Designing a Stylized Witch House in 3ds Max, Substance Painter & UE4

Maria Aguilar Blanes discussed the workflow behind the Stylized Witch House project, talked about using Unreal Engine for environment art, and shared many great tutorials.


Hi! My name is Maria Aguilar Blanes, you can also find me as Yrem. I’m a 3D Artist from Alicante, Spain. I was introduced to 3D modeling about 2 years ago, when I started my Master in Digital Art for Videogames and Digital Animation at Voxel School. Before my Master's Degree, I studied Fine Arts, but I realized this wasn’t my thing. I like drawing and animation but I wanted something related to art for video games.

During my Master's I discovered an amazing world. I became interested in stylized art and environments. I felt very motivated to keep learning and growing my skills because in the future I want to become a 3D Environment/Prop Artist and work in the video games industry.

Stylized Witch House

I learned how to use the Unreal Engine, but I felt in many ways that I still have to learn a lot. For this environment, I wanted to improve my skills and learn more about Unreal Engine.

When I started to think about what I wanted to do, I started to do some sketches I did for myself and search for references. From the beginning, I knew that it was going to be stylized. Since I discovered this style of modeling it has become my passion to create models like this.

So then I created a reference moodboard in Pureref. My first inspiration in this project was the environments in studio ghibli, I wanted something that inspired cute and relaxing vibes. I love the palettes they use and all the vegetation. But also, I search for some references for another artist I love. One of my favorite environmental artists is Jasmin Habezai-Fekri. I love her art mainly because she uses an extraordinary color palette in all her project and the ghibli vibes they give in all her work.

Also, I did a list with all the props and plants I wanted to use. And another list of things I wanted to learn. In this project I wanted to learn:

  • VFX like wind, falling leaves, and fireflies.
  • Runtime Virtual Texturing.
  • Foliage: grass, plants, and trees.


For modeling, I use 3ds max. I did a small blockout of my scene to see how it is going and which things I have to change. After the blockout, I added and changed some objects. I have to say that I changed the composition to this one because my first composition was more boring and big. When I thought this blockout could be good. I moved my project to Unreal Engine. There I adjusted some light and saw how it works in the compositions.

After the blockout phase, I work on details using previously created objects or making new ones with a more thoughtful topology.

I started to model all my props with high resolutions and details in ZBrush. First of all, I did the lucky cat sculpt, for this one I wanted to create something organic but with a stone texture. It was amazing to create this prop. The brushes I most used are Trim Dynamic for the planar edges. To do some details and cracks I used brushes called Lu_Craks, Dam Standard, and Pinch.

As for the lucky cat statue, I did it with a low topology in TopoGun 2. In my opinion, is the best tool to do the low topology is very comfortable and easy to use. Then I continue in order to create the stone props and then the wood props.

For the wood props, I use only the brushes Dam Standard and Pinch. For the spots the same technique but with a little of Trim Dynamic. I think they are my favorite brushes to create a stylized style.


All the texturing was done entirely in Substance Painter, except for the plants, those were done in Photoshop. Since the beginning, I wanted a color palette with green wood, orange wood, red for the roof, and a sand color for the walls. I was completely inspired by the little house from the film Howl’s Moving Castle by Ghibli. I wanted that cute palette because it blends almost perfectly with the foliage. Basically, I do the same process of painting for all the props, because I thought that fits the stylized style I wanted. I use a mask editor to get a little bit of color variation. Then I used a level mask with a fill layer, that fill layer has the curvature texture to exaggerate a little bit the lighting of the edges and the shadows of the cracks. I also added dirt to have more details. And finally, I did some hand-painted stuff with paintings, letters, and variations of colors.

Also for the texture of the wall, I saw a tutorial, which explains how you can get a better Ghibli-style texture.


After I finished the basic textures and got the idea of the style and color of my work, I moved to SpeedTree for the trees and bushes and 3ds Max for the other plants.

First, I started doing the trees and the bushes. For this process, I saw some tutorials from the introduction to SpeedTree. When I had it, I exported it all to Unreal. Inside Unreal I changed the colors to adjust it with my scene.

For the other plants, I started modeling the plants in 3ds Max with a simple topology. When I had it, I moved to ZBrush to do more details. Then to do the maps of my plants, I did inside ZBrush some GrabDoc. I put different materials to export the maps. First I adjust my document to the size I wanted, frame it. And then, I put the material NormarlRGBMat, to do the grabdoc of the Normals. For the Curvature and the AO, I use the materials Framer04 and FlatSketch0. I moved to Photoshop and do all the maps I need.

When I was done with the textures, I started modeling the plants in 3ds Max. First I had to cut them out. To do this, I made a separate plane with the texture of the plants and cut everything. Next, I assembled several variations of leaves and flowers. After that, all I had to do was just duplicate the needed plant and position it in the scene.

Finally, I moved to Unreal and what I did to see each side of the planes is click on the material of the plants and check Two Sided.

VFX and Runtime Virtual Texturing

This was my first time creating VFX and trying Runtime Virtual Texturing for the grass, so I followed many tutorials to do it.

First of all, I visited YouTube to search Runtime Virtual Texturing tutorials. Here are the tutorials that helped me:

In my opinion, the Runtime Virtual Texturing is an amazing tool to do the landscape. You can totally change the ambient of your environment. I will show you my landscape material and grass material. For the grass mesh, I did simple planes in 3ds Max to simulate the grass with low topology.

Then for the VFX, I did exactly the same. I searched some tutorials on YouTube for the wind, falling leaves, and fireflies. Here are the most useful tutorials I found:

With all of those elements, I wanted to immerse the people in the principal idea I wanted to transmit, which was calm, nature and fantasy.


As for the lighting, I used Unreal Engine and it was very simple. I started with the term that I wanted a sunlight day with a sun color more orange and for the shadows, I wanted a blue. Basically the rule of cold shadows and warm highlights. So to get that environment I started adding a DirectionalLight with warm color, the ExponentialHeightFog with a blue tone and finally I added two-point lights because I wanted a little more color on the two sides of the house.

From start to finish I modified my lighting. Especially as I got more of my final materials and props into the scene. I'm not too great with the lighting, for me I could do better.


Firstly, I wanted to say thank you to 80 Level for giving me an opportunity to share my experience. I hope it was helpful for someone. I check this site daily for interviews and breakdowns. Most of those articles open my eyes to do better day after day. And since I discovered it, I hoped one day to see my own article.

With this project, I have learned a lot, because I looked for a lot of information, workflow, and new techniques that I was not aware of until now. But I know it is not also this, I have realized that I could learn much more and I want to do better over and over. I want to become a better artist and also a 3D Environment/Prop Artist, so for that, I have to put in more effort every day.

Maria Aguilar, 3D Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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