Creating Materials for an Environment

Creating Materials for an Environment

Sherif Dawood broke down his plant & ground materials created from scratch in Substance Designer and shared tips for geometry, retopology, lighting and more.

Sherif Dawood kindly broke down his plant & ground materials created from scratch in Substance Designer and shared some tips for geometry, retopology, lighting and more.


Hi, my name is Sherif Dawood, I’m 19 and I’m a student from Egypt. Right now I’m in my second year of the university majoring in mathematics and computer science.

I got interested in games at a very young age and always wanted to know how they were made. I started experimenting with 3D art in high school since I had a lot of free time back then. I quickly became very passionate about the environment art and vegetation in particular, and I’ve worked on a lot of personal projects since then trying to improve my art to hopefully work in the gaming industry someday. 

Environment Production: First Steps

When I’m working on a natural scene, the first thing I start with after having a rough idea of what I would like to make is researching the biome I’m trying to replicate. I look for the plant species that naturally coexist together, otherwise, the scene might look odd and unrealistic.

After I’ve collected good reference images I usually start working on the textures. I prefer making my own assets for personal projects as I think showcasing the ability to create art assets from scratch is essential for an environment art portfolio. 

I usually use PureRef to organize the reference images in one place instead of opening multiple images each in a different window.

Texturing Pipeline: Plants

I think that knowing multiple methods of creating a given type of asset is something 3D artists should aim for since that gives you more options regarding how you would approach an asset. I’ve been experimenting with different workflows for making vegetation textures, and in my previous projects, the vegetation textures were either hand-modeled and then baked or photo-sourced. For my most recent project, I decided to make the plants and grass textures entirely in Substance Designer

First, I made the grass strands by transforming and warping a uniform color node. 

After scattering the strands I needed to add some form of variation in the normal map because the texture looked too flat as if all the strands were in the same plane. 

I blended the strand alphas with a normal gradient and plugged that into a tile sampler node with enabled hue randomness. Then I normalized the result and blended it with a flat normal color to control the intensity of the effect.  

The other plant textures were made in a similar way. 

Geometry & Optimization

When I was done making the textures, I packed all of them in one texture atlas to reduce draw calls, then exported the texture atlas to Maya to start working on the geometry. While creating the grass cards I always try to place the vertices close to the boundaries of the grass alphas to reduce overdraw.

Optimizing assets is something I’m still learning myself, but generally, I approach optimizing by creating multiple LODs for each assets while maintaining reasonable polycount.

Texturing Pipeline: Ground

All the ground textures in my scenes were also made in Substance Designer.

I usually approach organic materials by breaking down the reference to primary shapes, secondary shapes, and minor details. I then make a rough blockout in Substance Designer and slowly add more detail as I proceed. For instance, when I made this rocky ground substance I started by analyzing the reference. Then I tried to reproduce the same main shapes in Substance Designer by utilizing the tile sampler node combined with a custom rock node.

Then I gradually refined the rocks until they looked more like the reference. 

Heightmap progress:

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Architectural Elements Production

For my latest scene, I wanted to include some architectural assets since most of my portfolio pieces were organic. I decided to make a few modular pieces that can be used to quickly make a convincing structure. After gathering some reference images of the ancient Roman ruins, I modeled a rough blockout in Maya just to see how the proportions would look. 

When I was done with the blockout, I modeled a few bricks in Maya and exported them to ZBrush for sculpting. I tried to avoid sculpting minor details at this stage and focus mainly on getting the primary shapes right. Most of the sculpting was done using the trim smooth border brush combined with custom alphas made in Substance Designer.

Then I exported both the high poly bricks and the blockout meshes to 3D-Coat to layout the bricks. Meshes were then exported back to ZBrush for final touches. 

Retopo & UVs

Retopologizing every asset manually would have been very time-consuming and tedious. To save some time I used a combination of DynaMesh, ZRemesher, projection, and decimation to quickly make the low poly assets. I’d inflate the mesh then use DynaMesh with low resolution followed by ZRemesher to get a continuous clean mesh. Then I’d subdivide the resulting mesh and project it on the high poly one and decimate. The results were good enough for the time spent on them.

UV mapping was done manually in Maya, as with the vegetation textures I combined mutiple assets in the same UV set to save UV space and draw calls.

Final Steps: Layout & Rendering

Once I have all the assets I export everything to Unreal Engine 4 for the scene layout and rendering. I used SSS and fuzzy shading for the vegetation master material.

My goal when laying out any natural scene is to draw the viewer’s attention to a specific focal point as it’s very easy for natural scenes to look too uniform. Adding something to break the repetition can make otherwise dull scenes look more interesting. I take that into account when lighting the scene as well. Making sure the focal point contrasts with the rest of the scene in terms of lighting intensity helps guide the viewer’s eye. With that in mind, I try out a few lighting scenarios to see which one is more aesthetically appealing. 

The lighting setup I use is very simple. I use an HDR image for the skybox, movable skylight with source type set to the captured scene, movable directional light for the sun, exponential height fog, DFAO, and LPV.

Directional light settings for this scene:

Advice & Conclusion 

For anyone looking to learn Substance Designer, I’d recommend watching the series on Allegorithmic’s youtube channel to learn the basics. Another great resource is Substance Share: breaking down substances to figure out how they were constructed can be very educational. 

I’d also like to recommend Daedalus51’s Unreal Lighting Academy for anyone wanting to learn about lighting in UE4.

I’d like to thank for the interview, and hopefully, someone will find it useful. Thanks for reading.

Sherif Dawood, Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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    Creating Materials for an Environment