Desert Town: Using 2D & 3D Workflows for Concept Art

Piotr Bystry talked about the way he balanced between two workflows to design his Desert Town environment with the help of Blender, Photoshop, and DAZ 3D.

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Hi, My name is Piotr Bystry, I am a self-taught artist from a small town.

Since I can remember, I've always liked video games and been interested in creating graphics for them. I prefer not to describe myself as a 2D or 3D artist because I like both worlds and try to combine them in my work. In addition to drawing, I like to do sculpting and 3D modeling. I found Blender and ZBrush very nice and useful tools for that.

I began doing commercial projects in 2013, right after I finished my studies. Following a friend's recommendation, I started to freelance for a small studio working on a Kickstarter game. It was my first approach to building and game environment design. Prior to that, I studied architecture but I found that it was not for me. In that project, I began to seriously learn the basics of design and drawing. I also did a lot of visualizations for myself and my colleagues, thanks to which I learned to model and navigate efficiently in a 3D environment. Then, there were courses and workshops on Concept Art that gave me a lot of new opportunities and a chance to work with interesting and inspiring people.

Desert Town: Idea

My Desert Town project initially was a workshop challenge. We had to roll two dices that would choose the setting of our art piece for us. One dice was the location and the other was the genre. I got Victorian Deserts and for me, it was a real challenge because I wasn't familiar with this genre at all. At the same time, I decided it was a good opportunity to improve my workflow by using 3D elements and the new version of Blender.

The main idea I came up with for the world was to create a city in a desert where water is a vital resource, precious treasure, and currency controlled by rich merchants. I even drew one of them, along with his companions, - you can find them in my portfolio. They were the first inhabitants of this world I’ve created. When designing the environment, I thought about suburbs and destroyed districts where people struggled to live because there is a lack of water. Dust everywhere, ruined buildings, streets, old men and beggars... and among them, there's a rich man, clean and well-fed, walking with his dog, maybe looking over his property.

Dishonored was one of the inspirations for this project, but not so much because of the style as for the historical period. The main plot of the game takes place in a steampunk alternative reality, but I think the creators drew inspiration from similar sources as I did. For me, those were old photos of old European colonies that tried to preserve and adopt European traditions, architecture, and technology in the inhospitable environment. I tried to represent the materials people could use in a harsh environment and climate. 

An important part of the whole process was research. As an artist, you must think about what buildings might belong to the scene, what materials could be used there, what characters could live in that district. I looked at the pure districts in India and China to get an idea of how people live there. I found this project a great opportunity to learn about the way some people live.

I prepared a lot of pictures I could use as a reference, and a lot of them were bashed in Photoshop to fill in the gaps between the 3D models.

Combining 2D and 3D Workflows

It's not like I needed to use 3D elements in my scene, but the whole project was created in order to learn something new. Integrating new things into the workflow can result in faster work and better end results.

The project was created first as a 2D sketch, and then as a simple blockout in Blender. The blocks were later turned into assets. I then set up the lighting and rendered the scene in Cycles and finally polished and added the final characters in Photoshop.

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There were a lot of overpaints and sketches in-between, mainly to check or fix composition, add some elements or work on the story and the characters. Sketching and overpainting to fix things can be way more efficient than working in a 3D environment, but in general, I think that these two workflows really complement each other.

I think the most interesting thing about this project was that I was able to learn how to work in a real-time 3D environment. It allowed me to regularly check the results and watch the scene from every angle. You can iterate and make fixes in real-time. The new Blender's Eevee is amazing! More than once I found myself switching to the fps mode, walking around the stage and looking in every corner as if I was already in-game.

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Working with Assets

Most of the assets, apart from the tilted wooden building, were taken from stock (Victorian Town Set from was provided to me by Maxx Burman). I changed some materials to better reflect my idea and place, plus added some dust and a couple of other changes. The essence of this project was not modeling but learning how to build ideas in a 3D environment. I also tried not to restrict myself to one software solution - my main tool was Blender but I also used DAZ3D to pose the characters and incorporate them in the stage. 


Working on the lighting, I started with a couple of quick sketches that included a few simple light scenarios, but there wasn’t anything final. Eventually, I decided to set everything up in the 3D scene. I tried different scenarios by trial and error and found that the noon warm light would best work with the dust and dry atmosphere of the whole place. I used the main directional light and one environment HDR image to brighten up shaded areas. In the final render, I especially like how the light shows us that rich merchant and the tilted building leaving poor people in the shadow. 


The biggest challenge for me was realizing when 3D workflow would no longer contribute to the piece and I needed to move on to finishing the concept. This was the result of the fact that those tools can be very immersive and you can overlook that moment when you stop working on the base for your 2D image and start doing level art.

Another challenge was to maneuver between different software. You think you know those packages when you work in them separately, but when you need to combine them in one workflow to create a specific artwork you have to start thinking about them differently. 

Piotr Bystry, Concept Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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