Advanced Materials with Substance

Advanced Materials with Substance

Nathan Mackenzie did a breakdown of his complex rocky vegetation material assembles in Substance Designer.

Nathan Mackenzie did a breakdown of his complex rocky vegetation material assembles in Substance Designer.


Hi, my name is Nathan Mackenzie, I’m from Glasgow in Scotland. Although working with 3D for some time I’m very new to getting my work out there for people to see and in turn quite new to the industry as a whole so I have yet to work on any professional projects. Right now I’m working on creating high-quality environments and assets to put into my portfolio to apply for an environment artist position at a nearby studio.

Advanced Materials

My newest Substance that I initially created for the Polycount Substance Challenge has been getting a lot of good response I think due to the amount of elements in the one substance as well as the shapes and colours that I used. I really tried to push what I knew with Substance Designer for this material.


I started this material the same way I start everything, with reference as well as looking at some of my inspiration when it comes to substance and creating materials in general, Joshua Lynch and Rogelio Olguin.

I then dove into Substance Designer and started experimenting with different shapes and then combining them with tile sampler nodes. Like a lot of people I start with a height map and then I usually move to roughness then colour. It was created with a combination of 5 tile sampler nodes with different shapes going in to each of them along with different sizes. I used a lot of Max Lighten blend nodes at this stage to blend the different rocks shapes

I then started the breakup stage as I call it where I do some initial larger adjustments to the height map with some directional warps and slope blur grayscale nodes with large noises such as perlin noise and warping it on itself to get some nice results. The second break up is more of the same but on a smaller level.

Just before the second break up I introduce some sharper edges as well as some cracks in the rock. I put in an edge detect node to find the sharper edges then I can bevel this and then add in noises and slope blur grayscale the map to get some nice effects. I also subtracted the highest point in my height map from my edge detect node, blurred it a little and multiplied it back into my height map at a low opacity at the top level to give some sharper crevices in the rock.

After this I went through a third, fourth and a final fifth pass on the rocks to get some smaller detail as well as some additional vertical detail. These passes where nothing really special just more slope blurs and directional warps. I did however warp most of my noises that I created with the last blend node so that the noise followed the shape of the rock formation.

Rock and Moss

The moss was actually a separate substance that I created about a week or two before I started this substance and thought it would go nice with this one. The separate moss substance is up on Substance Share if anyone wants to have a look at it.

Looking at reference moss usually grows on top of surfaces so that it can get light so I initially tried using the blue channel from my normal created from the height map but it wasn’t quite giving the results I wanted so I changed to using the dust node which gave good results a lot faster. I then combined this with an edge detect and subtracted the shape of my moss from the edges of the mask created from the dust node so that I would get some break-up along the edge of the mask.

The colour of the moss was created inside the moss graph using the height map and gradient maps. I then only had to tweak the colour with a HSL node inside this graph to match it the rock.


The vines were a lot simpler than it maybe looks. I first started by creating thin rectangles and warping them do give some waviness and jaggedness. I then used edge detect and transformed it a little and subtracted it from itself to thin the strips out and make sure they were the same thickness. Some extra detailing was then used to tweak the shape and detail of the vines I found blending two of the same noise together but tiling one of them to be a good way to create a new noise very quickly here.

At the combining stage I cropped out each vine and ran it through a tile sampler node with varying parameters to get the amount and pattern I wanted. Some last minute minor detailing then to an output. I also created some outputs for the different tile sampler nodes in case I wanted to use them when I was doing the colour pass on them.

The leaves where created with a small oval shape multiplied with a gradient and then warped to give detail and perspective. I then combined 3 or 4 of these together to give me my final plant for the vine. The exact same method was used for the larger leaf except that I started with a larger oval and some more warping was involved.

Again the flower parts where created in the exact same way small shapes combined together and then warped to give detail and perspective all the detail assets I created for this I created 4 of each to give variation. Each one was directional warped around a paraboloid to give a different look quickly.

The colours for these elements were simple gradient maps mixed with some noises. Brown and greens for the vines, greens for the leaves and a pink and peach colour variation for the flowers. Something that I do a lot is run my colour map through a HSL and blend it with the previous blend and then use a noise as an opacity map, I then play with the hue and saturation levels to give some unique detail in my colour map.


I rendered my material inside Marmoset Toolbag 3 with a pretty simple lighting setup. I chose a sky that complimented my material and turned up the brightness a little. I checked the all the boxes under the lighting tab and put the occlusion up a notch or two, I also enabled global illumination to the scene. There was only one additional light in the scene which was above the material so that I could get some nice shadows under the overhangs from the rock formation. In the post effects I increased the exposure a little and the contrast.


I feel that this material could be used in a number of different scenes in a game ranging from jungle areas to tropical areas and with the variations you can use it as just a rock wall. Perhaps at the bottom of cliffs surrounding a small waterfall area.

The variations that can be used with this substance range from being just a rock wall to having a little moss to being completely covered with just a few sliders and in just a few seconds which is why I love substance designer so much, once you have your material you can set it up to change so quickly. I could even change the actual rock formation altogether to give a different rock to blend the two together with vertex colours which I think could work very well.

For anyone that is new to 3D or Substance I would say just jump in and start experimenting, it can be pretty daunting when you see big elaborate graphs and think that it’s impossible to get to that level. Best way to start is to create some basic shape nodes and put them into a tile node and start making changes.

Nathan Mackenzie, Environment and Prop Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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