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How to Master Substance Designer?

Abderrezak Bouhedda was kind enough to share an astonishing detailed beginner’s guide to creating materials.

Abderrezak Bouhedda was kind enough to share an astonishing detailed beginner’s guide to creating materials. Here’s what you need to know if you want to get started in Substance Designer.

I’m Abderrezak Bouhedda from Algeria. I’m 22 years old and I live in Setif currently. I started learning Computer Programming and Cyber Security in 2008 and I had a chance to dive into Digital Art World. I enjoyed it so much, so now I’m an Environment/Prop Artist, and I sell some of my art products and tutorials on Gumroad.

How to Master Substance Designer?

What should I do before I create a material?

Before you create a material you have to know which material you want to create like layered rocks material, sci-fi material, bricks, cobblestone, grass… any kind of material!

1.Brainstorm an idea and choose the material you want to create don’t be afraid to try if you never try you’ll never learn, you learn by making mistakes and trying and practicing so start from the idea.

2. Gather some references from Google images or Pinterest of the material or the substance you want to create, for example, lava material, go and search for lava photos. References will always help you reach your goal don’t create from your imagination, use many references to get a realistic look or to make it look like the reference.

This is the result (you can get this material on my Gumroad store):

3. Empty your mind and relax, focus on the references, try to understand and to analyze the main shapes and deformations that are in the reference. For example, cobblestones are tiled because there’s a repetition, variations in each shape, the shapes are beveled in the edges.

4. A big graph node doesn’t mean you’re a substance master, keeping it simple and organized is better, you may find a terribly mixed graph node and a lot of nodes connecting on each other but the material doesn’t look good at all! The goal is to make a perfect material that’s realistic.

What are the steps to create a material?

Like with Lego, you start from larger details to smaller/micro details, in modeling you start from a blockout then you detail your meshes, it’s the same.

  1. The first thing is the height map generation, break down every form from the largest one to the smallest one, create the main shapes and start adding details like warps, deformations, variations, tiles, or whatever and then blend them together to a final height map.

2. The second thing is the Normal Map generation, which is a conversion from the final height map + adding smaller/micro details like spots, rough areas, dirt, etc. (remember more intensity in the normal map makes your material look ugly)

3. The third thing is the Ambient Occlusion Map generation. It is usually connecting the node which is connected to the normal map node (grayscale), to the Ambient Occlusion Node. For those who say Ambient Occlusion isn’t important, it will help us later in the Albedo Creation. Also, it’s important to give a nice look where there’s too much light to kill the flat look.

4. The fourth step is Roughness and Metalness Maps creation. It depends on the material you’re creating, just select the areas where there’s more roughness and give it a white value or the opposite.

5. The last step is the Color/Albedo Creation. Some folks just use the height map and they connect it to a gradient map, then they pick the gradient from the reference this is totally wrong. It’s not like: “Hey, look at my albedo map there are millions of different colors”.  It’s not like that, but you have to think of this as of drawing that material. Color creation is also similar toe these steps, from the main color to the smaller/micro-detailed colors. Work smart: use Selectors, Curvature Sobel, Normal Map, Ambient Occlusion. These will help you achieve the best look of your Albedo Map, like adding dust, edge dirt, edge damages, the color of deep areas, the color of highest areas, the color of some areas that we can select them from the normal map (then we convert them to a grayscale map then we color them the way we want). I’ll explain how to use these nodes later with some examples. Blend them together and don’t forget to use masks because masks won’t let color layers overlap. Use colors that belong to an environment. Snow in a desert, that’s crazy, right? Use the colors that match the environment you’re working on.

How do I know which nodes should I use?

this depends on what you’re going to do or what you want to make, for repetitive shapes use Tile Sampler, Tile Generator, Splatter, Tile Random. These nodes help you create cliffs, rock materials, tiles… Most of the time I use Tile Sampler Node.

The following inputs are very useful too if you understand them well:

  • Pattern Input: it’s for the shape you want to tile.
  • Scale Map Input: when you connect a grayscale map to this input, every high value will give a high scale to the pattern and every dark value will give a low scale to the pattern, for example:
  • Displacement Map Input: it’s similar to Scale Map Input but it doesn’t scale, it moves the patterns using grayscale values as you see in the example it moved the patterns where there are white values.
  • Rotation Map Input: it rotates the pattern using grayscale values in the same direction (dark means 0-degree rotation, white means x-degree rotation based on the multiplier).
  • Let’s talk about the Vector Map Input later.
  • Color Input Map: it gives every pattern a grayscale color based on the color parametrization multiplier, like this:
  • Mask Map Input: It masks the patterns where there are darker grayscale values
  • Pattern Distribution Map: distributes the patterns based on grayscale value, enable it from this option
  • Vector Map Input: It gives you more control! It rotates, moves, scales based on RGB Values. That’s why it’s called vector like you see in the example below the rotation is variated up, down, left, right. Unlike the rotation map we used before, it rotates in one direction only.

For deformation the most useful node is ‘Directional Warp’ and the deformation depends on the warping value and direction. Here are a few examples:

I used the same process with this rocky material. Without warping the height:

After Warping:

You can take it further, of course. I used the Clouds2 Node to use it as intensity input for the Directional warp, then I added the AO to get a nicer natural look.

For selected areas in the Height, use the Histogram Nodes (Levels, Histogram Range, Histogram Select, Histogram Shift). These will help you select the areas. Also, there’s RGBA Split which helps you select from the normal map. Look at the example below:

I want to apply some details on the red area like damage. I connected the normal map node to the RGBA Split, then I picked the red color from the R output which is the red color, then I took through levels to optimize it. Then I blurred it to get a natural look. The next thing is applying the damage

Blending the previous height with the damage:

And this is the result:

Same thing for Histogram Nodes, you can also use them in the Albedo creation process and more.

  • Dirt, Dust, Nodes: these nodes are really awesome. You just need AO, Curvature, Normal in the inputs. Then you play around with the settings to get the desired look

Dirt Node:

Below I used the previous mask that I did before and inverted it, then blending the gradient with a uniform color. This is the result.

  • Flood Fill Nodes:

Convert a black & white (binary) mask to data used by additional filters:

I used here the ‘Flood Fill to Gradient’ to be able to change the gradients angle and more.

I used the ‘Flood Fill to Color’ to get a random color for each component. You have 2 inputs (1 for the flood fill, one for a gradient or a color). Then I blended the colors with the previous stones’ height

  • Height Blend Node: Creates a mask allowing to blend realistically two materials based on their respective height map. I blended the stones’ height (top layer) with a Clouds2 Node (bottom layer)

Then you’ll get a mask which is useful in the Albedo Creation process:

I used the mask to create the Albedo Map, color for the stones, color for the ground.

I used those techniques to create this simple material, the height blend node really helped me save more time:

I think it’s clear for now, contact me if you need more information.

How can I improve my skills in Substance Designer?

Many Artists are asking this kind of questions in fact, with Substance Designer or any other software or any other work, modeling, sculpting, lighting, etc.

You have to practice every day, challenge yourself. Don’t be afraid to try. The more you practice, the more you improve your skills because you’re giving yourself more chances to make mistakes. And you’re going to correct those mistakes, of course. Trust me, nothing is hard and everything is easy, it’s just a matter of time. It works like this (easy and takes 2 minutes, easy and takes 1 hour, easy and takes 2 days, easy and takes a month, easy and takes 1 year). Think this way and you’ll reach your goal, don’t think that it’s too hard because it takes one week, it’s easy and you can do it! If someone in the world did something that means every human in the world could do it, we all have a brain. Entertain yourself, watch movies, go outside and when you see something, ask yourself “How can I make this in Substance Designer. How can I start it? What are the main shapes?” Ask experts, you have to accept people’s critics, and determine them as energy to build yourself, not to destroy yourself.

Abderrezak Bouhedda, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

Save yourself endless time and technical hurdles in the material editor, with my pack of Prop Master Materials for UE4!

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Comments 14

  • Bouhedda Abderrezak

    Thanks for your critics and comments, they're accepted this will make me pay attention and learn more.


    Bouhedda Abderrezak

    ·5 years ago·
  • Anonymous user

    Firstly: Thank you very much for the effort of delivering such detailed information! Great work and very helpful. I'd like to add to the discussion though:
    "Metalness should be strictly only 0 or 1 without any range" is a common misconception born out of a guideline. It is true for very clean or perfect metal that jus left the factory or the likes. Or for perfectly dielectric materials. True life is never perfect. So this mentality shoots yourself in the foot. Praying to strictly adhere to those guidelines will not make you a more skilled person or better artist. So I'd be careful with your critiques. Looking at this guy's substances, they are something to match, so clearly, it is not the technical knowledge that limits him but his artistic skills that make his work shine. Juts something to keep in mind. Jus because you've read a PBR guide and get this info, there is no need to annoyingly pray this so called hard truth of "0-1" only metalness to everyone and feel smart about it. Jus look up some polycout threads where professionals talk about it. Or look up professional texturng breakdowns such as this one:


    Also look up some premade materials included in Painter, such as silk. They have a metalness vaue of 0.5 to compensate for the lack of control over specular values in the metalness workflow. You will find that a non 0-1 value for metalness it is often used on this kind of cloth that can't be peoperly achieved otherwise. E.g. Vevet, as seen here:


    It always disturbs me that in the CG world there are some artist who claim to know it all and know what they are talking about. Even worse, claiming others don't know what they are talking about while not reflecting themselves. As if basic technical knowledge makes the artist. You should really make sure yourself that you read more than just technical guidelines and call it a day before critiqueing others. Or at least question yourself if you see good work that does not strictly adhere to the guidlines you've read. Metalness map should NOT always be 0 or 1. It's value always depends on what it is you wanna make, as with any other PBR map.


    Anonymous user

    ·3 years ago·
  • Andreji

    Ashley, I'm just pointing out obvious mistake, I'm not offending the author. You don't need to get all defensive and stuff, chill.



    ·5 years ago·
  • The Just

    "Andreji, he means where there’s dirt metalness should be inverted roughness because dirt is rough and less metallic." First of all, don't quote peple in order to explain something if you don't know what you're talking about. Dirt isn't LESS metallic, dirt ISN'T metallic at all. So the phrase "dirt metalness" is an oxymoron. A couple points here:
    1. Inverted roughness gives you a glossieness map, it has nothing to do with metalness.
    2. If you want a different workflow than the metalness workflow, look up the specular workflow.
    3. Don't give advice if you don't know what you're talking about - people who are new might actually remember this and repeat it, thus spreading this nonsense.



    The Just

    ·5 years ago·
  • ashley

    try to learn from this not to give bad feedback im not seeing any metalness issues in his props/materials  show us doe your perfect masterpieces materials ;)



    ·5 years ago·
  • doe

    so called 'master' lol



    ·5 years ago·
  • doe

    There is always something to learn from those who sucks at their craft.



    ·5 years ago·
  • Andreji

    If you want to make true PBR, metalness should ALWAYS be 0 or 1. There is no half-metal material irl. Inverted roughness is gloss, not metalness. Check PBR guide on Allegorithmic page, it's not that hard to find that info. Of course there are some exceptions, but it is not dirt for sure boi.



    ·5 years ago·
  • Denis

    Vladimir, it's completely wrong to generate metalness map out of roughness. Metalness is always 1 for metal and 0 for non-metal materials, independent from roughness. Metalness map can have values between 0 and 1 only when non-metal covers metal with some transparency, at the same time it's not recommended to have metalness values around 0.5, since it produces weird results (although it sometimes can be useful as a hack to produce some unusual look for surface).



    ·5 years ago·
  • Vladimir

    Andreji, he means where there's dirt metalness should be inverted roughness because dirt is rough and less metallic



    ·5 years ago·

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