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Learn How to Texture Native American Environment Using Substance 3D

Rafael Serralheiro broke down the Tipi Tales project, showing how it helped improve his texturing skills and explaining why he chose a 35mm lens for the final render.


Hello, I'm Rafael Serralheiro and I'd like to share with you my latest project, Tipi Tales, which takes you on a journey into the world of North American Indigenous tribes. This environment was created using Unreal Engine 5.1, using all its power to bring this world to life.

In creating Tipi Tales, I set out to improve my texturing skills, an area where I felt I needed to grow. I spent a significant amount of time in Substance 3D Designer to create realistic textures. Additionally, I wanted to explore my sculpting skills further, moving beyond my usual hard surface work to create something organic and natural.

The inspiration for Tipi Tales came from my long-standing interest in Native American culture. This project allowed me to delve deeper into this fascinating universe by creating a Native American camp.

References and Blockout

This environment was also the first time I created an entire environment without having concept art as a reference. So, to overcome the lack of not having it, I needed to collect as many references as possible. From props to tents, natural environment, rocks, sticks, plants, and many more. Not only but it was also important for me to understand how other artists have represented this culture and this biome. So, gathering references from desert/canyon biomes concept art was also important. Here is the PureRef I used as a guide for reference and tracking my progress. 

Once all the references had been collected, the first step was to begin blocking out the base environment and securing the main camera. Typically, I construct the environment around the main camera to ensure that I have the primary shot, and as the project progresses, I blend the elements to verify that it works from multiple angles. To begin the block out, I created a quick list of the essential components of a native Indian camp and modeled simple geometry inside Maya to flesh out my ideas. I explored various concepts, but it was crucial for me to have foreground, middle ground, and background elements for a more traditional shot layout. Despite its classic nature, this method is usually quite effective. These are some of the but I eventually settled on the one at the bottom.

Now, with the main look locked, I started refining it by trying to create more leading lines to the main point of interest of the composition, which would be the totem. It was also around the same time that I started blocking out the silhouette of the totem pole so that I could start to sculpt it. Again, always keeping the scene simple and open to iteration and not getting locked in perfecting anything yet. 

So this was the natural evolution of the scene now with better leading lines, a base totem, and the beginning of the .zoo file.

At this project stage, I left the overall environment aside and started creating the hero prop, which was the totem. The hero prop would then be the benchmark for the overall quality of the scene. The assets I would then create would need to be of the same quality as the totem. 


For creating the totem, I started blocking out simple shapes in Maya based on the references I had gathered previously. I then took that geometry into ZBrush to start sculpting. Since these totems are usually created out of wood, it was important to get the wood right. To sculpt wood in ZBrush, I mainly started with the Mallet Fast brush to carve the sides of the wood. Then, to increase some of the carving, I used the Trim Smooth Border. After that, by using the Surface tool to get some stretch noise to obtain the wood details, I would accentuate those with a Dam Standard to create the wood lines.

Here are detailed shots of some of my iterations for the totem pole. Creating the totem prop was quite challenging for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the totem's silhouette is typically uninteresting and mainly straight. Thus, I needed to alter the overall shape of the totem to make it more captivating. Secondly, the material breakup was a challenge. Totems are typically made of wood, so I had to introduce some extra pieces to break up the wood using other materials that still felt realistic and not overdone.

As you can see, my focus as I tried to improve the hero prop was to get a better silhouette and to add extra parts that would make sense in the scene's context and still make it feel pleasing and cohesive.

After sculpting the high-poly mesh shown in the previous renders. I created a decimated version and a UV version of the same piece so that it would be easier to UV in Maya, and transfer the attributes from the UV mesh to the low-poly one. This method works particularly well for organic models such as this one, but not only since I used this technique in many other parts of the environment. 

Once all the parts were UV with the same technique, it was time to jump to Substance 3D Painter in order to get some masks to use inside Unreal Engine. One of the goals for this environment was to use Substance 3D Painter as little as I could so that I really focus on my tileable materials and get more out of my Unreal shaders. I mostly used Substance 3D Painter to generate RGB masks, paint masks, and bake my high-poly model in the low poly.

Mask Creation in Substance 3D Painter

After creating my RGB mask for my tileable materials, I needed extra masks for the painted areas of the totem. These are usually painted wood with different colors, patterns/shapes. So, inside Substance 3D Painter, I did a couple of black-and-white masks corresponding to a color section. I did not want to export these maps with a specific color so that I could art-direct and change the values inside Unreal as I progressed in creating this environment. Then, for practical/optimization purposes, I packed those black-and-white masks into RGB maps. That way, it was less confusing, faster, and easier to manage inside Unreal. 

Unreal Shaders for Hero Prop

To test if my masks were working in Unreal Engine, I created basic color materials to troubleshoot any possible issue. Once I was happy with the masks, I created a Unreal shader using the Material Functions workflow. However, even though this method is stable, it is not very practical since I need to change material functions often. For that, I would need different Master Materials. So, I decided to use the Material Layers workflow. This is more artist-friendly and easy to reuse. 

The way this works is just like Photoshop. We have Material Layers that are our “Base” Material (and these can be instances, which means we only create this once). And then, we have a Material Layer blend. This material works like a mask that will merge the material layers between each other. To conclude the process, we need to have a Base Master Material to blend any baked normal or extra maps that are specific to our model. This process proved to be super efficient and easy to use since I could easily switch materials and colors and efficiently change the mask channel (RGB). I did a couple of shots of my shaders set up. More information about this workflow can be found in the Unreal documentation

Modeling the Kit

After completing the main hero asset, the next step was to add more details to the old block-out mesh and bring it to the alpha stage mesh. As my scene mainly consisted of rocks, I spent most of my time sculpting them. The key to sculpting rocks is to understand where the areas of rest and detail lie. It took me some time to grasp this concept, but I was able to create some good examples of rocks. To make the rocks useful in multiple places, I sculpted them as a cube with slight differences on each face. This way, one rock could serve six different positions instead of six different rocks. I mainly used the Trim Smooth Border and Clay brushes for sculpting them. The key is to know when to carve away an edge or add in the flat areas where rocks naturally sediment, creating layers. By inverting the Trim Smooth Border, we can achieve the desired layer effect.

Below, you can see some renders of the high poly versions of the rocks. After finishing the sculptures, the process was precisely the same as the hero prop. 

  1. Decimate the mesh to a low poly version and a UV version;
  2. Import to Maya, and UV the UV mesh and transfer the attributes to the low poly;
  3. Bring the low poly version to Substance 3D Painter for RGB masking and baking maps;
  4. Import asset to Unreal .zoo file.

The rest of the kit pieces and environment parts were completed using the same techniques I explained previously. It was just a matter of time sculpting and making the meshes ready to import into Unreal. Again, these meshes were not final but in an alpha stage. The scene after modeling the big pieces and objects came a long way as you can see below.

Set dressing props such as small rocks, plants, and other objects like ropes or sticks were not modeled yet. I did those after I had the chance to get my textures to an alpha stage. 


As mentioned earlier, improving my texturing skills was my goal for this project. To achieve this, I started by gathering as many references as possible for the material I wanted to create. Then, I followed two key concepts to enhance my textures, breaking down the material into big, medium, and small shapes and creating it in Substance 3D Designer accordingly and then focusing on the height map first. Although Unreal does not use the height map in the materials, it generates the normal map, ambient occlusion, and all the masks used for roughness and color in Substance 3D Designer.

The texture created with the above graph is the wood bark I used for some of my kit pieces and as a breakup wood for my totem.

After spending some time working on my textures to take them to an alpha stage, I imported them into Unreal and checked on my .zoo file to see what was working and what needed to be fixed.

After testing the textures as an alpha pass, I proceeded to apply them to my models to check their readability. The way a material is perceived depends on both the shape of the object and the lighting. At the alpha stage, nearly everything was textured and the meshes were properly positioned, but the overall look was still far from my desired outcome.

Many things were not working at this stage. Normal maps were not reading as expected, the rock color was too saturated and far from being realistic, and the light was too warm. The challenge was to do a second pass at everything, take the models and improve them together with all the textures and light. In addition, it was then I started moving the composition around and making sure the scene worked from all angles. This is key because from then on, the goal was to blend the scene as best as possible with geometry and textures.

From Alpha to Beta

As mentioned previously, it was around this time in the process that I started creating all the small pieces, like small rock piles to blend cliffs and the ground, as well as foliage and other smaller props. These props get us far since we naturally don't mind seeing them repeated. Here are some examples of kit parts that were used to blend the environment and add detail. 

In addition to geometry, textures play a crucial role in creating a seamless scene. To achieve this, I utilized vertex paint to merge certain dirt textures with the rock textures. However, I only applied this technique to areas that were particularly significant. Vertex painting is a highly effective tool in Unreal, as it allows for different channels to blend various textures. In my scene, I used the red channel to blend rocks and dirt, while the green channel was used to create a "wet" appearance in areas near the water.

The next step in blending the environment was creating skirts. Skirts are a simple geo that connects two objects by adding a natural layer. Here is how I create them.

  1. First, I exported the geometry I wanted to blend from Unreal as an Obj.
  2. I imported that into ZBrush, DynaMeshed, and masked the area that will become the skirt (we want a smooth mesh and not dense).
  3. Then, in Maya, I imported both the Unreal geo and the skirt and made sure the mesh was clear. 
  4. In Maya, I UV the skirt, made sure the outside parts were intersecting with the original mesh, triangulated, and exported back to Unreal.
  5. In Unreal, I changed the grid snap to 10,000 so it would snap to the correct space.
  6. I created a skirt material with Dither to blend and smooth the transition.

Here is the material I created for my skirts and how the scene looks with and without them.

After all of these steps, this was the result of the blended scene with many texture revisions, better models, and a blended scene with both geo and textures. I got to the beta stage where everything felt more cohesive and realistic. My focus now was to get the scene light correctly, polish some areas, and add the extra 10%, such as post-processing, changing the camera settings, and doing other camera shots.

Lighting & Rendering

I found lighting the scene to be quite a challenge, as this was my first time working on an exterior location. Although exterior scenes typically only have the sun and sky as light sources, I had to add additional lights for artistic purposes. These lights were meant to accentuate the bounce light from the sun and sky, as well as exaggerate objects and textures with rim light. Creating contrast by highlighting areas with shadow and light greatly enhanced the scene's appearance and made it more eye-catching. It's also helpful to create light block geo, which are simple giant cubes used to block light in certain areas that are hidden in game mode. This is a common practice in both games and film and helps the scene feel more cohesive. Below is a screenshot of my scene, which includes point lights, rim lights, and light blockers.

Also, it is good practice to take a screenshot of your progress and check your work in Photoshop when lighting. Removing the color from the image will leave you with a black-and-white version that is perfect for evaluating contrast. It's also a good idea to test the composition by viewing it in thumbnail size, as this will show you the most important parts of the image. If the thumbnail version is effective, the full-sized image should be, too. This seems silly, as you can see below, but it allows you to see if your point of interest in the image is reading or not.

When it was time to rework with the cameras, one problem I was having within the early stages of the project was that I was using a flat lens for my main camera. This resulted in a flat and uninspiring image. While 85mm or 50mm lenses are ideal for creating a cinematic look, they are not suitable for capturing an entire environment. To illustrate, I included a comparison of the original 35mm lens that improved the images in contrast with a 50mm or 85mm lens.

It's noticeable that the images appear less three-dimensional and the space seems smaller when using an 85mm lens compared to a 35mm lens. During the initial stages of the project, I utilized a 50mm lens in my Unreal camera but found that switching to a 35mm lens improved the scene. As someone with a background in film and photography, I prefer to use realistic static numbers. While a 35mm lens is available as a prime lens, a 63.764mm lens is not, so I opted to stick with actual prime lenses. Additionally, I altered the aspect ratio of the scene to achieve a more cinematic feel. Instead of the standard 16:9 ratio, I adjusted the Filmback setting in my Unreal Camera to create a 2.35 aspect ratio. These were the camera settings I utilized for this particular project. 

To enhance the image, I added a Post Process Volume to change my shadows, Midtones and Highlights. With the Volume, it's possible to change bloom, lens flare effects, or add chromatic aberration. However, I used the Volume very lightly for this scene just to add a stubble color correction. The image below is a comparison of the scene with and without Post Process.


I spent several weeks working on this project and wanted to showcase its best aspects. I took 2 to 3 days to create high-quality renders of my detailed textures, meshes, and objects. I used Marmoset Toolbag for the materials, KeyShot for my high-poly mesh, and Unreal Engine for the kit pieces and shots. Additionally, I created breakdown videos to display the different parts of the scene. Below are some examples of the renders I took to present my work. 

The crack floor created in Substance 3D Designer and rendered in Marmoset Toolbag

High-poly prop renders of some props to enhance sculpt detail, sculpted in ZBrush and rendered in KeyShot

Some kit pieces I used in my environment, rendered in Unreal Engine


In summary, this project was a great opportunity for learning. It was a challenge to become familiar with the tools, workflows, and artistic choices, but it provided me with valuable knowledge. The errors I made in this project will serve as important lessons for my future work. I want to deeply thank Jon Arellano, an environment artist at Santa Monica Studios, for sharing his knowledge, guidance, and support during this project, as well as 80 Level's Arti Burton for allowing me to break down this environment!

You can find me on ArtStation, LinkedIn, and Instagram.

Rafael Serralheiro, Environment Artist

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