Fabian Seager broke down his procedural Ornate Pattern material, talked about presentation in Marmoset Toolbag, and shared his way of learning Substance Designer.
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Hi there, I am Fabian, an Environment Artist at Grinding Gear Games. I am currently working on Path of Exile and upcoming Path of Exile 2. I make art for the levels in the game and any other environment-related things like hideouts and props.
Originally, I studied Graphic Design, but in my 2nd year as a student I decided to finish my degree with 3D art being the main focus, thankfully my tutors allowed it.
I originally started with Designer in November 2019 (about 8 months ago) as I wanted a specific material for Path of Exile 2 that I just couldn't find a scan material of, so I was inspired to try and create it. I asked my Art Director if it would be okay if I taught myself Designer a bit in the mornings when I started work, and thankfully he approved, so every morning I try and do a bit of Designer to try new things or produce a new material over a week or so. Once my friend Stan Brown joined, he helped me refine my technique and teach me new workflows and techniques that I had no idea existed.
Ornate Pattern: Idea Development
The Ornate Pattern project started when I came across this metal pattern:
The goal was to try and replicate this as a test to do a metallic substance which I had not done before. I decided to start by trying to recreate the pattern at first but didn't like the large amount of negative space in the ref. I had no idea what I was going to do to reduce the negative space. Originally, I thought of putting wood behind, but then I rotated the pattern in the tile sampler and a happy accident occurred, which gave me all the detailed pieces behind. I played with a few more samplers to layer the pattern and it all just sort of fell into place.
The setup is actually quite simple. Originally, I made a shape with a bunch of different shape nodes and transforms adding and subtracting the pieces until I had what I wanted.
I then ran this into a tile sampler at 4x4 to get the pattern. After that, I ran this into a blend (max lighten), a mask with another tile sampler with a transformed input to make the pattern smaller, and a levels node to set its placement behind the main tile. I then did this one last time with a 45-degree variant and blended it the same way to get the entire pattern. Tile Sampler is such a powerful node, it is definitely integral to my workflow.
The metalness mask is entirely white. The reference was pretty clean in regards to height, but I definitely wanted to make it feel like it had a little bit of history. I added some subtle surface noise, some small dents, and scratches, just to give it some extra oomph when the light hits from the right angles. Most of the look comes from the roughness and albedo.
Albedo & Roughness
The most challenging part of this project was the Albedo and Roughness layers. I had no idea how I could approach this, but I had some great tips from my mentor Stan Brown. I picked my 4 main colours from the reference and blended them together with a noise, which is only super noticeable from zooming in. But with any substance, subtlety is key. It gives the base just enough variation. Then it was just a bunch of blends mostly using copy and opacity slider and different masks like curvature and grunges with HSL changes of my main 4 colours. The hardest part here but also the most important one is that masks are key. If you just put layers atop again and again you won't always get the right effect, so using masks or grunges to place new colour where you want it or on top in randomized locations is key to getting that variation, keep it subtle with opacity, but not cloudy.
Roughness was next. The nice thing with roughness is that a lot of the info can actually come from your albedo pass, so I generally work in the flow of Height > Albedo > Roughness.
I start the roughness with a greyscale conversion node from the final Albedo output and play with the sliders until I get the desired result. Sometimes I come back to this, but generally, this gives me a nice base from all the albedo blends and variations. Next is where the story comes in, I blend in grundges with different blend modes and opacities to get different results. Most of these grundges or blends actually come from the masks and grunges in the albedo, that way they all align nicely with where the different colour variations are in the material.
I then put this into Marmoset but instantly saw that there was way too much variation and it was too wet-looking. So I went back to Designer a few times and tweaked surface noise to give it more roughness and adjusted my roughness with a highpass and a levels to clamp the variation.
Setting up the scene in Toolbag is a lot of fun, playing with lights and seeing how they flow over your surface is such a joy. It also instantly shows where your material is in terms of roughness and colour. It's always good to get your materials up to a standard you are happy with and then put it into your renderer of choice and make adjustments based on that. Marmoset roughness looks quite different from the viewport in Designer for instance. I would say the main trick to rendering substances in Toolbag is making your material pop and not blend with the background too much.
Initially, I start by choosing a skylight with the colours that I like and that compliment my material nicely, - in this case, it was Bolonga Portico. I then pick a few places on the skylight to create lights, mostly based on the colours that work with the material. You can create your own lights, but I feel like it's better to use similar lights that the skylight provides to help ground the material in the scene. I then adjust the colour and placement.
With skylight only:
I usually have Adobe Color website open where I choose the complementary colour wheel to get my colours and adjust from there. I place my colder complementary colours around the base of the material and my warmer and whites near the top. I feel this gives a nice read and also some interest at these points without distracting from the overall look.
I then adjust the camera to give a little blur to the edges and then it's basically a tweaking process until I get something I am happy with. Also for this particular material, I turned off cast shadows on the mesh because this material has opacity and I wanted it to look like light was bouncing inside the orb.
How to Learn Designer
I started with the Dirt Ground tutorial from Substance as it had covered natural ground creation with different heights and details like stones and sticks, so right off the bat, I got a lot of different ways of handling things. Then I moved on to the Fundamentals series from Daniel Thiger and the Bricks from Josh Lynch.
I think the main resource to use when learning Designer is feedback, - don't ever be afraid to ask for feedback, find some discords like Experience Points or DiNusty Empire, and ask for as much feedback as you can. The art community is extremely kind and helpful, people are always willing to help. Spend time practicing a little each day, - you don't always have to make a material, but playing and having fun in the software with little things is the quickest way to grow,. Find something you like and see if you can figure out how to make it, even if it was a small task like a pattern. It all helps in the long run.