Steel, Coal, and a Steam Engine: 15 New Procedural Materials

Materials of the Industrial Revolution designed by Pierre Fleau for Substance Source

I have always been fascinated by machines that combine incredible technology and beautiful designs. Trains are perfect examples of this. When I received the invitation to create this collection, I had just visited the Canadian Railway Museum in Montreal with my family. Obviously, it was the perfect theme for this signature pack.

And a perfect chance to make a full train scene!

Textured Model

For this project, I started from photo references, which I worked into stylized materials. It’s important to know how to add a twist of stylization to your work; this is a great opportunity to let your personality shine through. I decided to exaggerate the shapes, simplify the color palettes and give them more contrast. I also accentuated the differences of glossiness between materials. All of this comes together to create something that feels more vibrant.

I started collecting photo references from the museum, as well as on the internet. I spent a good amount of time searching for keywords and blueprints: accurate references are hard to find but very helpful, especially for technical pieces. Trains are very complex machines!

Andy Dingley (scanner), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Artwork by Pierre Fleau

Building the Warehouse

I actually didn’t start with the train. First, I thought about the theme and context of the scene. To ease into the project, I began working on the materials I was most familiar with, and that I knew I could combine into an environment that would need few materials and make sense for my train. I settled on a train warehouse for the maintenance of passenger trains.

Once I had made my choice, I knew what kind of photo references to look for, which in turn helped me determine which elements were absolutely necessary for the scene to be credible. 

Artwork by Pierre Fleau

The warehouse is not the focus point of the collection, but it sets the mood for the background and gives the entire scene a sense of scale. It’s a large element of the background, so it’s way more efficient to set it first, and have a good idea of scale and style before moving forward to the more detailed parts like the train. Plus, starting with the simplest materials allows me to iterate easily and set the art direction.

I wanted the train to pop out of the final image. So I decided that the warehouse needed a subdued color palette, with gray and white areas on floors and walls. I added stronger accent colors on small specific spots, like the paint strips on the door and the pillars.

I began with the wood and brick wall.

I really needed to check along the way that my materials would work in my final scene, so I set up a simple Blender scene.

This is actually something I recommend every artist should do: when you create your materials it’s always best to keep in mind where you’re going to use them. In my case, it was going to be a Blender scene.

On the wood planks and bricks, I did tests in Blender with a neutral lighting setup to find a good balance of color and contrast. I set up a simple scene with a sky, a sun, and some area lights to correctly light the material on simple primitives. Blender uses a real-time PBR viewport, so the textures need to be carefully calibrated in terms of luminance and saturation.

I complete my materials before adding them in Blender. I prefer iterating in Blender rather than creating too much in Substance Designer initially, and then realizing it doesn’t fit my project.

I also started applying the art direction I chose and added visible medium-size details like wood cracks, porosity of bricks, and broken parts. I usually exaggerate the size of those elements, making them more visible so that they don’t get lost in their environment. It’s a stylistic choice that is common in video games, where you want your visual story to have an impact.

And finally, I made sure the roughness contrasted enough to feel the age and moisture of the building.

These first materials helped me balance the details and tweak the ambiance of the scene, and served as a frame of reference for the following materials. It was time to move on to the next batch of materials: the concrete wall, rails, and door.

Artwork by Pierre Fleau

At that point, I started looking to add more procedural features, to allow people to tweak the number of windows, the amount of planks, and so on. Or, for instance, to add things like the concrete wall that can become a full tileable material, in order to create pillars, like so:

This is something that I don’t often have the time to do during the production of a game, but it’s worth it! When you have added procedural details, you can update your material easily if your needs evolve.

Artwork by Pierre Fleau

I also use exposed parameters to calibrate colors and balance the size of shapes at the end of the project, without having to rework the entire graph. I strongly recommend taking the time to expose color, roughness and the main features of the materials.

I used this process for the warehouse door: I could choose the amount, width and color of the paint strips in the final scene. Just change the value and export the new textures: the whole process only takes a few seconds. I didn’t go for the red door in the end because it was too strong a color, and it didn’t fit my scene; if I had used it, however, I could have adjusted the number of planks so that I’d have the right amount of information in my final render.

Engineering the Locomotive

Steam engines are amazing. They are full of details and very complex. To recreate a machine like that takes lots of time and effort. Since I’d chosen a more stylized approach for my materials, I was able to simplify the mechanisms, but I still tried to keep original parts that everyone could recognize.

For the front hatch and the wheel, I explored new options and used the height map for parallax mapping and tessellation.

I added lighting elements and plates on the hatch with multiple switches, to have a complete displaced material for texture presentation, as well as a simpler version without the lights to use on the 3D model of the train. 

The wheels are another example of customizable materials with multiple paint parts and small elements, because I wasn’t sure how many variations I’d need. So, after adding the wheels on the train, I just had to tweak the exposed values to create the variations I needed.

Working on this pack was great as I had the freedom (and time!) to test out everything I wanted to. I created node setups, like the welding or the 3D lettering, and replicated those effects in my other materials. It’s convenient to copy and paste from one material to another, and this guarantees that your materials will feel like they belong in the same scene.

Artwork by Pierre Fleau
Artwork by Pierre Fleau

The material for the cab controls of the engine is perhaps the most complex in the release. I added options to move levers, as well as to open the furnace and fill the pressure gauges synced to the needles. Working on such an ornate material with so many interconnected pieces was definitely a great way to stretch my material creation skill. 

Artwork by Pierre Fleau

Here, you can see the two statuses of the material, but you should really play with it to see how interconnected the elements are, and how moving one impacts the others…

Crafting the Wagon

For the last part of the pack, I wanted to create something that would feel a little more unique. The warehouse and the locomotive are desaturated and industrial, so I used a lot of rich colors and a more refined look on the wagon to increase the differences.

The color palette is more vibrant and detailed to make the wagon pop out from the scene. There are also more variations in material types, like brass, leather, painted metal, and fine wood to show that the function of this part of the train is different.

Artwork by Pierre Fleau

The atlas trim sheet was quite interesting to compose and added a smaller scale reference to the scene. I’m using an alpha_clip material to create these elements combined with parallax mapping. In the end, I used that material a little bit everywhere, both inside and outside the wagon.

Artwork by Pierre Fleau

I’ve worked on a lot of wood materials in the past; this something I find easy, now. To create a wood surface I combine different types of directional noises together. I like to isolate details using the gradient node to avoid having too much noise in the surface. Then I rotate and offset the fiber on every element of the texture.

For color creation, I create different masks and color variations. I try to identify real-world elements that could affect wood like varnish, dirt, and dust when choosing what type of details to add.

The Fine Wood material makes up 80% of the interior, so I kept it monochromatic to avoid having too much information in the final image. I tweaked the roughness so the final result would be very glossy and benefit from the lighting elements and reflections.

Artwork by Pierre Fleau

I created the layout of this texture to fit the structure of the wall: it’s always easier to create a draft of the texture to have an efficient layout.

You might think that there are many fabrics in this scene, but it’s actually only one single material: I made multiple variations of the fiber types and the patterns to create the carpet, the seat covers, and the curtains. This is one situation where it’s definitely quicker to create a generator rather than multiple fabrics from scratch.

When you download this material, you can tweak the fiber and colors, and there are several different types of fully procedural patterns.

Artwork by Pierre Fleau

Livestream

Pierre will be live on the Substance YouTube channel on February 4. Stay tuned!