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2D to 3D and Back: Imagining Leonardo Da Vinci's Workshop

Darek Zabrocki explained how he worked on Leonardo da Vinci's workshop in 2D and 3D and showed the texturing process done for the project.


My name is Darek Zabrocki and I am a concept designer working for films and games.

Since my last 80 Level, a lot of things have changed. I’ve been co-running an art school Focal Point School but I also set up my concept design studio back in 2022. In recent years, I worked on a lot of exciting projects like Love Death + Robots, the upcoming Assassin's Creed game, and the brand new Planet of the Apes movie, to name just a few. A lot of projects are still unannounced so I was happy to develop totally new IPs alongside many talented artists. This also sparked a new passion to develop my own IP and that’s what is my next career goal.

I always dreamed of pushing boundaries through personal projects but I feel like I had to grow up and the idea had to age a bit in my mind before I really started making it happen. I don’t want to spoil too much but I would love to bring something totally new, unexpected, and fine-tuned with love and passion to the market. Keep your fingers crossed!

The Da Vinci Workshop Project

I’ve been contacted by NVIDIA to help them on a lot of projects in recent years. One of the past projects featured an interesting historical theme. A friend of mine, Kevin Margo, whom I worked with for many years prior, when he was still working as a CG supervisor at Blur studio, reached out to me around the winter of 2020. They had an idea of recreating the “Da Vinci Workshop” and bringing it to life utilizing NVIDIA rendering technologies. Since no one really designed his room before, I found that task super exciting and quite challenging.

I had a lot of freedom so all the spacing, design decisions, and art direction was on me. Like with each good art direction, you have to start with proper research. Taking into consideration technological aspects of the architecture of the XVI century, how the interior and overall spacing of Da Vinci’s workshop would have looked like, what sort of materials and props were possibly used, and most importantly how to get that believable and immersive look. As we all know he was such a genius living in totally different times than ours so set decoration and studying these times were one of the crucial elements to start with. Leonardo was not a typical artist, he was a pioneer in designing new equipment and engineering day-to-day stuff so all the things that I wanted to put in his workshop area had to make sense and reflect his amazing craftsmanship.  

Brief research mood board

After a brief research, I did a series of sketches and when Kevin accepted one of them he gave me a green light to bring it to the final stage. It was well received across NVIDIA's creative team but the project went on hold for a while. 

One of the initial sketches

Approved design #1

A year later, Kevin came back to me with a request to design the space again but sticking to the 3D mock-up they did internally. I believe that the interior was modeled based on the real location. He sent me 3D files and I started sketching over to design crucial elements like props placement, the look of the furniture, equipment of Da Vinci’s workshop, set up of material definition, general tone, and mood, etc. 

3D mock-up provided by NVIDIA I rendered in Octane

Another research mood board


As mentioned before, the first sketch/concept I did was purely based on my own camera/composition so I wasn’t restricted to any blockout whatsoever. I am glad that I can trust my fundamental skills so I can be free in terms of whatever tools I use and I usually choose what workflow I go for before I start the task. Sometimes if I feel I am more efficient utilizing the task just in 2D I go for it. Some tasks are very specific and precise or I know I will need multiple angles so I go all the way 3D. Sometimes I use both and go hybrid.

The first concept I finalized in 2020 was purely 2D. I started the second one by taking over the file to Blender and setting up a few camera angles to find the best and most suitable shot so 3D modelers could use the most out of just one key angle. That’s the beauty of concept design, you can either do a set of sketches to sell the look and general design direction or you pick one specific angle to show as much in order to create the most helpful concept. I love doing it!

Overpainting on top of camera angle #1


Since I was on a pretty tight timeframe, I will discuss the process based on the second shot that was later used in the final project. So after I had my lighting set up and a base camera angle was ready I rendered out the whole scene with Octane Renderer. All the tools, equipment, and smaller assets were either quickly modeled roughly in Blender or painted over on top of the final render. It’s worth mentioning that my render wasn’t rendered with materials so pretty much all colors, reflections, bumps, and displacements are the result of paint-over in Photoshop.

My workflows have been shifting and changing for years and I treat it very organically. Whatever I learn I try to incorporate. Since I don’t need to know each software all out, I try to learn the portion that I need to get my work done. Basically, I try to economize time spent on learning tools so I use just an essence. I made the mistake of learning software extensively from scratch back in the day and I just forgot most of the tools after a while since I never really used them or never found them useful. The best part of creating a piece of art is the process itself, jumping from 2D to 3D, basically back and forth. It’s like creating delicious food, a mixture of ingredients that create a final, cohesive artwork. If you asked me to do this concept again today in 2024, I would probably go 90% in 3D and the rest 10% would be 2D. But maybe not? Who knows?

Overpainting on top of camera angle #2


Even to this day, I love using standard Blender versions, and why? Because every time I travel or I work remotely either from my home office or at Focal Point faculty I have a set of all indispensable tools. I don’t need to worry if my UI is different here or there if I have all my plugins installed. And I just use a few plugins that I find useful. Especially these days when I work in 3D much more, doing a wide range of concepts from more organic forms to very hi-tech hard surface stuff.

For modeling, I of course use the standard SubD modelling process. That’s what I learned when I was still using 3ds Max years ago. For more complex tech forms, I love playing with booleans. I really dig using a hard ops/box cutter and MESHmachine to keep my workflow clean and not too distracting. Last year, I also started doing more sculpting in 3D. I fell in love with Adobe Medium (VR) and 3DCoat for that. Combining them all with Blender creates such a powerful combo.

For fast renders, I use just Eevee (built-in in Blender) and of course Cycles or Octane Renderer if I need more precise, physical-based results. I also like doing basic animations these days to either expose the environment/location I work on or to show specific functions of a prop I design.  

I've been getting myself into Unreal Engine recently too. Possibilities with tools are neverending but with years of experience, I can tell you it’s not about the tools but how efficiently you utilize them. You gotta be fast at concepting and if you’re wasting time on using a tool just for the sake of using it, it’s not the right approach and you’re just burning off-budget. Although I make sure to stay relevant with technology and being on top of it is one of the most important aspects in our fast-paced industry, chasing trends is something to be cautious about. No tool makes you a better artist or designer so if you don’t know how to use them or you don’t have original ideas you gain nothing. 

Easy access to new technologies and generalization of the industry also makes it harder to stand out for young artists so I would recommend working on your own style. It never fades away no matter what tool you use! 

Final approved design

Thank you very much for having me again!

Darek Zabrocki, Concept Artist

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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Comments 2

  • Anonymous user

    Doskonały wywiad, nie zauwazyłem pytań prowadzącego :). Od wielu lat doskonale sówj warsztat i jestem pod wrażeniem eleastyczności przeskakiwania pomiedzy 3D i 3D. Ja nie miałem tyle odwagi i jak cos robie w 3D to do końca w 3D (3ds max+v-ray) a jak w 2D to pakiet Adobe. Ten wywiad pokazał mi, że odwaga jest kluczowa. Zaskoczeniem dla mnie jest MESHmachine - sądziłem, że takie narzedzia to tylko 3dsMax - a tu prosze - super. Dziekuje
    Aleksander Gołowacz


    Anonymous user

    ·4 months ago·
  • Anonymous user

    See Journeyman Project 2 : Buried In Time for another take on Da Vinci's workshop. It was more of a campus where he designed, tested, and studied.


    Anonymous user

    ·4 months ago·

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