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Take a look at an interview with talented character artist Maria Panfilova conducted by Allegorithmic. The artist from Moscow discussed her approach to character creation, the way she’s using Substance tools to create her models and some other things.
Hey Maria, thanks for taking the time for this interview! First things first: could you tell us a bit more about yourself?
Hello, I’m Maria Panfilova. I was born and live in Moscow, Russia. I studied psychology at university but I have always been attracted to CG. I made the jump to 3D as a professional aspiration about six years ago. It’s my great passion and I spend most of my time on it. I used to work in production and game studios, and now I’m freelancing.
You create strong-looking, androgynous characters with lots of angles and striking forms, as well as stylized cartoon characters. What inspires you? How would you describe your own work?
I love anime and overall Asian style, but on the other hand, I also love realistic stuff. The ideal for me is to make very detailed, but stylized and cute characters. For me, it’s really hard to choose in which way I need to develop myself, so I keep searching for new styles and technniques. In the future, I hope it will help me to create my own style that will be interesting and new.
Tell us more about your workflow. Do you have a specific process that you follow when you start to work, or does it change depending on what you’re working on?
When I’m doing professional work, I try to save time by using pre-made assets such as human body topology or similar objects which I made earlier. In texturing I try to use smart materials made earlier as well, but I usually change them.
When it comes to personal work, I usually start sculpting from a sphere. It’s more time-consuming but I have an opportunity to train my skills more deeply, and I have more freedom. From a sphere, you can go anywhere.
In both cases, I use a lot of references. It can be separated sets for each step: design, modeling, detailed sculpting, texture, render, and final presentation. Even if I have the concept art for my work, it does’t mean I don’t need references. A concept usually represents a final result but it doesn’t give information about how to achieve it. So it’s not enough to just copy the concept. The best way to make high-quality work is to find many sources to learn from, study them, and try to achieve similar results in my own work.
How and when did you discover the Substance tools? When did you start working with them?
I started to use Subtsance tools when I was working for the studio Game Insight. Our team made characters for a sci-fi game and we chose Substance Painter for a texturing software. It was my first professional texturing experience and I was pleasantly suprised how quickly I got used to its interface and how fast it was to texture a character.
What is your favourite SP feature so far?
I think the most valuable thing for me is a very logical way of texturing – especially how it works with different channels. That, plus the overall design of the interface. It’s interesting that I’ve never had to assign a custom hotkey because everything is so well fitted and I don’t need to think about anything except the texture itself.
We’re curious – what should we improve?
My clients often want me to provide them the exported project as a layered PSD file. It would be very, very cool if you do that. Also, it would be great to have the ability to merge layers. It really matters when you do handpainted textures. I also wanted to have UDIM support and 8K – but you already included this with the last update!
“The most valuable thing for me is the very logical way of texturing and the overall conception of the interface. I’ve never had to assign a custom hotkey because everything is so well fitted and I don’t need to think about anything except the texture itself.”
Could you detail how you use Substance Painter in your workflow?
First, I bake all maps. I usually bake in a different model where the object doesn’t have overlaps. When the bake is finished, I replace the model with the final one. With Substance Painter, you can match baking by mesh name but I don’t use that because I export the highpoly from ZBrush and I can’t name meshes there.
When I’m working on a game model, I always bake a color ID map prepared by polypaint in ZBrush. If it’s a production model, I don’t need an ID map because different materials are usually separated and I can use the polygon fill tool to assign masks very quickly.
At the beginning, I prefer to experiment with the library of smart materials (default or found on Substance Share). I think it’s a good starting point because pre-made materials already have correct albedo and roughness values. Anything else can be deleted or edited. Each smart material consists of the number of layers. I switch them off and activate one by one. If I like the contribution of the layer, I keep and edit it. If I don’t, I remove it.
So the first step of texturing is adjusting layers and masks by tweaking generators, procedural textures, and making adjustment layers without painting anything. This is where looking at the reference photo becomes really important. I look at photos of the material I want to achieve and see what details it has, where it usually appears and how I can recreate the same effect in my project by using generators. I do use photo textures found online. They are not as flexible as procedural textures but are sometimes very useful. When I make adjustments, I can save the smart material and copy–paste it to neighboring objects if I need to. The overall look will be quite rich and close to the finished product but it still looks a little bit generic. Many people complain about a generic look of textures in Substance Painter, but that’s because they skip the second step.
The second step is to edit layers and masks by painting. One of the most common ways is to set the paint layer above the generator maks in multiply mode and remove unnecessary details. Or, for the opposite effect, create a black mask on the effect and paint a white mask only where I need the effect. And there are many other ways. With every new project, I experiment and invent something new. With handwork, I make the texture more unique and realistic. The more time I spend on that, the better the texture will be.
The final step is to test the texture where it appears – in the game engine or render engine. I usually find some mismatches or problems which weren’t obvious at the texturing stage. I fix everything, reexport again and test several times.
Beyond your personal work, do you use Substance in a professional context for texturing?
Yes, I use it for both game and cinematic work projects.
“At the beginning, I prefer to experiment with the library of smart materials (default or found on Substance Share). I think it’s a good starting point because pre-made materials already have correct albedo and roughness values. Anything else can be deleted or edited.”
What are you doing when you’re not texturing?
I used to play video games a lot but when I do I get lost for weeks. Now I try not to play at all. It’s a pity because video games were the reason I started learning 3D in the first place. I guess we all have the same problem with that. Instead I watch TV series, anime, films, listen to audiobooks, music and other media. Often I do that while sculpting or drawing. I can’t do it while texturing because I really need to concentrate when I texture. And I’m not a robot, so I spend time with friends and family, travel once or twice a year, and go to the gym.