Creating a Herbalist Workshop Scene in Substance & UE4

Julien Manon, an Environment Artist, discussed creating a 3D environment using Substance software, SpeedTree, and Unreal Engine 4 during a course at CGMA.

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Hi, my name is Julien Manon, I am a 21-year-old Environment Artist from Toulouse in France. After high school, I studied in a Graphic Art School for 3 years.

I got into Environment Art during an internship at Altran, which is why I started learning 3D in my spare time. Since then, I have been working for a few companies as a freelancer, including Leartes Studios more recently.

Herbalist Workshop

My primary goal was to create an environment in UE4 which I had never really used before. I looked for a concept that would give free rein to creativity and found this cool concept from Minho Kim. I like the idea of grabbing some props from a concept as if it were a catalog and laying them out in your own way. I chose some props that I modified to fit my scene and created some trying to keep the same style, for example, the chair. I used Pinterest to get more references for the texturing.

First Steps

I first modeled all the assets and did quick test scenes in Maya. The cabinet is the centerpiece of the scene so I wanted to give it its own personality using old cupboards which have their own decorations on top. I really wanted the scene to have a fanciful look, so I turned these decorations into kelpies framing this large opal-inspired stone that is used to structure and attract the eye to the center of the scene.

The Cabinet is made of different parts like doors, lock, and key which I moved around to match the storytelling. I used for example the cabinet key as a bookmark on the table. In the same way, all the pot caps are removable.

Working on Plants

All the plants have been made using Photoshop, Substance Alchemist, and SpeedTree.

During the pandemic walking in nature is a good way to feel better and to resource ourselves. When I started the project, I decided to combine both passions and chose to take some plants from which I picked some leaves with different looks per species

I took pictures on a flat surface of each leaf and using Photoshop, I made atlases with an alpha channel then went in Substance Alchemist to extract textures from atlases. SA is an amazing software that allows you to get a decent result quickly depending on your picture quality.

Then I used SpeedTree to model all the plants.

Texturing the Scene

The scene is composed of 4 main textures — Wood, Metal, Terracotta, and plants.

I wanted to have the wood looking old, varnished, and patinated so I started by choosing many references for old wooden furniture.

I found a good quality walnut picture which I turned into material using SA. After exporting this texture in Substance Painter, I added different layers simulating dark patina in cavities, varnish, veins, wood pores, etc.

This smart material has been used on all wooden assets. I was doing modifications for each prop by painting small details, adding cracks or some dirt, anything that pushes more the storytelling.

I textured all the terracotta pots in the same Substance file, to have visibility on the global look of my assets.

I wanted to have a large diversity of textures on these assets keeping a natural look. The terracotta tiled ground is a texture made with Substance Designer.

The drapery with the two characters came from a real drapery I found while I was visiting the gorgeous "Hameau de la Croze'', located in the Gorges du Tarn in France.

It was well-spread, so it was easier to take a picture of its texture. Using Substance Alchemist I extracted all maps, cropping the input picture, adjusting its color, etc.

Then I modeled the drapery with Marvelous Designer, using the exact same proportions so that the borders correctly fit.

I used pretty much the same workflow to create the carpet. Its texture is a pattern from an old sofa. I took a picture trying to correctly frame the pattern and then I extracted all maps and cleaned the connection on the edges of the picture using different layers as a clone patch effect with Substance Alchemist. Once it was done, I simply modeled the carpet using marvelous and exported everything to SP.

I tilled the pattern base material up, so it fits the carpet size and did modifications to the offset so the pattern is symmetrical to the edges of the carpet. I painted carpet borders trying to reproduce the same style as the central pattern. As the input image is green and yellow and my scene is globally brown and green, I changed its color using a compared mask so the ground could highlight other props. I chose a blue to have a good contrast of complementarity with the rest of the scene, without being more visible than the stone.


I used the cabinet as the centerpiece of the scene and built the diorama around it. The shapes of large objects are supported by smaller objects which themselves are supported by even smaller objects. The scene itself is composed in the form of a triangle divided into four parts. I thought of each part of this environment as multiple little scenes with their own stories. The first one is the table, where preparations are made. The chair is staggered, the book opened and a key on it to keep the book open on the right page, the herbalist will come back soon. The second is the cabinet, heavy objects are stored in the lower part of it, taking those out creates marks in the texture of the cabinet and I used the top part as a bookshelf. I think that dividing elements into multiple parts makes the environment more readable as long as everything is coherent. The top part of the triangle is the first thing that catches your eye, and which lets you read the scene freely down from one side to another. The left side of the scene is the resting area, a calm and green place to read a book. I thought of the back of the cabinet as if it was a storage room, the unused cabinet door is stored here with used containers on the chair.


I wanted to try creating and lighting a diorama in UE4 using ray-tracing.

I tried to keep a natural look by bringing many lighting details using props reflections, highlighting its edges, etc. I have even highlighted some shiny objects to help with the composition of the scene, like the lighting around the cauldrons, the chair with metallic decorations, and the stone, which helps the eye to be attracted at some points of interest in the scene.

I also added fog which helped me to give more ambiance to the scene. Most of the lights are not volumetric. One volumetric PointLight with a very low brightness above the scene illuminates the environment and the fog itself, giving the impression that the fog does only appear on the scene, following its shape. The two other volumetric lights are above the opened book and the cauldron. For both of them, I modified the source radius/length and added a high volumetric value. With those settings, I simulated the kind of god-rays which aren't available with ray-tracing features.

I worked with ray-tracing features, adjusting the sampling, using brute force ray-tracing GI, messing with reflections and translucency, etc. Not a lot of tweaking went into color grading, the lights were generally enough to give the look I wanted for the scene.

The one at the top of the book, combined with the post-process bloom, is here to give the book a magical aspect. As the table scene is built around this book, it was important for me to make it even more visible. It's pretty much the same thing with the cauldron, but in this case, it was more to simulate the kind of steam coming from the mixture. I made it less strong to make sure the book was still more visible.

I played with a slight warm-cold contrast. The right side of the scene is warmer than the left side, which is more fixed, even if nothing in the scene is animated.

CGMA Mentorship and Courses

I took the course Intro to Production Modeling to learn about modeling workflows to help me create better and more believable props. My CGMA mentor taught me to think about the shapes of my models.

Most of the feedback I had was coming from a little community of friends named "the edge flow community" without whom I would never have been able to push my work to this point. I would like to thank all of them starting with our former teacher and friend who is now our mentor Hassen Samaali and all my friends and members of the community — Benoit Chemin, my mate with whom my 3D journey started, Adrien Luvisutto, and Etienne Gounot. Don't forget to have a look at my friends' portfolios, they're all great!

You can find the link to my portfolio here. I will be happy if this article helps anybody gets better at creating a scene.

Thank you for reading!

Julien Manon, 3D Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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