Making a Hand-Painted Diorama in Maya & Photoshop

Making a Hand-Painted Diorama in Maya & Photoshop

Harry Stringer prepared a breakdown of his new game-ready Forest Diorama made in Maya and Photoshop.

Harry Stringer prepared a breakdown of his new game-ready Forest Diorama made in Maya and Photoshop.


Hi, my name’s Harry Stringer and I’m a 3D artist at Playside Studios. My interested in games and game art arose after my school trip to the Academy of Interactive Entertainment. Back then I already decided what I was going to do. After high school, I went to study at AIE for 2 years and then shortly after I started working at Playside Studios.

At Playside I’ve had the opportunity to work on a wide range of games for various IPs, from kids cartoons to big Hollywood blockbusters and, of course, our own titles. Some of my favorites include working on Lego Batman, Dumb Ways to Die 2 and 3, working alongside Ryan McMahon and Perry Zielonka on our own Defend the Bits and working with Jordan Pascal on our latest game AR Robot. I’m currently working on a great upcoming game which unfortunately I can’t disclose due to being under an NDA contract, but expect some cool stuff soon!

Forest Diorama

I started my work on this scene exactly two months ago when I could find some free time. It all began with browsing through the stylized concept art on ArtStation where I came across this concept by Star Academy. The style, composition and color palette really magnetized me and I was just compelled to turn it into a 3D scene.

If I developed the concept myself I’d pay my attention to composition and color scheme as these are one of the most important principles you’d need to nail before adding smaller details through modeling and texturing.


My main goal was to keep the concept as good as possible to really hone my accuracy skills. When working on big titles at Playside, it’s really important to make sure your assets match the art concept given by the client. Getting them right before the first iterations saves a lot of time and keeps both parties happy. To help with this process, many of our artists at Playside use PureRef, a program that lets you overlay your reference images on top of whatever you’re working on.

Before I start making an asset or scene I decide which programs I’m going to use and techniques I’ll be working with. I break down the concept or reference images into smaller elements and take notes of how they all relate to each other. Doing this helps to build a piece roadmap, and if it’s a bigger scene or environment it helps the task to look less frightening from the get-go.


As for my workflow for this piece, I modeled all the assets in Maya and made the texturing in Photoshop. I started with overlaying my concept having a top of my viewport window on one screen and the second viewport with a different camera on my other screen. I started blocking out rough shapes, matching their size and position to the concept. When I created the square ground I immediately realized that the viewpoint in the original concept was a lot lower than Maya’s default settings. After playing around with the FOV of my camera and adjusting it to match the concept I locked its transform attributes so that I couldn’t accidentally move it. After I was happy with the overall blockout shapes I started adding more details. Making just a personal project, I didn’t bother with the polycount and added as much detail as it was needed to replicate the smooth shapes of the concept.


Every time before I start texturing something I check if everything has the same texel density. This way I know that my assets have a consistent level of quality, otherwise some of them might look over-detailed and out of place. Making sure your assets have an even texel density is super simple in Maya:

  • Resize one UV shell to the desired density
  • Hit the Get button under texel density in the UV toolkit
  • Select all other UV shells
  • Hit the Set button

And they all will be scaled accordingly. For more information on texel density, there’s a great guide by Leonardo Lezzi.

The scene is broken up into 4 texture sheets: the ground, the props, the chest, and the glowing exclamation mark. The chest could be also a part of the prop atlas but since it was the key object it made me think of giving it its own texture. In game dev, you’ll always want your hero asset to be more detailed than its surrounding to draw the player’s attention and focus.

Throughout my texturing process, I used just a hard round brush with its opacity set to transfer so it could match a painterly style of the concept. This brush, along with alt-clicking to color pick is like my bread and butter in case of hand-painted texturing. It allows me to quickly blend colors and control the sharpness of blending. Like with modeling, I first start texturing the largest, most prominent features because they are the most influential to the piece. Generally, I always texture everything in passes. I’d block out the colors for all the assets and work up detail in passes across everything evenly so that all the assets have the same quality throughout the process. This helps me keep everything balanced and avoid focusing on some parts for too long.

Texturing this piece was a lot of fun because I could use broad, sweeping strokes and avoid doing much of cleanup. Hand-painted texturing is probably one of my favorite parts of creating game art, there’s something really relaxing about blending colors and creating sharp details to bring life to my models. To maintain accuracy I would regularly save and check my work in Maya and compare my work with the concept. This proved to be rather time-consuming than if I was making something from scratch because I had to continuously check for mistakes. However, I felt that this was the best way to maintain the level of accuracy I desired.


The foliage on the round oak tree and bushes felt like the most tedious and time-consuming part of this piece. They consist of individual alpha cards placed on top of spheres. I UV mapped groups of these planes to their corresponding color in the concept to save time rather than making each leaf individually which would have been ridiculously long. I separated the colors into three groups: highlights, mid-tones, and shadows. Each group had 3 variants of colors that I would pick from. Placing the planes and matching them to the concept took much time but it was also the best way to fit the concept. If I were to make trees like this ever again without following a concept I would procedurally place the alpha cards along the sphere meshes using MASH. MASH is a fantastic tool built into Maya. It’s very useful in environment creation and it allows you to procedurally place selected objects around a scene or another object, with lots of nodes to randomize the values like position, rotation, and scale.

Compared to the oak tree, pine trees were much easier to make. They consist of a few cones with the bottoms cut using the alpha channel of the texture. The trunks of the pine trees have the same texture, however, it’s not immediately noticeable as I turned them differently. The rest of the ground plants mostly share the same textures too, with variation coming from their size and position instead. I also wanted to add some more detail to the ground to make it as interesting as all the other assets in the scene. To do this I created some more alpha cards, pretty much like for the oak tree with a color palette matching the ground texture, and placed them where I felt they were needed.


I decided to give this scene flat lighting with no lights coming from the engine. This allowed me to purely focus on my hand-painting skills, which I feel like something you can always improve.

All the lighting in this scene was painted in during the texturing process with careful consideration of the light direction in the concept. Usually, the best way to approach that is to constantly keep in mind what the lighting setup would be. For example, thinking about the time of day which would affect your colors and the direction of the light source which would affect the location and angles of your shadows. An easier way to approach this would be to light the meshes in Maya and bake them down into a texture that you can use either as a reference to paint over or as a final texture, depending on what style you’re going for. You could definitely set this scene up in a way that could use dynamic lighting and still match the concept. To do this I wouldn’t paint any lighting information into the texture and instead create a custom toon shader which lights the model as accurately to the concept as possible.


It is always important to dedicate time to the presentation of your work. It’s often tempting to take a render, upload it and call it a day. However, taking some time to present your work in an appealing way really helps to push it that extra mile.

For the render, I just took a screenshot of it in Maya (it was flat-lit and looked the same in any software choice I would use). If this scene was meant for real-time lighting then I would have lit and rendered it in Marmoset Toolbag. Marmoset is my main choice because it’s fast, easy to use, and powerful.

After bringing the render into Photoshop I decided to play with the background. At first, I was reluctant to change the background color because it was what I was used to seeing throughout the whole process. However, after getting some feedback from my peers I decided to go with dark grey.

Feedbacks are highly beneficial and it’s always good to have someone who can look at your work with fresh eyes. I recommend having a tight-knit group of artists to regularly judge each other’s art. Afterward, I added a slight vignette to frame my piece, slightly pushed the contrast and vibrancy to make the colors pop, and finished my work.

I’d like to thank 80 Level for giving me a chance to share my process with you. It’s been a pleasure to share my thoughts and workflow on this piece and I hope you can take something from it!

Harry Stringer, Artist at Playside Studios

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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    Making a Hand-Painted Diorama in Maya & Photoshop