out a 3D base that I could paint over in Photoshop. This process can be really helpful if you have some trouble with drawing 3D objects and perspective. The idea is to model out simple shapes and be able to quickly iterate different compositions. Don’t be afraid to test out as many versions as you want, your first idea is rarely the best. My final concept turned out much different than my initial blockout.
In this case, I was concepting from an already existing idea rather than creating one on my own, so my job was to study shapes and note repeating patterns on the High Elves structures to recreate their archetype. Here are a couple of notes I made to help me with that:
- Lots of arches, both in the structures and on the patterns.
- Swirly shapes
- Tall and slim buildings pointing to the sky, precious gems, gold and marble materials, bold colors, fancy and noble looking objects, all to show how superior they saw themselves.
- Floating buildings showing the use of magic.
All these observations helped me to come up with a concept that could fit the world.
Finally, I did some additional concepts breaking down the 3D parts I would have to model to approach the scene with some modularity in mind.
For the bows, I had a slightly different and unexpected approach. I was skimming through a tattoo book and noticed a lot of the designs resembling a silhouette of a bow, so I decided to use them as a reference and developed the design from random tattoo silhouettes.
Modeling and Sculpting Workflow
Before I start the modeling process I decide the parts that are going to be sculpted and the ones that will be simply box-modeled. Since I won’t be using any normal maps for this project, the sculpting is only used to get more complicated texture and shape detail in a faster way with procedural smart materials.
With this in mind, you probably shouldn’t waste your time sculpting simple things such as vases, barrels or boxes that you can get done faster with box-modeling and manual hand-painting. Instead, leave sculpting for organic objects and characters. Always think about ways to improve your workflow and meet your deadlines (only if you do have a deadline of course, otherwise just do whatever you prefer).
I use Maya for all of my low poly modeling and retopology. I like to start with a simple blockout of the bigger shapes before starting with the final model. This will help you visualize the main silhouette and figure out your next steps with a clear plan. My advice is to try to keep everything as low poly as possible in the beginning and then work your way up to finer details. Also, try to keep your edge flow clean since the beginning, otherwise, you might need to retopologize many things. If you are importing the result into a game engine you will most likely need it to be triangulated at some point but don’t do it until the very end and always save a quaded copy. Modeling and UVing with quads makes Maya happy and you don’t want an angry crash.
I use ZBrush for all of my sculpting. This is one of my favorite parts as well as my favorite software solution. Sculpting in ZBrush feels like doing art magic once you get over the complicated and intimidating interface so don’t give up yet if you are just starting because it gets much better. I can’t really give you a defined and clear breakdown of my workflow because I like to approach different things with different tools and techniques depending on what I need. My advice is to try to learn as many tools as possible so that you can decide how to do organize the process in your own unique way. I know it sounds like a lot to learn but Pixologic offers tutorials for each and every tool and the best way to learn them all is through multiple attempts and observing how other awesome artists do it such as Michael Vicente (Orb), Ryan Kingslien, and many other. Do speed sculpts and try out different brushes to figure out your favorite ones (mine are Trim Dynamic, Clay Buildup, Standard, Dam Standard, Move, and Move topology).
For this project, I created a few brushes that helped me with more complicated details:
- The first one was an Insert Multi Mesh brush used for the roof tiles. I sculpted about 3 slightly different variations and turned them into an IMM brush for positioning the individual roof pieces more easily.
- The second brush was a curve brush used for some of the metal framings around the structure. Curve brushes are really good for making quick swirly details and also pretty easy to create.
Once the sculpts are done, I decimate them, bring them back to Maya and retopo if needed. If you have kept your model clean during the low poly stage and used it in ZBrush as a base for sculpting, you might be able to use it as your final model by making only a couple of tweaks and avoiding the need for retopology.
This is an unpopular opinion but I do really like and enjoy UV mapping. I find It really peaceful and calming and besides, it’s a nice break between modeling and texturing (which are the most critical parts of a project).
I like to start everything with an automatic UV pass to clean up the initial mess and have a nice base I can work with. After that, I decide where I want my seams to be and use a couple of different tools to achieve the desired result. My little secret workflow that works in 70% of the cases is the following:
- Use planar UV mapping on the entire mesh to “erase” all the seams
- Select the edges you want your seams to be at
- Use Cut seams
- Unfold the shells
- Use Optimize and Straighten UVs from Maya’s UV toolkit to fix any “wonkiness”
This works in most cases but if it ends up not giving me a good result, I approach UVs in a different way. For example, this workflow will not work with long tube-like meshes such as tree roots or ropes.
When it comes to hand-painted textures, my advice for the overall UV process is to keep UVs nice and straight and to organize the layout in a logical way to facilitate painting. Texturing is less stressful if you can quickly recognize which shell belongs to what object.
Come back tomorrow for the second part, which covers texturing!!!
Thais Del Rey,3D Environment Artist
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev
Ornament Brushes/Alphas Vol.1 by Jonas Ronnegard is an Ornament alpha/brush set for ZBrush, Substance Painter, Quixel DDO, NDO and more. There are 55 brushes and height/alpha maps, all 2048×2048 16bit in Tiff, Jpeg, PSD, Photoshop ABR brushes, as well as ZBrush Brushes.