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Creating a Realistic Piano Prop in Maya & ZBrush

Check out this breakdown of a piano model made in Maya, ZBrush, Marmoset Toolbag, and Substance Painter by Mélanie Barco.


Hello, 80.lv community! I’m Mélanie Barco I graduated last year. I had the opportunity to work on projects as a freelance. Right now I’m working on my portfolio while looking for a job as an Environment or Props Artist in the video game industry.

I discovered 3D modeling for the first time five years ago in school. I’d learned the basics in school then I pushed myself by working on personals projects at home, watching tutorials, reading articles.

Her Piano

The project “Her Piano” is a remake of an old project of mine I made one year ago. I wanted to remake the scene to push the storytelling of my props and see if I leveled up.

I like to imagine a story for the props I’m working on. For the piano, I imagine it was a gift a husband made to his wife. After she died, the piano was never touched again. 

When I work on props, I like to search for my references on auction websites. It’s a great place to look for references if you’re working on an old object. Usually, you can find pictures of objects in multiple angles, zoomed on damaged parts. It’s very useful for modeling and texturing. 


Before modeling, I always import a mannequin to have a human scale. First I start with a blockout, to have an idea of the shape.

I used Maya to model the low-poly and ZBrush to make the high-poly. The high was pretty simple to make, I did not sculpt a lot of things in ZBrush. I mostly used it to add alpha on the piano. 

For the leg, I used the blockout made in Maya and reshaped it in ZBrush, then I imported the new leg to Maya to make the low-poly and re-import the new low-poly to ZBrush and used it as a new base for my high-poly.

Once it was over, I did the UVs. I kept in mind the wood vein while unwrapping the UV, it’s easier to texture if my UV has the same rotation than the vein. I baked everything on Substance Painter. The piano and the candlesticks have two different materials.


For texturing, I started first with a base color and added some variation to it with clouds and different colors. For the veins, I used differents grunge and played with the scale, tiling, layer’s mode, and opacity until I found something pleasing to the eye.

I like to add a Sharpen Filter to the grunge I use, the difference is subtle but the devil is in the details.

Once I was satisfied with my base wood, I added some color to the edges thanks to a mask using the Curvature Map. For the worn-out part, I used a smart mask with grunge scratches as an input. Finally, I painted where I didn't want the scratches.

After that, I added the prints on the piano. I simply created the shape in Photoshop and used it as an alpha for a brush. I used a bright orange as a color and slowly erased it using a brush with low opacity.

For the keys, I used a yellowish-white as a base color, and then I painted some dirt on top with a brownish-yellow color. I added some dust with a dirt generator as a final touch to support the fact that the piano hasn't been touched for a little while. I made the wood texture a smart material and used it as a base for other props.

The candlesticks are textured using the gold damaged material on Substance Painter. I tweaked some parameters to have the exact color I wanted. For the candles, I used a material I had found on Substance Share. I knew I wanted my candles to be lit, so I painted the top of the candle in orange and blurred it to have a nice effect. The sheets are a scan of real music sheets I found on the internet. I adjusted the color in Photoshop with some level and created the alpha.

For the fabric on top of the piano and the carpet, I made a simulation on Marvelous Designer. I imported the high-poly and the 2D plane of the fabric on Maya and with just a few clicks I made the low-poly.

I baked the high on the low in SP. Then I made the fabric in two-stage, first, I simply made a fabric texture, and then for the decorative part of the fabric, I used a texture I found on textures.com. I imported the texture to Photoshop to create the alpha and used it as an opacity mask in Substance Painter.

For the stool, I used the smart material I created with the piano. The velvet was a material found on Substance Share.


Once everything was textured, it’s rendering time! I used Marmoset Toolbag to render the scene. I’m not a lighting expert but rendering and putting lights is my favorite part of the creation process.

The lighting was simple, I had 4 omni-lights and 1 sky-light. I used a warm color for the main light. I put a blue light on the side to have a little contrast on the side. I also put a dark blue background so the piano pops up more.

Once I was satisfied with the lighting I played a little bit with the post-process. I adjusted the color a little bit with the curve editor. Finally, it was time to take screenshots.

Reworking an old project is a nice exercise. It allows me to see how much I grew up as an artist. As I've said, my main goal for this prop was to tell a story, I hope I achieved it and people can read the story I wanted to tell. 

The piano is a part of a bigger scene I’m working on in UE4 but for now, I’m taking a break from the scene lacking the inspiration to finish it. I pushed myself to finish it but the more I was working on it, the less I enjoyed it. It’s very frustrating when you block on the art you’re making but working on something that doesn’t make you happy is worse.

My goal now is to find a job in a studio with talented people and learn from them.

Thank you 80.lv for this opportunity, I hope you enjoyed my little breakdown.

Mélanie Evans, 3D Props Artist

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

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