Starting A Neon Mustang in Substance & Toolbag

Starting A Neon Mustang in Substance & Toolbag

Darrin Longhorn broke down his stylish neon Mustang built with the help of Toolbag, 3ds Max, and Substance Painter. 


Hello, 80 level! I’m Darrin Longhorn, I’m a 3D vehicle artist, I have been doing 3D for around 6 years, with my introduction to 3D at Gateshead College during my studies of Game Design, and have been passionate about 3D vehicle art since. Currently, I am studying Computer Games Art at Teesside University for a BA degree.

Since starting with 3D, I have been very passionate about vehicle art, and have pursued that as my specialization, I find it extremely enjoyable, although difficult to work on vehicles, the result is always extremely satisfying.

In-between my 3D work in my education, I like to work on my 3D as a hobby as I genuinely enjoy working on it in my spare time, in order to help me build up my portfolio and 3D knowledge to help me secure a job role as 3D vehicle artist in the future hopefully!   

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The background of this project consists of myself wanting to create a major summer piece between my university studies, that would challenge my modeling skills, and help me improve my workflow through modeling to texturing, and my technique to optimizing assets and texturing.

Initially, I found the concept art of the fantastic Walter Kim, a concept artist for DreamWorks, who also has a passion for vehicles and rather extreme designs. I felt that one of these pieces would be absolutely fantastic to recreate as a 3D piece, as they are so visually interesting, with extreme silhouettes and bold design. With this in mind I contacted Walter and asked if I could recreate one of his pieces, most specifically this piece:

To which he gladly responded allowing me to use it as a base for my 3D project, with this in mind I began to look at alternative designs I could use that would allow me to differ this piece from others in my portfolio, and create something that would stand out. With this in mind, I wanted to explore a genre or style that I had never attempted previously, and found that cyberpunk would definitely fit the crazy body style, and futuristic stylings of this car, plus it is interesting to cross such a vintage body design, with more “wide body” stylings of modern-day race & stance cars.



In the start of this project, I began with setting up my reference planes in 3Ds Max 2017, using the side view concept that Walter had of this vehicle, conventionally I would attempt to find blueprints from every orthographic angle I could, but since this is such a niche piece, I would not be able to find the other views, unless I used the blueprints of a real Ford Mustang, which came into later use in my research and references.

For the beginning of this process, I like to use plane modeling and start just behind the front bumper, and use planes to gauge the size and shapes of the panels, this gives me a good base as I can build both along the side of the vehicle from here, but I can also build out the front bumper and top panels such as the hood of the vehicle.

Overall as I have modeled several vehicles of different styles and themes, the modeling process was not too difficult, however, certain pieces, such as the cylindrical pieces would be quite difficult to make them look authentic, due to working in 3D space, and ensuring that they match the concept as much as possible, while still making realistic, and functional sense.

The hardest part of the vehicle to model would definitely be the more technical parts of the car, such as the front rim due to concave elements, as well as the exhaust/turbo system, as well as the body of the vehicle itself, the panels are very difficult to form without a good eye for shape and flow, and previous knowledge of the vehicle in question, or accurate reference/blueprints.

This was the first piece that I have used the double smoothing technique on, which involves created your low poly meshes with smoothing groups, then utilizing one turbo smooth modifier that is defined by smoothing groups, then using another turbo smooth modifier stacked on top of this that will soften the hard edges the smoothing groups provide, to give the model a more realistic look, instead of a 90-degree edge, as seen below:

Double smoothing allowed me to create much more convincing soft edges, and allowed me to separate my high and low poly meshes easily, with the tech parts, it allowed me to get really smooth edges and clean meshes, but then for my low poly models, I would simply use the standard mesh without double smoothing, as it gives me a great poly count, with a solid base for UVing.

To prepare my models for Substance Painter, I always give my meshes suffix’s that can be recognized by Substance Painter, so I will generally use “Mesh_LP” or “Mesh_HP” to differentiate between low and high poly meshes, and Substance Painter will pick up your defined suffix’s and bake using the suffix and name of each mesh.

Before importing into Marmoset, I combined all of the meshes together, as I duplicate meshes in order to save UV space, and optimize as much as possible, making use of symmetries for certain pieces that don’t require unique textures, and duplicating wheels or pieces that are simply the same.


For texturing this vehicle, I used a combination of both Substance Painter 2, and Adobe Photoshop, as Substance Painter allows me to bake down my high poly details from turbosmoothed models, onto low poly meshes with ease, thanks to its in-built baking tools. This, combined with Photoshop; that allows me to create custom height alphas and maps, gives me simplicity and ease in my workflow, that saves me a lot of trouble with sculpting in details that could take a lot more time. This, in turn, allows me to focus more on my texturing and details.

Texturing in Substance Painter 2 provided me with a great library of materials that I can tweak, mix and match on the fly, in order to find the look that I desire, I won’t just simply pick one metal texture, I’ll take different elements from different materials available, and combine them to create something unique, custom decals alongside this always helps to create something more unique looking, such as emissive stamps, or height stamps that can add detail to otherwise plain meshes.

In Photoshop, I like to create custom height alphas, that I can assign to the “Height” channel of the brush within substance painter, and using Photoshop allows me to create custom shapes and gradients as required for my piece, you can see where I’ve used it most prominently on the top of the engine block, to add detail to the otherwise flat block, to provide visual interest, I also used the same technique with the emissive stamps, with the “Emissive” channel in Substance Painter 2.


The post-processing for this piece really helped to bring it together, and give the piece atmosphere and theme. For rendering, I used Marmoset Toolbag 3, as it is my preferred renderer to use. Initial tests began with importing meshes, after this I like to experiment with which HDR I want to use out of the marmoset presets, a custom HDR could be used, but the presets offer great bases to build upon, more often than not, I like to try and create a dramatic look for my vehicles, with this mind, I tend to use a singular light source alongside the primary light from the sky preset I’m using.

Below you can see the lighting setup that I used, consisting of one directional light, that is set to a light blue, this contrasts well against the pink/red emissive I’ve used, and provides emphasis to the shape of the panels, and reflects lightly against the wheels and fenders of the car.

You can also see the camera settings I’ve used for this piece, I like to use a low field of view, normally between 12-30 is a nice number for a flat image, but still providing the curvature and space you want in your renders. It can also provide a very aggressive view of the car, while still being able to see the silhouette of the car nicely, without it looking almost fish-eye.

Within my rendering, I like to have a very strong contrast in my shots, and often edit photos to have even more contrast in post, but tone mapping in Marmoset allows me to do it within the software itself. I tend to use Filmic (Heji) tone mapping as it provides a very strong, contrasted, and colourful render, that also adds to the dramatic look, I also like to use some post-processing effects such as sharpen to really help some of the finer details punch through, as the car is quite dark, it helps the emissive to shine through, alongside some very subtle bloom to provide softer edges to the emissive.

In post in Photoshop, I found that bumping the sharpness up an incredible amount allowed me to achieve a look that I liked, as it sharpened up texture details, and shapes, that complimented the highlight that I used in my lighting setup, this alongside brightness/contrast tweaks gave me a saturated, sharp image that I felt suited the look of the car. To give the scene some life, I wanted to incorporate some smoke effects into my piece, which became as simple as taking PNG cloud images and overlaying them with blending settings to provide them with colour when applicable, and erase with soft brushes as necessary, as seen below:


Overall this project has been incredibly exciting for me, and seeing the final result was incredibly satisfying, although it did present me a number of challenges and problems, firstly with almost all of the mechanical pieces being on one UV sheet, this resulted in problems with getting consistent scale for my UV’s, and I found it difficult to match the body panels, and mechanical parts together in terms of UV space and quality.

As well as this, before I decided upon the cyberpunk theme, I found it incredibly to put a specific theme or look onto this car, due to the fact that the concept art was black and white, I initially thought I would create something post-apocalyptic, but I found that after texturing in that style, it did not fit the extremely bold and slick parts of this vehicle.

Within the creation of this mustang, there are several lessons that I can take from this project into my next ones, one of them being that less is more often than not, more, I spent the majority of this project simply modelling details that almost weren’t even noticeable within the final renders, focusing more time into texturing really helps to create something that can catch the eye, as you can visualise it in real time thanks to texturing packages such as substance painter, that allow you to see changes in real time.

I also feel that it is almost vital to just take time to look at your renders, and ensure that they have some form of “life” to them, an atmosphere that can help the piece come to life almost, or give it a believable setting. The smoke really added to the piece, in a very easy, effective way that consumed almost no time, to give the piece some atmosphere.

Finally, I want to thank 80 level for providing me with this opportunity to breakdown some of my work, it’s very exciting to be able to share my work this way, I hope there is information here that people can utilize to help them further their 3D work also!

Darrin Longhorn, 3D Vehicle Artist

Interview conducted by Artem Sergeev

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