Substance Alchemist: 100 Materials in 100 Days, by Nikola Damjanov

  • Architecture
  • Design
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  • Interview

Nikola Damjanov joined the Project Substance Alchemist beta early on in the process and helped the development team with the construction of this all-new material authoring and management software, available today in the Substance subscription. He decided to create 100 materials, in 100 days, in Project Substance Alchemist. This is his story.

Hi Nikola, thanks for this interview! Could you introduce yourself to the community?

Hello! Well, you know my name, but what you may not know is that my art education actually started at an engineering university. I transferred to interactive media before I finished there, but that admiration for technology has always stayed with me. Even today, after 10+ years of very varied experience, I’ll gladly blur the border between an artist and tech-artist. Actually, in my vision of the future, those are one and the same.

Back on planet Earth, I’m a lead game artist by day, in Belgrade, Serbia, for a mobile gaming studio called Nordeus, as well as a procedural tinkerer by night. So far, those two split personalities coexist very nicely because they learn and cross-pollinate with one another a lot. Kind of a win-win situation… Okay, not entirely, because I do lose some sleep 🙂

All of this puts me in the ‘3D generalist’ basket, which for some reason can be thought of as inferior – a view with which I professionally disagree! I even went as far as adapting the well-known phrase, ‘jack of all trades, master of some!’ That’s not very humble of me, of course, but it seems applicable.

You’ve just finished your 100th material of the day with Project Substance Alchemist. How do you feel?

It’s a very strange feeling – similar to the aftertaste you have after watching the last episode of your favorite TV show. You invest a lot of time, develop relationships and then catharsis hits when you reach the end. There’s this huge sense of accomplishment and growth mixed with the urge to redo a lot of stuff, and then topped with an idea not to do another material anytime soon. Of course, that last one is not gonna happen.

Long story short: happy, proud, and looking for ways to maintain this momentum.

You might seem crazy to some of us. Can you explain why you decided to make one material per day for 100 days in a row?

Trust me, at moments I seemed crazy to myself! To be fair, there’s some logical reasoning behind all that madness. I was one of the very lucky few to get my hands on Project Substance Alchemist early on. It was a blessing and a curse – sure, you get to play with super-cool toys before everybody else, but I tend to build pressure on myself to be a useful beta-tester. In order to match my own expectations, I needed some sort of a goal – because just opening the tool and clicking around is not usually very beneficial. The first couple of materials were just me getting to know the tool and, I labelled them #MaterialOfTheDay just because it was very fast for me to make them (within a day). At first, I didn’t have the marathon in mind at all.

Sometime around material #5, somebody from the Substance team actually joke-dared me to make a bunch of them. We laughed at first, but after thinking about it, it actually made sense. It ticked all the right boxes for me. I would be stress-testing the tool with potentially increasing complexity and it would give me a long-term self-improvement goal – I’m big on those! Shortly after that, Baptiste Manteau (Product Owner Substance Alchemist) came up with #MaterialMarathon and the stage was set.

After this experience, what can you say about Project Substance Alchemist?

Well, I can honestly say it’s a very unique tool with game-changing potential. Personally, I think it fits the Substance ecosystem very well. Sure, it has some overlap with both Substance Painter and Substance Designer, but it actually complements them. One big part is definitely the library management but, for me, material blending is the selling point – it’s just so easy! By the way, blending feels like an understatement here – you can mix, extract, augment, tile, recolor, generate, weather, splatter, dirty it up or snow it down, to mention just a few possibilities. With the toolset growing with every release, nothing is stopping you from taking 100 materials from Substance Source and making whatever you need. But wait, there’s more! Since this is Substance, everything is procedural and extendable.

What hits you immediately is how fast you can go from a photo to a pretty decent material. Basically, you can get production materials with sketching speeds.

That being said, it is a young piece of software and there’s definitely room for improvement on all fronts. Luckily, I have some insight into what’s being worked on, so I’m absolutely not worried.

Project Substance Alchemist is still in beta development, but what are the main features you used during material creation?

That has to be the Creation tab, where you blend materials and work with filters. I’ve spent 98% of my time there. It just draws you in with its sandbox appeal, and it’s very hard to leave. Since it is so easy to try things out you always want to do just one more step.

During the marathon, many people asked me if I think Project Substance Alchemist will replace Substance Designer. Absolutely not! You still need a tool to make your base materials, and for that part of the pipeline Substance Designer is here to stay. On the other hand, once Project Substance Alchemist is mature enough, I don’t see a reason to use Substance Designer to actually combine materials. Maybe just if you need some very specific precision.

Ultimately, you have Substance Source as an excellent grocery store for your base materials, then Substance Designer as a garden to grow your own and Project Substance Alchemist to take all those ingredients and cook whatever you want. Since I’ve entangled myself in this cooking analogy – maybe Substance Painter is the restaurant where you serve it all up? I don’t know, you tell me! 🙂

Tell us more about your creative process. How did you manage to find inspiration every day for new materials?

Like every creative process – it was very random, or should I say procedural, wink wink.

The biggest milestone in every material was the first couple of layers or steps. That’s where I defined the major shapes and what that material would actually be. I did pinpoint a couple of approaches that I usually converged to, in one way or another:

– Taking a photo or finding something interesting online, then extracting map data.

– Mixing Substance materials in expected and unexpected ways until some lucky accident happens, and sparks an idea. Here, I mostly relied on Substance Source materials but I did also use my own Substance materials, or materials from other artists. Basically, whatever I could get my hands on.

– Choosing some reference from the internet, and trying to recreate it.

Inspiration did come and go but I mitigated it by working in batches whenever I could. I didn’t specifically make a single material per day but rather made 4-5-6 of them at once, while I had them in me, and then just slowly released them into the wild.

Maybe the hardest thing was not to make any more stone/rock materials – those are unfair easy.

Could you dive deeper into a few materials and explain your process on them?

Absolutely, it will be my pleasure. Let’s go through four of them together because I feel like each of them has a somewhat unique approach.

Broken Dirty Tiles – Build up on your own Substance materials

I’ve started off with my own Broken Tiles Substance material, completely made in Substance Designer with exposed parameters to control the number of broken tiles.

Then I used the Pattern Generator filter three times, to add color variation to the tiles.

The next step was to blend in the original Broken Tiles material, but now with the broken parameter activated:

They were nicely broken but way too clean at this point. Three filters helped me – I’ve added Dust, Moss and Dirt, respectively – breaking up the roughness and adding slight color variation.

I was still missing some tertiary details, so I’ve mixed a brick material to fill in the space where there were no tiles, and added some bright and dark concrete to accentuate the edges and cavities.

In the end, all that was left to do was to re-balance the height and add some more dust to blend in all the details a bit better.

Here is the entire layer stack inside Project Substance Alchemist:


Final result:

Burned Tree Stumps – from a photo to a material

This material started from a photo I took on vacation. I used Substance Alchemist’s Bitmap2Material filter to extract map data, then the Adjustment filter to re-adjust the height for large shapes.

Since I was aiming for a charred look, first I blended some dark Pounded Asphalt over the edges and in AO.

That helped with the surrounding areas but the actual stumps were still too clean. First I added dirt and the used the Stone Splatter filter. This made the stones very dark, rough, and flat, so they looked like charred wood.

To introduce some more color I made a Bitmap2Material from burning charcoal I found online and blended it in.

Final touches were a bit more dust and an Adjustment layer to increase contrast, saturation and height.

Layer stack:

Breakdown gif:

Final result:

Monster Sashimi – Mixing stuff from Substance Source

During the marathon, I wanted to make some skin-type material. Since I didn’t have any of my own, I decided to try and mix something from the ones I could find on Substance Source.

This ostrich leather seemed like a good place to start but I mixed in some black and red leather to change colors and get some diagonal folds.

It was looking too much like leather so I added some skin-like details using frog and zombie skin Substance materials. Mostly in the cavities.

At this point, I was still missing some animal elements. That was fixed by blending in some zebra patterns and more zombie skin to add more skin color.

The final step was one of those happy accidents. I was trying to blend in various materials – searching for inspiration as I wasn’t feeling that the material was complete yet. While experimenting, I blended in the cavity parts of a rope material which looked like slashes in the flesh. I really like that so I adjusted the color, roughness, saturation, contrast and called this one done.

Layer stack:

Breakdown gif:

Final result:

Ammonite Fossil – building individual elements first

This material had a different approach as I knew exactly what I wanted from the start.

First I built individual elements from online photos.

Each photo was cleaned up and made into a separate Bitmap2Material, each with its own tweaks to map channels (opacity, normal, height, AO, roughness).

Now that I had the major building blocks, it was time to make the base layer. Which I did – from flint, gravel and color adjustments.

Then I blended in a material I made from all of the fossils together, at a smaller scale, and coated it in a thick layer of dust.

After that, each of those three fossils was splattered individually to build up the major shapes.

All that was left to do was add another, but subtler, layer of dust and a bright dirt layer.

Layer stack:

Breakdown gif:

Final result:

The remaining 96 materials of my marathon were mostly made with the same general approaches.

How did you see Project Substance Alchemist evolve over the months?

With a steady pace and a lot of ambition! 😉

The stream of updates was constant and relevant. It’s nice to be in a daily chat with the developers; that way I can beg and bore for things I need, and they do deliver! If you ask me, this is how software should be developed – with ongoing customer feedback and iteration.

There were times I thought you’d bugged my house because every time I started to lose motivation, a new version of Project Substance Alchemist would appear with more toys for me to play with. Thank you for that!

So the next natural step is a 200-material streak, right?

Heh 🙂 Well I hope for even more than that, eventually. For now, I’m focusing on some different short – and long-term projects.

One of them is #WednesdayShareday – which is more community-oriented. The plan is to give away something useful (almost) every Wednesday. Since my workflow is heavily based on Substance tools, people should usually expect things which are related. For example, the second #WednesdayShareday is a Marmoset render scene which I used to render out all of these materials. I think that’s pretty useful for everybody.

Don’t worry, I’ll be back on materials soon enough, and I hope to see a completely new Project Substance Alchemist again.

In the meantime, if you want to see more materials, just stop by my Artstation page for this project.

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