Making a 3D Canvas Painting in 3ds Max, ZBrush & Substance 3D Painter

Emmanuele Biondi shared his approach to choosing the next thing to work on, talked about the challenges behind creating the painting for The Artist project, and revealed how to mix various high poly modeling techniques.


My name is Emmanuele Biondi, I’m from Italy but currently I work as a Senior Environment Artist at 31St Union in Valencia, Spain. I’ve become a great video game enthusiast since I received the glorious Sega Master System as a Christmas gift. Over time I decided to look for a job that would align with my passion. What's a better way to do it if not becoming a 3D artist? In order to make that real, I studied for three years at the Euporean Institute of Design (IED) in Milan, where I’ve got my degree in Computer Graphic Animation, and began my adventure.

My career started at Milestone, an Italian company based in Milan, which focuses on racing game, like MotoGP, Ride, MXGP, etc. Later I was lucky enough to contribute to several amazing projects like Flight Simulator at Asobo Studio in Bordeaux and such AAA games as Cyberpunk and Forza Horizon 5 while I was working at elite3d in Valencia.

Choosing the Next Project

When I start a new personal project, I usually go with the flow. While I'm looking at images, artwork or just the real world, at some point my attention freezes on something, and I start falling in love with it, thinking about how I can translate this in 3D.

I also have some "rules". I usually try to choose something that can help me to improve some specific areas such as modeling, texturing, composition, etc. I usually pick something I don't do in my daily job, I think it’s a good way to enjoy the process and brush up on your skills, doing something you may not have done for a while.

Last but not least, I always look for some challenges, in order to improve my skills, and put myself out of my confort zone, at least in one field of the assett production. For example, with the The Artist project, the drawing and texturing the painting was a great challenge, since drawing is not one of my skills.

References and Goals

The Artist is a small tribute to my grandfather, Gerardo. He was a great painter, and I was always surrounded by his awesome paintings in my parents' house. Also I was looking for something that would give me the chance to push the texturing, play with colours, and deepen my konowledge about Substance 3D Painter.

I was lucky enough to have many true references in my parents' house. I think it's always great if you can get real references. Gathering references is one of the things I spend a lot of time with. It allows me to fully understand how an object looks like in the real world and how it’s made, even before moving into a 3D software.

Usually I create a mood board with two types of references. The first type is a reference, where I look for the high-quality standard I would like to achieve. It could be a videogame, an artwork, a movie, whatever inspires me. Then I always try to get very clear pictures on the subject, trying to have as many references of the same object as possible. In this regard I find it really useful to look at online stores, especially those that sell spare parts for weapons, cars or, in this case, collectibles/antiques.

Modeling the Scene

When I have the references I need, I start by creating the blockout, paying close attention to the proportion and the main shapes. To achieve this, I usually use a 1.80 tall character as a ref, get credible proportions and shapes. This way the process becomes much easier.

When I’m happy with the blockout, I move to high poly. I use different techniques for this based on what I have to achieve, and also based on the object I’m working on.

The three main approches here are:

  • Sub-D modeling;
  • High poly using chamfer to define the support edges;
  • ZBrush DynaMesh.

Sub-D modeling

High poly using chamfer to define the support edges

ZBrush DynaMesh

Each of these techniques has its strengths and weaknesses, so my advice is to mix them, trying to find the most useful one based on what you have to do.

When I'm happy with my high poly, I start making the low poly version. There's nothing special about it, it's just a matter of cleaning up the base mesh that was used to get the high poly. When I have my low poly, I start to set up the smoothing group in 3ds Max. It’s essential to speed up the creation of UVs and also minimize errors during bake. I usually do UV in 3ds Max, using a couple of tools like TexTools 4.10 and Texel Density that allow me to speed up the workflow.

There are two important steps while creating the UVs. The first is to split the UV in accoedance with the smoothing group, which means to separate the UVs island in relation to the hard edges. When we set the smoothing groups on our faces, the boundary edges between two faces with different smoothing groups will become Hard Edges.

The second step is to set the texel density you have decided to use. Once these operations have been done, it is only matter of relaxing the UVs islands, and arranging them in a tidy way using as much UV space as possible to obtain a layout that minimizes bake errors and makes texturing easier.


I create a Marmoset scene with my asset choosing a really neutral lighting, just to check how the bake and material work. I usually start with a bake test, to see if there are any issues. When I’m happy with that, I start creating a Folder structure in Substance 3D Painter, just to define the main material (wood, metal, fabric). I usually have 3 subfodlder for each material.

When all the structure has been completed for each material, I start with the definition for each of them. As for texturing, it’s crucial to study how the material looks like in the real world, trying to dissect what elements are needed to achieve the same feeling in 3D. Then it’s just matter of finding a way in Substance 3D Painter (or any other software you use) to recreate those elements.

Over the years I’ve created a small personal library with some basic materials, which I modify from time to time according to the asset. Anyway, the default library of Substance is a great base to start with.

The Painting

The painting itself was a great challenge for me. I did a lot of tests before I ended up with a result I was happy with. I started drawing the subject, and then colored it with specific brushes to simulate the brush strokes. In the coloring phase I created a base, then defined the shadows and the highlights the same way as it happens when you paint a miniature.

Once I got my painting, I spent a lot of time looking at paintings in real life to understand that in oil painting, each color has different roughness. This allowed me to have a good base that I refined with other layers to create some variation and had a specific roughness for each color type.

Again, the roughness values are very important. Spending time on these values is essential to get a feeling of realism. In general I suggest taking care of each and every channel like Albedo, Roughness and Metalness individually, to get a clear idea of what's going on in that specific channel.


This time I used Marmoset to get my final renders. My lighting system is very simple, it consists of an HDRi and three main lights. Based on the shot, I would add specific lights to improve the final result, if needed. Keeping it simple helps to avoid weird effects, plus you it allows to have better control over the scene. I don't use post-processing much, the only thing I do is play with the curve in the Marmoset camera, until I find the result I'm looking for.


I’m always more than happy to share my personal experience. Feel free to reach me out through the various social networks. If I can, I am always happy to help and always more than happy to meet new artists from whom I can learn and make new friends.

Enjoy the Proccess

The advice I would like to give is to have a well-structured midset. The technicalities are something that only needs to be learned, and today there is a lot of material on the Internet, where you can discover techniques and workflows. But all this leads to nothing, if you do not have the will to invest your time, be patient, and work in every single step, 100% focus on that.

Constant Repetition Hones Skills

One of the things that helps me the most, is the discipline and the drive to improve every single day. We often start personal projects with a strong motivation but after a few days this will not be enough to accomplish our goals. This is where discipline makes the difference, setting deadlines and respecting them is essential to complete your projects and continue to improve.

There is no one way, there is no software better than another, there are many solutions to create a 3D asset. Try to experiment and find the workflow that suits your natural skills and the way you work the best – but always with the drive to improve every single day in 3D as well as in personal life. That's all folks, thanks for your time.

Emmanuele Biondi, Senior Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Burton

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