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Jessica Murphy did a great breakdown of her incredible character Kiara inspired by World of Warcraft and made with 3D-Coat, Photoshop, Substance Painter, and Maya.
I have always loved creative pursuits, whether it be drawing, painting, sculpting or making elaborate dioramas and more. Then in 2004, my passion for art became inextricably linked to a new-found obsession: World of Warcraft. Something about the Warcraft universe drew me in like a vortex and has never let me go! This strong connection to Warcraft has endlessly inspired me as an artist, providing the driving force that has led me into the games industry.
This particular project, Kiara, was for a 3D character assignment at AIE. I was tasked with creating a production-ready character from an existing concept. My teacher explained that to study and learn by recreating a professional concept would offer a more productive learning experience, focusing on analysis and interpretation, rather than on our own design.
I could definitely see the value in this approach and after searching through Hearthstone card illustrations I initially decided to recreate the Lotus Illusionist by Luke Mancini. At the same time, I had a strong desire to pursue an original idea and discovered that Fanfoxy (another artist whose work I love), worked on commissions. I found it incredibly inspiring to work closely with an artist I admire on a unique piece while referencing the strong direction of Luke Mancini’s original design.
Kiara is a night elf priestess – my favorite Warcraft culture. Night elves are a proud and resilient race, which is reflected through their divine sense of being and gracious presence. I wanted my character to cast an air of confidence, with the owl representing her deep spiritual connection to nature.
I will be focusing mostly on the texturing stage of my project. I found this the most challenging aspect and it offered the most growth for me, personally. I haven’t used any new techniques as such, but rather the tools first introduced while learning about painting textures at AIE and applying these in ways that would achieve an effective looking, completely painted and unlit scene.
I hope this provides some helpful insight for others also wanting to build more confidence with painting in Photoshop or 3D-Coat, as well as sharing more about my personal thoughts and processes that guided the development of this art piece.
The longer skirts and sleeves of the character are the only sections where I used any texture baking (and the owl which I will cover further on). This was especially helpful to create convincing form and lighting for the back view, where there was no reference to work from.
Using Substance Painter, I baked a World Space Normal map to extract the green channel (top-down lighting information) as part of my texture base. I also set up a light in my Maya scene at the location of the owl and used Transfer Maps (selecting the “Shaded” output map) to bake this positioned lighting information. I combined the two maps together in Photoshop with a ‘multiply’ blend mode on the darker of the two, using reduced opacity to subtly add the correct lighting direction. I then used a gradient map adjustment layer, color picking sections from the reference.
Note: I used this same baking process on the inside of a duplicated skirt mesh with reversed normals so that the lighting would not appear inverted from the front.
For the remaining textures, I found this baking process lacked too much precision when trying to match the color ranges in the concept. The lighting scene from Maya still provided a useful reference for where the light should fall (especially for the back), but I discarded the bakes and started painting each individual section, paying close attention to the concept. Although this may have taken longer, it allowed me to not only capture every detail but to learn a lot about color and light in the process.
The painting was done in both Photoshop and 3D-Coat, working through a linked file. I prefer the feeling of the brushes in Photoshop and the control of painting on a flat surface, but working in 3D-Coat allows you to gain a sense of how the texture looks in 3D and flows across UV seams.
In most cases, I used a hard round brush with some opacity and softly built up the paint, which I found offered the most control. However, there were a number of other brushes, most of which were from Marc Brunet’s Advanced Painter’s PS Brushes pack, that I found helpful for certain situations.
I used the Textured Soft Round brush, (outlined in pink above) for painting the skin and some softer areas of the fabric. It blends very nicely but still has a tight, crispness to it, unlike the blurry feeling of the standard Photoshop soft brush. Another couple of brushes (‘Skin Folds’ and ‘Skin Cavity’ outlined in teal above) were useful in achieving the cloth folds and highlights on the metal. These have a hard edge on one side of the brush alpha, with a soft fade on the other. I also used a variety of other textured ‘Dry’ brushes (outlined in green above) for the ground and the background.
In Photoshop, I prefer to have the ‘Transfer’ brush setting on, using pen pressure input to control the opacity for a more realistic response. There is a handy shortcut button at the top of the UI window that causes every brush to use the ‘Transfer’ mode by default while it’s enabled. Similarly, you can apply this effect to the brush in 3D-Coat as well. Both are indicated below (in green).
3D-Coat, with the ability to paint across the different UVs, was more appropriate for painting the hair than Photoshop. In either program, the brush settings need to taper (shown in pink) as well as fade (shown in green) in order to create the wispy look of hair. In Photoshop, this means having the ‘Shape Dynamics’ option enabled in the brush settings, as well as ‘Transfer.’ The equivalent settings in 3D-Coat are all shown above.
These brushes achieve the most organic effect when you combine more than one brush type together. In the concept artwork, Kiara’s hair is quite fine and straight so I made the strands very subtle. The feathers have a similar soft and intricate feel to them, so I used the same process for painting both to create that same sense of cohesion in my 3D piece as well.
As I was finishing up the textures, I wanted to apply what I had learned about the concept of bounce light to make the metal trim of the armor feel more authentic. The shadows here were very dark, which felt unnaturally flat against areas hit intensely by the light. I added bounce light to these darker areas on a layer with the blend mode set to ‘overlay’ to help unify the textures and bring the armor to life.
The owl was quite challenging. Early on I struggled with it taking too much attention away from the priestess. When I initially conveyed my idea to the concept artist, I wanted a line of action that began at the wings and led down through Kiara’s arm, complementing the line leading up from her flowing skirts.
The illustration has an overall flow through the piece, but it also brings you to a meeting point around the face and chest where I think the focus should be. I wanted my 3D piece to follow this purpose as well, but to be careful of the owl competing with Kiara for attention. I felt the owl should serve that compositional purpose, not to steal the spotlight.
Initially, I experimented in Sketchfab with a spectral-looking effect by using ‘refraction’ for the transparency blending. As the scene is unlit, I used a duplicated mesh extruded slightly thicker with the refraction applied, to reflect the smaller owl mesh on the inside. It looked quite interesting and ‘magical’ the way that it interacted when the camera moved, but not only was this seizing attention, it also felt visually too heavy. It was becoming the definite focal point of the piece, so I chose to try something different.
I explored the idea of a wisp instead, which are night elf spirits. Given that the character is a priestess, I thought this could fit quite well and have a sweet tone to the story element. I liked its lighter weight and subtlety; the way that it felt more delicate.
However, there was one thing bugging me about this – my goal was to capture the concept art as faithfully as I could, so I made the decision to go back to the owl, but to implement what was working about the wisp – that ghost-like and elusive feeling.
The key factor in having the owl work now was the transparency. The challenge was to make it appear like it was glowing, as well as interacting with the light being emitted from the scroll below, whilst at the same time fading away. As soon as the opacity is faded out, the bright intensity of any glow is instantly lost. I realized I would need tiny detailed areas of the transparency texture to remain at full opacity to signify the light, while the rest had a soft gradation fading away. I wanted it to read with a sense of light hitting from underneath – like holding a torch below your face in the dark.
Often to start a painted texture I would extract the green channel from a World Space Normal map to use as a base. Knowing that this holds top-down lighting information, I realized that inverting the image would appear as light coming from below. I now had a ‘torch in the dark’ look as a base to work from which was a very helpful starting point. The only adjustment I made was lowering the brightness so that the base grey was at about 20% from black, so it would be mostly faded away.
I had baked a curvature map that I set to ‘overlay’ on top, to define the edges and creases from my high poly owl. This helped create the sharper outline of the feathers that would make the ‘glow’. Adding the curvature map made the texture feel quite grungy and messy, so I did some clean up in 3D-Coat and refined the details. I also created the idea of a depth gradient, by shading it darker towards the back and lighter towards the front. This helped it read much clearer, adding more depth and taking away a lot of busy, repetitive details from all those feathers. It also created a ‘ghostly’ feeling, as the owl is only partially there… like being lifted out from another, spiritual realm.
I created the color texture with a gradient map adjustment in Photoshop over the transparency map I had made, making the darker areas a deeper blue and gradually adjusting the hue to a light cyan for the brightest parts of the glow.
Normally I use the ‘additive’ option for transparency blending in Sketchfab for glowing effects like this. It adds the overlapping transparent pixels together, resulting in the effect feeling hotter and brighter than regular opacity blending. In this case, it didn’t really affect the owl either way because I had set the face rendering to single sided (last option under the materials tab). This allowed the owl to appear transparent without the back side of the mesh showing through.
While I was now happy with the overall appearance of the owl, I decided to exaggerate the arch of the wings to mirror the similar curve of Kiara’s skirts. I felt this more purposefully led the viewer’s eye back to Kiara which created a stronger cohesive balance between the two.
For the lighting, I found that bloom, as a post-processing effect wasn’t very helpful for the glow of the owl as it also amplified other areas in the scene, such as Kiara’s hair, face, and hip. These areas were more strongly affected, which was not what I wanted. I decided instead to ‘simulate’ most of the lighting effects in the background image by painting them, giving me more control over the final result.
To create the illusion of Kiara’s reflection, I duplicated the mesh and scaled -1 in the Y-axis, to be mirrored below the ground. This didn’t feel totally convincing on its own, so I found a way to have it gradually fade off and disappear in the distance.
I created a second UV set in Maya that would be used for this transparency. By selecting the advanced settings for a Planar UV projection, there is an option to create a new UV set.
A drop-down menu now appears in Sketchfab with the option to choose which UV set to act with, leaving the diffuse texture to the original UV’s, but selecting the new set for the opacity. Applying a top-down gradient now causes the mesh to gradually fade out.
Overall, this project took me 6 weeks to complete, half of which I spent on texturing. This was definitely the most challenging aspect for me as I have not had a lot of experience or confidence in completely hand-painted textures until more recently. Every challenge I encountered presented an opportunity for growth and reward, so I found the bigger the challenge, the more I embraced it. It allowed me to prove that no matter how difficult or impossible something might seem, as long as I don’t let it defeat me, it can always be overcome.
Thanks for checking out my process – I hope you can take something away from it!
Jessica Murphy, 3D Artist
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev