Making a Stylized Tavern Diorama in Maya, ZBrush & Substance 3D Painter

Harvey Bennett shared the work process behind the Overgrown Tavern project, talked about what's important in texturing stylized props, and shared the brushes used for modeling.


Hello there! My name is Harvey Bennett, I’m a 3D Artist enormously passionate about creating stylized environments and props, as well procedural texturing. I’ve been making 3D art for the past few years, working on personal projects and building a portfolio in hopes to achieve my dream of being a 3D artist working in the games industry!

I’m from London, I also studied here. I graduated in Games Design Art from Brunel University. During my studies, I discovered the wonders of stylized 3D art. I recognized it from so many of the games I loved, but creating it was something I had never thought I could do. I’d spend so much of my free time wandering through ArtStation and gawking at how amazing people were at creating such beautiful things. In my final year, I fell in love with environment art especially. I discovered ZBrush and thought it was the wildest thing I had ever seen and really want to learn how to use it, PBR texturing as well as procedural texturing.

Although I adored stylized 3D art, I wasn’t sure how to make it myself. My abilities at the time were a mixed bag of digital painting and concept art mostly, with my 3D knowledge rather rudimentary in comparison. Amidst my art dissertations and finals, I’d try to learn more about 3D art whenever I could squeeze in the time.

After graduating, I had more freedom and time, so I used this as my opportunity to dive into the 3D art world! Over the past two years, I have dedicated all my time to it, spending countless hours in all the softwares I had been so eager to learn for so long and adopting many different workflows and techniques.

I now spend my time working on personal projects and developing a portfolio to showcase my work on ArtStation. In September last year, I became a part of the amazing team behind TESR Skywind as a 3D artist and I have contributed whenever I can. I’m really eager to keep learning and growing as a 3D artist and I hope to find my place in the games industry soon!

The Overgrown Tavern Project

I love creating props and have been working on stylized assets for a while, but I often found myself shying away from larger projects such as environments, so the Overgrown Tavern was my way of changing that. My fundamental idea was to create a really cozy stylized tavern diorama. The tavern was to be themed within a Norse world and to be wildly overgrown. Other than that, I had some inklings of what I wanted to do, the pipes and kegs were always in my mind, but nothing near concrete as of yet.

So, I began my search for references for the project. Something that I do often is spend time on ArtStation wandering around and finding all kinds of digital art, it’s a great place to discover other artists that inspire you. From what I found, I created a little mood board with art that really resonated with me, either through its style or through the theme. I really admire games that create stylized worlds, Paladins being one of my absolute favorites, it often finds its way into my references and is a huge inspiration to me as a 3D artist.

My original drawings were simple but really helped me visualize the space I wanted to create. My ground plan was to separate the diorama into two sections, one side focusing on the comfort of the tavern, being home to the table, fur rug, and barrel stools. The other section reveals the inner workings of the tavern, this is where the great keg resides, holding gallons of mead fed through a metal pipe.

Modeling the Scene

For modeling, I use Maya. I work gradually by size, creating the bigger props first by blocking them out with simple geometry. I like to work in waves, my goal is to get the bare bones of the scene into Marmoset and then move onto the medium to small-sized props. Before sinking hours into sculpting, retopology, and texturing, I heavily recommend doing some sort of test run and figuring out what does and doesn’t work for any part of the process you have uncertainties about. 

Back in Maya, I reuse some geometry from my blockout props where I can and recreate models with better topology. Once I’m content with the props' shape and scale, I will export them as FBX files into ZBrush.

In ZBrush, I sculpt the smaller details, this is my favorite part of the process! Most of the work in ZBrush revolved around just a few brushes for this project. Trim Dynamic and hPolish for planar edges and surface, Orb_Cracks for carving scratches, Orb_Pinch to alter the width of cracks, and lastly, Clay for any smaller details, such as dents. I will also use Orb_Slash brushes here and there and often use the move tool to modify the overall shapes of subtools.

I usually apply Polish and ClayPolish to clean up my sculpt. However, if you are using the Clay brush as I have done or any other brush for small surface damage, add these details after polishing, otherwise they will be smoothed away. When all is done, I export the high poly mesh out, and if the mesh is made up of multiple subtools, I will ensure I export with appropriate naming so I can pin the bake down by name.

UV Unwrapping and Baking

Before UV unwrapping, I often make changes to the original mesh in Maya. You want your low poly mesh to resemble your high poly as much as possible to avoid any issues during baking. I recommend exporting a decimated mesh from ZBrush for any props that have changed during sculpting as a guide in Maya. To unwrap, I almost always use planar projection, then cut and unfold it, as well as straighten any UV shells I can before doing a layout. I will make use of object instancing where I can to make the most of my UV space.

For this project, I baked and textured everything within Substance 3D Painter. For my first year or so of 3D, I really struggled with baking, I would encounter so many issues and would never know what caused them. Over time I learned a lot and would like to share how I bake from high to low poly in Substance 3D Painter. 

Before baking, I recommend softening any Normal information, you can do this in Maya by using Mesh Display > Soften Edge. In Substance 3D Painter, I will always bake Normals first in a low resolution to check for any errors. If a mesh is made of multiple parts, I bake by mesh name for all maps besides ambient occlusion, this is so these different meshes will gather shadows between each other and power generators such as dirt.


I crafted a small library of smart materials during this project. Most of these follow a similar structure, though the mossy metal was the most complex and my favorite to create. I broke down how I created the mossy metal in the image, but if anybody reading this would like to try my material for themselves, then feel free to contact me! The majority of layers use different maps and generators to power them, such as dirt, moss, and rust. Though, with those powered by generators, I will often use Blur Slope at a very low value to create a more painterly effect and to avoid materials becoming too gritty.

A crucial part of texturing stylized props is emphasizing the edges and all the little details you’ve sculpted in ZBrush. The way I create this layer is by using my baked Curvature map. I use it in a black mask over a fill layer and level out the darker values. Lastly, I recommend hand painting little details at the end, I find this adds a lot of character to the texturing, I did this with the mossy metal by adding clusters of lighter mossy spores within the bigger patches of moss.

I use Photoshop when texturing props to create alphas for emblems and symbols, the most obvious example being the goat on the blue banner. This, I drew in Photoshop and brought into Substance 3D Painter. I also used alphas on the banner to stamp drink stains and splodges, as well as cut out torn sections in the material using an Opacity map. I then export my texture maps ready for Marmoset.


All of the vegetation was painted in Photoshop and later applied to planes in Maya. This method allows you to be very creative with your shapes at no cost of extra geometry, which is really nice! I wanted the foliage to be very abundant in the diorama, so I opted to keep it simple, I didn’t take it much further than a basic gradient other than some variation with the basic Hard Round brush with some speckled clusters matching the style of my mossy materials.

After painting, I export two JPEGs, one of the painted plants, and the other being the black-and-white map of the silhouettes, this allows me to mask out the areas around your plants with a Transparency map. In Maya, after applying the two Texture maps to a square plane, I cut around the general shapes using the Multi-Cut tool. I placed all of the vegetation by hand in Marmoset. It’s very important in Maya that you center all your pivots and stack your planes directly in the center of the viewport, otherwise you’ll have a hard time rotating and moving your vegetation around later.

Tileable Textures

I adore Substance 3D Designer. I only wish I had more use for it in this project as it’s the software I am very comfortable with and really enjoy using. Originally, I planned on creating tileable floor pieces, though for a diorama, I found this to look very flat and opted for resting the entire tavern on a sculpted rock created in ZBrush. However, I did use Substance 3D Designer for the stone walls of the tavern!

There are a lot of little steps that go into creating a material, which makes it a rather difficult process to put into words, so I’ve created a GIF of the important steps to follow. If anyone reading this needs any guidance with Substance 3D Designer, then do contact me and I’ll be happy to help when I can!

Some advice for creating stylized textures in Substance 3D Designer would be to use the Curvature Smooth node from your Normals to emphasize your edges when working on your Color map and try to avoid being too heavy with the AO! Make use of Slope Blur, it will be your best friend in Substance 3D Designer. Lastly, be subtle and incremental with your nodes, a little goes a long way!

Scene Construction and Lighting

The construction of the Tavern takes place in Marmoset. I first import the props and textures, though I do this gradually over time alongside the completion of different assets, meaning the Tavern went through a lot of changes over its lifetime! When importing textures into Marmoset, depending on your texturing software and maps, it may be necessary to Flip Y within your Normals, otherwise they may be facing the wrong way! I also recommend lowering the Cavity Occlusion settings for AO maps.

I wanted to create a really comfy atmosphere, so I used a cozy orangish omni light in the center of the tavern as well as a warmer directional light to flood most of the scene. To complement this, I brought in a greenish direction light to shine from the right and to catch the edges of the rock and pipes to hint towards the tavern's overgrown characteristics.

From here on, I introduced many smaller omni and point lights to accentuate different areas. I also tinkered a lot with the width and distance too to soften any harder streaking shadows. Regarding post-processing, I enabled Global Illumination as well as Diffuse in the Render settings, this helped darken areas where props interacted and brought many needed shadows.


Creating the Overgrown Tavern was a great learning experience for me, I’m very glad to have completed it, but it came with many struggles. Some bigger props, like the mighty keg and metal pipe, went through many reworks. The lighting I found to be very tricky, as well as just putting everything together at the end. I have experience making collections of props, though making environments for them to be in is a lot tougher.

Something I have learned to avoid is being overly precious. If something doesn’t look good, then don’t be afraid to do it again, I find that it’s always much better the second time around! Though you also don’t want to sink too much time into redoing things, so it’s important to try and figure out what you don’t like and try to target that head-on! There are aspects I would change in retrospect, but overall, I am really happy with the outcome. My favorite props to work on were definitely the horn and the metal pipe, both of them were really fun to sculpt in ZBrush and texture.

I would really like to thank 80 Level for giving me the opportunity to share my workflow! I find the project breakdowns featured here truly valuable and I hope that someone will find some of my advice useful too! If anybody would like to see more of my work, you can find me on ArtStation, where I will be creating more projects as I search for work in the games industry!

Harvey Bennett, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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