Nina Popovych talked about the process of creating the Folk Ornament Mosaic material, shared the original patterns' symbolism, and showed the workflow in Substance 3D Designer.
Hello! My name is Nina Popovych, I am 30 years old and I am from Kyiv, Ukraine. My first experience in the game industry was at the company Artificial Core, which was four years ago. I started my career as a Level Artist. I wanted to improve my skills and started learning material creation a year ago, I'm very passionate about it now. Nowadays, I'm working as a Level Artist in Room 8 Studio.
I have high skills in level art and design, I want to increase my experience, and materials often inspire me, so I started learning material creation.
To study materials, I chose courses from XYZ School with a very good mentor Anton Ageev. As I studied the course materials and did my homework, I realized that I really liked it. After graduating, I continued to make materials that I liked, for my portfolio and as a hobby because I’m interested in learning a new profession, and I love creating materials. Working in Substance 3D always allows me to take my mind off things and relax in some way because I really like it.
Although I do not make materials for my full-time job, I really love the process of their creation. I even have a special library with saved materials that I like and want to make in the future. Also, if there are challenges (something like Nodevember), I try to participate in them. Often, I make materials only on topics of interest to me and try to practice in my spare time, at least a few hours at a time. Often, I don’t even notice how fast time passes when I’m passionate about making stuff.
In the image below, there are a few examples of my materials for Nodevember 2021.
Creating materials in Substance 3D Designer is my hobby at this stage of my career. I really like the fact that using Designer's nodes it is possible to create almost anything your heart desires.
In my opinion, the main advantage and convenience of Substance 3D Designer is that thanks to the procedural approach, the author can have global control over all of the components of the chart and quickly make changes (if you do not like something or if you want to change some point.) It is also great that once you create a fragment of the graph, you can use it in your other graphs, which greatly speeds up the work process. In addition to the convenience of the procedural approach, I think it is also possible to quickly make changes to any part of the chart so that you don't have to spend a lot of time on the correction of the finished texture because you can see all the changes in the 3D window immediately.
As for what inspires me, it can be completely different things. Sometimes it happens that I play a game and see something beautiful there or I find a magnificently made material on another artist's page, it can happen at any moment. Also quite often a surface in real life is so impressive that you immediately want to repeat something similar in Substance 3D Designer.
There are many excellent artists whose work I follow on ArtStation and whose works inspire me, I also aspire to reach their level (like the incredible Pauline Boiteux, Elie Paquiet, and Ishan Verma). These are just a few people who are an example to me of what you need to do with materials.
The Folk Ornament Mosaic Project
I had an idea to create a material with a folk ornament for a long time and sometimes saved all sorts of references. I had already tried to make embroidery material once and I really liked it, so now I decided to do something even more interesting and make embroidery in the form of a mosaic.
I really wanted to create something that could somehow support the culture of my people and allow us to share our traditions and art with many people. I saved many references with images of various ornaments of Ukrainian national embroidery and for a long time, I wanted to make a mosaic material. So I decided that this was a wonderful opportunity to combine these two desires. That's how this idea was born.
When choosing a pattern, I looked through a lot of references, studied some information, and then settled on the option I implemented in the mosaic.
In the picture below, there are interesting examples of different variations of patterns.
It was difficult to choose the final version of the ornament as each part of the pattern and each color has its own meaning. These and similar ornaments were used for embroidery on rushnyks and shirts-embroideries. Rushnyks are objects of folk culture and Slavs' everyday life. They were very widely used in folk rites and traditions, in ancient times, it was customary to lay down a few rushnyks with various types of embroidery as a bride's dowry. All the embroidery was made by hand, and that is why rushnyks had such high value for people. The shape, color, and appearance of the ornaments differed depending on the territory in which the people who embroidered them lived.
In the image below, you can see examples of how such patterns could be implemented in products.
And now I’ll tell you a little bit about the meaning of colors and symbols of the ornament in embroidery.
- White was mainly used as a background for embroidery. Most of the embroidered shirts and rushnyks were white. This color means innocence, purity, spiritual and physical purity, life, and strength. If there was white embroidery on a white canvas, it symbolized the spiritual purity of the owner, the purity of thoughts and soul energy. White embroidery was regarded as a symbol of innocence and, according to beliefs, protected young girls from misfortune and the evil eye.
- The black color was multi-valued. It could mean both joy and sadness. Slavic peoples perceive black as the color of sadness, separation, death, and otherworldly forces. Therefore, black embroidery was often present in funeral and commemorative items. And at the same time, in some territories, the black color in embroidery patterns was very common as in combination with other colors it could mean wealth and fuel for the future family (in some terrain embroidery with the black pattern was used in the decoration of newlyweds' clothes). The black color was often associated with the earth – it gave fruit at the same time and also left in the hearts sadness and sorrow for the loss of loved ones. Black also symbolized wisdom and the accumulation of knowledge because in many regions black embroidered shirts worn by people of old age.
- The red color is the most popular color in Ukrainian embroidery. It was used most often. The main reason for this is its elegance, brightness, and expressiveness. The red color in the embroidery symbolized the element of fire as well as the masculine principle. It has sacred and protective functions and also symbolizes love for a man, life, the energy of the sun, and joy. Therefore the red color was often used in the embroidery of festive clothes, children’s and youth embroidery, wedding clothes, and rushnyks (as it symbolized love and blood kinship). Sometimes the red in the embroidery symbolized the blood shed by the brave warriors in battle.
- The blue color symbolized the sky and water as well as the feminine side. Very often there were embroideries in two colors, red and blue, which symbolized the union of two opposites, two beginnings: male and female, fire and water. In addition to this, embroidered shirts and rushnyks with blue patterns were most often worn on lean days. And they even called them "lean" rushnyks.
- Green was mainly used on women’s embroidered shirts. It was associated with youth, beauty, carelessness, and spring. Besides, it used to be believed that the green color in the embroidery could save from natural elements. The green color symbolizes calmness and endurance, it is the color of life, awakening, growth, and strength.
- The yellow color in the embroidery means sunlight and wealth. In Ukrainian traditional embroidery it is not acceptable to create ornaments entirely of yellow or golden thread. It is most often used in combination with black, red, and green colors.
- The violet (purple) color in the embroidery was considered the most gracious, the one that subtly related the male and female essence. From some sources, it is known that most often samples with embroidery of this color were worn by pregnant women and young children.
As for the embroidery symbols, I described some of them below and added a picture for a better visual representation. In fact, there are a lot of symbols, you can talk about them for an eternity, but I gave an example of those that occur most often.
Square – prosperity, peace, earthly field.
Rhombus – the union of the sun and the earth.
The rhombus and dot – the symbol of the seeded field.
The cross – a sign of harmony of the four elements, protection against evil spirits.
Guelder-rose – love, richness, beauty, motherhood. Guelder-rose bush is the mother, the berries on it are her children.
Stars – protection against evil and negativity, against disease and powerlessness.
Poppy plant – a defense against evil eyes.
Oak – embroidered on men’s shirts, signifies Perun.
Chevrons – a symbol of feminine and masculine natures, spirit, and matter.
Now, let’s talk about getting ready for work and getting some references together.
Before I start working on any of the materials, I always collect references. The main resources for that are Pinterest, ArtStation (similar works from other authors), Twitter, and less often – Google. Sometimes, I find an incredible material in real life, and it really inspires me, in this case, the main references are my own pictures from different angles.
As a rule, I try to collect references of different kinds, from different angles, with different lighting, and it is desirable that some of them were highly detailed. This approach allows you to saturate the created material with the necessary level of detail and make it as realistic as possible.
In some cases, there is only one reference of the material. At the same time, I look for references of something like that, which will give a notion of how the particular moments in the material are arranged. For example, how dirt and dust accumulate in the joints on the tile, what the surface of the stones is, what scuff boards are on the parquet, and so on. It all depends on what kind of final result you want to get.
I structure all the references I’ve found using PureRef. For me, it is one of the most convenient tools for assembling and structuring references. This program is also very easy to use.
In the image below, there is an example of my page with references for this project.
Substance 3D Designer
I always use a predefined and saved template to simplify and speed up my work. It contains pre-arranged outputs of texture material. After that, I continue my work on the basis of this template. Yes, at first glance it may seem that creating all the outputs is not such a long process, but I am so used to it and it's much more convenient for me because you don't have to do the same thing every time and you can just open an already prepared template and reuse it. When I created the Folk Ornament Mosaic project, I did the same. I opened my template and started working.
Creating a pattern that would replicate the embroidery and then could be used as masks to color the mosaic was my first step in creating this material.
I used the SVG node for the template and attached a pre-prepared cut part of the embroidery pattern. I wanted the pattern to be solid and tiled so that it could cover a large area of the walls, columns, floors, etc.
In order to understand exactly what part of the pattern of the ornament is to cut, I counted the number of colorful squares of the embroidery that will make the pattern tiled. After that, I made a node in Tile Generator, in which X and Y were the same number of squares (which in the future would be elements of the tiling). Then I put a pre-cut image with an embroidery element over the result obtained in the Tile Generator and blended them, which gave me a basic picture that helped me mark the SVG node correctly.
In the resulting image, I could clearly see the boundaries of each square, this made it convenient to further use the SVG node and allowed me to make the right black-and-white masks to use in the process of creating the Base Color.
After I connected the selected node to SVG, I started to create a drawing. For those who have not used it before, this node allows you to create almost any vector image. The main convenience of this node is that you can both create any image yourself, put some pictures, and repeat it. This is a very convenient feature as it allows you to create absolutely different patterns in Substance 3D Designer and really saves you time.
In the SVG node, you can use simple geometric shapes (square, circle, rectangle) or you can create any shape using the Bézier curves. You can also change the brightness of the sub-image and the color of the selection, as well as turn off the sub-image altogether if you no longer need it.
After I put different colors in the SVG node, I started the next step. As for markup, it is the choice of every material artist, some prefer to create several separate SVG nodes and in each of them draw different colors, while others draw different colors in one node (this is convenient if the drawing is not very complex and there are no more than 3-5 colors). I made the whole pattern in one SVG node.
When the whole pattern was separated by colors, I started the next stage – making black-and-white masks.
The SVG node gives a color output, so it needs to be changed to a grayscale image (I did this with Grayscale Conversion – a node that converts color to black-and-white). When you get a basic image of the ornament with different shades of gray, you need to select each color of the pattern on a separate black-and-white mask (as we will then use these masks to create a Base Color). For this, I used the nodes Histogram Select and Histogram Scan.
After that, I moved on to the next stage – the creation of the Height map. The first thing that came in handy when I created the Height map was the Tile Generator node, which I had previously used (with the right number of square tiles that would match the masks obtained from the SVG node).
In order to create a more realistic mosaic, I added some variability to the Tile Generator node. I added some randomness the size of the square tiles, moved some of them to Offset and Position Random (on the axes X and Y), and also added a minimum number of Rotation Random so that all the tiles did not stand perfectly even. This allowed me to get a black-and-white picture with seams and individual tiles of the future mosaic. I used it as a base to create a Height map.
Then, I added a little variability to the tile shape with the Directional Warp node (after, through a node with the same settings and the same filter, I ran each of the masks obtained in the SVG node to make the colors lie down exactly along the required contours). As a filter in the Directional Warp node, I used Gaussian Noise (150) and made it more contrasting with the Histogram Scan node. In the resulting output, I blurred the Blur node a bit to create smoother bevels at the tiles.
Then, I ran the resulting node in Directional Warp through Flood Fill (which had not previously worked with this node, you should remember that for the correct operation of this node it is very important to have a clear black-and-white picture with sharp edges). Using the Flood Fill node, I was able to add basic variation to the Height map of the mosaic. Flood Fill to Gradient (a node that uses the Flood Fill node to create a gradient on each of the squares. It can adjust the gradient rotation angle and its intensity and add randomness so that each square had a different gradient at different angles) and Flood Random Fill to Grayscale (this node paints all the squares in randomized gray colors, so you can make each tile have a slightly different height).
After adding basic variability in the height of the tiles and the angle of rotation, I decided to add a variety to the surface of the tiles themselves. Since any tile is not perfectly smooth but will always have some roughness, minimal bumps, or notches, I started working with these details.
In order to diversify the surface of the elements of the mosaic, I did several things.
First, I added some minor surface roughness with the BNW Spots 2 node, which I made a little softer with Blur. Also, on any tile, there are small defects (features of the low tide or small dust particles falling on the tile before it is filled with glossy glaze) that look like small specks or round flat bulges. I added them with the Dirt 2 node adding a bit of randomness (Vector Warp) and partially reducing the number of dots (Histogram Scan).
After that, it’s time to add a variety to the Height map space between the tiles. Although in the mosaic the seams are usually thin and not particularly significant, to create more plausibility and realism, they also need to add some surface. I added it with the White Noise node, which I softened with Blur, and plugged it into the overall blend using the inverted seam mask that I had originally created.
The work with the Height map is finished then, and you can start the next stage. As for the level of development of the Height map, in my opinion, each material artist determines the optimal level of detail for their work themselves. But based on my experience, I recommend paying attention to small and not always immediately noticeable details because they give a sense of plausibility and realism.
As a rule, I start working with Color and Roughness at the same time after I finish working with the Height map.
To get the black-and-white mask that I then used in blends to create color variability, I used the pattern created in Circular Splatter and Tile Generator. With the help of simple shapes, I created different ones and after that, I generated them in several combinations. As for this stage, it was possible to use some ready-made Grunge Map, but I wanted to do something interesting in order to get a more unique result.
I got the mask in the grayscale format thanks to the manipulation above. Then, I used this mask as a filter for the Blend node when mixing colors.
Often for a variety of colors, I use blends of several colors, which I combine on a finished mask. You can also put a black and white mask through the Gradient Map node and get even more color options, but I like to add colors with the Blend node. When you do not use natural materials, it allows you to get more control.
And so, when you add each new color, as you can see in this example, I added some additional variability to some of the individual tiles in the mosaic.
The resulting color outputs with the Blend node I passed through the HSL node slightly changed the values on the sliders so that the result was close to the original but different from it. When mixing into the main color of the resulting color variants I used masks that hide part of the tiles in a random order, mixed with masks that repeat a specific pattern. In order to get a mask that will hide randomly part of the tiles from the total number, I used several nodes Flood Fill to random grayscale, which I told you about earlier, which I translated into contrast colors using the node Histogram Scan, leaving only black and white on the mask. Then I mixed the resulting mask with the masks I had prepared earlier for each of the colors (black and white masks obtained after I repeated the pattern in the SVG node).
After I finished working with color tiles and added varieties and a bit of randomness, I also needed to reflect on the map Base Color and other elements that were added to the Height map.
First, I added color for small bumps, through a mask obtained from the Dirt 2 node (which I had previously added to the Height map). After that, I added a lighter color to the edges of each tile. This is because the mosaic uses cut finished tiles, or specially made tiles of the same size, and the ceramic itself has its own color, and usually, this color is noticeable when viewed very close. So I added the Blurred seam tile mask to the Base color of the ceramic.
Now it’s time to paint the space between the tile seams. Since I added fine grit to the Height map with the Grunge Map, I decided to paint it to match the light grout that is usually used to grout the joints between the tiles.
In the final color work, I decided to add a little bit of dirt using the Dirt node. For those who are not familiar with the Dirt node, it allows you to quickly create a mud mask using Normal, Ambient Occlusion, and Curvature maps (which we get from the Normal node). The Dirt node makes it very easy and fast to control the amount of dirt and its intensity. Once everything is properly connected, you can configure the Dirt node and get the desired level of pollution and mask, which we will then use in the Base Color map and add to the Roughness map, regardless of whether what kind of Roughness map dirt is on any surface will always stand out. It will always be more matt and will create something like a small plaque.
After we have finished with the color, proceed to the map Roughness map. I usually do it in parallel with the color, but you can and separately, here again, each artist chooses a convenient method for themselves.
I used the inverted mask that I made for the color map as the basis and then with the Histogram Range node, I lowered the contrast to a level where the tiles of the mosaic would look plausible and also softened it a bit with a Blur. After that, I subtracted the seams from the received map as the seams are deeper and they must be matt, and added some individual tiles with more intense luster by adding the Clouds 2 node passed through the Vector Warp, which I had previously darkened with the Histogram Scan node. And at the end, I added a Dirt mask to the Roughness map to highlight the places where dirt could stay or accumulate.
With this, the work with the maps of the material is finished, and after unloading, you can proceed to the rendering.
My favorite program for rendering, despite the fact that the 4th version was released long ago, still remains Marmoset Toolbag 3.
I prefer it because its interface is more familiar and convenient for me. But despite this, sometimes to get a juicier and more beautiful picture, I also render materials in Marmoset 4, but I upload already created in Marmoset Toolbag 3 maps with all the settings there, and in volume 4, I only correct some nuances of the settings.
For rendering, I use several variations of presentation material, it is a classic variant on the sphere, render on the plane, sometimes a render on the cylinder, and depending on the material, sometimes additional render options on the plane at different angles.
When saving maps with rendered materials, I stick to one simple rule: one render – one separately saved map with saved settings. That is, if I want to present my work with 5 renders, I will save 5 separate maps, each of which will be separately configured with a camera, light, and other image settings. I do this in order to quickly correct the desired render as well as for convenience.
In addition, for the standard presentation material on the sphere, I have one saved Base map, with camera settings, color, and sphere position, so that every material I have was equally presented on my Artstation page. Sometimes, depending on the material, I have to adjust the lighting on this map, but the background and size will always be the same, which brings me aesthetic pleasure and organizes the appearance of my works in the portfolio.
Starting setting the specific render in Marmoset, right after assigning the Texture maps to the shape, I choose the sky. A Sky map in Marmoset allows you to choose the basic initial lighting for the presentation of your material. And it is very convenient because depending on the type of material you can choose a different kind of Sky map that will help to present the render material in the most beneficial and natural way.
When I’m preparing a render on a sphere, as in this example and any other render, I try to use a limited number of light sources. The reason I’m doing this is that if you map out a lot of different light bulbs, you can get confused and then lose the effect of the plausibility and realism of working out the light and the shadows. And among other things, if you use a lot of light sources, usually more than half of them do not have a significant effect and result. So I tend to use two or four light sources on one map to render.
If you look at this example, you can see that I have only 2 light sources on the map, and also the Sky map acts as one of the sources.
In this example, I used two light bulbs. In the upper right corner, I added a light bulb that shines softly with warm yellowish light on the upper right hemisphere. And at the bottom left, to create a contrast and a more pleasing effect to the eye, I added a less intense light bulb with a cold bluish shade. This combination, in my opinion, creates a pleasant, comfortable, and familiar combination for the eye.
As for the rendering of the material on the plane, I also try to follow the rule I described above: minimum of redundant light sources and a combination of warm and cold shades.
My main wish was to show on these renders what the pattern looks like when it is tiling and to convey its colors. As for the light sources, I used three light sources for this render, two of which were warm and one cold.
When I finish setting angles and lighting for the render, I go to Render settings directly in Marmoset. I try not to get carried away by twisting different sliders, so I add some effects in turn and look at the result. If I like what I see, I’ll let it go. In the render settings for the render of this material, I increased the level of Brightness and strength of Ambient Occlusion, also included the GI checkmark, and of course, added a Watermark.
To get a more colorful and beautiful image, in addition to the render settings, I still slightly change the camera settings. Depending on the angle, I change the setting of Field of View, it affects the size of perception of the figure (sphere, cube, 3D model, object on which you present your material). The more you put the number in this setting, the further you move the object visually. This is especially true for 3D models because with Field of View customization you can visually create an effect that the object will appear huge or very small. Accordingly, the smaller the number, the less distortion of perspective on the sides of the camera. When you put a small number in this setting, it is convenient for a render of small details or an accent rendered on a particular part or item.
Also, in the camera settings, I slightly enlarge the Exposure (if I need to lighten the whole image a little) and gently lift the Contrast (to add richness to the colors).
Always slightly increase the level of Sharpen configuration to add more sharpness to the image.
Depending on the type of renderer and the desired effect, you can still play with camera focus. This setting will help to focus on a particular part, the rest add a little blur, and you can also add a little to the Bloom setting (it will give the feeling of a weak glow, which can also look interesting).
As for me, Substance 3D Designer is a very versatile and interesting program, and it is probably impossible to study it completely. You are constantly learning something new, getting experience from other material artists, sometimes you look or apply their methods that can give unexpected and new results. For me, Substance 3D Designer is a constant search for solutions and a huge trove of possibilities.
I started learning Substance 3D Designer from lessons at XYZ School under the guidance of Anton Ageev. These lessons were very clear and interesting for me. The mentor told me all the important points that are worth studying and memorizing. I was also struck by the fact that there was a very interesting and accessible presentation of the material, which made me want to continue to study Substance 3D Designer myself.
In addition to paid lessons, there are also a lot of interesting videos on Youtube (stylized materials, other stylized materials), where you can also learn something new.
If you are still completely unfamiliar with Substance 3D Designer, I recommend you to start learning it with the basics, the most basic nodes (Basics video from Adobe Substance). It is important to understand the principle of their work because they are essentially the basis of the whole Designer. Approach the study step by step (Substance academy by Adobe Substance), and it is advisable immediately during the study to try to repeat in practice certain actions to understand what the result leads to.
I also recommend choosing a simple material for the first practice and trying to repeat it. It will be very convenient to do this if you first find a video lesson (for example video tutorials by Nathan Mckenzie) and repeat it. First, you will do everything slowly, you will deal with the principles of work of different nodes and remember the names of the nodes that can perform the function you need, but with time and practice, this problem will go away. I made my first material in a few weeks, carefully choosing each value in each node. Now, if necessary, I can make certain materials in just a few hours. But I still have a lot to learn and try.
If you have a goal to learn Substance 3D Designer, you need to be patient and go toward your dream, gradually and confidently, and you will definitely succeed.
Finally, I’d like to thank a few people who have made it possible for me to connect with the gaming industry, who have helped me at different times, and who I care about. Victoria Zavhorodnia is a close friend of mine who pushed me to try my hand in the game industry and always gives good advice and feedback if I need it. I would also like to thank my husband Oleg and my father, who despite the fact that they do not understand the materials, can always voice their opinion. Also, I would like to thank XYZ School mentors Anton Ageev and Vasilina Sirotina, thanks to whom I was able to learn and love Substance 3D Designer.
I wish you all good luck, excellent materials from the Designer, and a peaceful sky!
Nina Popovych, Level Artist
Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie
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