Building Complex Materials with Substance

Building Complex Materials with Substance

Johnathon Goswick discusses some of the ways you can use to create high-quality surfaces.

An experienced 3D artist Johnathon Goswick talked about the way he built some of his complex materials. 


Hi, my name is Johnathon Goswick, and I work as a Freelance Product Designer and Store Layout Artist in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I originally got into the product design industry by networking with local companies in the area and personally showing them my work.

Since most of my clientele work has been in product design (models, end caps, etc), I have struggled to be more proficient at texturing objects. Substance Designer has helped me sharpen my skills. I only make game art as a hobby, so every material I have worked on has been to try something new. I use the community for just about everything, and most of these materials are based off of tutorials found around the web. 

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I start with a reference.  If it’s a hard surface such as a safety deposit box, then I normally only need 1 or 2. If I work on a rocky surface, I need several references. Mostly importantly, I need to research others’ work. This gives me a standard and an overwhelming amount of inspiration. It’s more difficult to learn on your own than it is to learn from others. Until you feel comfortable in the program, I highly suggest overloading your brain with tutorials. 

Brick Material

The Brick material was a lot of fun to make. The original graph is based off of Allegorithmic’s Creating a Brick Material tutorial. I worked on that about a month and a half ago. It was the first tutorial I used when I opened Substance Designer. I finally came back for a 3rd round, and this time had a specific shape in mind. I used what I had learned about height blending and the pros of using a specific mask vs the height-blend node. In order to achieve the detail I had accomplished with the brick, I use a stair-step of Slope Blur Gray-Scale nodes. These immediately create the large detail, medium detail, and small detail of the object using 3-scaled Perlin Noise Zoom nodes. I then need to designate what material this is, so I like to use a Clouds with the Slope Blur Gray scale to add a bit of concrete looking chips and details in there. The last detail I used was a Cracks node that I had created using a tutorial I found by Allegorithmic. I keep this node in a folder called Environment Toolset, which houses all of my custom nodes and saves me a lot of time. Again, a trick I picked up from Allegorithmic. 

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Pinch Point

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There are several different ways to blend grunge in and out of materials in Substance Designer; and most people use the Height Blend node to do so. What I do instead is create a “Pinch Point” in the middle of my graph. This is the part of my graph where I have finished the main shape and am now moving onto my detail and cracks. It is extremely useful to create this point because it allows you to make quick changes, or be reassured in the fact that you can just replace your pinch point detail, and it will cleanly replace itself throughout the graph. It also allows you to have a standard of “Okay, I have created x number of nodes to create this shape. Could I have done it differently before moving on?”

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The Heavy Plate

The Heavy Plate material was super fun, and also my first try at hard surface in Substance Designer. I might as well take the time again to point out that there is an absolutely fantastic tutorial on YouTube called Metal Plates Substance Breakdown. “Sharpstance” gave me the information I needed to know in order to start creating these bulky shapes. I started with the major pieces and wanted to add a little bit of a welded look to it using the Slop Blur Greyscale and a Perlin Zoom node. I ended up liking the look and went way overboard with the detail. I wasn’t planning on leaving Substance Designer, so used the Iray renderer to give me a good idea of how much color was hitting my metal. I left the presets where they were and contrasted SD’s Sephia Environmental setting with a sharp blue color that was heavily saturated. When the environmental color hit my saturated blue, the yellow turned into a murky brown. This gave my rendering a bit more realism in the end. I was able to push these values by adding an Edge Detect Node and blurring the result. I then added more yellow to complement the environment and de-saturate the blue. Instead of going too deep into the actual graph, I’ll just make it available for download on my Gumroad


When I render materials, I like to use both Iray and Marmoset. This is because both programs produce the same quality, but are vastly different. Iray, which is included in Substance Designer, is incredibly similar to Keyshot. It is very useful for organic or plant life renderings, but can get a little slow when you start rendering metal and have to adjust settings. Marmoset, on the other hand, is really fast, really fun, and completely useless if you don’t know how to use it considering there are zero tutorials online. That’s the main drawback of Marmoset. Iray will right off the bat give you something that reflects correctly, Marmoset will not. In order to achieve a good looking render in Marmoset, you need the following boxes checked under the Render Gear (Resolution-2:1, Local Reflections, Ambient Occlusion, High-Res Shadows, Front Face Shadows, Enable GI, Secondary Bounces, Occlusion Detail x4, Voxel Resolution High). I mean, come on! That’s wayyy too many buttons for someone to accidentally click all at once. It really isn’t new user friendly. If you are new to Substance, then just stick to Iray. It will allow you to see how your material looks live and let you change small details on the go.


If I haven’t pressed the fact enough already, watch tutorials. If you are wanting to learn Substance Designer, then as the legend Shia Labeouf once said “Just Do It”. There are zero limitations to learning Substance and thousands of people out there willing to help. Substance Share is updated almost every day with materials that make you green with envy; it’s probably the healthiest competitive environment I’ve ever been around. I remember when I was in college and even the idea of downloading someone else’s Maya model from Turbosquid was considered “in the grey” and you were cursed to watching tutorials about Booleans until your eyes bled. But no longer my friends! Now people actually WANT you to download their materials, and dig into them. They WAAANT you to think “Wow, that’s a good looking material, I wonder if I can do it better?”. If I can’t stress this point enough here it is again: they WANT you to learn from them. Take their ideas and make them better or different in your own way, because any skill you gain and are able to share, the community gains as well. 

Johnathon Goswick, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Artyom Sergeev

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    Building Complex Materials with Substance