Working with Materials & Textures to Achieve Optimal Likeness

Margot Vandenbussche shared a breakdown of the Town of Sleepy Valley environment, showing how small assets helped bring the scene closer to the reference and explaining the post-processing settings.


Hello everyone! I'm Margot Vandenbussche, a Belgian woman with a deep passion for game art. Like most artists, I've always enjoyed traditional drawing and painting. At one point, someone suggested I should enroll in DAE – Digital Arts and Entertainment – a school close to home that I hadn't even heard of before. Once I discovered the vast possibilities of 3D art, my choice was clear without any hesitation: I wanted to immerse myself in the world of digital art.

My journey as a 3D artist began around four years ago. Before attending DAE, I knew little about 3D design or game development. My education provided me with a broad range of courses, but 3D environment art and asset creation for AAA games truly piqued my interest. Over the last four years, I've created two environments. Yet, I wanted to add something more substantial to my portfolio. So, I decided to create The Town of Sleepy Valley.

The piece is a 3D replica of a 2D piece by Jourdan Tuffan. I had saved the artwork on my phone long ago, thinking it would make an awesome 3D project. Eventually, many months later, I decided to just do it. I was excited to create something stylized for once. I admired the original piece so much that I challenged myself to replicate it as closely as possible.

Blockout & Modeling

I started right away with step 1: a rough blockout in Unreal Engine 5. I set up a camera already with a field of view of 30 degrees and with the right aspect ratio, so it's easier to get the composition somewhat right already.

The next step is creating the models. The software I used here is 3ds Max. None of the assets I made are high poly, the whole scene is low poly. I didn’t feel the need to create high-detailed assets for this artwork. I made sure that the assets were modular, especially pieces such as windows, doors, trims, and walls. This means that they all nearly have the same dimensions so they can be reused in different positions, so you can have more variety.

Materials & Textures

The next step involves creating the textures and materials. Initially, I brainstormed how I should approach this. I scrutinized the reference and questioned myself, "How many different materials will I need, and how often are they repeated in the scene? What about the unique props?" Eventually, I decided that I'd need four different materials for large surfaces: bricks, plaster, glass, and roof tiles. I'd also need one trim sheet for wood, metal, and stone. Finally, I'd need one last hand-painted texture for the unique props.

Initially, I was dissatisfied with how the brick material appeared; it required an additional layer to look more natural. I discovered a helpful YouTube video by Ben Cloward about material layering. I applied this method to blend my brick and plaster materials, which complemented each other well.

The creation of small and unique props was completed at the project's end. They all share the same unwrap, and I hand-painted them in Photoshop. The same goes for the foliage textures. For the forest in the background, I utilized the landscaping and foliage tool in Unreal Engine to quickly paint a dense forest.

Post-Processing & Lighting

You might have wondered, "How does the final shot appear so 2D?" It’s all shader magic. I utilized two post-processing materials: one in the foreground and another in the background.

The foreground features an outline material, as you may have noticed. For the background, I applied a Kuwahara Filter Shader. If you're interested, there's an excellent tutorial on this. It gives the scene a blurry, painterly appearance, which was the exact effect I wanted.

In both post-processing materials, I used 'Scene Depth' to control the distance of these effects. This video offers a good explanation of the technique.

The following image shows how these effects were applied in my scene:

I used minimal lighting effects: a single directional light with a slightly warm hue, with some rectangular lights to brighten the dark spaces in the foreground. Additionally, a blue-tinted exponential height fog was applied in the background. The clouds and mist were manually painted in Photoshop onto plane meshes.

In the Post-Process Volume, I also adjusted some parameters in the color grading tab. I mainly tweaked the saturation and contrast in the shadows. The reflections are screenspace.

I finally brought the scene to life with some FX: leaves and wind particles, these were made with Niagara. I also added a wind effect in the foliage and flags.

Eventually, all the videos and renders I made were also shot in real time.


This generally wraps up the whole process! It was super satisfying to see the progress of my own work, I might have spent a long time just staring at all my WIPs, from start to current.

The inspiration to work on a piece like this mainly came from artworks from two friends/ex-classmates: Silke Van Der Smissen and Tatiana Devos. Definitely check out their work! Those works that I linked have a similar workflow as mine.

What is still a challenge for me right now is creating materials. It’s still quite out of my comfort zone, and I feel like I’m still improvising a lot in that area. But as they say: practice makes perfect, just never give up trying if you want to achieve that one specific look

If you still have any specific questions about this work, or if you just want to have a chat, you’re always welcome to just message me, I’m always glad to help! 

Margot Vandenbussche, Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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