Victoria Zavhorodnia showed the workflow behind the Violet House project, talked about making the vegetation, and explained how she achieved the painterly feeling in the render.
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Hi! My name is Victoria Zavhorodnia, I’m an Environment Artist from Ukraine but now I live in Belgium. I’m working as Art Director on the Town Star game at Gala Games. When I started working in this position, I understood that the feedback stage is very important. It helped me understand how to follow and develop the style of the game. This job increases my artistic skills because this game has an effortless visual style, but here lies the biggest challenge: the more straightforward the task, the harder to make it properly.
My journey in the environment art world started five years ago. I'm a big board and computer games fan and I have always wondered about the game creation process and how to join this process. When I applied for my first job in the industry, I didn't have a portfolio, so I did some test work, and they liked it. That is how I got my first job (a Level Artist). And I'm very thankful to this company (Artificial Core) for that chance because I found my passion in level art and environment creation.
When I started working in the game industry, I discovered different game creation fields: 3D art, concept art, texturing, lighting, etc. Also, I saw fantastic environments created from scratch on ArtStation and thought of doing something by myself. I understood that to learn faster, it's best to do some courses where all information is clearly set out, and I started with 3D, then texturing, Unreal Engine, environment art course, and lighting in UE; I already talked about courses I passed in the previous articles. I am still learning because new tools and ways to do something develop daily.
The Violet House Project
Stylized art appeals to me more than realistic because it's peaceful, colorful, simple, relaxing, and kind. I will not be the first to say that Studio Ghibli's movies greatly affected my art, as well as anime, comics, and Genshin Impact. I receive a large amount of inspiration from ArtStation, Pinterest, and Twitter. Also, when I see feedback from people about my art, that motivates and inspires me to create new projects.
Because I moved to Belgium, I didn't have time to do any art for my portfolio and I wanted to create a simple project to remember all the tools. Whenever I see something interesting on ArtStation, I save it to one of the many collections I have. I often use it when I search for good references. I searched for simple concept art of a building with simple nature around it and found beautiful art by David Merritt. Usually, I search for supporting references for each part of the concept to better understand the textures, structure, etc., but not this time because of the simplicity of the concept.
After choosing a concept art, I always start with a simple blockout in Unreal Engine to set up the composition as in the reference and match UE's mannequin proportions because it’s game art, so proportions matter. And when all objects are looking good in the grey box stage, I export this mesh from UE and move it to Maya, where I make a white-box model. Then I import the white-box model to UE and see what this model looks like. This process is iterative until I receive a good-looking low poly/mid poly model.
I always imagine a model as a big modular kit and I like to create a few smaller kits and then, from them, recreate the object. For example, if I have a building with wooden planks walls, I will create everything unique and then I start analyzing how many planks I need to have to make repetition not visible. From ten, I will leave only three, sculpt them, bake and recreate this wall only using them. But for this house, I made almost everything unique because my goal for this project was to practice my skills. I have a rule, “Keep it simple,” and I use it in all stages of my work.
I separated this house into six groups for more effortless sculpting, better texture quality, and an easier texture process (one wall, the second wall, stone parts, windows, door, roof, else). For the roof, I decided to make it geometry entirely, and I used a mid poly pipeline. I didn't sculpt it, I just made a smooth version and baked it to low poly. All other assets I sculpted in ZBrush using only two brushes: Trim Dynamic for borders and Orb Cracks for wood imitation. I bake everything in Marmoset Toolbag.
When the main object was made, I started working on vegetation. This concept's biggest challenge was reproducing these paintery trees and vegetation. I already knew the good billboard technic shown by Andre Felipe in the course The Environment Artist’s Survival Kit, but this method did not fit this scene. I started searching for some tutorials on YouTube, and I found another method of creating stylized trees using the TreeIt program by Marpetak Dev, but this method also did not fit. And then, I started researching how I could unite these two approaches into something new that would have similar to the concept art style trees.
When I published a WIP screenshot with my trees research result, I received massive positive feedback about them and a large number of requests about creating a tutorial on how to make the same. I was very happy because people liked my trees and I created a detailed tutorial where I showed how to create trees like this. This method is quite simple: create a leaf mask in Photoshop, make a tree in TreeIt, and add a billboard-based shader – your tree is ready.
The next important step is grass. I use the RVT base approach and geometry-type grass for all my scenes. I found tutorials from Marpetak Dev about it on YouTube. In this tutorial, he shows how to create geometry-based grass. And in this tutorial, he talks about setting up RVT and about RVT grass material creation.
I created the landscape material in a very simple way. I didn't add any textures, only solid colors. RVT textures are very tricky and often they don't work right, so if something doesn't work, it's better to set up everything one more time from the beginning.
We need flowers! We can't imagine a beautiful sunny grassy field without them. I created the base color and mask texture in Photoshop using the same approach I showed in the tree creation tutorial. I created a plane in Maya and applied material to it with my base color texture, cut the flowers, and made from this part the final flower. For good shading in the engine, we need to remember to set up vertex normals looking up.
I had an exact reference for this work and tried to follow it. From the beginning, I understood that making everything unique is the best decision because this house has some special damage to it. I could add it after by using decals, etc., but I wanted to texture everything in Substance 3D Painter.
I baked normal maps and AO textures for all the house parts in Marmoset Toolbag 4. Then, I imported everything to Substance 3D Painter and bake all other texture maps using previously baked ones. When I texture objects, I use a combination of fill layers with different smart masks. To achieve the painted style, I added a slope blur filter with different intensities.
When I finished the scene, I wanted to show how flexible my approach to world creation is. I decided to create the autumn scenario. I googled some autumn color schemes on the internet, which determined my color palette. To choose the house color, I used the color wheel scheme. Because blue is the opposite of orange, it would match perfectly. To change the color of all elements, I created new material instances and tweaked the tinting parameter on them. Because trees have more contrasting colors, I made the grass less saturated and less contrasted. This change helped to separate one from another and add more depth to the scene.
I started this project in Unreal Engine 4 because I think it's more reliable than UE5 for now and because Lumen doesn't work well with stylized environments as it gives very dark shadows that are hard to fight. I tried to copy the atmosphere and light as in the reference. One of the problems I had was a shadow on the building cast by the leaves. But after I applied my stylized fluffy tree shader on the trees, there was only one hitch left to create the right leaf shape mask. I didn't use any LUT textures here for color correction. I only used Crisp and Detailed post-process material by Dominique Buttiens. You can find it in the ArtStation marketplace.
To make the environment feel alive, I like adding different visual effects. For the summer environment, butterflies flew in other parts of the scene. I used a simple butterfly particle system created by Brandy Jahraus. In the autumn scene, there were flying leaves from the nearest trees. To create this effect, I used a tutorial by Dean Ashford on YouTube. There were also some stylized wind effects behind both. I saw how to make it in another YouTube tutorial by Dean Ashford. To make grass, trees, and bushes move, I added a Simple Grass Wind node to all materials.
The biggest challenge for this project was to reproduce these paintery-looking trees. I'm happy that I did this. And I am so glad that this method is helpful for other artists to create their environments. What's interesting is after I finished half of this scene, I decided to quit and stopped working on this scene. But some time after, I got back to it, and now I have a beautiful portfolio piece.
Never give up. Keep things simple. Enjoy the working process. Ask for feedback. These are the main tips I can share. I hope this article was helpful. I wish you all good luck with your future environments!
Victoria Zavhorodnia, Environment Artist
Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie
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