Anastasia Kasyanik shared a detailed breakdown of her first 3D diorama made in ZBrush, Blender, and Substance Painter.
Anastasia Kasyanik: Before entering the world of 3D, I was only drawing creatures on paper and never really used a computer. After high school, I decided to try game design courses. I didn’t know a thing about how to create video games, but my main motivation was the versatility of the domain. I liked the idea of being able to master various things to create a unique piece of art. That’s how I entered ICAN, a design and digital animation institute in Paris.
In the middle of my first year, I had my first experience in 3D art with 3ds Max courses. And for no special reason, it quickly became my new passion.
My 3D teacher taught me the basic workflow. At the same time, I was spending several hours during my free time learning even more about 3D. I was watching a ton of tutorials, I was struggling to understand how everything worked by reading documentations… I spent more time learning by myself than I did with my teacher.
Cozy Stylized Room: Inspiration
When I get inspired for a project, it usually comes from a simple detail or a single object. My creativity does the rest. As an example, for a future project, I have been inspired by a chalkboard sidewalk sign in front of a restaurant. Now, I want to make something big. For my diorama, what inspired me was a spell jar a friend of mine made. I first wanted to recreate it in 3D with a stylized look.
I regrouped all references which inspired me, by imagining their details in my artwork. I found this amazing artist who makes colorful and very inspiring stylized concept arts – E.G PoppyBox. Her Herbalist’s Table has been my main reference for my first idea.
My goal was to recreate a warm and cozy mood, like in the rooms I found, while setting up an “artistic mess” by giving the impression that objects have been randomly placed. I also wanted to show that someone was living in here and was spending a lot of time in this room.
However, due to this project being my first stylized interior, I wasn’t satisfied with my blocking. I didn’t know where to start. Everything seemed so much complicated and I was afraid of not being able to recreate what I wanted. My sketch wasn’t detailed enough, so I couldn’t rely on it too much. And my main concept art was only a base for my idea. I didn’t want to copy it. So, I decided to find a concept art that I could reproduce. And this is how I decided on Anna Kazantseva’s Flower Room artwork:
This reference was exactly what I wanted to reproduce. Its object placements, vibe, and colors were a perfect match between my initial idea and my need to have a detailed concept art as a model.
I chose to start with the room itself, without any too small objects. So, I made a blocking of my room’s base, added all related wood objects and some details, such as chamfers, the tronc top, and the wall imperfections.
Before sculpting, I converted my low poly objects into trigons. I made a habit of it because it is easier when importing in ZBrush, which works with this topology. This is also due to my game design studies: when importing a mesh to a game engine, it will automatically convert everything into trigons. And if the 3D model doesn’t have this topology, the engine can just mess it up.
Once the low poly base was done, I imported it into ZBrush. I like to make the sculpt before unwrapping my objects.
For brushes, I used Orb-brushes Pack by Michael Vicente. When I want to give a stylized look, I essentially use those.
For wood planks, I started by making delimitations where I wanted the planks to be with the Line Large brush by dragging the alpha and pressing down the Shift key at the same time to obtain nice horizontal or vertical lines. I also used a mask to hide parts I didn’t want the alpha to be applied on.
The next step was to add wood details. For the veins, I used the Cracks brush in addition to the Lazy Mouse that I activated in the Stroke options. I used my Wacom Intuos tablet pen’s pressure to draw the veins. It allowed me to make different thicknesses along one vein. Sometimes, I deactivated the Lazy Mouse to draw some stylized knots by making a deformed spiral.
In addition to all that, I decided to add some scratches by using Slash brushes and I flattened some edges with the Flatten Edge brush. By adding some imperfections with this last brush, I managed to create an even more stylized look by revisiting the chamfers.
My last step has been to add a last touch of imperfection with the Rock Detail brush. I really like the stylized look it gives.
The decoration assets have been made after my room’s base was done and I followed the same process: low poly, trigons conversion, and back to ZBrush for sculpting. I used additional tools for some details.
For books’ illumination and corners, I decided to use the Inflate tool in the Deformation panel. It gives books nice relief and details.
I tried to use the same tools and brushes for all my assets to ensure their visual consistency between each other.
Once my sculpt was done and my low poly unwrapped, I first baked my high poly in Substance Painter. If needed, I changed the max frontal and rear distance. But usually, the default parameters are good as they are.
I started with the wood texturing. For this, I like to use a bone stylized smart material. It has nice contrasts between the base color and cavities, and by changing parameters, I can manage to create a lot of different stylized materials.
To suggest the inside of the wood, I duplicated this texture, put it lower in the hierarchy, made the colors brighter, and used a black mask to remove some parts of my upper texture to show the one beneath.
Depending on the object, I applied different colors to add some variety between them, even if their style was the same. I wanted them to look unique when they are observed in the same space.
Before starting modeling, I imagined a lot of modern witch stuff in my room, and by this, I mean spell jars, crystals, pentagrams, everything needed to make potions, like a mortar and a pestle, flacons, dried plants… After making my first blocking, I realized the scene would have too much detail because the objects would have to be very small if I wanted to fit all of them in my diorama. So, I decided to make a mix between my main reference and the details I wanted to include in my first scene, and I stuck to only a few of them.
I first placed my objects according to my main reference as a base. I wanted to stick to my “artistic mess” idea, so I tried a lot of iterations before finding the placement which would satisfy me.
For vegetation, I used different Blender’s tools according to the shape I wanted to make. For falling plants, I first made the general form of it and used a curve. I prefer to make my own ones by creating a random mesh, keeping a single vertex, and then extruding it in Edit Mode until I get the shape I want. I find it easier this way. The mesh needs to be converted into a curve before applying a Curve modifier to the plant.
The plant’s textures have been entirely hand-painted with Substance Painter.
My intention was to recreate a chill vibe and give the feeling that a new beautiful day is about to start. I managed to make what I wanted by using 4 lights for this diorama: one is the sun as the main light, two are spot lights that create the rays from the window, and the last one, which is an area light, is there to give a warmer tone.
I decided not to highlight a particular object because I wanted the decorations to have the same value. So, I just made my lights converging to the center, making the room look casual. I changed their colors to more orange to create a better impression of dawn. Their final placement is a result of numerous iterations. While working on my diorama, I have tested a dozen different lights, placed them everywhere, and tried all colors from red to purple.
For the rays which are coming from the window, I made them volumetric. I first created a cube, then applied a material to it which was made with a Principled Volume node that I connected to the volume of the Material Output.
Feedback and Advice
Being my first diorama, I don’t have that much experience in creating them but I think I will continue to make some. I had a lot of fun making this one.
When working on dioramas, I would say that the key point is to organize a personal production pipeline before starting a new project and to stick to it all along. Mine involved finishing the room base before starting the decorations. This way, you can have a better-looking space you'll place the details in. Then, you can visualize what objects you would like to have. What motivated me during this step was that I decided on the objects as if I was really living in that room.
If you are also a beginner, choose a reference with the idea of reproducing it as it is in mind. It’s very difficult to imagine an entire diorama by yourself. Also, don’t be shy to test new things, like new software or tools you've never used before.
If you have doubts about your composition, change it until you are completely satisfied. And most importantly: feedback. Don’t hesitate to ask someone what they think about your work because when you’ve already spent a lot of time on the same project, it’s very difficult to take a step back on it.
My biggest challenge was to try something totally new. When I started this room, I didn’t know where to begin. It was very frustrating, so I just paused everything and recentered my ideas by deciding which production pipeline I would follow.
Sometimes, I was lost in all the details because I wanted to include so many things. Besides, I found the art style that suited me not so long ago, so I felt confused especially when I started the decorations where everything needed to fit in the same set. I overcame this challenge by sticking to only a few objects.
I learned so many things while working on this project, like making volumetric lights, rendering in Eevee, composing a stylized interior, using new modifiers and Blender’s particle system, and so much more. I have even acquired some workflow preferences that I didn't have before.
Since I want to work in the video game industry, I now plan to try Unreal Engine to render my future projects in real-time. Until there, I have only been using Unity so far. I enjoy learning new things a lot. I already have some new ideas in mind that I want to try in Unreal. I will come back with more art and more new skills!