Substance Designer: Tips, Tricks and Curve Nodes

Substance Designer: Tips, Tricks and Curve Nodes

Some nice advice from the amazing artist Fabien Forestier, who talked about the way he creates complicated 3d materials with Substance Designer.


Hi, my name is Fabien Forestier. I’m 36 years old and I’m a french 3D artist born in Brittany, living in Lyon now. My first job was in the animated series industry, 13 years ago I guess, where I had the opportunity to work on stuff like The Fantastic Four, for cartoon network. Then I worked for video games, mainly with handheld consoles and android projects, but some Xbox360 Kinect titles like Dance Paradise & Minute to Win It.

FX for the Fantastic Four:

Since I’ve mostly worked with small teams, I’ve always been some kind of a jack of all trades, but my main interests have always been in technical art & environment art. I’m now looking for a job so I’m spending a lot of time on Substance Designer improving my skills with PBR materials.

Introduction to Substance Designer

I’ve always enjoyed the nodal workflow. At first at school with compositing in Combustion and shading in Maya. After that I took it further with Fusion and XSI, node based again. And then I tried Mental Mill where I had the opportunity to see my shader in real time while I was building them. This blew my mind and when it was released Substance tools kept my attention until I could buy my first indie pack in 2014.


I always start my substance by only working on the heightmap, I put some gray in the color, and a slightly blue, halfway metallic specular/glossiness, sometime I plug also an ambiant occlusion out of my final heightmap node to give it more depth. Then I crank the tesselation and scale of my material all the way up. This way I see every details and I can already know if my substance will catch the light like I want it to.

For this piece, I started with the window main shape, and sculpt all the bevels with the new curve node, almost all this part is build from discs, blurs, curve and splatter circular nodes. The tile variation and mortar that compose those rose window were added separately with trapeze shape along the same circular splater multiplied with the already beveled shape.

I wanted to work with a Cartseian to Polar node for the circular bricks at first but ended up using one of my own pixel processor that kinda bend everything you feed to it because it was less destructive for the details and the overall shape.

I’m no math-lord so I wasn’t able to do a real bend node for now but this one is getting the job done somehow…

You can see on the complete graph that as long as I work on the heightmap it’s quite organised but it’s getting messy the closer I get to the output node. With all those mask and dependencies.


For the leafy ornaments a lots of manual transformation and warps were involved. Not the prettiest part of the graph if you ask me. The tiny golden chiseled dome on the other hand were quite nice to make, I made everything on a straight line and converted it to a circle with Cartesian to Polar this time.   

My advice is to work this little parts in big and centered at first, and only put them together at the right place and right size in the end when you are already happy with all your shapes. Otherwise you might loose some of the little details that give them all their charm.

An other important things is that if you want some aging on this parts do it on the complete (tiled) map of your ornament. You don’t want your rust or your chipped corner to be the same for every instance of your details.

Muddy Tire Marks

This one was made on Substance 4 and I updated it recently with the latest version.

It is composed of many smaller substance files I made before, one that generates leaves, one that generates rocks, even the tire marks were from another file. By the way, since you point it, I noticed that I made modification to the tire marks file for another purpose and never saw that this broke the reference in the mud substance – gotta be careful with working with references! This probably is part of why they appear to be missing so much.

So first I had this tire, and decided to tile them and warp them a little to dig my track in the mud from them.

I tried to get a natural placement of stuff, with leaves and moss accumulation on the sides and in corners – so I used an ambiant occlusion of my heightmap to mask the position of my tile sampler


The mud itself, is based on a mix of noises and grunge node but I think that what gave it this look are the multiple small pass of weathering for the wet parts

Wet stuff, especially mud, tend to get softer and smoother so I increased the intensity of my blur while I was reducing the size of my mask of the wet area to recreate this transition.

Real Game Development Situation

It’s true that it takes a little more time at first to work with substance, but the huge advantage is the non destructive side of it. If your asset is not perfect, if it needs the slightest change, you juste have to go back to substance and connect a few different boxes, while with a Zbrush/Photoshop workflow, you’d had to rebuild a whole lot more stuff.

Same goes for the variations. You rarely only need one rock, one leaf and one trunk to make your environment you need lots of different ones. In Substance you might be working a little longer on those 3 starting assets but from this you can then generate thousands of variants within minutes (if you did your work well) while the classical approach needs to start over for each new variant.

And the more you work with it, of course, the faster you get. You create a growing library of smaller files, containing some leaves, some rocks, a funny noise or a useful tool that you’ll use in all kind of situation.

Don’t hesitate to take a sneak peak in substance original nodes too! They are sometimes very instructive. Drop the node you want to understand/copy/improve in your main view, right click it and “Open Reference”. You can’t modify anything in there, but you can copy the nodes and paste them in a new (and risk-free) package to understand how those “Grunge_map_004” dots where done or how this “Vector Warp” works. I still learn a lot this way myself.

Fabien Forestier, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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    Substance Designer: Tips, Tricks and Curve Nodes