Sergii Zlobin shared the working process behind the Stone Wall project, explained why he chose the ZBrush with Substance 3D Designer workflow, and talked about the lighting setup for the render.
Hi there! My name is Sergii Zlobin, I’m from Kyiv, Ukraine. This artwork was created during the war, which was not easy. During constant air raids and infinite shocking news, it is very hard to be focused and productive. It’s even hard to think about your work sometimes, but here is the modern reality, and we adapt to it. The Ukrainian gaming industry, like other industries, is working hard to fill the country's economy and support our army to bring our victory closer. I want to say thank you to the brave Armed Forces of Ukraine that defend our country day and night and make our work possible.
I’m currently working at FRAGLAB as Senior Environment Artist. I’ve been working in games for almost 10 years. Since my childhood, I have been involved in different kinds of art. During my university education, I stuck to architecture, furniture design, and 3D art in general. Also, at that time, I was fascinated by games and was interested in how they were made. At the university, I learned the 3ds Max fundamentals, but mostly I learned 3D from YouTube, Polycount, etc.
From my graduation until now, I have been trying myself in the browser, mobile, and PC games as an environment, hard surface, and a bit of character artist. I settled on environment art because it’s a kind of freedom for me. In creating environments, I give free rein to my imagination and get a lot of pleasure from it. As for me, environment art is a wide area where you will not get bored with very similar tasks.
Environment artists, especially in small and medium-sized studios, are kind of a jack of all trades. They might also be responsible for foliage, prop sets, and materials. Unfortunately, not all our skills are needed in production every day, and it’s easy to start getting rusty in some areas. Substance 3D Designer is the first candidate to be forgotten without regular practice. To be fit, I decided to create the material as texturing and sculpting practice at the same time. I looked for a material that would include both sculpting and procedural techniques, and a stone wall texture was the perfect match. Also, I’m really excited about stones and rocks, I even have a collection of small stones that I bring from different countries. To be honest, rock sculpting is a really meditative and pleasing process for me.
The Stone Wall Project
Collecting references usually starts on Pinterest or Google. High-quality images and references with the different light conditions give a better understanding of the object you’re going to create. I often use YouTube videos in good resolution to find a specific reference or to see the set dressing or feel the atmosphere of the location. I find channels like Prowalk Tours or other walking videos very helpful for the research.
I prefer to group my references by categories in PureRef for easier navigation. Usually, I look not only for real photo references but also for similar artworks on ArtStation to see other artists’ approaches. It is the moment to plan your work and think about how to push it to the next level. I keep my ref board small for better efficiency because it’s easy to get lost in your own super large PurRef file. Usually, I don’t follow only one reference, I search for the cool features in each image and just merge them during the process.
Chosing the Workflow
ZBrush and Substance 3D Designer workflow might be tricky in comparison with the fully procedural Substance 3D Designer approach. Fully procedural is more flexible considering feedback. It’s easier to tweak sliders to change brick count, shape, repetition, etc. The ZBrush with Substance 3D Designer workflow is more expensive here because it causes geometry change, re-decimate, and rebake. The tip here is to find a photo texture as a prototype. Textures.com, Megascans, or just a good photo from the internet quickly tiled in Substance 3D Designer using the Make It Tile Photo node definitely will help with the future texture. I prefer to sculpt stone, brick, or cliff textures in ZBrush because I can create them more realistic and natural-looking than using Substance 3D Designer.
A stone creation technique that I use is pretty classic. First, I prepare 4 block meshes for my stones. I make them in different sizes, proportions, and ratios to emphasize the age of the material and get more shape variation. In the first decimation steps, I look for shape and silhouette using the TrimSmoothBorder brush with square alpha, Clay BuildUp, Planar, and different Trim brushes. At this step, I don't pay any attention to the topology. Later, I will make a stone duplicate, remesh them, and project all details from the WIP brick to the new brick with the correct topology. It’s important for the fine details that will be created later.
During sculpting, I try to make them different but at the same time consistent. In real life, each stone has its own story. They can be brought from different places and be made of different types, one is naturally split and the other is split by man. This approach helps to create more realistic assets. Of course, it depends on your reference. A freshly built brick wall will not be affected by this theory.
Four bricks with six unique surfaces each give us a huge variety for the tiling texture.
When I am happy with primary shapes, I start doing secondary ones. To speed up the process, I use different brushes and alphas with cracks and stone damage.
The golden rule is also applicable here: pay attention to the detailed areas and areas of rest. Keep this rule in mind to avoid an insane box full of cracks, damages, and noise. A tip here is to switch between different MatCaps to refresh your perception. Using crack and damage alphas, I always sculpt them over to find a balance in detail with surrounding parts.
As a polishing pass, I use a fine pore brush together with a morph target. This approach helps to add fine details very accurately.
Before placing bricks, I create 2 square plains: first for the navigation and second, a bit bigger, for the actual sculpt. I make it bigger to avoid artifacts while sculpting in wrap mode. Always check wrap mode is 1 when switching brushes!
Mortar sculpting is a pretty fast step. I use Clay BuildUp and FractureB here to achieve a noisy dry mortar effect.
To make the material more realistic, I rotate and move each brick a bit to avoid a flat surface. Using this technique, I add more story and character to the material and get better normal and height maps. By the same logic, I tweak the mortar plane. Old brick walls are all about imperfections.
For baking maps, I prefer Marmoset Toolbag because, in my opinion, it is the fastest and most flexible. xNormal or Substance 3D Designer are also great tools for baking but they could take more time.
First, I mix a procedural color with a photo texture. It gives a very good base for a realistic material. I use a pretty balanced photo texture to avoid excessive details and contrast at the very beginning.
Here I look for more color variety. Using GrabDoc in ZBrush and Flat Color Shader, I make black and white masks for the bricks and import them to Substance 3D Designer. Color variation is one of the keys to a good-looking material. I pick colors from my references to get a more natural color palette.
The next steps are all about adding washout, mold, and imperfections. I used various blends and an AO map mixed with different grunges as opacity channels for the blend. Here, I go for an aged and dirty look of the material.
After that, I add yellow spots that bring a bright color accent to the gray stone color. Small conspicuous details add more expression to the object and invite the viewer to take a closer look. I really like the look of spotted mold on the rocks, it makes them juicier.
Now, we need to add more story to the material and make it more realistic. Green moss is one of the features we can find in the majority of references. Here I use the green channel from the Normal map as opacity for blending and mixing my Albedo with the color that I created in the beginning.
Here you can see the timelapse of the main passes of the Albedo map creation.
I am pretty happy with the baked Normal map, so I tune it just a little. I add more noise to the stones and a small stone shape, and spread it on the mortar. It gives more diversity to the surface and reveals micro details that make the material more realistic. I like how the stone faces work, each is rotated a bit and gives a good-looking embossed surface. Now I’m happy with the tertiary details.
I don’t describe other maps in detail because the setup is very simple. For Roughness, I grab the most balanced color map output, convert it to grayscale, and darken the mortar. Next, I mix the result with a few noises just a little.
For the Height and AO maps, I do the same as for the Normal one by blending it with small stones and tweaking levels.
As the main tool for rendering all my props and materials, I use Marmoset Toolbag since version 3. After the first try, I was impressed by the baking features and implemented Marmoset in my pipeline. Later, I began to render all my assets there because it’s a quick and easy way to get great results.
Here, I played a lot with different angles and light intensity. It’s always great to have lighting references for a more natural picture. Also, I prefer to render not only a matball but also a plane to show how the material will look in the game.
Throughout the process, I wanted to create a nighttime mood on my renders. Here, I use a pretty simple light setup. To emphasize displacement and stone’s imperfections, I use top spot light that imitates a single warm street light. A Cold sky light from the right that imitates moonlight helps to reveal the Roughness map and lights the dark shadows of the stones.
For the matball render, I use top warm spot light as the main light source and a cold directional light from above. Like in the first render, I use dark HDR with bright spots for the sky light just to fill the scene and find a good accent.
As for post-production, usually, I change shadow settings and add more contrast and sharpness inside Marmoset as a first pass. Afterward, I work with tone and contrast in Photoshop. At the very end, I add more sharpness if I need it. I add it just a little to emphasize stone edges and crisp details.
For both the sphere and plane render, I use geometry from Substance 3D Designer but I subdivide them twice to achieve maximum quality for displacement.
The stone wall material was a great experience that boosted my texturing skills. I continue to master Substance 3D Designer and am very pleased with the result. I really enjoy the ZBrush + Substance 3D Designer technique and, as I mentioned before, it is my favorite approach to creating materials.
Substance 3D Designer is a very powerful tool that is definitely an industry standard for creating materials. Node-based software requires totally different approach than tools such Photoshop or Substance 3D Painter. At first sight, it looks difficult, but there is nothing to be afraid of. If you are new to Substance 3D Designer, I recommend learning the basics. Daniel Thiger has awesome tutorials where you can learn the fundamentals of creating shapes for different types of organic materials.
Speaking of hard surfaces, the tutorial by Javier Perez on ArtStation Learning is very good. There, you will see how to create different manmade surfaces really fast. Once you've learned the basics, switch to more advanced lessons from Josh Lynch, Daniel Thiger, Dannie Carlone, Javier Perez, or other artists.
After discovering various materials such as rock, brick, tiles, ice, or sci-fi panels, you will have a solid understanding of the Substance 3D Designer work principles and will be ready to create your own material. As you continue to learn and develop your skills, your materials will look better and better. When you feel confident, your materials become less artificial and more realistic. Don’t forget to experiment! Discover new shapes and cool effects to add them to your pipeline.
Also, many artists, including myself, are struggling with Substance 3D Designer after a long pause. For a refresher, I highly recommend cheat sheets like Vincent Derosier's Survival Kit to help you remember the basic principles. It's also a good idea to keep various node prefabs in your library to speed up texture creation in the future.
I highly recommend entering art competitions from communities such as The Club, Beyond Extent, or The DiNusty Empire! It will definitely take your skills to the next level and bring a lot of fun!
Thank you for checking out the breakdown, I hope you like it and find it useful! Thanks to 80 Level for this opportunity! Cheers!
Sergii Zlobin, Environment Artist
Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie
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