Learning Substance: Professional Tips and Tricks

Learning Substance: Professional Tips and Tricks

Hard surface artist James Ritossa did a detailed breakdown of a brass material, which 80.lv readers can download for free.

Hard surface artist James Ritossa did a detailed breakdown of a brass material, which 80.lv readers can download for free.


Hey there!  My name is James, I am a 3D artist at Avalanche NYC. I just recently graduated from high school at West Geauga (Go Wolverines!), and I have been using my spare time to do various material studies which I post up on artstation and Gumroad for people to check out.  When I’m not doing CG stuff, I generally like to mod my PC, drink coffee, and play Rainbow Six Siege.  

I would totally love to talk about everything I’m doing at Avalanche, but for now I don’t really feel like losing my job, so we will save that for another day :). Previous to being at Avalanche I interned at Allegorithmic, which happens to be the only software company I have actually felt good giving my money to, as they truly are there to help the artist, and I cannot emphasize how much learning Substance will benefit you.  Working at Allegorithmic was an awesome opportunity, and I would recommend checking out Allegorithmic’s job board as I think they are hiring. Separate from Avalanche and Allegorithmic I have worked on the title Our Ghosts of War and several other mods for Arma.

1 of 2

Now for the reason you’re here; let’s learn about some Substance!  I’m going to try to make this a general description of how I work on any material, since I want to show you how you can work in both Substance Painter and Designer (Both are very similar believe it or not).  This is a bit lengthy so I will break it into 3 parts.  Part one : Tips and Tricks, Part two : Breakdown of a material found in my apartment, Part 3  Things to keep in mind, and general thoughts.

So how do I go about adding in these effects such as sun bleaching, scratches or color distortion?  

For Substance Designer: Tons of Noise and Generators.

For Substance Painter: Tons of Generators and Smart Masks.

Notice the similarities?  The key to most of my work is in the generators, and lots of em!  I like to think of generators as things that bring your substance to life, and they are what make substances so powerful as compared to non-procedural methods.  With generators you can add grime, dirt, scratches and really anything you want in a completely non-destructive manner. Here are some of my tricks I like to use when creating substance painter.    If you haven’t yet, make sure to watch Sharlene Lin’s presentation from Substance Days, I kid you not, this is probably the best demo I have ever watched….like ever.  

Tips and Tricks

  1. Everything has dirt, or a thin layer of dust on it.  Whether  it be an old pair of tennis shoes, or the chips you’re munching on right now while you read.  So make sure to add it in with a Generator.  I like to use the “Dust Soft 2” node to create a nice thin layer of dust on my materials.  A common go-to dirt is “Mortar Wall” I usually make sure to turn off the height when working with it, and then I simply apply a generator and adjust things as I go along with the project.
  1. Feel free to use materials outside of what they are named.  Just because “Rust” is a rust material, doesn’t mean you have to only use it as rust.  I commonly use the rust material to drive dirt, or color variation in my materials.  The Rust generators also work very well for creating interesting looking dirt. The material below used a rust generator if I recall, in order to drive some neat looking dirt.  
  1.  Please don’t stick to only using physically correct material values.  Experiment a little with roughness values and different base color values.  Just because you are making a copper material doesn’t mean it has to be 100% physically accurate to copper. Just try to stick close to something accurate.  And don’t make your materials too glossy, because I know shiny stuff looks pretty, but….
  1.  Variation makes things look real (most of the time).  For example, look at your keyboard, or phone screen and check out the roughness values.  Its awesome right!  There’s finger smudges, grease marks, mine even has some tiny nearly unnoticeable water splotches.  These small details may seem rather insignificant, but coming from a very lazy artist, you need to capture those details, because that is what really sells a material…literally.  
  1. Layers, everything’s better with them. A lot of times I like to have layers to my materials, generally paint chipping over metal.  The reason you don’t see many of these materials on my page is because in my opinion, they are pretty hard to do.  It’s easy to make a basic chipped paint material, but to get something presentable is another story.  The best way to go about making layered materials is to try to think of how they are layered in real life.  The reason paint chips, or peels is completely dependant on the metal layer beneath it, how it corrodes and the climate it is in.  Really the only way to replicate peeling paint is to actually go out and find some and just peel it away with your fingers.  Preferably not someone’s car, but ya know, artists gotta do what they gotta do.  

For creating the material above, and layered materials in general, I like to use a rough base. This helps make the paint look like it’s peeling around the grime or imperfections.  I used an “Mg Mask editor” with the following settings in the mask to make the peeling happen. The contrast, balance, and ao, along with the grunge rough dirty texture help drive this peeling effect.  If you’re wondering how I figured this out, I honestly have no idea.  I find that a lot of my best materials were made just messing around in substance,  It is once you replicate these happy mistakes that you will start to really progress in Substance.  This method holds true for Designer more than painter, but I think it is by far the most important step to learning Substance Designer, it just takes time but that time is totally worth it.  


I thought I would maybe just show how I made one of my previous materials, but I really wanted to get to show my entire workflow so you guys can actually learn something useful (asuming I actually do something useful).  I also decided to make this material completely free as a thank you to 80.lv and everyone reading this.  So without further to do, let’s dive in! Feel free to check out the smart material available for download if you get lost at any point.

Step 1: Gathering Reference.

So usually I will find an interesting material while I’m on the streets or something, and I will stop walking, look at it, and start feeling the material while looking completely psychotic to people passing by.  Then I usually take a picture, go home and contemplate how to go about making the material, or I just turn on Netflix and forget about it..  But today, I decided to take a picture of an awesome brass material, and this time, I’m gonna actually make it!  A quick tip is to turn your camera flash on, this will ensure you capture all the small smudges, imperfections, and scratches your eye *normally* wouldn’t capture.

Step 2: Analyzing reference.  

So if you notice, we have large scratches, small scratches, dirt, and grime, and we even have edge damages.The color is pretty uniform, and the roughness is really cool looking.  The normal and height are going to be fairly subtle, and yeah that’s about it.  And oh hey look, its me in the reflection!

Step 3: Building.  

First step is to open the sample project in Substance.  Go to File -> Open -> Samples – Preview Sphere.  This has baked maps and it even has a sample smart material on it.  Go ahead and delete that default smart material because we are going to make our own.  

Start with a base.  I used “brass pure” from the default materials shelf.  I changed the colors to RGB : 665, 413, 095, and changed roughness to 0.100840.  I then dragged and dropped a MatFinish Rough filter from the filters tab onto the material, and adjusted the filter to get something interesting, but nothing too extreme, because we wanna keep this material looking like our reference, or close to it.  Below is my settings I used.

I then took the “Steel Rough” material from the material shelf, and placed it above the brass pure material in the layer stack.  I turned off the normal and the height, and adjusted the color to be RGB :677, 563, 341, and I changed the roughness to 0.590000.  I then dragged and dropped an “edge rust” smart mask from the smart mask shelf. I then adjusted the edge wear balance inside the mask generator to my liking.  I went with .69. I then changed contrast to 0.  I then pasted a custom grunge (Grunge Rough Dirty) into the grayscale texture input.  Now you can see we are getting some nice grunge.  This is going to basically make the edges on the material loose their nice glossy finish.  

Next I added a mortar wall material, and dropped an edge scratches smart mask on it, and then I dropped a Dust Soft 2 smart mask on top to lessen the intensity of the first mask.  Then I created a new layer, added a fill and turned off color, height, metal and nrm.  I then pasted grunge 004 into the roughness channel.  I adjusted it by right clicking and adding a levels node until I got a grunge that i was happy with.  I then added a Rust Fine material and dropped a Dust Occlusion mask onto it, and adjusted the contrast to .23 inside the mask.  I then changed the Rust Fine color to RGB : 395, 372, 347.  This is adding a of very fine dirt, and adding in some dirt which collects into crevices which would be hard to clean in real life.  

Finally, I went back and duplicated the very first Brass Pure base that we made, and I dropped a Edges Blur mask onto it, and changed the color to RGB : 1.000, 778, 499.  This will add some nice color variation to the surfaces of our material which are exposed the most, as if the brass finish was fading to a slightly less saturated tone.  This is exaclty the process I used to make the fading on my bleached plastic material.   Now we have a material which I am pretty happy with.

Next, right click, and export textures as however large as you can.  I export my materials with the UE4 packed option because it uses less maps, but if your not used to packed maps, just export them as you normally would.  I’m gonna sit back and export at 8k, because why not.  *Note that we are only exporting so that we can get this material in Marmoset*.  If you just want to call it done, simply select all layers, group them (ctrl + G), and double click to rename, I called mine “Old_Brass”.  Next, right click on the group and select “create smart material”  and there you go, you have a sweet smart material now!

Step 4 : Presentation

Presentation is everything with these materials.  Lighting and composition can make or break a scene, and I have botched mine many of times.  Make sure you download the substance shader sphere from substance sphere, because we are going to drop our exported maps onto it (https://share.allegorithmic.com/libraries/2026).

Next, drag and drop your shader ball into Marmoset toolbag.  For lighting, I use a custom template. To create yours, simply just create a couple directional lights, one with an orange tint, and one with a white or blue tint.  Then rotate the direction lights so that they contrast on the shader ball.  I generally like to have the lighting pretty soft. Make sure to go into the “Renderer” tab and check all options under lighting to true, and put Occlusion Strength to 32, and adjust the size to whatever you want.  Under Global Illumination, enable everything again, change the brightness to something interesting. And pick a cool sky to go in the background, and change the sky to ambient, and adjust the background color.  In the screenshot you may notice I have 4 lights, but only 2 of them are actually affecting the shader ball right now.  Here is what my scene looks like.  

Now, lets load in out texture maps.  First create a new material, then load all your maps into the given channel.  Check Flip Y on your normal map, and invert your gloss map.  Make sure you change your reflectivity from specular to metalness also.  Then simply drag and drop your material!  You will notice the roughness look different in here as compared to substance.  That is what happens like 90% of the time with all my materials, and i’m not sure why, but I think it has to do with the difference between the 2 rendering engines.  I always make my materials more rough in substance to compensate for this.  In this case (and in most) I prefer the roughness value given in Marmoset because it closer matches our reference.  I then decided to adjust lighting a bit more and I changed the sky to something which I think looks better. I then went into camera settings and messed around with Focus Distance to slightly blur the far ends of the mesh. I then adjusted exposure and saturation along with contrast.  Some may call these adjustments cheating, but you can do the same thing to the material in Substance, sooooo I beg to differ :). I then added a vignette. For most of my material presentations I like to give them an almost dreamy look, and the vignette actually really helps with that. Now I have this result… It looks good, but it’s not quite finished.

Lets bring it into Photoshop.  I am going to capture the material at 2048×2048.  To do this, go into Capture -> Settings and set the resolution to 2048×2048.  Then hit “Capture to Clipboard”.  Then create a Photoshop file of the same resolution and adjust things like levels, brightness and color balance until you get something which really makes your material pop.  I also decided to throw an ambient dust into the background of the image to help with conveying depth. Here is the final product.   

1 of 3

Things to Keep in Mind and General Thoughts

As you can see, we used Substance Painter to create these materials.  Many people are probably wondering why I didn’t use Substance Designer, or if they can use Substance Designer to do this.  The answer to why, is because this workflow is insanely fast, and it doesn’t require complex shapes.  For creating things like grass, or roof tiles, or paneling, I use Substance Designer 100% of the time.  For metals which do not require complex shapes, I use Substance Painter.  Now can you use Substance Designer to do this?  Of course!  I used to make my metals in Substance Designer, but it’s much like Sub-D modelling vs Boolean Dynamesh workflow.  Sure, Sub-D is fun and it has it’s legitimate uses, but Boolean + Dynamesh is just so freakin fast. This brass material took maybe 15min max to make, allowing you more time to focus on what’s important ; your art.  Below is an example of a metal created in Designer because of its complexness.  

Can these techniques be used to create other materials like Glass and Plastics? Absolutely! The generators I used to create this brass today is pretty similar to how I created my Bleached Plastic material.  

Also keep in mind that no matter how hard Substance is to learn, you will only get better the more you try. The guys at Allegorithmic are always there to help as well.  Their Discord server is an awesome place to meet people and ask developers like Wes questions directly, as well as on their forums.  


In closing, I really hope you enjoyed this interview, and I would like to extend a huge thank you to 80.lv for contacting me to do this.  It was lowkey a life goal to do an interview with 80.lv, so yeah.  And also a huge thanks to Avalanche for allowing me to do this interview and for allowing me to join the Avalanche family this past month.  And remember to take this whole article with a grain of salt, because after all art is all about opinions, so don’t think because it said something in here that you have to do it.    If you have any questions about anything, or want to grab a coffee in New York some time feel free to hit me up on Artstation!  Don’t forget your free smart material!

Grab the material for free here (gumroad.com/l/80lvbrass)!

James Ritossa, Hard Surface Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev.

Join discussion

Comments 1

  • stationairy_poster

    thanks for this article, definitely an interesting read.



    ·3 years ago·

You might also like

We need your consent

We use cookies on this website to make your browsing experience better. By using the site you agree to our use of cookies.Learn more