Kassondra Krahn talked about the creation of props, tiling textures in Substance Designer, and lighting in her cozy environment Stylized Rustic Kitchen.
Time for Personal Projects
Lately with everything surrounding the pandemic I’ve been at home much more than usual. I tend to get a little antsy when I don't have as much to do, so art is a great outlet for me. I wanted to take this time to try to learn some new software and techniques and push myself to complete a few projects. I’m sure when life is a bit busier I won't have nearly the time or motivation for personal projects, so I’m trying to take advantage of this momentum while I can!
Stylized Rustic Kitchen: Idea
Originally, I used a completely different layout and concept for this scene. I was going to recreate the quaint kitchen from Studio Ghibli’s “Whisper of the Heart”. It’s a beautiful room with really lovely colour palettes and compositions, and I’ve always wanted to model it. I actually blocked this scene in and did some basic modeling, but for some reason, it wasn't sitting right with me. My model had lost the charm and feeling that the film portrays, and I didn't think it was going to translate the way I had imagined.
After fighting with it for a while I decided to switch gears and look for a new layout to work with. I did some Artstation hunting and found a very atmospheric painting by concept artist Jonas de Ro. I instantly loved the lighting and mood of the scene and thought it would be fun to create. There were a variety of angles for me to work with, and it felt like something that would translate well into 3D.
Reference & Blockout
Now that I had a new direction to work with, I needed to find some references for the props that would fill the scene. To start, I created a mood board using PureRef with a variety of vintage-inspired kitchen gadgets, as well as larger models like old stoves, fridges, toaster ovens, etc. For the colour palette, I tried to stay true to the concept, but as I searched for references I started looking at the game Little Nightmares for ideas. I love how eerie that game feels while still maintaining a sense of stylization, and knew that was the feeling I wanted to portray. You can really see that game’s influence if you look at my green backsplash tiles and the use of strong pockets of light through the window panels. Between De Ro’s concept and this game as reference I had plenty to draw from while creating this room.
Once my reference board was complete, I needed to start the actual modeling process. I always begin with a greyblock phase, which in this case included the counter tops, fridge, windows, walls, etc. I wanted to get the composition down before I even looked at making any props, so this took up a good chunk of time in the beginning. Once this felt right I could focus on some of my tiling textures, and eventually my medium and small-sized props. Working from general to specific is a good way to work in any art form, and blocking your models and lighting early can save you plenty of time as you continue working.
The concept had a massive range of props, and I loved this cluttered aesthetic. After the main elements were modeled, I spent a few weeks just making a library of small items to populate the area. This involved creating pots, pans, cups, wine bottles, plates, mugs, dish racks, muffin tins, cutting boards, potato peelers, knives, utensils, etc. This part was really fun because I’d just go to my real-life kitchen and look around for things that made sense. A great example of this is the tea towel on the stove, which is actually a direct copy of the one in my house! As I modeled I realized how many essentials are required to make a kitchen feel believable. There are so many small details and items that basic kitchens have, and it was really fun researching ideas to create.
The modeling itself was pretty basic. The props started as box models from planes and were then finessed and smoothed out as necessary. For most items, I added a lattice deform at the very end to stylize them and adjust their shape. I tried my best not to go overboard on poly count since many of the pieces were very small on screen, although with personal projects I don’t worry too much. As a rule of thumb, I try to keep my geometry and textures reasonable while retaining as much quality as possible.
Once I had a roster of objects, dressing up the scene was really fun! It's very time consuming making so many models, but scattering them around your environment is incredibly rewarding, and instantly brings the room to life. One thing I did as I placed props was to create material instances for plastic, metals, etc. to apply to duplicated objects. Specific examples of these are the scissors, whisks, cutlery, pots, pans, etc. This way I could have a few sets of the same object throughout the area without it being glaringly obvious. Modularity is essential in environment art, and adjusting colour and scale helped me use my library to its full potential.
Tiling Textures in Substance Designer
This scene consists of five main tiling textures (combined with material instances for variation). In Substance Designer, I created a floor tile, wall tile, hardwood, and two generic metals (one rough and one shiny). These were combined with PBR shaders made straight in Unreal, and some custom 0-1 maps for props and appliances.
For the floor tiles, it's a pretty simple setup. The first stage is always the height map. Initially, I used a tile sampler with some additional warp and slope blur to create the main shape for my tiles. Once this mask was created I used a Flood Fill node to isolate all the individual islands. This way I could use Flood Fill to Gradient to start chipping away at the edges of the tiles. To get these chips, I used a Histogram Scan to isolate part of the gradient itself, which I blended overtop a Flood Fill to Random Grayscale. I continued to layer these chips in different directions to get wear and tear around most of the tiles. It's a pretty subtle blend since I didn't want the tiles to be too chipped and decrepit; just enough for it to appear like natural wear and tear. After this, I layered a few clouds noises just to add some subtle steps within the tiles themselves. This was plugged into a Normal node and that's really all it took to get that map!
For roughness, I always build up broad variation by blending different clouds or Perlin noises together on low opacities. Then later when I have some masks to work with that suit the texture I’m creating I’ll blend that overtop everything. I wanted them glossy on the surface and rough where the grout would be, so roughness for this Substance was fairly standard overall.
For the Albedo map, I started with a combination of gradient maps from my initial tile sampler. After this, I used masks to add the grunge from earlier in the graph (particularly the clouds I blended overtop after adding the chips/damage on the edges). I also love to throw a strong curvature/curvature smooth on top. I tend to over-exaggerate this, but since I wanted some stylization in this scene I think it worked out well. The final steps were creating some large water damage masks, which lightened the albedo in specific areas (this was also added to the roughness map to make it look matte/dry). Generally, Albedos come together quickly since I already have most of the masks I need. It’s just a matter of adding subtle differences between the tiles to break up the repetition.
When working with environments, I love using Substance Designer because you can recycle and share nodes between graphs so easily. This has really improved my workflow, and now when I create scenes I am constantly switching between Designer and Unreal. Subtle changes to colour, roughness, tiling, etc. are quick to adjust, which helps tremendously with the iterative process. Substance can seem a little daunting at first but when you get the hang of the node structure it makes a massive difference to your pipeline.
Lighting is crucial for 3D models, and it can really transform the way your art reads. I find every time I finish a scene I learn more about lighting and how to set things up properly. For this piece, I knew I wanted to mimic the concept and its atmospheric lighting. This meant focusing on the window frame and the light shafts coming through it. My lighting in general turned out warmer compared to the concept, but it was mostly the atmosphere from it that I wanted to execute.
The first step was placing a strong ambient light in the main kitchen area near the large window. Finding the strength and colour of this light helped me decide how to light the rest of the room since I didn't want to draw attention away from this focal point. In the end, I actually lit most of the surrounding areas much darker than I originally planned. In a way, it worked well because the sections in the shadow made the main light feel dramatic, but it also created areas that I didn't have to fuss over and fill with models or textures. Setting the room up this way let me focus on a few small areas and really refine them with prop placements and details. I definitely recommend establishing your lighting early on so you can dedicate most of your time to a focal point.
Another focus from the concept was the beautiful sun reflections through the window panes. I knew I wanted to incorporate that in my scene, so I spent substantial time on that. To achieve this I used a room shell with back faces on the walls and window panes, combined with a strong tilted spotlight outside to behave like sunlight. Each window in the room had its own individual spotlight so I gained full control of the direction and strength of the beams. There is a soft directional light outside as well just to flood a bit into the room, and some subtle point lights within the room to provide some glow and soften shadows. Lastly in the window area, I added god rays with small dust particles to soften the light shafts and create some atmosphere.
The entire lighting process was just a matter of tweaking lights back and forth between the focal point and shadows until I found a nice balance. The concept was a great reference for me, and as mentioned before I used the game Little Nightmares for further visual ideas. Overall this was the darkest scene I’ve ever lit, and although it took a while to find that spot between dark and atmospheric, I was quite pleased with the end result.
This scene took about two months on and off to build. I worked on it extensively for a few weeks, which included initial block-in, some basic textures, and some simple lights. However, after a while, I hit a creative block and still wasn't in love with what I was making. I almost scrapped the whole thing (again!) but instead decided to go and work on something else in conjunction. I make small dioramas in my spare time, so working on a fun little scene helped clear my head. A few weeks on that and I switched back to my kitchen, where I felt instantly refreshed and inspired. I continued right where I left off and found a good stride. Eventually, it all came together and I’m really glad I took that small hiatus away from it. I don't think it's a bad idea to work on a few things at once, because it generally helps to avoid burning out on a project. I do my best work when I am excited and inspired about what I’m doing, and since this is a personal project it should be fun and enjoyable. From now on, if I tackle a large scene that I know could take many months, I’ll have a small prop or diorama-style piece on the side to swap back and forth between.
Thank you so much 80 Level, it's always so great to talk to you! I hope everyone enjoyed my breakdown of this piece, and I’ve been so glad about its reception. I look forward to chatting again someday soon. Stay safe everyone!