Understanding Material Production: Tips & Tricks

Understanding Material Production: Tips & Tricks

Alexandr Gluhachev talked a bit about the way he works on the creation of beautiful materials with Substance Designer.

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Hello! My name is Aleksander. I got acquainted with 3D graphics at high school. Just for fun I bought in the market a CD with a set of pirated software for 3D modeling and photo editing. I successfully and almost painlessly installed several programs. Those were 3D max 5, Photoshop 7, Bryce 5 and perhaps Maya but I don’t remember).

We didn’t have a decent Internet connection back then, so I didn’t really know what to do with all those programs. My first experience with 3D didn’t go any further than rotating primitives in the viewport and making a couple of ugly renders in the scanline built into 3D max.

Next time I got interested in graphics in my 4th year at the university. I was training to get a diploma in geoinformatics and had no idea I would be working with 3D.

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I happened to look at Blender. I installed it, made some models, following tutorials form a forum, and I liked it. For a year or year and a half 3D had become my hobby until I tried to find another job (at the time, after graduating from the university, I was working at an IT company) and got employed at a small design studio as a 3D designer. The studio worked on all kind of “things” from 3D to logos, site layouts and sushi photos for a Japanese food delivery service). For a long time, I had been designing various high-poly environment scenes for promo materials.

Then I left the studio and spent a year and a half working on the project named Cyclop. It was supposed to be a browser based shooter in a post-apocalyptic setting. But unfortunately, the project died for a number of reasons before it was released.

Several last years I have been working at one studio on a not yet released turn-based tactical strategy game. At the same time, I’m filling my portfolio with leisure time projects.

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Getting to know Substance Designer

The first time when I acquainted with Substance Designer was in 2014. That was the fourth version of the software. Back then I was daunted by the interface. It seemed that it would be easier to create maps in the same old way, in Photoshop, than by trying to make sense of that heap of nods. The problem was that I had no idea what the program was capable of. At the time I was working on an environment in unity 4. I used Designer only to generate different noises which I then used to design textures in Photoshop. So much for efficient use of programs).

Basically, I began with using Photoshop, baking in xNormal and photo textures from cgtextures.com.

It was about a year ago when I began working in Substance Designer seriously. At the time it was the fifth version of the software.

I watched some tutorials on modelling a brick scene. And then tried to make my own surfaces by references.

Actually, if you can work with layers, masks and blending modes in Photoshop, understanding the basic logic of Substance Designer will not be difficult for you. And the node system itself is pretty intuitive. Although it looks a bit frightening.

I was already familiar with nodes because I had been working with Cycles, a built-in rendering engine in Blender, for a long time. It used nodes for material and lighting configuration, too.

If you compare it to old tools, creating textures in Photoshop is like a workbench in your garage. And the new way is more like an alchemy table in the middle of the forest with unicorns)) You simply mix different ingredients to get what you want.

Plus, you still can use textures from sites, photoscans and masks, created in Photoshop or Illustrator.

Or, like many people do, bake a surface, created in Zbrush, and make a full-fledged material in Substance Designer.

Yes, this is a different interface and a different approach but it is worth it.


In material creation, as in creation of anything else, it’s better to move from the simple to the complex and from larger shapes to smaller ones.

Usually I begin with a normal map. Create a basic relief of the material. Next, continue with an albedo and then proceed with a roughness map. At the end of the work, if I find it necessary, I add various small details and a microrelief.

In terms of structure, different materials require different approach. If it’s something like dirt or plaster, everything goes down to mixing various noises and adjusting their brightness and contrast.

If it’s scales or some composite surface, usually I begin with creating basic elements, which the surface will consist of.

(process of making a system of veins)

In this example I used the Shape node which was twisted with a Direction warp. It was then combined into a branch using Transformation 2D node.

(Structure of a single branch of nodes)

With that method I designed several types of veins and vessel branches.

Then I cloned them using Tile sampler.

(Mask structure of a vein system)

As a result, I got a mask which was later used to create relief of a network of veins and separate the veins from the brain surface in the albedo and roughness maps. The material was, in fact, built around that basic mask.

(Final material maps with veins)

(Render of the material)

Organic materials

The approach to designing organic materials is not that different from that to any other materials. The main thing is to have more references at hand and to be able to analyze them.

However, I can pinpoint several nuances.

For example, organic materials often have transparent and semitransparent surfaces. As well as mucosae and fluids of various kinds.

You can create a semitransparent membrane by combining two materials through a mask with smooth gradient transitions, this way you can imitate varying density of the translucent material in different parts of the membrane.

(material with a semitransparent membrane)

The top-right image shows an albedo of the meat material and membrane. On the left you can’t see an albedo, created by blending two materials. The mask is nonuniform gets darker along the edges. It imitates thickening of the membrane, as if it was broken at a place of rupture and contracted, making the area thicker.

You also can simulate some kind of semitransparent coat by reducing roughness of the surface and blurring the albedo. You’ll get a fake translucent film with fake light scattering. Or you can add slight shading at the places, where more transparent parts of the surface are connected to the less transparent ones.

When designing surfaces with mucosae, you should pay attention to superficial tension of liquids. When a liquid flows around different surfaces, it doesn’t collide with them at an angle of 90 degrees. It makes a smooth transition.

(Superficial tension)

organic surfaces usually don’t have a clear-cut and regular structure. Except on the microlevel, as faceted eyes of insects, for example. But even in that case there would be some irregularities, litter and damaged facets. You should add more diversity to forms of similar kind. It applies to the organics as well as to other materials. More irregularities, more diversity in the size of elements, shape and roughness.

And another icing on the cake in rendering of and organic material is a shader with subsurface scattering. It allows to make your material look more realistic.


It’s hard to tell where ends the material and starts the “zest”. I usually want all the material to be the zest. But unfortunately, it can’t always be done) As a rule, such elements are borrowed from references or added as experiments, when most of the material is ready and you want to make it more interesting.

In Slime I originally wanted to use simple bubbly foam. My first reference was an old photo of kvass). And in the course of work the kvass turned into green slime.

(Basic reference)

For foam imitation I created a separate generator with two inputs and four outputs.

(foam generator and generated masks)

I attached a noise to inputs of the generator to create the common form of the foam and the shape defining the form of the bubble.

At the outputs I got several types of bubbles with an edging, created with a Gradient map node. And thick foam of small bubbles.

This separation into various types of bubbles is necessary to adjust intensity of embossing in the height and normal layers.

The bubble generator itself is very simple and based on Tile Sampler nodes.

The shape of foam spots is set with an input noise which is processed and transferred to the mask map input of the tile sampler node.

In the area, where the mask is white, I create an array of small bubbles.

Large bubbles are inverted and excluded from the mask which is related to the array of small bubbles.

(masked tile sampler in mask map input)

Therefore, space is freed to be filled with larger bubbles among smaller ones.

(Structure of the foam generator)

The mask, acquired from the foam generator, was used to set relief in the normal map and foam color in the albedo map, and separate the foam material from the slime material.

To make the foam “deeper” I added small shadows inside the bubbles,

mixed the base color of the slime with the inverted mask of the foam through the multiply mode. And I got slight shading inside the bubbles.

(shading inside the foam bubbles)

I also added slight shading of the foam array itself in the AO map. And to make the foam look a bit transparent and nonuniform, I added a little of green to the light beige color of the foam in the albedo.

(final albedo of the foam)

As a result, the nonuniform brightness of the mask, separating the slime from the foam and the smooth transitions inside the bubbles imitate semitransparency and dissipation. And the shading adds extra volume and creates the effect of translucency of the slime substance.

Finally, I added a smooth bevel to the normal map along the edges of the foam to create an effect of superficial tension of the liquid between the foam and the green substance.

All these small things are barely perceptible to the eye but they have a strong impact on the final look of the material. The devil, as they say, is in the details).

(render of the material)

(general structure of the slime material)

Using substances in games

Games usually require something more ordinary: tiles, plaster, concrete, dirt, bricks, etc. Something, that can be used to build locations.

When it comes to organic materials, they are too specific. And can be used only in certain cases. For example, for texturing some creatures for horrors or in projects like Scorn.

My main goal in designing those materials was learning. I wanted to make something unusual and get additional experience of using Substance Designer. I got interested in organics and began working in that direction.

The advantage of Substance materials is exactly in their flexible adjustability.

At any moment you can quickly tune any component of the material, whether it is the relief or color scheme.

If you, for example, don’t like the shape of paving stones, you won’t have to start over from the beginning: remake your sculpt, bake and create the maps again. You’ll just need to change the basic mask of your material.

Or if you need to make two materials for vertex paint, such as, for example, broken glazed tiles. You can simply create broken tiles. Save maps of the broken tiles, turn off the branch of nodes used to create those chips and cracks, then save the second variant of the tiles and it’s done.

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Useful tutorials

I can’t remember any certain video or a course. But I can recommend Substance Academy on the official site of Allegorithmic. And the “substance designer” search query on YouTube will return many lessons on different topics. You can watch any of them. Beginners should first of all get a sense the general logic of work and the interface, after that they can progress on their own.

When it comes to required skills, working with masks in Substance Designer is almost the same as working with layers and blending modes in Photoshop. You just combine different layers, adding and subtracting their content.

Also, those, who are familiar with node systems, will find it much easier to understand the interface of the editor.

The most useful reading before starting to work it is documentation on PBR materials. Nuances of map creation for PBR and everything that is related to it. There is a thorough guide on the site of Allegorithmic.

Alexandr Gluhachev, 3D artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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Comments 1

  • Alexandr

    Some of the pictures are duplicated.



    ·3 years ago·

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