Using Architecture and Vegetation in Environments

Using Architecture and Vegetation in Environments

Martin Pietras discussed his approach to environment art, composition, and virtual architecture.

Martin Pietras discussed his approach to environment art, composition, and virtual architecture.


Hello, my name is Martin Pietras, I’m a senior graduating from the Rochester Institute of Technology’s 3D Digital Design program. I am currently working on finishing my senior thesis, a stereoscopic 360 experience, that illustrates nature’s resilience and the human condition. A majority of my work features aspects of nature. I can attribute this to the time I spent as a child hiking and adventuring.

My main goal for my thesis was to create a workflow of gathering real world data for texturing and materials through the use of Photogrammetry and Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI). I ended up using the large amount of data I gathered not only as textures and geometry, but reference for procedural textures in Substance Designer.

Some of my other work focuses on times and places that can tell a story from the objects in the scene. I mainly use Unreal Engine in my work, it enables artists to iterate quickly and is a great gauge for seeing how optimized your scene is.


I do enjoy using architecture in my scenes. Architecture has a lot of spunk and character, it can dramatically influence the way your space or scene is read.

My time working as a carpenter has informed the way I plan and envision interiors and architecture. There is a level of planning and precision that is accompanied with that vocation that really helps you understand the layout and modular nature of creating architecture. Part of this is the functionality of what you create, every item you create is there to perform a specific function and illustrating that through your design helps it become more believable to the viewers.

Functionalism is an interesting realm of thought in regards to architecture. Particularly in the way those architects try to maximize the use of natural light. I try to incorporate these ideas into my interiors.

It is one thing to begin with an interesting idea, instead I usually begin with researching the style, time period, and culture that I am trying to emulate. I very rarely choose to pursue a design without being influenced by real world examples first. Often I find this method creates stronger designs and ideas.

Things I look for in my references can be shapes and designs, the way I want materials to look, and the way spaces are organized and why.

In this scene I was inspired by the way middle eastern homes were meant to be part of nature, specifically the open windows and balconies in many of these spaces. The second floor of these buildings were meant to be places of leisure and gathering, and I wanted to combine that with some of these images and designs I found.

After my ideas are informed by these inspirations it becomes a matter of planning how to incorporate these into an actual space, and the way it would be created in the real world.

When creating modular pieces it is important to make sure your pivots snap to each other or you are building on a grid. It makes constructing repeating pieces look grounded and thoughtfully created.


I use a variety of methods to create vegetation, depending on the purpose it is going to serve. I have found that a hybrid method using procedural and handmade aspects creates flexible and efficient results. Speedtree is an excellent tool for creating multiple variations and understanding the growth patterns every tree species has.

Observation is important in nailing the growth patterns of different tree types, but once you have the general pattern down it is easy to use your artistic credit and push the look you are going for while maintaining a believable look.

Scanning leaves in on a scanner, and scanning bark through photogrammetry is also a great way to analyze patterns and get great textures.

Creating tileable and hybrid textures that are part procedural and part photogrammetric has become my standardized workflow for this type of data. After using xNormal to bake my textures from my geometry, Substance Designer enables me to clean up height maps and normal maps, as well as completely alter diffuse and other data sets as well. Not only does this data become flexible through this process but it becomes a valuable learning tool. Analyzing the texture maps for patterns becomes a habit before working on procedural textures.

Some useful tools I have made to help with leaf production are different Substance Designer Graphs that create leaves for you. You can doodle a quick alpha that is black and white in Photoshop and plug it in and it will adjust the graph to your alpha.

Nature is an inescapable part of our world and my work, I find that its persistence in that respect is beautiful.


My approach to lighting is really simple actually, because of the way I choose to organize my architecture. I am maximizing the use of the directional and skylight in Unreal Engine. I use a dynamic lighting setup. A dynamic directional and skylight enable me to take advantage of features such as distance field ambient occlusion(DFAO) and the dynamic gi solution known as a light propagation volume (LPV). While the LPV is usually not suited for interiors, I have found that adjusting it in your post process volume creates a subtle and acceptable effect. DFAO is essential for creating realistic foliage, and controlling this and the screen space ambient occlusion together creates a clean and efficient solution.

I am very inspired by impressionist painters, and John Alton who was a cinematographer. Impressionists really painted with light , and John Alton wrote an excellent book called , “ Painting with Light,” in regards to lighting efficiently in cinema. My background in traditional painting really drives me to use light in this kind of way.

Thinking of light compositionally helps to create a movement in your scene and I like to use that effect to guide the eyes of the viewer in my scene and create a desired emotion. I use light in this way to guide and draw attention to different objects and parts of my scene.


Composition is central to all design choices. Now that I am working towards a 360 video for my senior thesis, it becomes more complicated. Your design choices have to look good from a multitude of angles, not just from a singular camera.

I try to always use thirds, and have a fibonacci spiral in my compositions to keep the viewers eyes wandering in my scenes. It does not have to be perfect but being conscious of the direction objects guide the eye helps.

There is never a perfect way to compose a scene, you really need to have in mind the effect you are trying to achieve before you begin your final composition.

I always start production of any scene with a rough block-in, to understand the proper scale and composition I am going for.

I then gather reference and inspiration for a draw over in photoshop to try and idealize what the final product would look like. In this case I was inspired by Naughty Dog’s extremely talented artists, Reuben Shah, Andres Rodriquez and their texture artists and foliage modelers. I was also inspired by some concept art from Ico made by another very talented artist whose name I could not confirm.

I then create a paintover to visualize the composition and items in the scene. This is really useful to get an idea of the potential of your block-in and to adjust details. I use the render as a background where I overlay and manipulate different images. The result is a quick and readable blueprint for the final scene.

How do you build the materials and make them work in the scene, without too much repetition?

There really are many approaches for this. One is to bake maps and have many unique materials for every object in your scene, another is to create tileables and use vertex painting. For my thesis I chose to see how far I could push tileables without showing too much repetition.

When working with materials it is valuable to think of the way an object is constructed. How wood may be layered with primer and sealer and how that degrades over time. How an item’s use affects its materials as well.

Using Substance Designer to create masks for vertex painting and manually vertex painting are ways I broke up the every material in my senior thesis scene. The stone tiles are one material that is used the most in my scene, a good example of how unique you can make a scene look with only two to three blendables.

It is important to be blending using a height lerp as it takes into account the height of materials into how the textures are blended and gives you a more pleasing result. Parallax Occlusion gives a very nice fake displacement effect as well, at the cost of performance. I used this effect sparsely in my scene.

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Regardless of the method you are using, keeping in mind the type of exposure materials are subjected to creates more dynamic and interesting textures. Not only do they tell a story about the materials, but give you an idea of how to layer them and create variation in your scene.

I look forward to finishing my thesis project and finding an internship or project where I can continue to grow alongside my peers.

Martin Pietras, Environment Artist Student

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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Comments 2

  • Daniel

    I learned so much in this one post. Thank you.



    ·4 years ago·
  • NicB

    As an alum of RIT myself I'm all too familiar with their backwards methods - treating a 3D scene as a 2D composition to slap spirals and triangles over to validate and over-analyze basic 'design' choices, congratulating anything that lets you do more things faster (photogrammetry, one button solutions that work around having to actually understand something [photogrammetry, bitmap to material, auto UV scripts, etc]) while at the same time degrading anyone for actually wanting to learn, understand, or otherwise go beyond the below average bar (which is sadly becoming the average [if it isn't already] in and industry being flooded with untalented indie hacks, of which is a perfect example). That being said this work is perfect for the world of low-hanging fruit that exists today. You're able to talk about what you do in a high-level academic language without ever talking about the actual work or process itself, and for reasons that escape all logic that is what people value over actual quality work. Keep this up and you'll succeed beyond expectations.



    ·4 years ago·

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