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Mastering Materials in Substance Designer

Don Arceta talked about the way he approaches material production and how to present your textures in the best possible way.

Super happy to feature outstanding work of Don Arceta on 80.lv. In this interview, we’ve talked with Don about the way he approaches material production and how to present your textures in the best possible way.


Hi! My name is Don Arceta and I am currently a Lead Environment Artist at Bioware. I graduated with a diploma in 3D Animation & Digital Compositing in 2003, where I developed a passion for environment art. In 2005, I was lucky  enough to be hired by Bioware as a junior environment artist for Mass Effect. I started off working on textures and materials and in a short amount of time found myself handling entire levels, being responsible for modeling, lighting, texturing and world building. I’ve worked as part of the environment team for Mass Effect 1, 2, and 3. Currently, I’m working with the original core Mass Effect team on Bioware’s new unannounced IP.

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Materials in Substance Designer

Substance Designer (SD) has recently been a fun hobby of mine at home. How my personal stuff started was just for education really. I wanted to learn and  experiment with common setups like populating pebbles onto a ground, overlapping roof shingles and stacking bricks. Personally, I found that once you know how to do those 3 things, you could build almost any type of surface in SD. I do use SD at work but obviously a lot of that work is catered to the project. So when working with SD at home, I wanted to do something a little different and try out materials that weren’t typically made. Small scale surfaces that have depth, layered complexity, and an unconventional nature are some of the criteria I consider when choosing a surface. I also limited myself to having the final vignette rendered on a flat plane and of course, having everything completely procedural. Theres something about these really complex and visually layered materials having a really small data footprint that makes me happy.


Once I decide on a surface to work on, I’ll start with finding and gathering reference. From there I break down the image into its most basic components. At this point I ask myself how similar is it to scattering pebbles on a ground, shingling tiles on a roof, or stacking bricks? In the case of the barnacles it was no different than scattering pebbles. I then jump into SD and do a basic setup, blocking things out with distribution of basic shapes. This helps me visualize density of the larger features against the reference. Once I’m happy with the block in, I’ll start incorporating the mid-sized details and continue this process into the finer details. In the 3D viewport I leave the mesh grey and only visualize the heightmap, normal map, and ambient occlusion map. I don’t do any work with roughness, or color until the very end.

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Procedural Barnacles

The barnacles was a really fun substance to make. The main goal for this substance was to see how far I could push the displacement and how to achieve bespoke shapes. In this case the important shapes were the shell, the opening of the shell and the beak. Polygon nodes and SD shape primitives were used a lot as a base. With those shapes I did a lot of transform2D and blends to get specific shapes.

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Once I had those 3 elements formed I combined them and controlled their heights with simple levels adjustments, making sure there was a good amount of height separation between the elements. To add variation, I made an empty adult shell, and a baby shell. I then did a final warp and noise pass to get a more organic feel and put them into a tile generator.

For the rendering, I really cranked up the displacement to really define the forms. There was some stepping artifacts in the displaced mesh, but for me I felt they added to that layered alien crustacean look. Its one of those happy accidents that happen in SD all the time.

Procedural Feathers

On my second substance study I wanted to see how I could apply the method of creating overlapping shingles to other surfaces.  Feathers seemed like a cool idea, they not only had the overlap element to them, but also fine details that I thought would make an interesting challenge. After blocking out the shapes needed for the feather I started the barbs. I used a capsule tiled a hundred times in a tile generator. This gave me the fine detail I was looking for.

I then took the barbs and ran them through a warp. This warp is what gives it the almost fabric feel. The warp is so fine and stippled that it disperses the normals just enough to give a softer look without the loss that a blur would do. On other surfaces this would be an unwanted artifact, but I thought it worked well in this case.

For the splitting of the barbs I used a gradient map to draw random gaps. I then did some blends to scale down and relegate the  gaps to the edges of the feather.

Once I had the feather I could easily run it into a tile generator. I had an overall gradient applied to the feather which allowed for the overlapping shingle effect. The tile generator’s randomization in illuminance, rotation, scale and position helped create the variety in depth I was looking for. I wanted things to look slightly random but still uniform. I threw in a warp as well just to add a bit more variation.

For the color I kept it really simple. I used a gradient map with subtle changes in hue. Actually, all of the slight variance in tone is due to the normals. I did a gradient map of the tile generated feathers to get some random black and white lines. I used this for a normal map and combined it with my original normals. This really helped give that look of the barbs being grouped and a little off angle from each other.

To really sell the depth of the feathers materials I positioned the light so it was at a near glancing angle to the surface. This helped to catch all the fine details and helped sell the layered look of the displacement.

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Rocks and Moss 

For the rock size I made a basic shape using the polygon node, warped it, and ran it into a tile generator. For the rocks i really wanted to get a sense that these were loose and cobbled together. I also wanted to have a good variety of negative space between neighbouring stones. I found the edge detect was a good way in getting this type of formation. At this point I can play around in the tile generator and balance the size and shapes of rocks to my liking.

I then ran it through several slope blurs to give the stones a more chiseled look. When I was happy with that I moved onto the mask for my moss. I wanted the moss to only show up on the  tops of the stones, so I used the green channel of a normal map generated from the stones, to use as a mask. After a little refining, I then used the mask with the tile sampler to drive where to populate overlapping moss leaves. In the tile sampler I was able to choose the direction, rotation and randomization of the leaves.  Once that was done I just simply combined the stones and the moss.

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Tips and Tricks

I love the tile sampler and slope blur! They are so powerful! Other than that I don’ really have any specific SD tips or tricks. I would just say, like with 3D art, to start with the broad strokes, work up to the smaller details and don’t forget to use reference. When dealing with something complex, strip it down to simpler parts. One of the big things I learned while working on these materials is just how powerful SD can be. Its changed my view on texturing in general. Like I mentioned earlier, once you know some of the basic fundamentals, you can approach even the most visually intricate materials.

Ways to Present Materials

I do all my renders using IRay. Its really nice being able to do everything in SD. When I render my materials, I usually have my first render as a straight on shot, as if you’re standing a foot or two away. I just do this because I like the look of the vignette, they’re almost like small scale compositions in a way. For lighting, I typically use a select few HDRI’s within SD. I try to keep that part of it simple and have things  naturally lit. I found light placement in the renders to be really important however. Especially when dealing with surfaces that have very shallow displacement. The shadows really help sell the displacement. As a final pass, I’ll do a slight color grade outside of SD to really accentuate elements in the vignette.

Don Arceta, Lead Environment Artist at Bioware

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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Comments 3

  • Zdohn Calmback

    Great article, but it's still very artifical looking


    Zdohn Calmback

    ·6 years ago·
  • Daniel

    Great article. enjoyed every second



    ·7 years ago·
  • Mackenzie Nathan

    Excellent work very insightful, helping test the comment section but it is very nice stuff


    Mackenzie Nathan

    ·7 years ago·

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