Working on a Primadonna's Dressing Table with Vintage Props

Working on a Primadonna's Dressing Table with Vintage Props

Amy Gowland discussed her small-scale project Primadonna and talked in detail about the process of texturing 3D assets in Substance Painter.


Hello! My name is Amy Gowland, I’m from Catterick, North Yorkshire, currently based in Belfast. I graduated from Teesside University in 2018 where I studied Computer Games Art, and most recently I have worked as a 3D Modeller at BillyGoat Entertainment. I have also worked freelance as an outsource artist with Oaken Studios on Lego Duplo World and Disney’s Coloring World, both created by StoryToys.

I enjoy working on environments, props, and all the little details that go along with them. I originally started in computing and IT, and spent a year on a programming degree before discovering it wasn’t really for me! I’ve always loved art and being creative, but it was something I left behind for a time at school as they prioritized more academic subjects. Game art has a great balance of both artistic and technical knowledge and I was excited to give it a go.

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Primadonna: Goals

The Primadonna project was a small scene I made to better my portfolio and pick up new skills. I attended BAFTA Guru Live in 2019 around the same time I was working on this and I was thankful to get some really helpful feedback from John Griffiths on how I could improve. This was the first environment project I did since university, so my main goals included:

  • Creating a unique, atmospheric portfolio piece
  • Use environmental storytelling to convey a narrative
  • Work on my texturing skills


At the start when I’m generating an idea for a portfolio piece I like to have a good browse on ArtStation and get inspired by what other artists are working on. I knew that I wanted my scene to be centered around a table that I could populate with items belonging to a character. I’m a huge fan of musicals and at the time I remember rewatching the film version of The Phantom of the Opera! I loved the design of Christine’s dressing room and thought it would be a fun project to work on. There were also lots of variations on this room from different productions of the show I could refer to. I gathered references from the film and images of interesting real-world furniture and trinkets from the time period.

Auction websites can be excellent sources for reference, particularly for furniture assets. There are often lots of different angles, dimensions, and close-up shots that document damages and wear and that you can refer to when texturing. I also made generalized searches on Pinterest for the time period and made a mood board of my favorite images.

Asset Production

The first step I took was to make a rough blockout using 3ds Max and Marmoset Toolbag to plan out the composition. I had a few ideas of key assets I’d include such as a lamp, clock, and assorted papers. I played around with the positions of placeholders and came up with further ideas of items that could fill the spaces in between. In the final scene, the table was designed around three main zones: personal effects, papers, and beauty products. 

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I created the models in 3ds Max and added intricate details using Substance Painter. When working on a big personal project I take a few assets through the pipeline rather than doing the modelling and texturing in bulk, this works well for me as a visual person. I find that the final scene comes together quicker, and I’m a bit more motivated to keep going and add the next piece.

Progress shots:

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In Substance Painter, I start texturing by adding a fill base color that I eyedrop from the reference and adjust the roughness and metallic values to get a close match. I then create the detail using texture and noise, focusing on the larger forms first.

I do this by layering procedurals in the mask of a fill layer, where I can then adjust the scale, base color, height, and roughness values to match the reference, and then adjusting the opacity to blend them. Clouds procedurals set to multiply can be used to add areas of color variation. This is followed by a damage/grime pass to give some character and make the texture appear more unique. This may involve adding dents to the edges of assets or making crevices appear dirtier and darker. Finally, on a white fill layer I’ll apply a lighter edge using an edge wear generator set in the mask, and setting the grunge amount and scale values very low. I set this layer to overlay at about 40%.

The newspapers were textured in Photoshop. I found a collection of vintage Victorian adverts on Etsy as a digital download. I added text articles and headlines, and as the text is so small I used a lorem ipsum generator to bulk it out. I imported the texture back into Substance and used a creases procedural in the height channel to make it appear more realistic. The model itself is a wide box primitive bent and extruded in a C shape.

Adding normal/height detail with alphas is one of my favorite parts of texturing in Substance. The ornamental design behind the handles of the drawers is from an alpha set by JROTools. I used these along with some custom ones made in Photoshop. When working on the textures I like to go back and forth between Substance and Toolbag to see how it works in the scene with the lighting, and how it blends with the other assets. When I’m happy with the results I begin setting up the renders.

There are a few settings in Marmoset Toolbag I always default to when working on a new project. I enable safe frame and boost the ambient occlusion a little to intensify the shadows, this is set to a low size and mid-strength. For this project, I also enabled GI and volumetric fog. I approach making the renders in the same way you might take a photo with a real camera. I try moving the assets around to make a more appealing composition and take lots of renders at different angles to see what works best, then iterating on my favorite ones until I’m satisfied with the results.

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The lighting setup for this scene was super simple with around 4 lights. I have a spotlight at the back of the scene highlighting the outside edges, a directional light tending towards faint orange that acts as the sun, another spotlight up and off to the side with faint blue coloring, and lastly an omni light near the candles which illuminates the fog creating a nice glow.

After making the renders I tinker with the image a little more in Photoshop. I usually apply a subtle unsharp mask filter around 20-30% and a color lookup layer in soft light or overlay to tweak the color temperature and feel of the final image. I also apply a vignette, it is handy to draw attention towards the middle of the scene.

Getting feedback on the first set of renders was incredibly helpful. After working on anything for a while it’s great to have a fresh set of eyes to identify areas for improvement. I received notes on how to improve the composition and was made aware of materials that weren’t quite right yet. There’s a huge difference in the quality of the scene before and after these adjustments. 


This project is over a year old now, and there are lots of things I’d like to improve on! My main priority with this project was to focus on the texturing and because of this, the models aren’t very optimal. Over the past year where I’ve been working full-time with 3D, I’ve learned a huge deal about high to low poly baking and effectively using UV space. It’s my aim over the coming months to work on new portfolio pieces that accurately show what I’m capable of creating now.

Amy Gowland, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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Comments 1

  • Kieu Lida

    This idea of yours is quite interesting. I first heard about the idea of working on a vanity, but I found it to be good for us to focus on work rather than having more unique ideas.


    Kieu Lida

    ·11 months ago·

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