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Breakdown: Stylized Fantasy Valley Where Elves Live

Zehra Khan shared her workflow behind the beautiful Hidden Elven Valley project, showing how photos turned into stylized cliffs thanks to Blender and explaining how she approached composition so the scene would look interesting but not too busy.


Hello everyone. I am Zehra Khan, a lead environment artist in Canada. I have been working at Emerald City Games on stylized games for almost 5 years now. I was initially working as an architect in Pakistan but my passion for games made me want to change my career and take my chance to study 3D game art in Canada. After that course, I also did a master's program at the Centre of Digital Media, which helped me develop soft skills to help me communicate my ideas and to look at the ‘bigger picture’. 

Initially, I worked on realistic pieces before slowly exploring stylization in the game art world. Working in the industry I quite enjoyed stylizing the environments. I also really love working on foliage, terrain, and architecture. Eventually, I worked on creating a stylized bonsai tree turntable environment. However, after finishing that project I wanted to create a whole environment, hence the Elven Hidden Valley project came into existence. 

Hidden Elven Valley

I am extremely inspired by Park Jae Cheol's work. His paintings are extremely expressive and he really captures the mood. What I really liked about his painting was the little elven-type buildings resting in a natural setting. I also loved that he was very expressive with the colors on the buildings that blend well with the environment.

The concept I was inspired by was done in portrait orientation. However, I wanted my scene to be in a landscape aspect ratio. This reasoning helped me decide to work on a much wider valley and less dense forest where sunlight gleams onto the buildings. I had to gather lots of references for valleys. Whenever I went for walks in Vancouver I tried to take lots of pictures of nature and observe the plants.

I also wanted to create a very lush rainforest feeling, and because I already love plants, I knew which ones you can find in moist environments, such as ferns and syngoniums. I wanted the place to feel a bit different and unique, therefore adding unique plants like this made it feel like an ‘undiscovered place’. I also loved the different color tones the rocks had and used that as inspiration for my environment piece.

Pictures taken while walking in a Park in Burnaby, Canada. I observed roots and ferns growing close to water near rocks.


I used Blender to build a rough greyblock to place in the scene in Unreal Engine. Because I was deviating away from the concept slightly so it could fit better in landscape framing this part took a lot of back and forth. The greyblock changed significantly throughout the process. My earlier greyblock in Unreal looked much different than what I ended up with.

Initial greyblock

I wanted the viewer to connect with the space, adding a bit of foreground connection at the front helped the environment seem more ‘approachable’.

I approached sculpting the forms for the rocks right away before doing foliage or making proper building assets. I actually had them modeled in ZBrush and baked and put into the engine right away as I believe these rocks to be the foundation of my environment. Getting them to look right was key to ensuring the final image looked solid and ‘grounded’.

For the cliffs, I made 4 unique meshes, which I then repeated throughout the level. I used smaller rocks to crash them into the cliff to make them look different and unique. 

The cliffs were modeled initially in Blender and then taken to ZBrush for some sculpting.

The main buildings were all solely modeled in Blender, I used the array modifier for these as all of them were cylindrical in shape.

I used the array modifier to create a non-destructive high poly of the buildings in Blender. I did not take the buildings to ZBrush but instead just made everything in Blender so it was easy to edit the high poly where needed.


The rocks were decimated in ZBrush and then the geo was fixed in Blender, where I unwrapped the UVs as well. I kept 3 unique UV sets for the buildings, but then the rest was repeated to save UV space. 


I created all the textures and materials in Substance 3D Painter. For the first pass, I did a rough gradient to ensure everything looked grounded in the scene. I also used a lot of grunge masks to give subtle tones of the painterly splashes. Generally, I kept the texturing on the softer side with brighter colors as my main focus was to ensure the final composition did not look too busy, so this part of the process was simple.

I also made materials in Unreal Engine to ensure I could blend the grass where needed. For this, I had to create a material that would add green tones wherever the faces pointed up. 

For the rocks in the water, I also made a material that masks a darker color based on world position.


After placing the rocks I started moving foliage and grass. It was essential I do these steps before doing anything else as I really wanted to envision the green space before adding final touches and coloring the buildings. 

Doing this made me realize everything looked too symmetrical as the green planes almost mirrored one another. The other thing was the bridge, even though it looked very interesting, was also taking too much attention and was the center of focus. Therefore I decided to shift the focus to the buildings instead and change the camera angle. 

It is important to always step out of your comfort zone and experiment with different camera angles. 

For the final composition, I leaned towards a more asymmetrical composition as I wanted the focus to be on the buildings but at the same time keeping the bridge. 

At the very end, I ended up removing the large tree as I found the foreground was quite detailed and did not need the tree at the back. I also adjusted the scale of the buildings and placed them in a manner that didn’t look too busy.


Initially, I wanted a very misty dense setup but as I continued to work, I wanted it to feel more ‘heavenly’. I added some atmospheric fog, but it was more on the subtle side, and I played around with the sunlight direction.

I placed lots of shadow casters as I wanted the front of the scene to look darker and dense while having the buildings more exposed to the sun.

Dark foreground in shadow for the other camera shot.

For the wind, I looked at the wind tutorial by Rimaye. Here’s the link:

It’s in French, but I was able to understand what he did. He made meshes for the wind lines which then had a Niagara material on it.


The biggest challenge for me was to deviate from the concept and to try to captivate what I envisioned. I am glad I did this as I learned a lot about composition, lighting, and mood. I had an idea of what I wanted to make, it was a valley with some elven-type architecture. I then researched and found the concept that really inspired me, but I constantly had to keep finding references throughout the entire process.

It's important to keep the scene well cohesive and connected. I didn’t spend too much time on beautifying individual assets, rather I focused a lot on looking at the environment as a whole.

My advice is to always gather as many references as you can, especially from the real world. As an environment artist and former architect, I am always looking at how buildings connect, how surfaces look, and where we see wear and tear – they all tell a story in a way.

Zehra Khan, Lead Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Gloria Levine

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