Achieving A Stylized Without Touching Photoshop
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Very interesting! Thank you Valery for such a useful review of your work!

I found your blog to be very informative. I am very happy to read your blog it's very useful to me.

by Tomasz Wikliński
10 hours ago

Great stuff. And many thanks for those tuts by Jason! They helped me a lot.

Achieving A Stylized Without Touching Photoshop
23 February, 2018
Environment Art
Environment Design

JD Gardner talked about the way he created stylized space station with rough cartoony textures, lovely decals and some cool lighting.

Ground Control to Major Tom

Hi there! My name is JD Gardner, and I’m a 3D artist located in California.  I graduated from the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and have most recently worked at Pixar.  I’ve gotten more into game engines and less into offline rendering as these incredible engines become more and more sophisticated.  I created this piece to round out my portfolio, which was sorely lacking any hard-surface or sci-fi content. Let’s jump in!

The Illusion of Levitation 

I was inspired by this terrific music video that astronaut Chris Hadfield created while living on the International Space Station: 

The ambiance and mood is so incredible.  The combination of the ISS and the astronaut’s old wooden guitar-something new and something old, yet both made by human craftsmen-is really striking.  I tried to imitate this effect through small details, like modeling the clasps on the airlock and wires to float and not obey gravity.

In composing each “shot”, I also took care to include lots of floating props. I try to arrange them in forward-to-back space to create a nice sense of depth.  It’s important to have clear definition of foreground, midground and background, while taking care to avoid ugly tangents in your composition.

Stylized Material Production

In my previous San Francisco project, I didn’t actually do much hand-painting at all.  In this scene, I’ve begun to add a hint of a hand-crafted feel to the assets.  It’s not much, but sometimes a small touch can add a lot.

Albedo only

In Substance Painter, I create a pure black and pure white layer, and set them both to ‘Overlay’ with a low opacity.  Then I just hand-paint in a little variation on both layers with a grungy brush, also with a low opacity, and just build up these two layers over time.  I use the curvature pass as a highlight, and the AO pass to darken cavity spots.  For stylized assets like this, I prefer to make the materials a little rougher and less metallic than in a photoreal scene.  My “metals” only have a metalness of about .7, and none of the assets have a roughness lower than .35 or so.  This makes it feel a little more comic book-y than otherwise.  Including a bottom-to-top gradient (again, using a black layer set to overlay with a low opacity) also helps the stylization. 

I made a few decals of imagined groups that could have been a part of this space station-I think it adds to the world-building, and including small details and easter eggs that make it more believable is always fun.  I kept these to the same main colors of the station, to make it feel like it was all cohesively designed together.  These are hidden around the scene, and just adds to the idea that this was something that was consciously created by a group of people for a specific purpose.

Modeling Challenges

While I was modeling in Maya, my roommate remarked- “That airlock looks adorable.  How did you make an airlock look cute?”  Trying to achieve a fun, round look, even on hard-surface assets, was an interesting challenge.

I think it’s really all about spending the extra geometry to throw huge bevels on anything that needs it.  Almost none of these assets have any kind of super sharp corners or 90-degree angles, because in my opinion, it’s worth the extra geometry to get the look you’re going for.  Some of this can be faked in the normal map, but for my money, I’d prefer to do it in the geometry when possible to get the soft bevel in the silhouette.  Just like with the hand-painting, very small and subtle details can add up to a lot, even if the viewer isn’t totally cognizant of the effect.

If you’re going for this kind of style, it’s also important to “chunkify” your assets and make everything way thicker than it would be in reality.  It makes your assets really appealing, like they’d feel great in your hand and would have a nice heft.

Lighting the Scene

Even with the materials being rougher than reality, I still wanted a little variation in there to pick up the nuances of the lighting.  For this scene, I chose to use all baked static lighting since I prefer the look, and the small size of the scene made it favorable for quick lightmap baking times.

I tried to favor the idea of “practical lighting”, and put a soft point light with an appropriate Source Length and Source Radius to emulate light tubes near each of my overhead fluorescent models, which also had some emissive properties in the shader.  Since this is all white light on mostly white materials, it was a back-and-forth process to make it adequately lit as to not feel spooky, but also not so overlit that it would blow out on the white materials.  A little bloom and lens flaring goes a long way, too!   


This scene was a blast to make!  I love making fun, appealing 3D scenes like this that still feel grounded in reality using a PBR workflow.  I hope this was helpful, and huge thanks to for letting me share this write-up.  Drop me a line if you have any questions, keep making art, and I’ll see you out there!

JD Gardner, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev 

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