Amethyst: Interpreting Alphonse Mucha's Art in 3D

Amethyst: Interpreting Alphonse Mucha's Art in 3D

Nils Wadensten talked about Amethyst, a character art project based on the art of the famous Czech painter Alphonse Mucha.

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Introduction

Hello! My name is Nils Wadensten. I studied Computer Graphics at Luleå University of Technology. Currently, I work as a Senior Artist at Paradox Development Studio. The latest project I worked on was Crusader Kings 3, which was recently released. I had the main responsibility for the characters in the game. Even though in my current job I’m specialized as a character artist I am a generalist at heart. I have worked professionally with pretty much all aspects of game art: from 2D illustration, concept art, UI, to 3D level design, environment art, character art and even rigging and animation.

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Mucha Study - Amethyst: About the Project

We’ve started to do these challenges at work where everyone in the art team is encouraged to create something around a specific theme. This time the theme was Alphonse Mucha and since I, like most people, adore his work I really felt that I needed to participate. Normally I prefer to create my own concepts but with this, I wanted to see if I could take one of his illustrations and translate it to 3D. So I set out gathering a ton of Mucha art to decide which one I wanted to do.

Eventually, my choice fell on Amethyst, from his Precious Stones series. I like the pose of the female figure, the colors, and the combination of beautiful fabric and iris flowers.

In any project I do I spend a lot of effort collecting references, and this was no exception. Interestingly, there are some photographs preserved from Mucha’s studio. These provided valuable insight into how he worked with posed models as photographic reference and even specific details such as which type of fabric he used for drapery. Some things proved quite challenging to figure out. A good example is the details on the chest of the female figure. For that, it was necessary to look at clothing and jewelry from the time as well as some of his other pieces with similar details to try and get an idea of what he might have intended those designs to represent.

Sculpting the Body

For the body sculpt, I started with an old base model I had made for a previous project. I adjusted the proportions and anatomy in a neutral pose, then posed the model with a simple rig in Maya and went back to ZBrush to further adjust the anatomy according to the pose. I set it up in Maya with an image plane so I could accurately match the pose with Mucha’s original. I used my anatomy knowledge, some reference images of similar poses, and yes, even striking this pose myself in front of a mirror, to create believable anatomy of the arms and shoulders.

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The face was a matter of trying to match the artwork but also adjusting it slightly towards realism to work in 3D. It has this interesting appearance of classical beauty ideals so I could use that when figuring out how the profile should look.

Dress

I chose to interpret the dress simply as a piece of cloth wrapped around her waist and then draped over her legs. This is what it looks like in preserved photographs as well, it gives the sense of a dress but is actually just draped cloth. I made it kind of like a blanket in Marvelous Designer and draped that on the model. Since it’s very difficult to roll up cloth in MD I had to “fake” the cloth on her waist. It is made from several smaller pieces sewn together.

Getting a simulation that I liked took quite some time and it was really challenging to match the artwork. I focused on the silhouette, to match every single fold is not really practically possible in Marvelous Designer.

Even though it isn’t in the artwork I added a fringe on the cloth because I thought it was an interesting detail. It is something that can be seen in several of Mucha’s other works and photographs. The cloth he used for draping his models had that type of fringe. I created a trim on the edge of the cloth in MD to serve as a base for the fringe. I then used that trim with Transfer Attributes in Maya to deform a number of small spheres from which I could create XGen splines for the fabric fibers.

The details on the neck were mostly modeled in Maya and placed with curves. The biggest challenge there was to figure out how to interpret the design in Mucha’s artwork. Like mentioned earlier the solution was to look at clothing from the time Mucha made this and create something based on that.

Hair 

I use XGen with the older standard workflow, so no Interactive Grooming. I mainly do it because I’m familiar with the workflow and I feel it gives me a lot of control. Compared to many other hairstyles I have done this one was fairly simple and straightforward to create. I researched hairstyles from the Edwardian or “Belle Epoque” era to get a better sense of how to approach it. It is kind of loose and flowy in the artwork so I just tried to match that look and the volume of it. To make it more believable it is necessary to add some randomness and fly-away strands. Fortunately, this is quite easy to do in XGen with a noise modifier that uses a smoothstep mask.  

I also used XGen for the eyebrows and eyelashes.

Flowers

As always, I started by collecting a lot of references of iris flowers to get a good sense of how they look. I then used Paint Effects in Maya to create my base models for a flower with 9 petals, a stalk, a leaf, and a bud. I also created a flattened out flower that I could sculpt on to get a nice displacement map to use on all of the flowers. Once I had the displacement map I took that into Substance Painter to create the textures. I used petal textures included in Maya as a base and painted colors on them. I played around with the other maps such as height, roughness, and sss. I spent a lot of time tweaking the Arnold shader to get a shading I liked for the petals. The textures for the stalks and leaves were based on photoscan flowers from Megascans.

I used curves and manual modeling to deform my flowers to match the ones in the artwork. It was quite a time-consuming process but it was also surprisingly easy. Mucha drew these irises very accurately so it wasn’t hard to modify my botanically correct flowers to match those in the painting.

As a final touch, I added the characteristic stamens of iris flowers on the bigger petals, once again using XGen.

Skin and Dress Texturing

For the skin color map, I started with a scanned texture which I painted on and modified especially for the face. But of course, I wanted a very smooth look so I didn’t need to spend too much time adding more detail in the color texture. I used some texturing.xyz alphas as a base for the displacement map, and essentially just tiled those over the body. The roughness map I use for the skin is based on the displacement map and just tweaked until I liked it.

The silk fabric uses a custom made tiling texture for displacement and roughness, with an additional tiling texture added in for small folds and wrinkles. The other fabrics are set up in a very similar way. On the slightly transparent fabric covering her chest, I used an aiFacingRatio node connected to the opacity to create that subtle see-through effect.

Rendering

I used Arnold to render this character. All the shaders are based on the Ai Standard Surface or Ai Hair shaders. Since Ai shaders are PBR based it is usually a fairly simple matter of just plugging in the textures from Substance Painter. For the lighting, I used a simple setup with an HDRI map as a base and an area light to create a stronger key light.

The background consists of a few different elements. I chose to interpret the circular mosaic halo as a mirror. I created a simple wall with a tiling material applied. Then there is a piece of furniture. That was one of the more difficult things to interpret as it seems more like an abstract shape in the original artwork and I’m not sure it’s supposed to represent anything in particular. I made it into some sort of chair, which I thought made sense.

The post-production was all done in Photoshop. I rendered the background, the character, and the foreground flowers as 3 different layers and composited them together. I made some color corrections by adding a LUT and an exposure adjustment layer as well as adjusting the colors and saturation levels in some parts specifically like the purple silk and the flower petals.  

Challenges and Advice

I would say overall, the main challenge in this project was to figure out how to interpret Mucha’s artwork and how to make something that is as accurate and literal as a 3D rendering from a 2D design that is, at least partly, more abstract. The most time-consuming individual element was probably the flowers since there were quite a few of them and I wanted to try and match the placement to Mucha’s artwork. It also took me quite some time to get a shading I liked for them. Other than that the cloth took a lot of time, both in terms of simulation and texturing/shading.  

For dresses and clothing in general, my one piece of advice is to focus just as much on getting a good simulation as you do on creating the pattern. I think a common problem with a lot of Marvelous Designer based clothes is that they tend to look a bit too smooth and perfect. Folds tend to smooth out and disappear - this is just the way the program works. But with some extra time spent on tweaking the simulation, it is possible to get more believable results.

Another general piece of advice is to give every detail you add the attention it deserves. If you don’t know how something is going to look I would suggest you spend some time researching and making sketches of it until you find a design that you like. Trying to skip that step and jumping straight into sculpting it, for me at least, usually just leads to either spending too much time iterating or having to redo things that didn’t come out good.

Nils Wadensten, Senior Artist at Paradox Development Studio

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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