8 Steps of Environment Art
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8 Steps of Environment Art
1 December, 2016
3d artist Christian Cunningham gave a detailed breakdown of his recent Unreal Engine 4 environment. He talked about the modeling of the environment assets, the creation of textures and post-effects.


Hi guys! Before we get started I would like to introduce myself. My name is Christian Cunningham. I am an environment artist currently living in New York. I went to Erie Institute of Technology to get my feet wet in the medium. Realizing that I loved 3D I have been pursing it on my own for the past few years after graduation. Reading every tutorial I can get my hands on and just trying to improve as an artist. Last summer I enrolled in the Futurepoly “3D Modeling for games” course. I learned so much from Jason Stokes and can say he changed the way I thought about making art for games. If you want to know more, check out my ArtStation… Well enough of me rambling, let’s get started!

Phase 1 Finding that Reference

Before starting a project I figure out what kind of environment I want to make. What is my final goal? Is it a single shot? A diorama? Or even a fully playable environment? From there I search the internet and find as many concepts or photos I can find on the subject I am thinking about. I may have a folder with as much as 50 ideas in it. From there I start looking at each one and pull what I like and what I don’t like about that image. I slowly chug down the list until I find that piece that makes me really excited. I like really detailed concepts so I don’t have to do a lot of guessing so I always keep that in mind as well. On this particular project I knew I wanted a locked camera angle for one shot only. So I took my concept and tweaked it in my head. I could have photobashed a quick environment but that felt unnecessary on this project because it was a personal piece. Once I have my reference for the environment I then made a mood board. I always have the mood board up on another screen while I work. I even try to make a music playlist that coincides with my environment to submerse me while I work.


Phase 2 Getting Started..(Kinda)

Pick a place where you are going to be saving your work, name your project folder and add a few other folders in there such as Reference ( guess what goes in there?) Progress, I like to take a screenshot at the end of everyday so I can track my progress.  Also add a Scene folder. In the scene folder I have multiple folders for every mesh and its textures or any other work involving a single mesh. Lastly I have a folder named Block Mesh, this is where I put my Blockin’ phase.


I use Maya as my primary modeling software, so I hop into Maya and start blocking everything out. Before I start I import a character for reference that is 6ft tall. Since I am authoring for UE4 I made sure he is 180 units tall. Make sure that you are working in CM and also tweak your grid accordingly so you can do this at ease. Remember that 1 CM is 1 Unreal Unit.

Starting to block in at this stage I am not worried about detail. What I am worried about is proportions. When blocking in I usually start with a base geometric object and just extrude, pull verts and add edge loops and morph it into the needed shape. After everything is blocked in I combine everything and save it to the Block Mesh folder. In the FBX options I make sure to use FBX 2013 so there are no errors and also set the scale factor to centimeters.


Now it’s time to open up your Game Engine, this could be Toolbag, Cryengine, UE4, Unity. In my case I chose UE4. I chose UE4 because I really wanted to learn it and I figured it was time. I really like how easy it is to import and re iterate models very quickly. I created a new project and used a first person shooter template. I deleted all of the geometry in there and made a few folders. One named Mesh and one named Materials. Inside the folders I would make the same folders for each prop. I then imported my block mesh.fbx file into UE4, gave it simple collision and put it in the world and hit play. This part is very important, you are testing for size and proportion. I walk up to my reference character in game and make sure everything is feeling right, if it’s not I go back into Maya and scale it accordingly. This step is very important do not overlook this and always playtest your level. It’s also worth mentioning that I made a basic gray material named it “Base_Material” and gave it to all of my objects until the texture process. At this time I went back into Maya and pressed “Z” a few times to undo the combine. I then broke everything up and put it at the origin and exported to its correct folder under “scenes” Don’t forget to delete history, freeze transforms and center pivot and to label the mesh accordingly!


Back in UE4 I import everything and place it in the world where it should be, now whenever I export from Maya to the correct folder I can go back into UE4 and just right click-> re-import and boom the new mesh will be in there exactly where it should be. At this stage my final image is a bit different but we will talk about that disaster later on.


Phase 3 Getting started for real (I promise)

Before I move on I want to take the time to really exaggerate how important phase 2 was, I know it’s not that fun and its very cumbersome, but it needs to be done. Now you are organized and ready to model your heart out!

I’m done ranting now, crank up some tunes, check that mood board, if you’re unsure about a particular piece from the concept then go to Google and grab more reference. Start modeling!

Sometimes I actually delete my block mesh and start from scratch or I take my block mesh and add more detail to it. The main tools I use in Maya is extrude, insert edge loop tool, cut faces, bevel, connect and just pushing and pulling verts. Go through every model importing each one in and play testing it before moving on. I bring each model to about 30% completion and bring up my entire level slowly so no part gets over looked.

At this time I always start my vegetation. In this project I modeled the grass and flowers and such and just photobashed some of them as well. For the grass modeling you just start with a cylinder, add edge loops, smooth it put a green  gradient on it and move the grass blade around and then bake it down to a plane, doing it this way creates a perfect alpha. You Then take the plane and cut it up and spin a few pieces around and boom, there is one grass chunk. I made 3 grass clusters this way.

Import them into UE4 and drag the grass clusters into the foliage tool and then you can paint your vegetation away. Do not get carried away here I know how easy it can be to do so. Don’t forget to hand place some veggies as well. I set a scale of .7 to 1.3 so each one was a little bit different. As for the material is pretty basic. I want to take this time to thank Simon Barle for helping me figure out how to cull leaves based on the camera angle.




At this point Unreal Engine became corrupted and I did not backup my work so I had to restart the UE4 process over again. This just shows to always make a backup! After I brought everything back in I decided to really nail down the camera angle I wanted. Also I really wanted my vegetation to pop so I made a bunch of variants


Step 4 Heart of steel

This stage in the development process can be very hard, you just need to push through it. If needed go to youtube and get inspired, I watched countless documentaries and listened to the collective podcast so much to help me trudge through this when I was feeling bad about myself.

Best Podcast Ever For Artists

Get Pumped

This is the process for the rest of the assets: chose one, model it, sculpt on it (if needed), create correct smoothing groups, bake maps and texture it. Make sure to be thinking about texturing during modeling so you can create the correct ID maps!

I textured my models with Quixel 2.0. The main process is as follows:

Figure out what type of material -> Paint in a mask for Grime and Dirt -> Chip edges my creating a white layer and masking from edges-> on top add a grass layer and tile it and paint a moss mask to make things mossy.

I started to tweak my lighting whenever I needed a break from finishing up my assets.

Step 5 Turn On The Lights (Please, I’m Scared)

I added in a directional light, a skylight, and a few spot lights to brighten up anything that was too dark. With the skylight I added in an ambient cube map to spice the scene up. I also turned on god rays to add some shine to the scene.


Step 6 Post Process

It was here that I really tweaked all of the post process settings and tweaked the colors for the mood I was going for. I also added in a depth of field, fog, AO and a vignette and a dirt filter.


Step 7 Closing time

When I was happy with all of my lights, models, textures and post processing  I rendered out a 4k screenshot and brought it into photoshop, I enlarged my canvas by 200px in the height to create the widescreen border effect, I also made my own vignette and tuned the opacity low. Lastly I would create a duplicate layer of my environment go to filter->other->high pass at 11.4 and set the mode to overlay to sharpen the image. I then turned down the opacity, added my branding at the bottom and the UE4 Logo and then was finished.


Step 8 You’re Such A Toolbag

So now I have the scene finished but I have all of these assets that I want to show off. What should a lonely 3D artist do? Steps in Marmoset Toolbag to the rescue! On a serious note Toolbag is amazing, I was able to import each asset, make my material, tweak the lighting and a little post-processing for each asset in minutes.




I hope you learned and enjoyed reading this. If you want to see more images of this project head on over to my ArtStation.

If anyone has questions please email me. Have a great day guys, rock on.

Christian Cunningham, Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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