Blurring the Lines Between Modeling and Texturing

How to sculpt thanks to displacement on a basic shoe model

Seeing what the community creates with our tools is the most exciting aspect of our work. We develop tools made for specific workflows, but we’re always amazed to see how some users experiment with the Substance toolset, exploring and extending them to new levels. Artists will always find new opportunities to express their art. 

As software developers, it is our mission to spot when the community is onto something. It was already common for users to use height and normal maps in Substance Designer in order to avoid sculpting painful details onto the model. Soon it became evident to us that we should take this tendency a step further and provide features that will help the community actually “shape” their model through texture data rather than sculpting directly on a mesh.  

When we released displacement and tessellation support in Substance Painter 2019.1, it was our first step towards facilitating exactly this. Soon after, we saw users develop a new number of workflows suited to their specific needs. 

The most obvious benefit of adding details through texture data is of course to avoid sculpting them during the modeling process and gain in flexibility and freedom granted by parametric materials and procedural texturing. This means a lighter mesh size in a non-destructive workflow and steering clear of the sometimes lengthy and troublesome back and forth between your modeling and texturing apps, and all the steps in between. 

Substance Painter Displacement Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi 30
Substance Painter Displacement Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi 29
After Before

But it is also very flexible in terms of workflow: your low-poly mesh may be enough if you add in the details through height and normal maps and thus avoid the sometimes painful process of converting to high poly if you work with real-time or mobile devices for example. But you can also choose to use a displacement map or tesselate your mesh thanks to height map information in order to achieve high-poly mesh fidelity for offline rendering. Until very late in the process, you still have that level of choice and control. 

One of the many examples we can show here is the brush set created by Genci Buxheli, which are made to sculpt directly in Substance Painter thanks to displacement and tesselation. Read more about it here

Today, our vision is to blur the lines between modeling and texturing. We want to provide the community with tools to do exactly so. The goal is not to bypass the modeling part, but to bring modeling and texturing closer and more collaborative. 

To explore this emerging workflow, we worked with creative designer Hussain Almossawi. Our idea: work with a very basic low-poly model of a sports shoe and let Hussain add in all the details using displacement in Substance Painter. We’ll leave it to Hussain to explain what happened and tell us more about his creative process.

Concept and sketching  

Hussain Almossawi: This project started as a way for Adobe and me to collaborate on designing a shoe, using Substance Painter, and showing the capabilities of what Substance can bring to the table using its sculpting tools, which are all made using displacement maps. The objective was to start with a very basic silhouette with no details whatsoever in 3ds Max, then take it into Substance Painter and finalize the modeling and rendering all in the program. 

Substance Painter Sketch Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi

As a designer, part of the process is to explore and ideate details of the shoe through sketching or any other medium. For this shoe, I was thinking of doing a running shoe, something that felt comfortable and easy to get into, while keeping the overall aesthetic simple, fast, and exciting. My biggest priority from a 3D/displacement standpoint was to stay away from laces, to keep it more technically advanced, and that’s why I created the ribs in the midfoot area that hug around the feet. My biggest priority was to stay away from laces and keep it a laceless shoe. 

Once I was happy with my sketches and initial ideas, I started by blocking the initial shape and proportions more accurately in 3D, which I then took to Substance and had fun with different textures and sculpting brushes to bring the shoe to life. Finally, I applied my materials and textures in Substance, and rendered it with the built-in renderer that comes with the program. 

Substance Painter Sketch Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi

Modeling

Coming from the footwear industry I might have had a good feel for making shoes and proportions which made it a bit easier. But shoes can get tricky sometimes, and for this shoe, I started with my sketches and references of other shoes to make sure my proportions were on the right track. I started my modeling by creating a basic box and molded it to resemble the shape of a shoe. What was important for me was to have three pieces of geometry that I could then play with within Substance: the upper, midsole (cushion), and outsole (grip). As for finding the sweet spot, I guess it’s just bringing your silhouette and overall shape to life, and then that becomes your canvas to play with and sculpt on, just like anything else that you would sculpt in 3D sculpting programs. 

Displacement in Substance Painter

Step 1: I start by creating a very simple geometry of the shoe in 3ds Max. At this point, I just want to get my proportions right and not dive deep into the details of the shoe — basically just the overall silhouette and shape of something that can be recognized as a shoe by anyone. 

Substance Painter Displacement Footwear 1Design by Hussain Almossawi
Substance Painter Displacement Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi 2

Step 2: I unwrap each part of the shoe so that the UVs can be prepared and easy to work with once I get into Substance.

Step 3: I import my 3D model into Substance and make sure my geometry and object groups are looking right. I go to the Shader Settings, on the right, and make sure I enable the Displacement and Tessellation settings. Set the Displacement source channel to Height, and a scale of 0.1. As for the Tessellation: The higher it is, the smoother the final results, but make sure the computer can handle it at 32. 

Substance Painter Displacement Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi 4

Step 4: I start with applying shaders to my upper, and masking off the areas that I don’t want it to affect. Under material settings for the layer I’m working with, I make sure my height map is turned on so that the displacement can start to take effect. For the ribs in the midfoot, I used the Liner Bellow Duct material found on Substance Source.

Substance Painter Displacement Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi 5

Step 5: I create a new layer, using the sculpting tools and brushes, to paint over the ankle area and give it that extra bit of cushioning to make it feel comfortable. 

Substance Painter Displacement Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi 6

Step 6: I add another layer of detail to the rubs, a small scale of Polyester Honeycomb Mesh found on Substance Source. I then use the same material at a much larger scale for the back of the shoe, which makes it feel like a totally different material.

Substance Painter Displacement Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi 7
Substance Painter Displacement Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi 8
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Step 7: I add more subtle details to the front part of the shoe. I also add some minor stitching details to parts of the shoe and the seam in the back.

Substance Painter Displacement Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi 8
Substance Painter Displacement Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi 9

Step 8: Now that I’m happy with the general details of my upper, I start to look into colors and textures. I add a layer of the Large Terrazo patterns, and modify the colors to match something I liked. When I start applying colors, it’s important to turn off all the maps except the diffuse map, so that I don’t affect the geometry of the shoe anymore. 

Substance Painter Displacement Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi 10

Step 9: I add another layer of detail to the front part of the shoe, to break the shoe up a bit more and make it more interesting. I use the Square Armor Salvage material and scale it up, and mix it up with some Rusty Hammered Iron texture. 

Substance Painter Displacement Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi 11

Step 10: Finally, for the upper, I add some branding, such as the Substance logo and a tag line for the shoe on the side. For those, I basically create a new layer, and use them as stencils on the shoe, placing them nicely on top of UVs. It’s good practice to shift between working on the actual model and UV, as it makes sense to use one over the other in different instances.

Substance Painter Displacement Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi 12

Step 11: Moving on to the midsole, I displace some text around different parts, using some of the built-in graphics that come with Substance. You can also write whatever you want by either importing it as a graphic and masking it on the shoe, or using the Font filter, which comes preset in different styles. 

Substance Painter Displacement Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi 13

Step 12: I use two different textures, for the back and front of the midsole, and blending them into each other across the split in the middle. I use the Aluminum Honeycomb Pattern as my displacement pattern for the back, and Iron Diamond Armor for the front, and rotate it so it can flow in the same direction of the shoe, giving a sense of speed. 

Substance Painter Displacement Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi 14
Substance Painter Displacement Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi 15

Step 13: Finally, I add some color, just like I did on the upper, so they can match, adding the Rusty Hammered Iron and changing its values to black and red and scaling it up. 

Substance Painter Displacement Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi 16

Step 14: Moving on to the outsole, I play around with different patterns and designs in Adobe Illustrator, and import them into Substance as a Stencil, painting over the outsole on the height map only. 

Substance Painter Displacement Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi 31
Substance Painter Displacement Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi 17
Substance Painter Displacement Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi 18

Step 15: I add another layer on top of my displaced geometry to give it some color, again, matching what we did on the upper for consistency. I added the Terrazzo pattern, as a Diffuse Map only, and scale it up a lot to make it feel like some chipped rubber was thrown in the mix when this shoe was made. 

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Substance Painter Displacement Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi 19

Step 16: Finally, I add my branding, and same colors, to my tongue label to finish off the shoe and make every part tie into the other. 

Substance Painter Displacement Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi 20

Step 17: Before I start rendering, I go to Texture Settings and select all objects in the Texture Set List, and set the resolution size of the maps in the file to 2048 or 4096. Both resolutions are pretty good, but it all depends on the computer specs and whether it can handle it at 4096. 

Substance Painter Displacement Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi 21

Step 18: I click the camera icon on the top right to go into render mode. I kept everything pretty much to the default settings. I choose the “Soft 1 Low Contrast Front” as my HDRI map, and enable my Ground and set it to a white material to give me a nice studio render setup. 

Substance Painter Displacement Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi 22
Substance Painter Displacement Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi 23
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Step 19: I rotate the model and play around with exploring different angles to find the best beauty shots that can show the details of the final products — details are the geometry, colors, materials, and any details that you want to be highlighted. I set my 3ds Max Samples on my render settings to about 4000 and my Max Time to 8000 seconds, just to ensure a smooth, clean final render. 

Substance Painter Displacement Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi 25
Substance Painter Displacement Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi 24
After Before
Substance Painter Displacement Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi 32
Substance Painter Displacement Footwear Design by Hussain Almossawi 31
After Before

The Benefits of displacement

I hardly use any intense sculpting tools when it comes to 3D, but with displacements in Substance, it was just as simple as using Photoshop; both the interface and tool are extremely simple and effective to use. The best and most effective thing about the whole process for me is that with a click of a button I can change the displacement map texture, and get a whole new geometry within seconds, it’s crazy!

As for displacements in Substance versus modeling, other than saving time, the beauty of it is how non-destructive the process is, and building layer over layer of complexity, which can be fine-tuned and adjusted easily at any stage. Another big advantage is how light the file is: It’s basically a very simple mesh with the magic happening through the textures, rather than creating crazy geometries that make the file heavy and, in some cases, hard to go back and fine-tune quickly. 
 

Rendering and lighting

This was the first time I rendered my project using the built-in render engine in Substance, and it’s really well done. I chose one of the HDRIs that comes with Substance, and all I changed was my environment color, making it a solid white backdrop, and rotated the HDRI at an angle that gave me the desired shadow intensities I had in mind. The renderer is very easy to work with, and interactive/real-time, so it’s just a matter of positioning your model the way you like it, and at the camera angle that you like. 

As for the animation, I exported the substance textures for Vray and imported them back into 3ds Max, where I applied the maps back on to the shoe along with the displacements and other maps. The animation render was done using Vray 5 for 3ds Max.

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Key takeaways

This project was the first time I played around with displacements much in Substance, and it was super easy and fun to work with. It all comes down to saving time on your workflow and doing things quickly, effectively, and as photo-realistic as possible. There are a few things that I felt made the process more effective, such as the following: 

1- I used a great tool/asset called “CARVE” by Genci Guxheli, and it is a set of sculpting brushes that really help you sculpt things much better than compared to the standard Substance brushes. 

2- Another great tool that you should not underestimate is the amazing materials on Substance Source, and I use those more than anything to give me quick textures. They are easy to work with, you can mess around with the built-in settings they come with to change them up, as well as play with scale and other properties. I usually apply them to the model, mask certain areas off, and sometimes layer different materials on top of each other to give me really interesting and intricate displacements. 

3- On the footwear design side, I created my patterns for my outsole (bottom of the shoe) using Adobe Illustrator, because it’s just easier and faster to create certain patterns using the blend tool, and I would export the result as a black/white JPG into Substance, and use it as a mask or stencil to apply it to my model. 

4- Before exporting your model from your 3D program into Substance, I found it really helpful to split my model into four groups, so that I can focus on each individually when I take it into Substance. I would break it down into the upper/tongue label (tag)/midsole/outsole. 

5- Don’t restrict yourself to the categories of materials for the shoe: Don’t confine yourself with the fabric materials on Substance Source for the upper of the shoe. You can always create unexpected and amazing results by mixing materials. For example, take the diffuse colors and patterns of a marble material, and mix it with a knit height map for displacements. That’s basically what I did with my outsole: I mixed rubber material (realistic) with Terrazo Patterns (not realistic) and the final outcome was pretty interesting. 

6- When I’m using similar materials on different parts of the shoe, I copy the material and paste it as Instance on another part of the shoe. That way it becomes much easier to only change and adjust the material once in the future, and it will change on every other part of the shoe. Usually it’s really helpful if you want to quickly change a texture or do a new colorway, and it will just be a matter of seconds especially on more complex models. 

3D Printing

The real strength of creating things quickly with displacement isn’t only for visualization purposes, but also for prototyping and effective 3D printing. With this model, I was able to export the final outcome as mesh, and the great guys at Mimaki were able to print it for us, which looked more than real. In the footwear industry, we always used to 3d print, and it’s becoming the faster way of looking at results in your hands and getting a better feel for the lines and shape of the shoe, instead of waiting a couple of weeks to get a sample from the factory which you don’t end up liking. Again, it’s all about speed and efficiency.

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Final words

Substance has found its way into becoming a very important part of my workflow and pipeline, both in terms of saving time and achieving really nice photorealistic beauty shots. My next projects through my studio, Mossawi Studios, are a wide range of things ranging from footwear, architecture, and automotive and CGI Animations, in which Substance plays a huge role in the CMF and material explorations part of the product. 

Have fun and dream big!