Making a Stylized Tavern in ZBrush, Maya, and Substance Painter

Making a Stylized Tavern in ZBrush, Maya, and Substance Painter

Angela Jeong did a breakdown of her stylized 3D scene created during her studies at Vertex School: sculpting and modeling workflow, texturing with Substance tools and vertex painting in UE4, and lighting setup.

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Hello, my name is Angela Jeong. I’m currently located in Chicago, IL, originally from South Korea. I feel that I’ve always been interested in 3D although I was doing it through different media. When I was studying Fine Art at Pratt Institute, I did lots of installation work. Soon after that, I worked as a Jewelry Designer. 

A few years ago, I visited Blizzcon where they presented a demo of a 3D artist making gorgeous 3D props and characters in real-time. I was already a fan of Blizzard games but I never had a thought that there are people who are making these assets. That’s when I realized this is what I want to do – creating 3D sculptures that people can play with. 

Choosing Vertex School

I knew that I wanted to change my career to become a 3D environment artist. However, I did not have much experience in using 3D software or much knowledge of the game industry. I needed an education where I could learn the entire process (modeling, texturing, building a scene, and learning all the related software) within a small time frame. So I took a Bootcamp at Vertex School which is a great course because it is taught by currently active industry professionals and takes only a few months long. On top of that, Vertex was fully online so I was not limited to where I was located. Vertex also has a great community full of active alumni and mentors who can immediately help you. Even when your Bootcamp is finished, you can still connect with other students and mentors. This is good for expanding your professional network since community members could soon become your professional connections. 

Stylized Tavern: Start of the Scene

Prior to this project, I made single props only. This is my first scene built with multiple props. I’m currently working on a new personal project which is an exterior stylized scene. 

I started working on the project while I was taking an Immersive class at Vertex School. My task was to build something similar to the style of my “North Star” studio. I’ve always loved Blizzard games so I started out with sculpting tables and chairs in ZBrush, which are inspired by Hearthstone Tavern. 

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For the storyline, I was inspired by tavern paintings made by Flemish Artists. Although my scene doesn't have any people, I wanted to create a tavern atmosphere where people were gambling, got upset, and left. Also, I imagined a person in the scene who was working under the light coming through the window with a cup of beer during this chaos. 

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Sculpting Workflow

My basic sculpting workflow was

  • I started a simple block out in Maya and converted it into ZBrush; or I can use Zmodeler for simple blockout.
  • Convert the objects into Dynamesh and start sculpting. 
    • Edges were mainly done with Trim Smooth Border Brush
    • Grains were done with Orb Brush Pack and “mask and inflate” technique (see the image below under the Table section)
  • When sculpting is finished, colorize each part for Material ID. 
  • Decimate Highpoly using the decimation master plugin. 
  • With decimated Highpoly, make Lowpoly using Houdini or Maya. 
  • When UV is done in Maya or Houdini, bring Lowpoly and Highpoly in Substance Painter, bake, and then start working on texture.
  • When all is finished, bring Lowpoly and texture into Unreal Engine.


One of the main hero props for this tavern is the table so I wanted to create it the best way possible. In stylized forms, shapes are almost never straight, edges are never clean and grain isn't the same as in realism. Also, since stylized art has a wide range of different looks, it is not easy to find your desired look on the market. I chose to work in ZBrush because I can sculpt any shapes or wood grains that help me achieve my desired stylized look. 

My workflow for the table in ZBrush was:

  1. After gathering reference for table and chair, I began blocking out in Maya and started working in ZBrush. 
  2. Using polygroup - auto groups so each part could be isolated and to separate parts, click split - Groups Split. This way each plank or metal piece becomes separate subtools. 
  3. Dynamesh each subtool and start sculpting from one to another.
  4. For the edge, using trim smooth border brush, chip away to show wear and tear. 
  5. For the grain, I used the “mask and inflate” technique where you mask the area you want to have grains in and invert the mask and deformation-inflate. Inflate slightly to positive or negative value. I’ve also used Orb Brush pack to add additional marks by the edge. Also, add more lines and clean up the edges of “mask and inflate” area.
  6. A few more planks were carved with the same techniques.
  7. The metal piece, no grain needed, just added edge wear with trim smooth border and some areas use polish brush. Also, added some hammered looking area with inflating a few areas and cut down with trim smooth border brush.
  8. When all the pieces were carved, colorize wood and metal with separate colors for material ID.


Although it is possible to make a stylized look in Substance Designer, it isn't the same as using ZBrush where you have total control of each shape. In Substance Designer, it is harder to have very specific control and get the stylized approach I want. While Substance allows for quick iteration with a non-destructive workflow, it is much more involved to get the specific results I'm looking for. 

Basic workflow for Tileable Floor Plank is illustrated below:


One of the chairs and stools is done in a similar way to the table. However, to save up some time and add more variety to the scene, the other two chairs were done in non-ZBrush way. They were blocked out in Maya and exported in Houdini; Houdini procedurally added sculpted-like bevel in a very short amount of time. 

  1. Basic modeling is done in Maya
  2. Add sculpt-like edge bevel using Houdini 
  3. Make UV in Houdini and organize UV in Maya
  4. Add wood grain in Substance Painter


Vertex Painting

When I made the floor texture, I realized the floor was not as interesting as other props. So I wanted to add variations to it. I made a total of 3 variations of floor texture and used vertex painting to enhance the floor to get more variations across the large surface of the floor and paint in the weathering where it makes sense in the scene. 

For the wall, I’ve actually altered texture downloaded from Substance Source. Substance Source lately added many stylized textures, and although I didn't use much in this scene, it is definitely a time saver. The wall also used vertex painting, but instead of creating all the variations in Substance Painter or Designer, I relied on Unreal Engine for tinting the second map. I feel that it's easier to control colors in Unreal because you can see the outcome right away. After vertex painting, I’ve moved on the overlay. When textures are tiling, sometimes it can be noticeable, by adding grunge overlay, – this helps hiding tiling. Last, I’ve added decal for cracks in the wall. At first, I’ve used crack decal from the market, but I realized that they were too realistic which didn’t fit with the scene, so I made a custom decal for the crack.


  • I tried to keep each material as simple as possible so that textures are easily manageable. 
  • To save up time, whenever I revise any of the texture (or geometry), I make sure to save the same title (overwrite), so I can simply update the texture by right click and reimport. This way new things are quickly updated. 
  • Since there are so many textures, I made sure to compress roughness, metalness, and ambient occlusion into one map (ORM map) to save up some texture space. 


I first check to see if auto exposure in the settings is turned off. If auto exposure is on, I cannot have full control over the light (see the image below).

After that, I started out with tweaking Skylight, light source, and adding Directional Light. After that, a few point lights were added to brighten up the scene just enough to make the atmosphere not too dark.

During the process of placing lighting, most of the lights were movable so I didn't have to worry about building or baking light during WIP. When lights were settled, I changed non-moving lighting into stationary. I also used Light Explorer plugin which shows you all of your lights in one area, this way values can be easily changeable.

Post-processing is also very important for the finished look. There is so much you can tweak with post-processing and it can add the finest detail to the scene. 

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Adding Props with Blueprint 

More lights were added with Chandeliers, Lamps, and a Fireplace. Those are all composed with a blueprint. 

  • Chandelier Blueprint includes four candle lights - each candlelight has a fire particle effect and a point light for mimicking candle fire. In addition to that, one ambient light is placed in the center (point light), this is the main light for chandelier. The other four lights are there to add more emissive to the candle fire. 
  • Lamp Blueprint is done very similar to Chandelier, the only difference is that it doesn't have multiple lights, it only has one light source (a point light).  
  • Fireplace Blueprint is composed of logs, fire particle, smoke particle, clicker, and a warm point light. 

*Fire particles are brought from Forest Cave Pack (available in Unreal Marketplace) and some settings were tweaked to fit the prop. 

Window Moonlight

Moonlight was added after most of the modeling and textures were finished. At first, I only had spot light but it did not look like a godray. So I added lazy godray (made by Devon Chiu, available in Unreal Marketplace). In the lazy godray settings, you are able to control the intensity of the fog along with the particle amount. 


All of the render shots were done with Cinematic Camera. Although I was constantly tweaking the view of the camera, my best shot was always on my other screen with a separate viewport. This was super helpful when I added or changed the locations of the props. 

The video was rendered by using the sequencer in Unreal Engine. With rendered video, using video editing software, I added some text (title, name and etc).


The challenge with this scene was that I had no prior experience in making environments so I lacked lots of knowledge to make the scene work, starting with how to import props into Unreal and finishing with lighting. This project made me grow, – whenever I hit the wall, I searched for tutorials or tips to learn a new technique or get new knowledge and implement it in the scene. 

I can’t stress enough how much help I got from John Waynick, my mentor. Since I was new to most of the tools I used, including Unreal Engine, I had so many issues and questions, but John was always there helping me. If I was doing this scene alone, I feel that it would still be unfinished. 

I hope to create a 3D environment players can play actually with in the near future. 

Angela Jeong, 3D Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

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Comments 1

  • Dipayhana Sidartha

    Amazing work! Thank you for the insight on the workflow!


    Dipayhana Sidartha

    ·2 years ago·

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