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Making a 3D Organic Diorama: Bricks and Vegetation

Anastasiya Osichkina did a breakdown of her project Ruins created during CGMA's course Intro to Environment Art in 3ds Max, ZBrush, Substance tools, and UE4.


Hi there! My name is Anastasiya Osichkina and I'm from Rostov-on-Don, Russia. I work as a 3D Environment Artist at Game Insight on mobile games and as a background freelance artist.  I have a degree in interior design. During my education, I was working mostly on classical interiors/architecture projects but always felt that there wasn't enough freedom or opportunity to express all ideas I had. As for me, I always loved playing video games, so I decided to combine my interest in games and 3D environments. I started a long way of self-education, though my art background helped me a bit in the way of knowing art basics: I was familiar with composition, had some experience working with spaces and proportions.

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Ruins: Goals

For a long time, I had experience with offline rendering only (V-Ray), so at the end of last year, I decided that it was time to move on and learn some new things. The idea was to learn modern pipelines in environment art, that's why I decided to start from creating a small environment project and not jump into the big scale scenes. CGMA's Intro to Environment Art course was the best choice for me here. It has weekly deadlines with clear goals and it's really great when you have problems with time management. 

My goal was to create a small diorama that would look finished as it is and where I can practice a big variety of skills, from sculpting to texturing, vegetation to lightning. 


Usually, I start by gathering reference, but this time I had some ideas in my head so I started making blockout immediately in 3ds Max. I was trying to find interesting forms inside my blockout and at the same time make my environment look appealing as a whole piece. I like painting lines over my sketches to find interesting compositions, sometimes it's an angle of your tree branch or a column that will improve the overall impression.

After that, it was time to search for some references. From the start, I was thinking between different architectural styles and ended with combining several of them. Of course, it's important to be strict with style if you're doing a historically-accurate environment, but I think if you want to have fun with your art, don't be afraid to mix things.  As for references I use PureRef for organizing, and I try to keep references divided into different categories. This time I divided them into object category (arcs, columns, ivy, door, tree, vases, flowers, etc.). Also, I have such categories as “Games where artists did an amazing job” or “don't invent the wheel”. Always learn from people who already know how to do things in a better way! 

Building the Structure

Let's move on to modeling and texturing. When working on the walls, bricks, and columns, one of the most important things was their modularity and also the feeling that it was all made from the same type of stone. First, I started with creating basic brick wall material in Substance Designer. Later, this material became a solid base for my columns and additional bricks. It was important to make this material early on because it dictates the scale of bricks (a timelapse from karalysson was a real help here). My graph for this material:

Then, I modeled very basic shapes of the central arc, side broken arc, and small wall piece from the back. The idea was to texture it with SD brick wall material and then cover edges with separate bricks imitating broken walls. 

I modeled bricks in the exact size of one brick from the texture, then made several variations with broken pieces of different sizes. After that, I brought bricks into ZBrush for sculpting, – to my surprise sculpting stones became the most fun part to me. I used standard trim dynamic brush and Orb flatten brush for most of my stone work. Also, I like Andrew Averkin's environment brush pack for chips; for cracks, I combine Orb cracks with clay brushes. It's important not to do cracks as a solid flat line, try to add chips along with it! Some examples of sculpted stones and bricks.

Columns are supposed to be one of the main parts of my environment. There were many of them, lying, standing, and broken. I started with the basic shape for the column in 3ds Max, preparing it for sculpting in ZBrush. Also, I made a very simple base for column flower decor. I didn't want to spend too much time on it, because I knew it'd be very small in the end. I traced the contour of decor in 3ds Max with splines, added Garment Maker modifier + shell. And got flat decor which was later sculpted to the end result in ZBrush. After sculpting the column, I used the same base as low poly for the main part and made retopo only for flower chapiter.


Plants are a very significant part of my environment and they are the most challenging as well. All plants, such as ivy, grass, bush, and tree were made manually with basic 3ds Max and ZBrush modeling. The most fun part to do was tree and ivy, so I'll use them as examples to break down the process.

For ivy, I did a high poly version of branches and leaves (several variations), then sculpted in ZBrush. I assembled the final branches in 3ds Max. All baking and texturing for ivy atlas was made in Substance Designer. Here's my sculpt for ivy:

The tree was the most challenging asset of all. I did several versions of bark, trunk, branches, and even leaves. My main mistake was wasting a lot of time searching for easier ways to create trees and branches, such as in SpeedTree, instead of going immediately to hand-sculpting trunk and branches. I assembled leaves and branches manually and it helped me to control everything very nicely. In the end, I like how it worked out. The final touch for the tree was adding more ivy on it. I used a great 3ds Max script IvyGenerator and scattered leaves from my ivy atlas.

Here are some of my sculpts and bakes for leaves:


I was (and still is) quite new to Substance tools, especially Substance Designer. This CGMA course showed me some easy ways to approach baking and texturing. The lessons in the course were basic but gave the necessary information as a good start. I was also trying to improve my knowledge and watched a lot of tutorials from Joshua Lynch and  Daniel Thiger for SD materials as well as some FlippedNormals tutorials for texturing in Substance Painter.

All bakes for my assets were made in Substance Designer. I really like how nice and clean it works. I textured bricks in Substance Designer, but columns were textured in Substance Painter. For them, I needed additional moss and leak passes. As a main texture, I used the same brick texture I made at the start, without the bricks pattern. Organic textures like ground, moss, and bark were the hardest part for me, analyzing SD graphs from professionals helped a lot in learning how to do the same things.

For plant texturing, I used two approaches (Substance Designer and Substance Painter). Both are great, but I used the first one for small repeating leaves (tree branches/ivy) and the second one for larger scale leaves (bush, fern) because I needed more control over decay zones. Here are my graphs and screenshots from Painter for leaves:

I spent a significant amount of time setting up materials and decals in Unreal Engine, especially for the ruins, so I made a brick material with vertex paint for moss and dirt, to make it less plain. Also, I made additional decals in ZBrush and Substance such as leaks, cracks, and moss spots. This is my material setup for bricks and the comparison of ruins before and after UE4 material adjustments:


For lighting and scene assembly, I decided to go with Unreal Engine 4 instead of Marmoset Toolbag. I had no experience in UE4 when I started this project, so it wasn't an easy road. I ended up spending much more time on the project than I planned because of that, but thanks to the help of my amazing CGMA instructor Steven Hong I was able to finish it! He's a great teacher and he taught me a lot about UE4, material setup, lights, and decals.

My lighting setup consists of movable lights and mostly, those are point lights and spotlights for additional shadows. The first idea was to make a sunset scene with long shadows, but it felt kind of unnatural in such a small environment. So I decided to do accents with small colorful lights. I think it's okay to do some tricks with lights for the exact look you want, especially when you are not chained by any limitations while doing your own scene. I really like the rim light effect and I tried to imitate it a bit behind the tree. There are warm lights under the side arc and in the center for drawing attention to these zones and creating a feeling that something magical is happening within the radius of the ruins. 

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I really like Anya Jo Elvidge's Diorama breakdown, there are many helpful tips such as adding an invisible crown to a tree for additional shadows, which I ended up using. Totally check it out! 

My post-process settings are nothing special. I tweaked contrast and exposure, added a bit of bloom, chromatic aberrations, and ambient occlusion. Also, I moved WhiteBalance towards warm colors.


This project was a big step for me. I refreshed my old mixed knowledge and learned many new things. My advice is not to give up on your current projects, – there`s always a chance you will do better than you expected at first. Have fun doing art and plan everything beforehand! Here's a gif of my progress, from the first start of UE4 to the final environment: 

Anastasiya Osichkina, 3D Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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