Kayla Kosik did a breakdown of her recent stylized concept-like artwork, discussed her modeling approach, and shared the details of her painting technique in Photoshop.
Hey there! My name is Kayla Kosik and I am a 3D Environment Artist from Chicago, IL. I graduated from Full Sail University in June 2019 with a Bachelor of Science in Game Art. I’ve been working as a freelance artist for Skymill Studios ever since, and for the past six months, as a 3D artist fellow at Schell Games. I can’t say I’ve always been a gamer or knew I wanted to pursue a career in the field. I've played the easily recognizable, family-friendly titles like Mario, Wii Sports, and some Sony platformers for most of my youth, but I wasn’t aware of the depth video games could achieve through visuals, audio, and storytelling until I was introduced to the game “Horizon Zero Dawn”. I was enchanted by the gripping story, the humanity of the characters, and especially how much the environment rivaled nature. I was so moved by this piece of media that I hungrily wanted to learn how games like this could be created. I found Full Sail after an extensive amount of research, and the rest is history.
You might be wondering, dear reader, how the inspiration of a realistic open-world game could lead an artist to mostly focus on a hand-painterly style? Well, I was a 2D illustrator for years before my 3D education, so the two practices sort of merged as I discovered my 3D art style as a result. I just enjoy having fun painting with color - which leads me to this discussion on my latest project, “Little Bottle of Magic”.
Choosing A Concept
Before I even had my next concept in the head, I took a moment to look back to my previous work and noticed there was a bit of a pattern forming in the way I execute each piece. You see, I have a passion for both, the hand-painterly style and for stylized PBR. I enjoy the challenge both methods present: for hand-painted, it’s the thrill of pushing the boundaries of color values on simple and complex forms, and for stylized PBR, it’s the delight of sculpting varying surfaces in ZBrush and seeing them bake onto only silhouettes of their higher resolutions. With that being said, when I choose a concept to translate into 3D, I have to consider how either method would make my work stand beside the concept and present just as well. So when I came across the lovely work of Ellie, I knew stylized PBR was out of the question, and my normal practice of blending color values didn’t seem to meld well with Ellie’s design, so as I thought of a plan, I looked to other artists such as Emma Koch and Hayden VanEarden, for inspiration.
To model this concept, I went with Maya. I was taught in Maya; I’m comfortable with its interface and hotkeys. Thankfully, the concept was at a good straight-on angle so I was able to import it into the Z-axis plane view and use it as a guide for modeling the shapes if I switched the Shading to X-Ray mode.
For previous pieces, I reserved myself from creating models too high in tri count in fear of getting too comfortable with assets unusable in any game engine. I’ve even had it drilled into my head at Full Sail that game assets with any high-quality detail had to be baked onto low poly meshes and that anything handpainted could be done more easily on surfaces without too much geometry. This has been the standard for most studios I’ve had the pleasure of working with, however, “Little Bottle of Magic” was meant as a fun practice of sorts after months of paused progress (I blame COVID).
I began the standard modeling process using spheres to model out the stars, clouds, fish, and flower petals and cylinders for the bottle, cork, flat flowers, and flower stems. The extrude and soft select tools were heavily used in altering silhouette to match the concept.
Before this project, I had never worked with outlines, so the process of doing so came with a bit of trial and error. In the end, I found that the Transform tool under the “Edit Mesh” tab to be the most useful being that it allowed me to duplicate a mesh, select its verts, and toggle the z-arrow to change the weight of the outline. With that, I was able to reverse the faces and switch on Backface Culling to view the results.
A more in-depth modeling practice I used was utilizing the Deform > Nonlinear > Bend tool to bend the fish and flower petals in particular directions. I wanted to have the fish look to be swimming around the bottle and the petals appearing to be affected by gravity similar to how the concept displays them. This process, however, was done after the UVs were laid out in order to preserve the textures from warping.
I think one of the things I enjoy the most about 3D art is that if you create one asset, duplicate it and transform it anywhere around your scene however many times you like. I took this approach with the stars, flower petals, leaves, and flat flowers. I even created one arm and leg each for the flame boy on the cork and little star guy in the bottle - their limbs could easily be mirrored. Once I had modeled out all the pieces I needed, it was time to set up my UVs and texture maps. Like I mentioned before, this was meant to be a “just for fun” piece, so normally I wouldn’t be so liberal with how many textures I create or so laissez-faire with my UVs. I separated my meshes into different layers based on the way I’d be texturing them: outlines were grouped, as were the solid colors, and so on. This made it easier when it came time to take UV Snapshots from the UV Editor to import into Photoshop.
Once in Photoshop, it is painting time! This has to be my favorite part of the pipeline because this is where you start seeing the piece really come to life. I usually begin the texturing process by Magic Wand selecting the outside space around the UVs, inverting the selection, and expanding the band by about 3 pixels to give me just a bit of a bleed. I block out the base color of each mesh’s UV in multiple layers - the Eyedropper tool is your best friend when matching color to the concept. The purpose of the multiple layers is so that when I go to paint on top of those aforementioned base colors using a Clipping Mask layer, I won’t be painting on the wrong UVs.
I’m aware 3DCoat and Blender have quicker methods of hand-painting that doesn’t require you to jump between programs, and I highly recommend consolidating your workflow if you can, but I was taught this way and old habits die hard as they say. Plus, over the many years, I’ve done illustration and sketching in Photoshop, I have accumulated custom brushes, some of which I’ve created, and others gathered from gracious DeviantArt creators - all which have been extremely handy tools in my artist arsenal!
Once I’m satisfied with the paint job, I import the textures and their alphas back into Maya for a final quality check before rendering. If all checks out, I export the FBX and hop into Sketchfab. I really adore this platform, in particular, because of it’s a user-friendly interface and accessible uploading of 3D files to publish and inspect. It’s an intuitive site that is easy to learn for any beginner and efficient for any pro!
For my setup, it was a fairly painless process: I didn’t need any lights in the scene since I wanted to mimic the concept’s flat composition, I set up a limited camera view, and imported a watercolor painted background I did similar to Ellie’s. I plugged the textures into their respected channels and set their Face Renderings accordingly. To finish out, I adjusted the Post-Processing-Filters by adding a bit a grain for a fuzzy brushed look, bumped up the sharpness a tad, added a bit of bloom to boost the star and cloud glow, and adjusted the mid-tones for a more reddish hue.
I mentioned this in the bio of this piece on my ArtStation, but “Little Bottle of Magic” was the first piece I created after a four-month-long hiatus. After we all went into quarantine, I, like many others, took a bit of a breather to focus on my mental, physical health, or just to try something new in the extra time I found myself with. It is okay to do this sometimes. I’ve had to tell this to myself a million times, and maybe you need to hear it too, reader, but it is okay to take a moment and come back later. Your knowledge and skill will still be there, albeit a little rusty at first, but you have to be patient with yourself and be willing to try. Ask friends, watch tutorials late into the A.M, and don’t be afraid to fail. I love what I do, but I don’t love everything I make. I think that’s also important to remember too. “Little Bottle of Magic” is, fortunately, one of the few I do like because I tried a new way of making 3D art and I had fun doing it. Overall, I’m eternally grateful for the feedback and support I’ve received so far and can’t wait to dive into something new here soon.
Thank you for reading!