Thief: Texturing Workflow for Characters in Substance and Marmoset

Marleen Vijgen did a detailed breakdown of her concept-based 3D stylized character, talked about bringing her own style to it, and discussed in detail her approach to leather, metal, and cloth details of the project. 

Career Update

Hi! I’m Marleen, currently working full-time as a 3D Character Artist at Frontier Developments in Cambridge, UK. While working on professional projects for most of my time, I was looking for something that would be a simple fun project for after work. Working on a character on the side is like playing a game for me. I repeat what I know, and in between, I learn new skills. Each step from high- to low-poly is a new level, where more can be learned and where the same principle can be applied again, to show yourself how much you learned from the last project. This project was mainly for testing the skills that I have learned the last year in my professional career. I have been spending a lot of time in Substance Painter, hand-painting tiny details while at the same time following the volumes that are sculpted in the model. I very much wanted to find a balance between sculpted shapes in ZBrush and small details in Substance Painter. Most important for me was to have fun though.

About the Project and Using Daeho Cha's Concept

On my Artstation profile, I have a collection of about a hundred different concepts that inspire me. Every now and then, I pick concept out of that folder to work on. In the case of this project, it was most important to me that the concept was ‘logical’. In many character art concepts, there are parts that don’t match up, straps disappear at the back, cloth doesn’t line up, etc.

This time, I wanted to pick a concept that would make sense in every way as I didn’t want to make up too many things by myself. Secondary to that, I wanted to enjoy working on the project itself. Leather straps and buckles are one of my favorite things to work on in 3D, and this concept has plenty!

Furthermore, I wanted to have fun with the anatomy; how could I translate such an extreme concept into 3D, while still keeping it semi-realistic? In order to get me started on how to answer this question, I made a small plan deciding what I would keep from the concept, and what I would do in my own style. From the sculpt to texturing and posing, each of these stages can change how well the concept will be translated to the 3D world.


I believe that for every pre-made concept it is hard to decide what to keep and how to give it your own twist. My concept art skills are rather poor, but I still want to give the 3D model my ‘style’. In this case, the anatomy is rather standard, it’s a heroine look. Smaller head, larger chest area, thin legs and arms, and a flat belly. The books «Anatomy for 3D Artists» and «Anatomy for Sculptors» helped me greatly as a guideline for the anatomy.

While at the sculpting stage, I decided that I would make the proportions a little more extreme than real life, but less extreme than the concept to keep it more believable. The female characters in, for example, ‘Black Desert Online’ are pretty and very unreal. They feel much less like a living character to me. That is why I went for a middle ground where she’s clearly a hero character, but she could almost live in a world like ours. Although, matching the proportions in t-pose is quite hard. You try to match certain elements, but other parts like the bent torso will only become apparent when posed.

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Working on the Armor

The creation of the armor is relatively simple. There is a set of clear steps that I took for every piece. I made sure that I would repeat the same steps for every single element so that the style would stay consistent.

First of all, I made a simple block out in ZBrush of all the separate large groups visible in the concept, leather, cloth, and metal. This gives me a clear view of how the elements stay together in 3D.

Next up I refine the block out. Each large grouped element gets cut up in smaller medium details. These medium details are all separate items, but together they define a large group like shoulder pads, hood, or top. I take all of these medium parts into Maya and make a low-poly version of each element. Using Creases in Maya and then importing it back into ZBrush, you get incredibly clean shapes that will be the base of the actual sculpting.

After this base block out has been made, I go into Marvelous. This project didn’t need too much of that, because most of the cloth was tight-fitting. The collar and the boots, however, have been partially made in Marvelous. This was a very simple setup, both are two cylindrical pieces of cloth. For the boots, however, I projected the folds that I found interesting onto the boot to save me time sculpting.

The next step is the detailing, which I cut up in several parts; stitches, and volumes. This is where my own style comes in. Because while the base shapes of the armor generally match up with the concept, this is where I make it mine. I love to add very visible seams. And while the concept definitely has seams, I made them a bit clearer.

The main brushes I used for this are the Jonas Ronnegard Seam/Stitch Brushes that are incredibly versatile. To create the look of loose padded cloth, I would mask an area off, and then use the Seam_11 brush in a large size on top of it. It gives a nice extra bit of detail. The other thing I look at is volumes. I tend to do this without the concept, just by looking at how I can simulate material types. The main tip I can give here is to use the inflate brush. Everywhere I have a seam, I use inflate next to that border to let it pop out more.

For the materials, I start out in Substance as a base. Leather Stylized is a favorite of mine. I tend to use it as a base for every material I’ve got. I will, however, adjust all the settings for it as it is just a base for me to check color.

To make the material more realistic I take different steps for each part:

Metal is very generic. I give it a standard color and roughness and that’s about it.

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The cloth gets a bit more complicated. I use a heightmap I like, with a different color alpha for both, the small and medium details. Next up, I paint with the dirt brush and a little bit of negative height plus a little bit of lighter overlayed color. I paint where natural wear and tear would occur.

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The leather is very similar to the cloth. I use Stylized Leather as a base. I overlay a cloud map with roughness and color for that little extra detail. I always add gradients on top of everything, the full-body, and separate elements! For the wear and tear, I paint once again with the dirt brush, this time a yellow-colored layer with a high roughness value to show the original skin the leather had. This forms a nice contrast between the shiny and rather clean leather. On this same layer, I also use some alphas for scuff marks. Lastly, I use the Stitching_tool_For Substance Painter. I prefer to add any stitches in Substance Painter instead of ZBrush to preserve quality and ease of coloring.

At this point, the color looks rather generic though. In Photoshop, I very lightly overlay the AO from the lowpoly baked down on top of itself. There are no small details here, but it makes everything stand out from each other a bit more.

All of these steps create a certain style. While the roughness is rather realistic, the color is stylized. By pushing the color to the extremes, while still keeping it very simple it creates a look that is neither stylized nor realistic.

About Triangles

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This project ended up with a whole lot of triangles. Originally, I planned to stay around 70k, it being a high-end character for games. As the project progressed, I realized that I rather wanted to show off the details that I spent time on, than to show hard edges since it wasn’t going to be used in a game. As it became more and more detailed the triangle count almost doubled. The hair specifically takes up quite a lot. I was planning to make some simple hair, but at the same time I was experimenting with the Hair Strand Designer and I thought it would be nice to add proper hair to the character. It would not be too hard however to LOD this character as certain elements like the belts have loops that are very easy to remove.

Rendering in Marmoset

After texturing, I put everything into Marmoset Toolbag for the renders. I like to adjust the settings in the materials themselves. Materials like leather and metal are pretty generic because they are opaque. Cloth, however, is not. I wanted to give it a very thick and sturdy look, while still looking soft. This was quite challenging to do because of the way the shadows and highlights interact with these materials. I decided to add an ever so slight Subsurface Scatter to the material. This reduces the amount of detail that is coming through from the Occlusion map, so I overlayed a darker color AO map on the Albedo map since it is mostly meant for darker detail.

Most important though is the Roughness. Color matters only a little, and it doesn’t matter at all if the Roughness isn’t right. It is something that can make a good model bad and vice versa. So while I take great care in Substance Painter, (to hand paint details on the roughness map, carefully highlighting certain spots and hiding others), I also take great care to adjust all these settings in Marmoset. This is of course only possible when your final destination is a render in Marmoset. Adjusting the Roughness ever so slightly in the Microsurface: Advanced Micro, or adding a Cavity map and adjusting the Specular Cavity or Diffuse Cavity can make a large difference to your renders. 

The Biggest Challenges

Looking back at it, there were two tough challenges. One that every 3D artist has when creating a 2D concept to 3D. Where are the volumes? What are the shapes? But most important for me for this project, where do I give it my own signature? I decided that I wanted to keep the larger shapes mostly the same, but I changed the smaller details and the way of material rendering to make it my own, which is exactly the next challenge.

Material rendering is always a fiddly job that takes a lot of time to do well. You can use standard values, but by adding hand-painted details you can change the style, add a story and pull the eye towards certain areas. I didn’t care much about the body, but the clothing and armor were the important pieces for me that I wanted to highlight. Making a list of all the steps I wanted to take for this greatly helped me. The satisfaction, but also knowledge that a point on the list has been finished, greatly improved my motivation to work on this project, because it was clear what each step would contribute to the project.

Marleen Vijgen, 3D Character Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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