Professional Services
Order outsourcing

The Gnome House: Recreating A 2D Environment In 3D With UE5 & ZBrush

3D Environment Artist Léa Derigon has provided a step-by-step breakdown of the Gnome House project, discussing the approach to translating a detailed 2D concept into 3D, revealing the wood fiber sculpting technique in ZBrush and explaining texturing workflow for stylized vibrant assets with Substance 3D Painter.


Hello there! My name is Léa Derigon, aka Ael. I'm currently wrapping up my final year of studies at Artside School and getting ready to start my journey as a junior environment artist.

I began my art game journey by crafting 2D environments and characters for 2D games, both as part of school, personal projects, and game jams, which were experiences that really sparked my interest in painting and visual crafting for games. Upon joining Artside, I delved into sculpting with ZBrush and painting with Substance 3D Painter, and I quickly fell in love with both. It's there that I found my interest in building appealing and colorful stylized digital 3D environments, as I had only been working on realistic 3D until that point.

Up to now, I've participated as a 2D Artist in game jams, created illustrations for peers, earned a degree as a 3D generalist, and gained experience working as an intern 3D generalist at an architecture studio.

Gnome House Project

I started the Gnome House environment as my last year's project. We were given three and a half months to create a 3D game environment based on a concept of our choice, which to me was both an opportunity to showcase the skills I've learned so far and explore new workflows as well.

I went on a Pinterest spree, looking for a concept with appealing shapes and a vibrant feeling to it. When I saw Jenny Brozek's amazing concept art, I fell in love with it and knew I wanted to recreate that whimsical, magical, and colorful kind of atmosphere. I also never got a chance to create stylized water or smoke and as an inspiring environment artist these were things I wanted to learn, so I went for it.

I first set up a PureRef board and gathered stylized game references I wanted to match, such as Shiro Games' Darksburgh and Airship's Ruined King sculpts and paintworks to help me visualize how I would approach the multiple sculpts and materials in a stylized way. I added some real-life material references as well to make sure the whole thing would remain coherent.

Initial Blockout

I then moved on to 3ds Max, where I started blocking out the main shapes, composing the scene with just the right amount of detail in my blockouts to assess the correct proportions between elements.

I like to import everything as one piece in Unreal Engine very early on to set up my camera and make sure I get the actual proportions right from the correct angle. That way, I can easily and quickly move back and forth between my modeling software and Unreal to make adjustments.

Modeling & Sculpting

Once the camera and proportions felt right, I jumped back into 3ds Max to add more details to my meshes, set up their pivot point correctly, and re-import them in Unreal piece by piece to set up my scene in a modular way. By that point, my list of assets was done and I knew which ones to reuse and duplicate in my Unreal composition and placed everything accordingly.

On top of that, I also added the necessary details and adjusted my topology to get the meshes ready for sculpting in ZBrush. Apart from a tileable and some parts of the vegetation that were done in Photoshop, every asset received a ZBrush pass.

When I can block out the entire shape in 3ds Max, I use a subdivision workflow. It allows me to export the clean low version of a sculpt once it's done to make the retopology process faster and use layers within ZBrush. The only exception to this was the dragon head because I had to work with DynaMesh to merge some parts of the petals to the head and refine the proportions. Since it was a more organic sculpt, I had to make a lot of shape adjustments.

For my other meshes, I made sure that the topology is distributed evenly in squares to facilitate smooth and even subdivision in ZBrush, ensuring the resolution of the sculpt is consistent everywhere and not 'blurry' on some parts. For the wood low meshes and other objects with sharp angles, I added chamfers around the edges. This saved me from having to soften sharp edges within ZBrush and having to add the edges manually during the retopology process, as sharp angles tend to not bake correctly and can cause lighting issues on these surfaces.

Since there is a lot of wood in this scene, I wanted to get the sculpting stage right very early on. I started by sculpting one of the little houses, as I preferred not to experiment directly with the main assets at first. My goal was to get a feel of how I would sculpt each material and set up a clear workflow that would match the feel of the concept and my references.

For this specific project, I gave the wood fibers a curved, flowy appearance and added some spiral patterns in some areas to complement the organic and graceful shapes of the original concept.

When it comes to the technique itself, I set up my creases and subdivide my meshes until the resolution is high enough to start sculpting. For the fibers, I use the Selection and Move tool, hardening or softening the selection accordingly to get the right amount of sharpness without losing resolution and move it to create the wood fibers and add volume.

I combine this with the use of the Orb Slash 2 brush, and I like to create asperities in the fibers with the Flatten Edge brush to make it more visually appealing and widen the fiber.

Consistency in fibers and other long crack widths was important to avoid.

To create some specific wood fiber shapes as well as the teacup and teapot cracks found in the concept, I used Photoshop to create alphas with the Pen tool. It's a quick way for me to lay out precise shapes. I then added an inner shadows effect so it's not too sharp when I'm using it as a mask, as using the blur mask option in ZBrush itself tends to blur the shape too much.

After that, I imported the alphas in ZBrush, created a new layer, and used it as a mask to extrude inward to get the outline of the main shape. I tweaked the layer intensity to get the correct depth, before reworking it to make it as organic as the rest.

When I want to work on just one side of a crack, I select the side I want with the Selection tool, soften the selection, and work from there to add more asperities and break the shape if it's too regular.

For the teacup, teapot, and other metallic or ceramic parts, I kept the sculpt rather light, creating some stylized surface asperities with some very light HPolish brush taps.

I'm using layers throughout the whole process to ensure that I can go back between each step without losing everything. It makes the files heavier, but it gives me more flexibility. I usually break it down like this:

  • Outlining layer on which I add some asperities on the outlines of the shape, maybe pull some parts out
  • The first fibers layer on which I outline the main fibers
  • A fiber details layer on which I add more organic details
  • Adding more as I deem necessary or when I want to test things out

When it feels right, I merge some layers together to prevent the file from becoming too heavy. I also do this to avoid any bugs in ZBrush, as having too many layers can cause unexpected artifacts on the sculpt. Usually these issues can be solved by merging all of the layers, but I try to not have more than four-five layers per file.

Working with layers also allows me to tweak the intensity of each one using the slider whether I want to enhance or tone down my sculpt.

The Morph Target tool comes in handy for removing parts of a layer as well. I simply hide the layer, click on the StoreMT (Morph Target) button, reveal the layer again, and then use the Morph brush to restore specific areas of the layer.

Another quick tip: if you like your last brushstroke and want to accentuate it, no need to try to replicate it, you can just press & (or 1) and ZBrush will repeat your last action.

Grass & Vegetation

The grass was set up using Runtime Visual Texturing to blend the grass' color with the ground underneath, which I painted to get smooth color variations between my grass blades.

Setting up the RVT can seem a bit tricky at first glance if you've never done this, but there are a lot of good tutorials on YouTube. I usually come back to this one created by Game Dev Academy:

The grass originally had a color map that blended with the ground, but I soon realized the visual looked smoother and was easier to read when the grass was set to unlit and completely absorbed the ground colors, so I kept it that way.

For the grass meshes, I used stylized grass blades that I had already modeled for one of my previous projects to scatter throughout the scene with the grass paint tool in Unreal. Additionally, I modeled some unique blades to match those in the concepts and placed them accordingly.

For the other vegetation assets, I first painted some simple bushes and leaves in Photoshop, then applied the texture on a plane to cut the shapes out with the Cut tool. After that, I bent them and scattered them around my scene, forming round bushes and vegetation. I reused the bushes to create moss as well, scaling it on one axis to make it larger.

For the larger flowers, given their size, I treated them like regular assets and not vegetation assets. I modeled and sculpted a few petals for each flower, with some light sculpt on the orange top one to bake the light volumes on the simple geometry and create some nice shadows within the Emissive color. I then placed them manually in Unreal to form each big flower.

For the glowy parts of the petals, I set up a shader using inverted Fresnel coordinates to make the emissive come from within each individual shape.

A Point Light was also placed in between the orange petals to accentuate the glowy effect even more. I used the Lighting Channel parameter in Unreal to ensure that it only illuminated the petals, assigning them their own light channel.

I used the same technique to add the blue rim light hitting just the side of the petals and did the same on other objects of the scene to achieve the multiple blue hues found in the background.

Texturing Workflow

For this project, I used Substance 3D Painter for the texturing and Marmoset Toolbag 4 for the bakes. I prefer to bake my assets in Marmoset Toolbag and then export all the maps to 3D Painter, as the software gives me easier control over my bakes, it's just a personal preference.

Once inside Substance 3D Painter, I started by creating a smart material to add shadows with darker complementary colors, some highlights on the curvatures, and set my first layer of base color. This served as a guideline for the painting process that followed.

For this, I mainly used the Knife painting brushes. First, I added the first layers of flat color variations, with flat and clear forms. When I'm painting stylized assets, I mostly use vibrant colors and try to keep my shapes sharp, embracing the object's form. Then, I highlighted some key areas of the curvatures to accentuate the important shapes.

I avoid pure white in my highlights, just like I avoid black in my shadows. It keeps things colorful and prevents the colors from looking too bland or dirty. Additionally, I like to add discreet complementary color variations in my painting when the mood calls for it, and here I could add even more thanks to the multiple blue lights present in the concept.

Sometimes the Blur Slope filter can be useful to quickly get a painted look, but I very rarely use it because it can quickly give a dirty or noisy feel to the texture.

I control the roughness on almost all of my layers, setting it lower in highlights and higher in shadows to keep it darker. The roughness range I use depends on the material. Throughout the process, a lot of back and forth to check how it looks in the engine.

For the wall textures, I sculpted a tileable using ZBrush and 3D Painter and created another wall tileable with 3D Painter, supplemented by vertex painting to shift between the textures on the walls of the houses. I also used decal meshes to simulate stains and leaks, and I reused them to create some color variations on my tiles as well.

Final Rendering Setup

In my master material, I added a feature to apply a top-down gradient that darkens the base colors nearer to the ground, which helps integrate the objects into the environment. You can also add this manually in your texturing software, but having it as a setting in Unreal gives me more direct control and flexibility.

Post-processing was used to disable Auto Exposure. I also used the Sharpen feature, which is a cool addition in Unreal Engine 5 that makes the outlines of your meshes nicely pop up in a stylized way as long as you don't overdo it.

For the water VFX, I used two normal maps that I animated using a Panner node and blended them with a BlendAngleCorrectedNormals node. The BaseColor was created by lerping two colors together and using the Depth Fade parameter.

To make the water effect stand out more, I added a Point Light inside my pond and inside my water can.

The waterfall was quite simple to set up. This time I blended two colors together using a Lerp with an alpha map and applied it to a mesh that had straightened UV coordinates filling the entire UV space. To that, I added some Niagara VFX to simulate the droplets.

For the water foam around the objects in the water, I created a shader using the process explained in this tutorial by Alex Vinogradov.

For the smoke, I just duplicated the WaterFoam shader, multiplied the resulting shape with a round alpha, and applied it to a new Niagara effect.

To make high-quality renders of my project, I used the Movie Render Queue. You can learn how to set it up on William Faucher's channel in this video:


One of the main things I struggled with in this project was the level of detail. The original concept is very rich visually and filled with details everywhere. While it works in 2D and the visual is stunning, it tends to not translate very well in 3D, creating unwanted visual clutter if you try to reproduce it as is. While sculpting, I had to make choices about which details I wanted to keep, which ones I should highlight during painting, and which ones to leave out to direct the focus and not overwhelm the viewer. It was a back-and-forth process balancing the level of detail across different areas.

The lighting played a crucial part in that aspect as well. The mood was tough to find since the lighting of the original concept is quite diffuse and not very pronounced, so it was difficult to know where to place my main light. I originally replicated the gray background but I eventually went for a darker one to let my environment breathe and stand out more, which helped me figure things out. From there I tweaked the lights and some of the colors as well, highlighting some parts and toning down others.

For example, I ended up turning off the emissive and toning down the saturation of the plants present under the balcony to let the other parts of the composition breathe and stand out more.

I really enjoyed working on this project and delving into its magical mood for the past few months. I had a ton of fun exploring and learning new ways of doing things. I feel like I made a ton of progress. Although I wish I could rework some parts, especially my earlier sculpts and textures, I'll leave it at that for now and focus on new projects.

The main advice I would give to beginner 3D artists is to be mindful of how you translate a 2D concept into 3D, as some things tend to not translate well from one to the other. Don't hesitate to adapt if need be while still respecting the original feel of your concept. I also recommend stepping out of your comfort zone and experimenting with new techniques even if it seems intimidating at first, it's often very fulfilling and can save you lots of time on future projects! The more you learn, the more you'll be able to overcome.

Also, keep asking for feedback from people, even those who are not aspiring artists. When you're working on something for a long time, you tend to overlook issues that others can easily identify at first glance. I am very grateful to all the people who gave me feedback throughout the project!

Thank you for reading! I hope this was interesting and helpful to someone. Don't hesitate to follow me on LinkedIn and ArtStation.

Léa Derigon, 3D Environment Artist

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

Keep reading

You may find these articles interesting

Join discussion

Comments 0

    You might also like

    We need your consent

    We use cookies on this website to make your browsing experience better. By using the site you agree to our use of cookies.Learn more