Robert Paseka shared the production details of his stylized prop Elven Wagon: modeling in Blender, working with tiling textures and trim sheets, faking god rays with spotlights, and more.
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Hi! My name is Robert Paseka and I’m a Prop/Environment Artist from Prague, Czech Republic. I’m a self-taught artist, currently working on building a portfolio. I’ve worked on a few community projects, one of them being the Skyrim community mod called “Skyblivion”. I got into 3D in mid-2017. I wanted to learn how to make 3D animations and I found out about Blender. It was free, so I started experimenting with it. Although I didn’t stick with animation, I fell in love with environment art and it didn’t take too long before I fell into the rabbit hole.
Stylized vs. Realistic Art
I was always fascinated by both stylized and realistic art. I was always interested in combining the two in interesting ways. Stylized art can be a great way for artists to express themselves, to really express the mood and emotion they are trying to portray. I also always admired the detail and well, the realness of realistic art styles. I tried to combine the best of both worlds keeping the detail and realistic feel of the textures while exaggerating some features to better convey the mood of the piece, be it with the texture work, lighting, or the modeling. My main style inspirations were the World of Warcraft CGI cinematics, the Fable series, and the Elder Scrolls games, which I think are doing an amazing job at it.
Elven Wagon: Inspiration
Before I started the project, I remember watching the entire Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movie series, and I felt really inspired by places like Rivendell, Lothlórien, or Mirkwood. So I went on Pinterest to look for inspiration. Eventually, I stumbled upon the concept “Elf Wagon” by Ji Young Joo:
I instantly fell in love with it. It had that robust, heavy-looking, stylized feel of something you’d see in WoW while featuring those lean, natural curves so typical to the elven ornaments. I decided to contact Joo, and with his permission, I got into preparation.
I looked on Pinterest for more inspiration and downloaded some images of other examples of elvish architecture, but I decided not to make a reference board, which proved to be a big mistake later down the process. All I had was the two pieces of concept art and a vague idea of combining the stylized exaggerated features of the model with detailed, more realistic texture work.
The model was pretty complex so I decided early on to split it into 3 basic categories. The first included walls and surfaces which I could use tiling textures on. The second category was the basic frame of the wagon, which I created a small modular kit for. This was then duplicated around the wagon, along with my other props. These were the tarps, the rolled cloth, and the flags, each of which required a unique texture set. The third and last category was the ornaments. I decided that the best way to texture them would be by using trim sheets.
With all this out of the way, I got to work. My weapon of choice was Blender. I matched the perspective of the concept art to my scene camera inside Blender using software called fSpy. It usually works wonders for real-life photos, but it doesn’t work that well with concept art as the concept artist can warp and modify the perspective to serve better readability of the concept. After some manual tweaks of my aligned camera in Blender, I started blocking out the basic shapes. I then iterated on those, added some bevels, and worked on it until I had something that looked decent.
I started unwrapping everything with a consistent texel density in mind. My texel density was 10,24px/cm, which may be a bit higher than what you’d normally see in a game, but I didn’t mind it too much since this project was a portfolio piece so squeezing a little bit more detail shouldn’t be a problem. The default Blender UV unwrapping tools are… basic to say the least. Because of this, I used some addons to help me along the way. One of my favorite ones is “TexTools”, which helped me a lot keep my texel density consistent and made my life a lot easier overall.
When I had the overall silhouette of the wagon done, I decided to work on some tiling textures and started with the wooden floor. I set up a plane in Blender representing my texture dimensions and started adding individual planks in a manner that created nice seamless tiling. I then took the planks inside of ZBrush for some sculpting. I sculpted the basic fiber structure of the planks, as well as some details like scratches and edge wear. Afterwards, I exported my planks back to Blender and duplicated them around my base plane. Since I already had it set up, I decided to use it for baking as well. One important thing to note would be to duplicate the planks even outside of the baking frame in order for the AO to bake correctly.
With my basic tiling textures done, I started blocking in more unique parts of the wagon, such as lamps, rolled cloth, and flags, as well as ornaments. I started by making a plane and extruding several times with an array modifier. Then I added a Bezier curve and used a curve modifier on my arrayed mesh to control it better (after setting the array modifier to adapt to the length of the curve). Finally, I added a Solidify modifier, to give it thickness, and then all I had to do was to recreate the ornaments from the concept art. And since it was all based on a non-destructive workflow with modifiers anything could be changed at any point in the process. Where the non-destructive workflow came in really useful was when I was giving ornaments thickness. If one stripe would look too thick and out of place, I could just change it with a slider and adapt every ornament around it to that new thickness. For the texturing part of the ornaments, I decided to use a trim sheet. For a more in-depth look, I recommend checking out this Polygon Academy tutorial series by Tim Simpson. One more instance where I used a trim sheet was the wheels. I modeled and textured only a quarter of the wheel and then tiled the trim texture across the whole wheel.
The texturing process of the other props was pretty straight forward. I took the frame I modeled to ZBrush to add some edge wear and slashes. I found that the “Trim Smooth Border” brush works really well for edge wear on wood; I combined it with the “Orb-brushes pack” which works great for stylized sculpting and it helped me to add that exaggerated stylized feel to my modeling. I didn’t sculpt any texture details in ZBrush, as I intended to add those later with textures. I made the rest of my assets this way, which I then brought into Substance Painter. The texturing was relatively easy, as I had most of the detail I needed baked down from my high poly sculpts. Then it was just a matter of adding my textures and using some smart masks for lightening the edges and darkening crevices.
The only problem I ran into was the lack of a reference board. Without a proper style guide, the detailed textures didn’t look that good on my more stylized model and the whole thing looked way too clean. It kind of looked like a miniature. So I went online and searched for works in a similar style of mine. Along with some feedback I’ve got from people on various Discord servers I decided to make another pass on the textures. As I mentioned, the whole thing looked way too clean. Because of this, I made a few dirt passes on both baked and tiling texture sets. That darkened everything up a bit and showed more detail in the textures, as well as more of the sculpting I did on the models.
I experimented with a handful of lighting setups and possible settings for the scene. I initially wanted a day scene set in the middle of winter. I experimented with it (you can even see an early WIP screenshot in the progress video in my Artstation post), but later on, I decided to scrap it and go for a more magical, fantasy setting. What I later settled down for was a calm, nighttime scene in the middle of spring/early summer.
The main lighting setup is a variation of basic 3-point lighting, but instead of one key light, I used three in combination. They are lighting the model from the same side in a cold blue color simulating the moonlight, but from different angles and they each have different intensity, making a sort of a gradient. I also used a warm fill light to contrast the cold blue key lights. One almost pure white rim light was used to show off the details of my model and to give it more depth.
After I rendered the final set of images, I took them to Photoshop for some final tweaks. The first thing I adjusted was the levels. My renders were a little too dim and a big portion of the images was showered in black. I then added a cloud texture behind the wagon to make the background more interesting. I also wanted to add a warmer glow to the windows and the fireflies, so I went over them with a soft brush using a warm color with the blending mode set to “Overlay”. After a few color tweaks in Photoshop’s “Camera Raw” filter and adding a light vignette, I called the project done.
Overall, I had a lot of fun working on this project, although sometimes it was hard to stay motivated. I learned a lot throughout the whole process while also adding a nice piece to my portfolio. I’m really looking forward to my future projects!
To offer one final piece of advice to whoever might find it useful; just keep it up. Keep working on projects. Keep interacting with the community. And keep pursuing your goals. If you feel tired or overwhelmed, take a break. No big project gets done overnight. Be active on social media. Join Discord/Facebook/Twitter communities, talk to people, and get feedback. That’s the fastest way of learning and progressing. Especially for artists.
I hope you’ve found this breakdown useful, and thanks for reading!