Thanks for having me again, it’s great to be back! My name is Tim Paauwe and I am a character artist at elite3d. Here I write another breakdown of one of my stylized art pieces. (You can see how I approach my stylized characters here and here).
This time I want to talk about a small project of mine, not a character but a weapon. Recently I have been having a fantasy itch and therefore I decided to make some Warhammer fan art.
As I have a tight schedule due to work and personal projects, I wanted to do something fast. The project I’ve picked is the sword of the High Elves from the Warhammer franchise. Back in the day, I was a big fan of Warhammer Online and I always liked High Elves armor and weapon designs, but also their architecture. I picked this concept specifically because of its intricate shape, colors, and material differences.
As this was an older game I figured it would be a nice challenge to see what it could look like with modern graphics, yet keeping it stylized like in the game.
With this project, I really wanted to get back to my rather rusty hand-painting skills. I also wanted to mix them with PBR rendering in Marmoset Toolbag to make it more interesting.
To achieve the look and feel that I had in mind, I had to set some personal goals, deadlines, and break the process down into smaller goals/steps.
Picking a Concept
A good way to start is by brainstorming to figure out which skills you need to practice and see where you want to improve the most. As I wanted to do something fast I chose a prop because this was the most feasible project to do within a short period of time. My focus was on hard-surface modeling and texturing with the goal to practice hand-painting.
From here on I took inspiration from what I enjoy and in most cases, it’s fantasy like Warhammer or Warcraft. Warhammer Online had a lot of individual concepts published when the game came out. This became a great source for me to pick something nice from that combined both aspects I wanted to practice.
Knowing what I wanted to do, I set some goals:
Hard-surface modeling, UVs, and baking.
Figure out ways to speed up my workflow, as I am already familiar with these skills. I wanted to push myself further by setting limited deadlines.
Use Substance Painter but in a different way
to see how far I could take it in Substance Painter alone. I usually use Substance Painter for PBR texturing, with materials and mask generators. This time I used it for hand-painting.
Imagine the way World of Warcraft team makes their hand-painted textures – with PBR, the albedo texture would have to be hand-painted. I wanted to improve my color and shading skills while mixing them with the roughness and metalness workflows.
Composition: Storytelling within a single prop.
With this goal in mind, I wanted to create a stylized 3D model that would be used in a final illustration. It had to look like part of the illustration and add storytelling elements to the final beauty shot.
Organization: Timeframe & setting personal deadlines.
With all the goals in mind, I could set my personal deadlines and stay as realistic as possible in terms of how fast I am. Estimate what is feasible and give yourself an extra day if needed. I personally underestimate the tasks most of the time, though I prefer to overestimate and hit the deadline instead of missing it.
If things go awry, depending on the problems I encounter, I usually try to trace them back to where they went wrong. If I had some trouble at a certain stage I reflect on what I can improve in the next project.
For this project, I kept separate deadlines per stage. This is what my planning somewhat looked like:
- Modeling: two days
- UVs and bake: One day
- Texturing: about four days including texture style and look development
- Rendering: a couple of days including making beauty renders + presentation breakdown
In total, the project took me one week and a half.
As you can see, texturing and rendering took most of my time. These two stages are where I experiment the most with texturing techniques and figuring out ideas for the final beauty presentation.
Hard-Surface: Modeling, UVs & baking
As a character artist, I find it very useful to know how to make hard-surface meshes with support loops and good topology for the low poly to be as efficient as possible.
Since the sword is created as a portfolio piece before I start modeling I like to analyze the concept to see which details affect the silhouette and which should be prioritized.
Another good thing to have in mind is the first person view, imagine how it would look like in a game. This usually gives a good impression of important details. In this case, it would be the hilt and the wing crest in the middle that holds the gem.
To get started with the sword I have imported the image into my modeling program of choice, Maya. From here I started with simple shapes and blocking out the sword before going into details.
With the blocking done, I start to iteratively increase the complexity of the shapes, working my way up.
The UVs were a little bit tricky but had an easy solution. The problem I encountered with the UVs was the shell size: with the correct texel density for the map size, it was not enough to fill a 1:1 ratio texture completely.
On a 1:1 ratio UV sheet there would be a lot of wasted space with too much padding between the UV shells. My solution to this was to cut the map in half which means the texture had a 2:1 ratio, in the form of a rectangle. This is commonly used with long objects in game engines that support 2:1 textures.
It is also important to place the UV seams correctly as not only the shading will be dependent on the UV splits but also the game engines performance could be impacted too. Each seam is counted as a double vertex in the game engine, and this can result in performance drops if a lot of models have poor UVs.
For a perfect bake, it is important to cut the UVs on the plane changes of about 45 degrees or more. If not, the normal map will have to compensate for the plane change and result in bake artifacts.
As each XYZ axis in the normal map is represented by a different RGB color, each plane change will have to be split – otherwise, these axes will be blended most of the time resulting in a weird black line artifact. The normal map will interpolate the pixels between the corresponding axes.
With all this technical information explained, we can extract a good rule of thumb: cut each significant plane change (45°) but only as much as you need in order not to affect the game performance.
If everything is done correctly, the bakes will be perfect. If you want more details and visuals explaining these complex technical subjects, here is a great video:
The quickest way to get UVs for me is to use the auto unwrap in Maya as a base. I set the auto unwrap to the desired angle and clean it up afterward. Auto unwrap will always result in messy UVs but correcting them takes just a few minutes as it does quite a good job for basic models. Complex models will take more time and I do those by hand usually, using a projection-based method and hand-placed UV cuts.
To speed things up even more, I have mirrored some of the parts of the sword, the hilt, and the handle grip because these pieces aren’t the main focal point.
To be completely honest, I don’t bake much in my kitchen but my preferred program is Marmoset Toolbag. It gives me perfect, tasty bakes. Being able to paint skewing and automatic cages while seeing it in a viewport with real-time bakes is really amazing! It helps out a lot to identify if there are any errors and where they are.
For more specific details and basics I really recommend this tutorial by Marmoset.
Texturing: Creating Stylized Textures for Marmoset Toolbag
This is the part I was most excited about! Texturing is one of my favorite things to do because, at this stage, you can see the model come to life. My biggest inspiration was the stylization of the game World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth. They have really outdone themselves and it is great to see the art style evolve so much over the course of the expansions.
As my goal was to create the sword in PBR I also took inspiration from other games such as Total War: Warhammer.
After researching and gathering some references it is important to study them and understand which areas make the object/character/etc. look so great. These can be things like the use of colors, certain gradients or other details.
I took all my baked maps from Marmoset Toolbag into Substance Painter (AO, Curvature, etc.) as I wanted to see if I could use Substance Painter for stylized hand-painted textures the way I use it for realistic textures. Most people use 3D Coat for their hand-painting as it feels like Photoshop but in 3D. It was a nice experiment to see how far I could push Substance Painter.
My methodology is very similar to painting in 2D: I start with the base colors proceeding with the shading, shadows, and highlights. As the last step, I add the details. Substance Painter helped out here with the fill layers and their masking system. Being able to change the properties of each layer was great and eased the process of finding the correct colors. At this stage, it is important to keep the concept art in mind and be as accurate as possible with the base colors.
With the base color done, I create roughness and metalness values. These will be tweaked at the end, and for now, I only focus on the albedo.
Highlights and Shadows
Once the colors are done and corrected according to the concept art, I start my first shading pass.
Usually, with hand-painting style, the lighting is also painted in to create a sense of depth, but as I was rendering the sword in Marmoset I left this part out. I only painted in the highlights of the material and some shadow parts where it would make sense for the shading to be darker to emphasize planar changes.
For each material, I have created a new folder for the shadows and highlights to keep everything organized. Then, I think about the way different materials would reflect in real life and treat them accordingly. Metals have sharp highlights and cloth have dull highlights. The highlights and shadows should also be colored appropriately. Shadows and highlights are never just black and white! A good trick is to give them the same color as the base material and then slightly change it to a different hue, saturation, and brightness.
Now it’s time to work on the most fun part of texturing which is adding some character and life to it all: the details.
It is important to figure out which details belong to which material: cloth could be torn and dirty, metals can be corroded and rusty. To create more interest I added some corrosion on the metals and dirt on the cloth parts. Some green color on the brass parts looks especially great as it enriches the otherwise dull material.
At this step, it is also important to create tonal differences between each material. No material is a solid color, just like the shadows that were explained earlier.
This step is part of the Details category as I usually do both at the same time. Here, I wanted to recreate smaller gradients apparent in hand-painted art because they create more interest and depth in a single material.
At this step, I noticed that it was more difficult and time-consuming to work on the gradients in Substance Painter, so, unfortunately, for the final details, I switched over to 3D Coat. All the gradients and details could be done in Substance Painter, too – it has the right tools for it. I just like to use the fastest approach.
Last small trick
Since the sword is a hand-painted PBR prop, I did not want to leave the roughness as a plain value and created a more detailed roughness map in Photoshop. And the trick is that I copied the Albedo map, turned it black and white and put it on a layer above the roughness map that was exported from Substance Painter. Then I put it on Multiply and made adjustments with the Levels checking in Marmoset for the final desired outcome.
This way the roughness map reacts nicely with the details in the albedo. Don’t forget to invert certain details as darker values are shiny, while darker values on the albedo are usually details like dirt. Those should be matte unless the material is wet.
Lighting, PBR Materials, and Rendering: Creating the Final Presentation
Knowing how things reflect is key, and it is important to gather references in order to study and convey these material properties correctly. However, since it is a hand-painted model, most of the properties are simplified.
Here I used PBR to my advantage. For example, the setup of the stones on the sword is very basic. It’s a base color and a gradient in the albedo to fake the shadow alongside the dark roughness to make the stones shiny. I wanted the stones to give off some light to represent some magic ability and create an area of interest. It was especially advantageous for the hilt as it has nice details I wanted to show off and it’s best to create a contrast to attract the eye to the needed areas.
To create this effect I placed a point light instead of texturing it in the albedo. It was faster this way.
Besides the stones, the lighting setup is very simple. It is a three-point light setup with a subtle fill light around certain areas to give some more warmth as the rim light is very cold. A cold light tends to make the warm colors of the material a bit colder and to counter it, I used a warm subtle fill light.
To show off the blade’s material I wanted to have another focal point and used a light from the bottom. It created a very nice contrast in the texture that came from the roughness map.
I was playing around with the color of the light and really liked the blue as it has a nice contrast against the warm color tones of the sword. I figured this could be a nice way to introduce cool-looking VFX to enhance the storytelling even further.
For the final tweaks, I adjusted the materials inside Marmoset in the material properties. I did not want to be constrained with what Substance Painter gave me and took full control over the final look and feel.
As I mentioned above, in the final presentation, I wanted to tell a story with a single prop. I find it interesting to create stories with a constraint such as build a storyline within one prop. Such tasks require you to think a bit outside the box. Where has the sword been? What history does it have? With these questions in mind, I took inspiration from the card games – they usually have very nice illustrations with corresponding names and stories based around the card’s effects.
VFX and the background are drawn in Photoshop instead of using textures and 3D planes in Marmoset for a beauty shot. Like other shortcuts I have taken, I did this to save time.
Creating the effect was rather simple. I had a couple of ideas and quickly put them in Photoshop as I always prefer an iterative workflow. This means I like to spend 5-10 minutes on something small that could represent an idea instead of spending hours on something with a lot of details that might not work in the end.
One of my inspirations was Lerdy Kevin and the way he creates VFX. I did experiment with a couple of other VFX ideas but the lightning stood out the most to me. Color-wise it contrasts with the sword nicely: cold against warm tones.
As you can see from the image above I quickly drew the lightning just to have a representation of the final result, a blockout in 2D, so to say.
From there on I translated the shapes to the main subject. For the background, I chose to do a thunderstorm as it would make the most sense with the lightning around the sword. It creates a nice dramatic mood that accompanies the lore of Warhammer.
Last Advice: Never Stop Learning
Look at what’s out there and keep up with the current development of the technologies, look at the skills you have and think of what could be improved. Be self-critical not overly critical as this could lead to personal issues and even depression. It’s a bit contradicting as you view other people’s artwork and compare it to your own. As they say, never compare yourself to others, and this is surely true! Everybody follows a different path. However, comparing yourself to others can bring some benefits if you have a critical eye. If you can dissect someone’s workflow and understand how certain problems were solved, you can use that to your advantage.
Thank you for taking the time to read the article! I hope my tips will help you in your future projects.