Jonathan Cuevas shared his take on stylized art and approach to modeling for mobile games and hand-painted texturing.
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My name is Jonathan Cuevas and I'm 23. I'm from Sant Carles de la Ràpita, a small city south of Barcelona. I was always very passionate and curious about video games and their amazing environments. I grew up at the same time as video game graphics started to improve, so I was astonished when I looked back and realized how fast everything has changed in a few years. I tried to learn about video game development on my own, searching on the internet for the ways video games were made and software the artists used. A couple of years later, knowing barely anything about the technical aspects of video game creation, I decided to get a Certificate of Higher Education in 3D Animation.
Studying Game Art
I studied at ENTI-UB (Barcelona), where they teach the whole process of game development, from start to end. After a few months, we started using 3ds Max, and within the first hours, something clicked in my mind. I started to spend most of my free time learning more and practicing and it became my passion. At school, I learned about many sides of game art: modeling, animation, texturing, assets creation, and engines such as Unreal Engine and Unity.
Two years and a bunch of projects later, I finished the studies knowing how to use the software, but my skills were far away from my current level. I started to craft my works daily in my spare time when I was off work, doing my best and exploring all the styles and ways of creating art. I haven't received any core knowledge on that, so I improve my artworks by looking at all the amazing artists in the community, trying to refine my art and learning new workflows. You can learn so much just by studying other artists' workflows as well as find inspiration and motivation. The latter is really important, especially when you are a beginner because most of the time the projects don't go as planned and things can get really frustrating.
In my opinion, stylized art can be found in many forms depending on the project’s art direction, that's why the term itself is mostly used to encompass a group of styles rather than one in particular.
One of the things I try to achieve in stylized projects is a good overall shape which is the key. In realistic 3D art, you try to produce something that could belong to our world. That's not the case in stylized art; here you try to have a good visual impact, exaggerating the shapes and relegating the details to a second plane that gives an unrealistic look, similar to fantasy worlds or cartoons.
My modeling process starts with the concept art. I like to identify all the key props in the scene and have an idea of the shapes and proportions. After that, I start working on the piece which I think is the most important one, getting the proportions as close as possible to the concept. I also try to keep in mind whether I have to model certain details or I can paint them on the texture. This part is very important for low poly props in which you want to obtain the best look using as few polygons and texture space as possible. Keeping the mesh as simple as you can is the best way to go.
The next step is modeling all the small details, getting the shapes correctly, and arranging the groups of small props that can share UV space. The final part of my modeling workflow is to unwrap the UVs, making sure that I have a good texel density, naming everything, and assigning materials to the meshes.
Modeling for Mobile Games
Modeling for mobile games has more technical barriers than doing it for PC or console. For example, the polycount and the textures have to be a lot lower due to the device limitations. Of course, we have powerful smartphones out there, but the reality is that people don't spend that much money on their phones. If you keep your polycount as low as possible the majority of the phones will be capable of running your scene.
Keeping all 3D models as simple as possible is a must for mobile games and it will help you saving UV space as well. It is useful to know the max polycount allocated for the scene so that you could manage it properly. I try to keep within 50000 tris per scene and keep the texture maps at the lowest resolution possible without losing details.
Right now I'm boosting my hand-painting skills so basically I only use albedo maps for texturing 3D models. This implies that one has to fake all the texture maps usually present in a PBR environment using only one texture map and this is where the artistic part begins.
You have to paint everything: roughness, normal maps, illumination... There are different workflows for doing that, but one of the more commonly used technique is to make a high poly (usually in ZBrush) and baking it to the low poly mesh. After that, you get the ambient occlusion map and use it in a multiply layer in Photoshop which will give you all the details of the high poly on the albedo map.
I usually don't do high poly, though, because I prefer to paint directly on the low poly mesh using a combination of Substance Painter and Photoshop. When I start to paint, the first step is to give the mesh the main colors, just flat ones, so that I can get an idea of the exact tones I need. After that, I paint the occlusion and the shadows. If I have a baked occlusion, I put it in a multiply layer on top. The next step is to start painting the texture, giving gradients to the flat colors and details, always keeping in mind where the light is coming from.
For the rendering process, I prefer Marmoset Toolbag. It works similar to Sketchfab and allows you to export the viewer after finishing it in order to upload it on the web. I work in this program because it is easy and fast which means I can focus more on the textures and the environment.
I set up the render almost simultaneously with the texturing phase, so I can get a first look at how the model looks like with the base colors. After that, I keep taking screenshots throughout the process to compare the evolution of the textures. In this part, you can also see which position looks best for the final render, especially when you don't have a detailed concept and you must decide how to present it.