Herbalist's Cabin: Stylized Modeling and Props Creation Tips

Jane Stolyarova-DeSiena did a breakdown of the stylized project she created during the Wow Contest, discussed her modeling workflow in Maya, shared some tips on how to work with assets and talked about her first experience with a game engine. 

Introduction

Hello, my name is Jane Stolyarova-DeSiena, and I’m a 3D Environment and Prop artist from California. I’ve always been creating various types of art since childhood. I studied art and design in college and got an AAS degree in Textile and Surface Design from the Fashion Institute of Technology. I worked in fashion designing patterns for children’s clothes for a few years. Last year, my company went out of business, and everyone was laid off. I found motivation in this and began to study 3D and pushed myself to improve my art. My first baby steps were the Maya Beginners’ Tutorial by Game Dev Academy and Tyson Murphy’s Hand-Painted tutorial

A huge source of support, feedback, and knowledge for me has been The Handpainter’s Guild, it’s a great online community where I’ve learned a lot and made great friends.

Gathering the References

I created the Herbalist’s Cabin scene over the course of a couple of months. I wanted to participate in the Blizzard WoW Student Contest, but since I’m not a college student, I can’t officially submit an entry to the contest. I chose to create my scene alongside the contest as a way to practice and learn how to work in a game engine. It was a great learning experience, and I highly recommend doing it even if you can’t officially participate like me.

Some of my inspiration came from forests and lush lands in WoW like Teldrassil, Val’Sharah, Valley of the Four Winds, and Stormsong Valley. I went to all those locations ingame and took a lot of screenshots, and I looked at concept art. I wanted my scene to be connected to natural elements, without being exclusively a Night Elf or Druid location. I looked for interesting illustrations and photos of greenhouses, remote cabins, miniatures, and gardens on Artstation, Pinterest, Instagram, and Google Images. When picking the inspiration images, I looked for ones that conveyed the mood and feeling I wanted for my scene, as well as the composition that I found interesting.

My inspiration images

I also studied the student contest winners from the previous years, since this was the quality level I was trying to match.

After I collected my inspiration images, I made a list of items that would be present in a scene like this. Of course, this included the cabin and the greenhouse, but also a trowel, watering can, worktable, spare planters, mortar and pestle to grind herbs, and small bottles to hold plant cuttings. Looking at reference images really helped here, I looked at Google images and images from online stores.

Some of the references I used

I looked at ways other artists render their materials. For example, I looked at Troll Culture Kit by Niko Gesell. I like how he did the vases and pots, that was also an inspiration to me.

After that, I began to compose my scene and sketch. I like to do quick and messy sketches just to get my ideas down really fast.

My first sketches when deciding on the composition. I considered doing only a greenhouse but chose to do a cabin with an attached greenhouse instead.

Then I made a blockout in Maya, took a screenshot and painted over it. I did this a couple of times, trying to get the right look.  I spent time figuring out which colors and materials to use and where I’d like to place my props.

My concept was originally a daytime scene, but after working on it for a while, I changed it to a sunset scene because it helped tell the story better - the herbalist has settled down for a night in after the day’s work of tending to the garden. It also gave me the opportunity to create more of a cozy feel with the glowing windows and fireflies.

I made sure to show the progress of my project to my friends and peers very often to get their opinion. It’s hard to judge your own work, so it helps a lot getting someone else’s take on it. It would have looked like a much different scene if I didn’t ask for any feedback.

Modeling

First, I started with modeling the cabin. I used my blockout as a base and worked on top of it. I like to duplicate my mesh when I’m making significant changes, and then delete the old one once I’m happy with my outcome. Working efficiently is important to me, so I spent some time thinking which parts can be reused, which parts can be textured using a trim sheet, and which parts will need their own textures.

After the cabin, I modeled the greenhouse using the same method. I started with my blockout and re-used many pieces. The whole greenhouse frame is made up of 3 unique beams and the endcaps. Since this is a hand-painted scene, I rely almost exclusively on diffuse maps. This helped me decide which pieces I can reuse, since they will have similar lighting, and which pieces need to be unique.

At first, I wanted to create a fireplace/chimney too, but after looking at the angle I would be presenting it in, it made it look busier and didn’t add very much to the scene, so I removed it.

Something else to keep in mind, is how you will present your scene. For my scene, I was only using 1 fixed camera angle, so I didn’t have to model and texture details for the back of the house and that saved me a lot of time. It definitely depends on what your goals are for the project. If this was going to be in a game or have screenshots for different angles, I would have added windows and interesting pieces on the back of the house.

Working on Props

I modeled all the props and foliage in my scene. I worked in one Maya file, and kept everything together. It helps to create a cube/rectangle to represent the height of a human so you can scale the props/doorways to their size. My props are slightly oversized to help capture the stylized WoW aesthetic.

I used a similar workflow as the cabin, only modeling and creating UVs for what’s necessary and reusing them whenever possible. For all pots and planters, they’re mirrored in 2 directions. So I only had to model and texture ¼ of each of them. I unwrapped everything manually in Maya. I like to use this rainbow texture when unwrapping instead of the default checkerboard because it’s easier to see where my seams and mirrored bits are.

When I started creating my scene, I was concerned about staying very low poly. All my rounded objects had 8 sides. But in the pots that are closest to the camera it doesn’t look good, so I added edge loops to create 16 sides (always staying divisible by 4, so I can easily mirror in 2 directions).

Cutting into the textured geo

When I began texturing, many of my props were very simply constructed. It’s just easier to unwrap and texture them that way. Then after they were textured, I could go back and using the Multi-Cut tool in Maya to make more interesting shapes.

To model the trees, I started off with a cylinder that I shaped with edge loops. I modeled the trunk and branches as separate pieces, cut holes in the trunk that are roughly the shape and size of the branches, snapped verts and merged the verts together. I textured the bottom mossy/rooty part of the tree separate from the regular bark/branch texture. I used WoW Model Viewer a lot during this project, with the trees especially. It allows you to closely inspect the models, and export them (with UVs and textures!).

I also consulted this guide by Marie Lazar on creating trees.

My tree progression

I used one tree model (consisting of the trunk, attached branches, and leafy branch tri-planes), one stump model (which started at the bottom of the tree, but then I added the extra geo for the cut portion), and one bush (they use the leafy branch texture that I recolored).

This was my first time working with lighting, and while my lighting setup is not complicated, it still presented new issues. The trees looked good unlit in Maya, but when bringing them into Unity, the tri-planes were very obvious. I had to edit the vertex normals in order for them to look good while lit. This explanation from Polycount and this tutorial by Romain Durand helped me understand how to do this.

The difference between default normals on the branch planes, and adjusting them.

In regard to all the plants and herbs, I didn’t model or texture them until the very end after almost everything else was done. Since the plants are a big focal point of the scene, I wanted to make sure everything else was placed properly, and I could choose my plant types and colors so they make sense with the rest of the scene.

No plants yet, but almost everything is already in place.

I took that screenshot and painted some plants into it in Photoshop. Things ended up changing in the end, but this was a good way to plan how many different plants I needed, what colors they should be, and which pots I will put them in.

Most of my plants are triplanes, but some, like the red, blue and yellow flowers have more geometry to their petals.

Unity by default does backface culling. So if my plants were turned away from the camera, they would be invisible. I’ve seen suggestions online about writing your own shaders or similarly complicated things, but a quick workaround I found is to duplicate your mesh, reverse normals and combine. It wouldn’t be very game-friendly since it would be rendering each plant twice, but it worked for my static scene.

Texturing

After I modeled and UVed everything, I exported everything out to 3DCoat. I filled everything with flat colors (the way that Niko Gesell describes it here)and painted in basic gradients and highlights. After I did that, I exported everything to Photoshop and painted almost exclusively there. 3DCoat is great for blending seams and blocking in colors, but I prefer to use Photoshop for the most part. I feel like I can get cleaner lines and be more precise than I can be in 3DCoat. Some artists I know work entirely in 3DCoat, so it really depends on your preferences and what type of project you’re working on.

The scene in Unity after I applied flat textures and defined planes of everything. I’m using a placeholder texture of a blue sky from Google images just to help set the scene.

If I’m working on an individual prop or diorama, I paint in Photoshop, save and reload my PSD texture in Maya. But since my scene was going to be lit in Unity, I had to export all my textures as TGA into my Unity project folder to make sure I was getting a good read in my chosen lighting.

I mostly use the hard round brush with pressure opacity to paint. When I set up my files, I like to mask out and create a folder for each element on my UV sheet. That way I can paint messily without worrying about overlapping neighboring UV islands. Since I changed my scene from sunny daytime to sunset after I already textured many assets, it also made it easier to go back in and edit my colors later so they make sense in the more dramatic lighting.

Some artists like to paint in greyscale and add color after. I paint directly with color right away, but I check my values in greyscale often. I love working with color, and it would be way less enjoyable for me to work completely in greyscale first.

I have my sunset lighting, but most of my shadows and highlights are painted into my texture using a warmer tone for the highlights and a cooler tone for the shadows. This guide has a pretty good explanation of lighting, color, and shadow as a starting point.

Right before I was ready to export my final textures, I brought them back into 3DCoat and cleaned up my seams where they were visible. Then back in Photoshop, I added a Sharpen filter to every texture. It helps give it a little more crispness and everything looks a little cleaner.

Setting Up

This was my first time working in a game engine to create a scene. I went through this free crash course tutorial by Josh Gambrell on Udemy and signed up to Pluralsight free trial for this tutorial by Dan John Cox. Some of the info in these courses is focused on making a gameplay level, and since my scene is a static environment, it didn’t apply to me in this situation. Google is a fantastic resource! I mostly wanted to learn the interface, where the most important tools are located (I wanted to know what my terrain editing options were, where my lighting options were, how to import objects, how the skybox and fog worked, and how to set up materials) and the basic terminology of Unity. After that, I could trial and error my way through it, or Google my question about what I wanted to do. Usually someone else either asked that same exact thing previously, or there was a tutorial or YouTube video that was explaining how to do just that. It helps to join Discords or forums for this stuff, too. If I couldn’t find something on Google, I could describe my issue or my goal to someone more experienced, and they’d be able to point me in the right direction.

After I finished modeling and unwrapping everything, I exported all my individual objects as FBX to Unity and arranged my scene. Since Maya and Unity use different measurement units, I had to scale up all my objects by 100. Nothing was textured yet, but I wanted to get it all set up, so I can start to get a feel for the scene.

I placed the cabin-greenhouse first, sculpted the terrain around it, and set up my camera angle. Then I placed the fence, trees, and arranged my props. This wasn’t the final layout, but it gave me a good place to begin. As I progressed through painting all my objects, I would sometimes rearrange, change my lighting or camera angle around.

When I first started going about lighting my scene, I watched this video by Anya Elvidge. She does a great job of talking through lighting, constructing focal points and leading the eye.

I really enjoyed setting up the lighting for my scene even though it’s fairly simple. Overall, my lights are warm yellows and oranges and my shadows are cool purples. This applies to the lighting in Unity and to the painted in lighting in my diffuse textures.

I modeled a curved plane to use as the sky backdrop and used my sky texture on it. Then I placed it behind everything in my scene. I also set the same texture as the skybox in my scene - it doesn’t tile properly, but it won’t be seen in my beauty shot, so it didn’t matter. I just wanted the environment to be affected by the sky color.

I set up two spotlights, a stronger one on the house with a little bit of cast shadow, and a weaker one on the greenhouse with no cast shadow. I also have a point light off-camera that’s illuminating the edge of the big tree closest to the camera and the empty pots. It makes that corner look less dark and flat.

A super important part of my scene is the atmospheric perspective. This was one of the first things I looked up how to do in Unity.  If I wasn’t able to achieve this, I would have changed how I went about texturing and lighting the scene.

“As the distance between an object and a viewer increases, the contrast between the object and its background decreases, and the contrast of any markings or details within the object also decreases. The colors of the object also become less saturated and shift towards the background color.” - Wikipedia.

Comparison with and without Fog in Unity.

Unity calls this setting Fog and it’s extremely easy to set up - it’s just a checkbox! Then I had to find a color that looked right and distance for the fog.

All my materials use a standard albedo shader. My plants and greenhouse glass and vials use alpha maps. I used two emissives in my scene, and they were both for the windows. I wanted them to really look like they’re glowing to create a cozy look. I painted in a lot of the warm bounce light on the window frames and created a basic emissive map.

After everything was finished, I used post-processing in Unity to add Anti Aliasing, a slight vignette, and slight AO to the scene. I think Anti Aliasing had the biggest effect, without it all my plant edges would have looked really jagged.

Some Tips on Stylized Art

Make sure you pay attention to the composition. Approach it as you would an illustration, having a balance between foreground, midground, and background elements, avoiding tangents, and following color theory. Pay attention to values. Fundamentals are really important.

If you’re getting started with stylized hand-painting I recommend the hand-painting tutorial by Tyson Murphy that I mentioned earlier.

I also had the opportunity to do a Brushforge mentorship with Jordan Powers last year. It was an incredibly valuable experience, and I learned a lot. I highly recommend it if you’re able to do it.

Sharing your work with friends or peers, or joining an online community to get feedback on your work is really important. Join an online community, it’s a great way to make friends and learn from each other.

And don’t be afraid to ask stupid questions. When I first got into making 3D art, I was afraid of asking stuff that was probably second nature to most 3D artists. Don’t be! Nobody is going to judge you if you don’t understand how something works; We all start somewhere. You’ll learn how and will be making amazing work in no time, and nobody will remember when you asked what alphas were a year ago. :)

Thank you so much for the opportunity to share my thoughts and process. I hope this has been interesting and useful.

Jane Stolyarova-DeSiena, 3D Environment and Props Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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    Herbalist's Cabin: Stylized Modeling and Props Creation Tips