Dissecting Materials: Shape, Color, Roughness & Presentation
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Dissecting Materials: Shape, Color, Roughness & Presentation
2 February, 2017
3d artist Kyle Horwood talked about the way he builds materials for 3d environments.


Hello, my name is Kyle Horwood, I’m a freelance texture artist and currently living in beautiful Scotland. I got into 3D from an early age, my father and brother introduced me to it when I was about 13 using software called “Anim8or”. However, my passion back then was more into making movies and writing scripts. I ended up going back to 3D once that path of movie direction didn’t work out and then began to pursue 3d as a career choice in 2010. Since then I’ve graduated from the University of Derby then after that I was lucky enough in 2015 to get a Scholarship from BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) to do a Masters. During the masters I knew that texture art was the path I wanted to take and since finishing my masters I’ve been focused on that.

In regards to my freelance work, I have created textures for Textures.com and open for other jobs currently. I’ve also done tutorials with 3DMotive as well as my own Gumroad. My Gumroad consists of Tutorials and Substance Designer nodes that I’ve worked on. I have plans for my tutorials this year and hoping to release more nodes also.

Launching Substance Designer

I know that when I was shown Substance Designer I was “uming” and “ahhing” as it looked complicated and when I saw artists such as Joshua Lynch, Richard Pipes and Rogelio Olguin using it I began to look more into it because the stuff those guys make are super inspiring stuff. I began to learn a lot from the blog they run called “environmentart.wordpress.com”.

As I was learning Substance in my last semester at University, I chose to challenge myself me and my team, we ended up using Substance Designer as one of our main tools for our student VR project called “Insight”.

I would say if you’re an artist looking to dive into Substance Designer, now is the perfect time to do so, if you’re currently in education you can grab all of Allegorithmic’s software for free. The Substance live is a great price also for those hobbyist and professional artists.

Currently I am running a Substance Challenge which can be found on Polycount and that is open for everyone, so if you’re starting out or even been using Substance for a while, come join and learn from one another.

I wouldn’t say you need much knowledge to get started with Substance Designer. It’s a lot like making a texture using Zbrush or/and Photoshop. You work using layers, starting with the bigger shapes to begin with and moving your way down to the macro detail. 


Reference is important for sure, I’ve tried to even free roam with textures before but I couldn’t get them to look right so even if you use reference as a loose form, I find it is still very essential, during my Substance Doodles I always use at least 1 piece of reference.

When it comes to reference gathering I would say using Google Images and Pinterest are my main tools for searching. When using google images it is always super helpful to search for large images that way you can see not just the big shapes but zoom in to see the macro details also. You want to be careful when gathering reference as well, you don’t want to get too many images, if you do you might get lost when making the materials, or end up creating something that is too noisy.

Though the internet is super useful for getting reference, I think it’s more important to go outside and gather your own reference. When doing so, move about and take photos from different angles, see how the light reacts to the material. Feeling the material helps because it shows how smooth or noisy it is. Studying and seeing the material in person also helps with making your material look more realistic.


A lot of the time when I’m starting to make a shape in SD I always end up using the Shape node, there is also a polygon node which I did end up using when I made my crayons Substance.

If you’re going to full SD with your materials, you will end up either using the shape or polygon node to get your shapes. When it comes to manipulating the shapes, I use an additive and subtractive workflow. You can get most of the shapes you need by working this way.

If you wanted to use alphas from Zbrush you can do that. When I was starting out with SD I used some of XMD (Michael Dunnam) alphas for materials, though I don’t tend to do that workflow anymore as I like to create my own nodes for quick Substance creations. 


When it comes to color I always go by reference, as a base anyway. I would put in the height maps into the alpha of a blend node and with the A & B add a Uniform Color node into that, making sure to change the node to an absolute value of 16×16 (anything lower sometimes gives artefacts), working like this helps with optimization of the substance.

I work this way and keep layering it up until I get the final color map. I then normally use a HSL node or expose my color parameters to edit to I can have some artistic control over it. When it comes to finding what works, it’s good to have an understanding of color and how it reacts with light as well. There are tons of resources online and books in regards to lighting and color. 

Height and Roughness 

Working with height and roughness is very important at the start, I learnt this from Josh Lynch last year when I asking him for some mentoring. When I was making my materials to begin with I was working with the Height and a base color right away, after getting Josh to check out one of my first passes on my ornate material, we spoke over Skype and he gave me some amazing advice.

After this, each time I work on a material I always try to make sure I work with the height first to make sure my shapes and the overall material isn’t too noisy and it is readable. Then working out how the light reacts to the material will help ground it and it will make all the difference.

Height and roughness are both important in my option, they will either make or break your material, it can show if your material looks to procedural and fake. Color is always good to do last, though sometimes when I am doing a free-flow work like my Substance doodles I do sometimes do color before roughness, I’ve been trying to get out of that habit and make sure to do my roughness beforehand.

Tiling Material

One great way of breaking up a tiling material is when it comes to making the material, using the directional warp and a height can shift the texture so that it doesn’t look like it is tiling.
This helps making a tiling texture look less obvious.

However, if you’re trying to make an environment not look obvious with tiling textures, you can make another version of the material you are working on. If you have for example a brick material on a wall and it is obvious on the tiling, you could then with your material make another version/preset where something like the grout is burying the bricks more, or the bricks look more dirty. Once you have these two different parts you can use vertex blending to break up the material for your scene.

Using Toolbag 3

The reason that I choose to use Toolbag as my rendering software for my materials is the ease of use. I currently have 1 save file where I have all my lighting set-up and all my display models and cameras set up. All I then need to do is once I want to show of a new material is to add the maps into the right places, and then get the right shots that I want. If I end up changing the lighting however, I tend to save that as a new file so I don’t mess up my base Toolbag file.

When I used to present my materials I use to end up using how Josh Lynch and Rogelio Olguin do theirs and that is using a cylinder to show it off. I still tend to use that but currently I’ve been using a sphere and tessellated plane to show of my materials.

When it comes to the “best” way of showing off your material, I don’t think what object it is on matters, what is important is the lighting. I’ve seen a lot of interesting materials but the lighting in the scene is always too dark and then that effects how people will look at that material as well as the read of the material. A great thing to remember, if you’re an artist, selling yourself as that artist is important.

With websites such as ArtStation, you will see a thumbnail, people are normally drawn to things that standout. If your material is too dark to see, people aren’t normally going to click it. However, if it is low lighting but you have a brighter light that draws their eye to a specific part of that material, people will be drawn to it.

When creating my Henry Avery coins material, I wanted to go for something a little dark, (Uncharted Spoiler?) these gold coins are on a pirate ship after all in a dark cave. However, if I just made it dark with barely any light, it might not have looked good. So I chose to add some orange light, much like a torch light, or light from the fire. I then added a little blue light as well to give some coldness to the warmth.

Again with my cave scene, it’s pretty dark. If I didn’t have that light in the cave, it would be hard to see and people might have never clicked the thumbnail either.

Kyle Horwood, Freelance Texture Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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