How to Create a Western Saddle: Production Guide

How to Create a Western Saddle: Production Guide

Charlotte Baglioni talked about her recent made at Game Art Institute and shared some tips on mimicking leather materials.

 

Introduction

Hello, my name is Charlotte Baglioni. I’m a 3D artist from France, working as a freelancer for the real-time industry. I started learning 3D in 2013, at the age of 24. At that time, I wasn’t happy with my job – I used to be an optician – and as I was already doing a bit of 3D on my free time, I decided to make a career out of it. That’s when I did a one year course to learn the fundamentals of 3D. After that course, I started my career doing ArchViz for an interior design company.

For the past 18 months, my main client was a VR studio based in Lyon, France. I had the pleasure to work on various VR projects like some ArchViz, a simulator, security training, and an escape game. That being said, all of those projects were fairly small, and since I aspire to work on bigger projects, I gave my notice in order to be able to focus on my art and apply to bigger studios.

Around a year ago, I joined the Game Art Institute to step up my 3D skills and when asked to start the course with a prop, I decided to go with a rather difficult prop. I was looking for leather props as I never did one before, found a nice western saddle and I immediately felt inspired. I knew it would be a challenge, but I wanted to produce a prop that would be noticed – and apparently, I made a good choice!

Modeling

The modeling was particularly tricky with this prop, mostly because a western saddle is made of different layers so, in order to get the modeling right, I had to understand the whole anatomy. I had to watch several videos of saddle making – shoot out to all craftsmen, who are uploading videos for free on YouTube! – and gather a lot of references to analyze them from every angle. To talk a bit about the complexity of a western saddle, the high poly model is made of more than 100 meshes!

Here is a small tip to find good reference pictures: don’t hesitate to browse auction websites. They often have quality pictures on many angles. This is how I found most of my references for the saddle.

Once I understood how a saddle is made, I used a fairly standard workflow. I started with basic shapes to get the proportions right, then I did the high poly modeling from the basic shapes, and from the high poly model, I did the low poly model.

Some parts were trickier than others though, like the rope. For that particular piece, I used a spline – I placed every point by hand – then I made a straight rope with the pattern directly in the high poly and at last, I used the Path Deform modifier to shape the straight rope into the spline’s shape.

Texturing

Before this saddle, I had never done a 3D prop made of leather. As I wasn’t sure what’s the best way to make beautiful leather, I bought a leather scan from texturing.xyz. I thought applying the scan and tweaking it a bit would be enough, but I was very wrong!  That is when I chose to build the material from scratch, layer by layer.

The trick in making the leather look real was to separate each PBR parameter into its own set of layers. The base color was made first. I painted almost everything by hand, using very few generators.

For the wear and tear, I worked on the base color and the roughness, at the same time. I used a separated layer for the leather’s height details (with the texturing.xyz scan) and another one for the engraved pattern. I finished the leather material with a roughness coating on top of everything to keep the leather shiny, despite the wear and tear. I think this is what makes the difference in the end.  Some materials have a coating on top of it, and doing the same in the texturing process (adding the coating at the end) really makes every detail stand out.

Detailing

Concerning all small details (stitches, flowers, and engraved patterns), I hesitated to do them in Zbrush, but in the end, I did everything with 3DS Max, Substance Painter, and Photoshop. The flowers were done with polygons and then baked into the low poly model. Stitches were made in Substance Painter – it’s fairly easy to do with the latest versions of Painter.

As for the engraved patterns, it was probably the trickiest part of the texturing process. I first made some research and chose patterns that would fit the model. I made a quick brush in Photoshop and did a really messy attempt in Substance Painter, just to see if it was working well.

When I was satisfied with the patterns, I tried to make the final version with the brush I created earlier, but as I wasn’t able to make a seamless brush, neither in Photoshop nor in Painter, I had to improvise.

I used the base color with the messy patterns as a guide. I then made a straight line with the brush I created and then used the puppet wrapper tool in Photoshop to deform the pattern into the needed shape. Some corrections were needed in the corners, but once I got used to it, it wasn’t that long to do. Once the patterns were over, I imported each one separately in Substance Painter and used the stencil tool to place them. It was quite a long process, but in the end, I was able to make the patterns as I wanted them to be.

But if anyone can think of a better/quicker way, I would be very happy to hear it!

The Biggest Challenges

The biggest challenge on the project was probably to break down the complexity of the saddle into doable parts. It can be overwhelming at first, as there are many, many parts. That’s why taking the time to watch videos and search for a lot of references is really crucial, especially when the prop is complex.

And the same goes for materials. It can be intimidating to make complex materials, but if it is broken down into doable chunks – starting with the base color on a few layers, then adding some wear and tear on another one, then working on the height details… – it becomes not that difficult.

Afterword

That’s it for the saddle breakdown! I hope you were able to learn a few things. Thank you for reading!

Charlotte Baglioni, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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