Building a Diorama Inside Substance Designer

Building a Diorama Inside Substance Designer

Pauline Boiteux showed the way she created an amazing digital painting ‘Fish Pond’ within Substance Designer.

Pauline Boiteux showed the way she created an amazing digital painting ‘Fish Pond’ within Substance Designer. The node graph will soon be available at Substance Share!


My name is Pauline Boiteux, I’m 24 and I come from France. I’ve been working as a freelance artist for 3 years mostly as an illustrator on pedagogic projects. I studied at ISART Digital Paris and had my Masters Degree in Game Art in July 2016.


I had the chance to have a great teacher named Benoit Onillon who trained our class on some basics and I must admit I hated the nodal at first. I never had that Tech Artist profile and wasn’t really interested in it. All I could see at the time was this looks too much like creating a shader. But he managed to really show us how powerful that software can be and how similar working with Substance Designer is like working in Photoshop. Two months ago I’ve been asked to give introduction classes for VFX students on Substance Designer and Painter and my only goal is to show them that you can achieve anything by working hard and always look around and get inspired. This piece of work is my way to say  “Yup, you can do THAT too”.

Substance building

The tiling feature in Substance is one of the greatest things, and a lot of talented artists are creating tiling textures like never seen before but I wanted to do something unique and create one single piece from a scratch. The graph may look complicated but it is more about its size than its actual complexity! I just made the elements apart from each other at first and then started from the bottom of the pond and added each piece one by one in black and white levels resulting in grayscale masks that I could use to drive every other material outputs that I needed: first, the base color, then the roughness and finally the height map/normal. At first there was no grass but as I was looking for references pictures I figured it could add something. And that way I just kept adding details.

This whole substance became possible only with the introduction of the newest features in Designer.


Well, the secret is there are no secret nodes. There is probably a way to make this quicker with complex nodes and functions but the hardest part wasn’t the graph, it was how to organize that in my head. I watched a lot of tutorials on how to create dioramas and how people work around and below the resin that imitates water. The graph will soon be available on the Substance Share, I invite people to take a closer look at it and who knows, maybe make a greater and more complex piece inspired by that!

Rocks and land

The rocks gave me some hard times. The little ones in the bottom were simply added to a Splatter node but I wanted the big ones only on some places and couldn’t reach it with a splatter. So here comes the Transformation 2D and Blend colony so I could place each one of them and come back later if I needed it to move. The shape of the rock itself is quite simple (RocksGraph picture) and one of my favourite feature in Substance Designer is the Pick Gradient option in the Gradient Map node. Using that with a reference picture gave me this color result (after many attempts to find the right one).


I have been greatly inspired by Riusuke Fukahoris work who makes these amazing resin water pieces and the «window sandwiches» of Dustin Yellin. If you simplify and break their workflow down, it is «just» layers on top of each other. So I started creating each piece starting with the fins, then the body, added some scales details to finally add eyes shapes. Once it was all crafted, the Transformation 2D and Blend nodes helped me putting all of these together! The result of this gives you a straight fish but I used a Warp node and now it looks like its swimming!

How can we use a similar approach to build some other similar shapes and projects? 

It is a bit of an overkill indeed for game production, as you will never need a diorama like this in a game, but the general workflow of creating shapes and arranging them in layers is the basis of creating procedural textures in Substance Designer. But it is the interesting thing about this diorama project: Using SD to create something out of the game/film production context.

What else can you craft is SD? I’d say anything! Give yourself some challenges! Start with something little and you’ll learn what node is useful for, what can you combine it with and just keep trying. It doesn’t even have to be perfect, but you have to try. Look for pictures, look how other people made it before you, just look around wherever you are, and try to create a Substance out of it! Crazy ideas may be the best ideas.

Pauline Boiteux, Lighting Environnement Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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