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Amber Marie Edwards shared a detailed breakdown of her atmospheric Haunted Chateau made with UE4, Substance tools, Maya, and ZBrush.
My name is Amber Marie Edwards, I’m 26 years old from the United Kingdom. I completed a 3-year University course in Digital Arts achieving the highest award a 1st BA Honors Degree. My journey on becoming an Environment Artist began having no knowledge about 3D Art or the Games Industry! Once I discovered what it entailed during my initial University interview and was truly inspired I knew this was what I wanted to do for my career.
After leaving University I was presented with an opportunity to apply for a job position role as a Junior Environment Artist for TT Games – Warner Bros. to work on LEGO Games. It was quite surreal having enjoyed playing their games when I was younger, I was now helping create games for the next generation of players.
Within 9 months working there, I was promoted to Environment Artist and have been there for the last 4 years. So far in my time there, I have worked on 7 Titles, my latest titles being LEGO The Incredibles and LEGO DC Villain’s Aquaman level pack. In my spare time I create more 3D Art to try and improve myself in my field, hence my latest piece ‘Haunted Chateau’.
To prepare for this project I knew I wanted to make something that would push my knowledge, abilities and learn more. However, my main aim for improvement with this project was Lighting and Composition to strengthen and overall round my skillset.
I started by researching some derelict interiors as this type of project was something I had not done before, I came across some photos of an abandoned Chateau in France Pont-Remy. The stunning architectural structure of the building really stood out to me. In particular, the stained glass circular window element was what really stuck with me the most.
Composition Focus: I decided that the stain glass window would be the first of my composition focus points and that I would use this to drive a Haunting Dark Fantasy type of project. By using the abandoned mood from the reference, I could enhance the scene with some of my own ideas for the composition. Looking at the bare chimney in the reference I thought this would be a perfect place to add an additional focus point. I decided I would add a painting with a lady trapped within it to support the Dark Fantasy theme.
Lighting Focus: With the composition finalized this then helped influence my decision for the lighting of the project. To create an eerie atmosphere I would light a night time scene with temperature contrasts between warm and cold. To achieve this the room ambiance would be lit with cold temperatures with breakouts of lights from the windows. I would then break up the cold atmosphere by using warm lighting by creating candles, this would also add to the atmosphere of the room.
To begin I gathered my reference of the Chateau and additional imagery related to the 17th- 18th Century neo-Gothic theme to keep the project consistent with the period of the building. I decided then I would piece different key elements of the building structure based on my reference and combine them together to shape the room.
Reference images collected from Google for the project.
I believe it is a critical step to get as much of your reference gathered as possible at the start of any project so you can be accurate with what you create. I’ve found when making environment art using good reference/concept art really helps to shape your art when translating to 3D. With my base reference collected, I could then let this influence my ideas for the Dark Fantasy theme.
For modeling, I use Autodesk Maya and ZBrush, during this whole process I was working iteratively so in 1st Pass > 2nd Pass > Final Pass. This is so I could gain an overall visual and I could reimport the updates to individual assets in UE4 when I had made alterations.
I created the blockout for the room as a guide for the overall scale and snapping for my assets which were then imported this into UE4. Taking as much of the reference as possible that I gathered earlier I created modular pieces. These assets were mostly the wooden architectural elements like the wooden paneling and additional Neo-gothic structural elements.
Initial blockout screenshot from one of my iterative saves from Maya.
When those modular assets were completed I could then create the more unique assets in Maya such as the roof, exposed walls, and floor to help break up the scene and avoid it looking too modular. After the frame structure of the environment was in place with the modular/unique environment elements I then worked on the props, damage assets, and debris assets in stages to build up the rest of the room.
I would use different techniques in Maya and ZBrush when modeling my assets. The more organic assets/props like the wine jug, for example, was created in Maya with supporting edgeloops for subdivisions. The more intricate elements with the wine jug handle, I would sculpt from a ZSphere object till it was shaped how I wanted.
My finished ZBrush sculpt of the Wine Jug.
By doing it this way for me, it was quicker to create the forms than trying to model them in Maya alone. With my high and low poly objects ready I would take them into Substance Painter for baking and texturing.
The finished Wine Jug in Substance Painter after making the low poly version and baking the ZBrush high together. The brass material I made in Substance Designer. This same material that I then used on the Chandelier.
The biggest challenges for these unique props was figuring out the placement for supporting edge loops. This was to make sure that when subdividing in ZBrush, you would get the appropriate results for sculpting and better topology when reducing the high polys to low poly versions.
For example with the gothic table prop, I would plan in stages keeping in mind how it would look subdivided for high poly versions ready for baking.
Gothic Table baked and textured in Substance Painter. For the table top, I created an alpha in Photoshop to create the normal detail.
I created the Gothic Table asset in a similar way as the modular assets using Mayas modeling toolkit, I would calculate and cut into the shapes in stages to get the results I needed.
Step by step creation of the wooden heart shape elements for the table
I would also create assets and see what parts I could potentially re-use to make other props to be more efficient with materials/textures and keep assets consistent with the Neo-gothic theme. For example, with the Chandelier, I broke down the modeled elements from the initial shapes to create the Candlestick Holder prop and Candlestick Lights prop.
The way I wanted to approach the creation of my materials in UE4 was to think about my modular assets and how they would be reused. To save on creating each prop with separate materials separate textures, it would be cheaper and less time consuming to Height-blend multiple textures together in UE4 and vert paint in different materials on separate channels. By doing it this way I could also then reuse my modular assets and paint on instances to make them appear to be unique.
Height Blend controlled materials reused in UE4 for reused unique modular assets.
I created all my base materials for assets such as wood, wallpaper, plaster, brick, and wood lath from scratch in Substance Designer having followed tutorials to get a better understanding of nodes and how they work. With those materials listed, I could modify any changes with a lot of flexibility and create additional versions and I could then blend together in UE4 to keep the entire scene consistent.
The biggest challenge I faced while creating my materials was learning how to create a 3 blended material with displacement in UE4. Of course, using displacement is quite expensive but I felt with the chimney and exposed walls with the Lath underneath it would just make those elements stand out a little more in using it sparingly for that additional detail.
Demonstrating the tessellation working in UE4 with extreme values.
Due to limited resources on this topic, I had to do multiple tests and a lot of back and forth to figure out the correct values to get the height blends working correctly.
The additional focus composition piece had a 2D element as part of it. Before University I came from a more 2D traditional portrait background, focusing on portraiture. With that in mind, I decided I would digitally paint the focus point for this. The frame I sculpted in ZBrush and textured in Substance Painter whereas the fantasy portrait was created in Photoshop. I wanted to make her look dark and moody by using reds tones I could further create contrast of the blues within the scene to make her stand out and create a spookier atmosphere.
The finished Painted Lady Prop
Another unique prop that I made for this project was the French Rug. Initially, I wasn’t sure how to approach this asset as I wanted it to have a handwoven, almost pixel-esk feel to it. Instead of using Substance Designer to make this piece I used Photoshop.
The French Rug reference and the completed asset in UE4.
I hand drew the entire rug from the reference I collected, mirrored certain elements and placed them in certain positions.
The French Rug drawn and mirrored in Photoshop.
Once this was done I ran it through some filters within Photoshop to create the woven feel that I wanted. I was really happy with the end results. Saving the filter steps as an action in Photoshop helped enable me to make any modifications to the initial drawing quick and effective saving both time and effort while ensuring I achieved the same effect.
The image ran through with photoshop filters to get the woven texture.
I knew, like my other scenes done in my free time that I wanted to build this scene in Unreal Engine 4. I’ve loved learning this engine as it gives you a lot of freedom and flexibility with achieving some high-quality results for Environment Art. I had been inspired by many scenes, in particular, Clinton Crumplers article on his KingWash Laundromat. I’ve learned a lot from his breakdowns. I wanted my project to achieve that level of quality of work he had produced.
Lighting is something I felt I needed to look into further, at the start of this project I had just a basic understanding of what the engine could do. I then gathered and watched as many video tutorials and read through as much of the UE4 documentation as I could. In the end, I feel I learned a lot from this, it was worth the time invested in watching and learning other artist’s techniques and reading up directly on the tools provided by the engine. With that, I spent a lot of time experimenting with various lighting sets ups before settling on the lighting in the final scene.
I was initially going to have a static baked scene but I decided to utilize both baked and dynamic lighting to create the bounced light, but also take advantage of different options UE4 has to offer. Creating the lighting was the part that took the longest to get right. Trying to create the right lighting with the right mood and tones Involved a lot of back and forth and a lot of testing with the settings at low production. All the lights were temperature-controlled values, this way I knew the lighting would be realistic.
Static Lighting Setup: I set the skybox to dark tones for the overall ambient of the room. I closed off the entire scene so that it would cast shadows and prevent any possible light leaks. In addition to this I added 3 Lightmass Portals that would boost the lighting at windows where they were placed.
Single Bouncecard with three directly facing spotlights.
With those in place, I then used 3 spot lights that I directly faced towards a huge bounce card, to reflect the lighting back inside through the windows so that it would smoothly bounce an overall light throughout the room. I also added lights in darker areas to lift dark shadows here it would be harder to see.
Dynamic Lighting setup: I added in an Exponential Height Fog that would scatter the lighting of my dynamic lights. I created 3 spot lights at the same angle to get the crisp silhouettes of the windows. I then added 4 ‘fake’ spot lights above these that would spread above the main spot lights and a few point lights to further boost the light scattered in the exponential height fog.
Combination setups: For the candles I did a combination of static point lights, to create a soft ambient glow of the candle, an additional dynamic point light with a warmer temperature with an applied light function I made to add an animated flicker for the video and further boost the static point light.
I also learned from Leah Augustine’s article about individual lighting channels! Using this discovery, I finished up with some highlight point lights to lift some of the highlights of various assets without adding light to the surrounding areas of the assets without adding light to the surrounding areas.
With my lighting finalised the way I wanted I finished up with some Post Processing. Within the Post Process Volume, I slightly upped the contrast, added a little vignette and upped the overall Ambient Occlusion. I did like this version of the lighting, however, I felt it was a little too over saturated and leaned more towards fantasy than realism which was my aim at the start of the project.
Lighting without Post Processing.
After the small adjustments to the general settings in the Post Processing, the biggest thing that helped create the mood and atmosphere was a Look-Up-Table (LUT). Instead of using one of the presets available, I created one in Photoshop by capturing a high-quality screenshot of the above image of my scene. From there I altered the settings and plugged it into the colour grading option in UE4.
Lighting with Post Processing.
I wanted to get a realistic film quality, eerie vibe to it that would still uphold the Dark Fantasy feel, so I played with different filters and effects visually to get the end result. I could see how the filters would work in ‘real time’ having the screenshot loaded as the base and working the filters for the LUT on top.
The final thing I would like to add, that contributed to the end result of my project, was having my work colleagues give me feedback on what I could do to improve my scene for my lighting and assets when I felt it was ‘finished’. Their ideas and advice helped shaped my scene towards the end, I would just like to thank them!
Amber Marie Edwards, Environment Artist
Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev
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