Learning is what I like to do.
I am mainly an environment artist, but I enjoy doing level art, lighting, character art, level design, writing, traditional painting, and so on. I think that to be a good specialist, you have to be a bit multi-talented. I try to use my technical skills in the service of my creativity, and in this project, I had an unusual opportunity to explore a little scene without gameplay constraints. Even better: I was free to choose the subject.
So I decided to take inspiration from my childhood. I come from Brittany, a beautiful land in the west of France. I often played soccer on the beach.
Brittany is a Celtic land, heavy with myths, legends, and history. The lake where the aptly-named Lady of the Lake distributes magic swords could be in Comper; Merlin is said to be buried in Brocéliande; and the legendary sunken city of Ys might be in the Douarnenez Bay.
I remember listening to tales about korrigans (or viltansous). These pint-sized playful fairies are very similar to their cousins the leprechauns. Really, I could speak hours about all the korrigan species and Brittany’s myths.
So, it was obvious: I had to create a korrigan’s house.
I didn’t want the setting to be in medieval times, because I’ve already created a lot of art with a medieval fantasy theme — and also, because the Breton culture is not a thing of the past! It’s very much alive, and it’s growing more and more every year. Even better: the number of Breton speakers is increasing in schools.
This is also the reason why the korrigan house is made of things you can find on a beach on 2020. It’s not really an ecological message, though sustainability is important for me — but korrigans are well beyond human concerns. Most of them just enjoy day-to-day life. This old soccer ball can fit to create a house? Let’s customize it!
Building the Concept
To recreate the Brittany of my childhood, and merge myths and memories, I had to find a lot of little elements that would be familiar to anyone who knows the land. Plants were important, of course. For instance, I chose the hare’s tail plant because it’s pretty iconic of the dunes of Brittany. I love those fluffy plants!
I also love hydrangeas. Did you know that their color changes depending on the ground acidity? This why most of the time, in Brittany, they start pink and end blue, because the slate is acid. Here’s an example of that hue switch:
Plants are not the only nod to Brittany in the korrigan’s house.
I also added Brittany’s emblem on the beer caps and on the chouchen bottle. It’s a stylized stoat, or more precisely its tail: like the hydrangea flower, the stoat can change colors. It’s brown during summer and white in the winter — only the end of the tail remains black.
And, of course, there’s a tin of sardines. I love Jean-Baptiste Monge’s illustration with the lutin sleeping in his tin of sardines!
For the style, I was really inspired by Miki Bencz’s beautiful art.
Building the Korrigan’s House
My workflow can sometimes look complex. I like to try new things, and test technique combinations. For me, creativity doesn’t stop at the end result; it’s also something I apply when I build my workflow. I enjoy being creative with tools.
Brainstorming. Finding photo references. Wait one night; think about it! (It’s important not to start too quickly!)
Drawing — with pencil and paper first. Then drawing with the Wacom Cintiq.
Blocking directly in ZBrush. I find that it’s way better to 3D sketch in ZBrush than blocking in 3ds Max: I try to use the more ‘technical’ software at the very end. That way, I can focus on simple shapes, and I ensure I keep dynamic volumes throughout the process.
High-poly/retopo in 3ds Max, using Turbosmooth with a very low-poly base. Most of the time, I do this step in ZBrush too.
I jump back to ZBrush to edit the volume, but I’m very careful to avoid adding details at this stage! I think that this is the main trap with ZBrush. When you are doing cartoonish art, ZBrush is amazing for shape creation but not for details. And I don’t want to add details too early, either. At this point in the creation of the scene, details are a distraction.
Then, I do the final retopology in 3ds Max. For this project, since there was no need to optimize, it’s actually very basic. But now, who cares with UE5!? (kidding)
I used the auto UVs from Substance Painter. Pretty impressive, but for a real game project I’d love the team to add the ability to work manually on the UVs for some parts, like the ground.
And now the setup is ready and the fun really starts!
Texturing the Korrigan’s House
I bake all the classic maps (curvature, AO, normal map…). I started this scene with only 4 texture sets, because my computer is not very powerful. Later, when I started work on the unlit version, I went up to 6 sets.
In each texture set, I created and renamed a folder for each element, and added a monochrome color for each one. This step is very important, if your scene is not working with monochrome colors it will not work later with more details/lighting. I tend to iterate a lot on this step. The good thing is that with Substance Painter, this is very quick.
Then I added more detail information. Typically, I use a black mask, then add a custom grunge to subtract any generator used, for instance AO/curvature masks. On that point, an important note when you’re working on a stylized asset: never use a curvature as-is! Otherwise, you’ll end up with fairly noticeable bright edges.
Most of the time, though, I use a slope blur with my custom grunge.
I am also using a 3D sphere or lighting to create masks, which allow me to add information, like dirt, or even for instance complementary colors.
Remember: as much as possible, your details have to be the same gray level of your main color. Use complementary colors, not colors to darken or brighten. At this point, contrast is bad: contrast is the lighting’s job, not the albedo’s.
Tip : use the Windows shortcut filter to swap your screen in black & white. It’s Win+CTRL+C. If it’s not activated on your PC, search “windows black and white filter”.
And then, the final step of the PBR phase: lighting in Marmoset Toolbag. And voilà! First, there was a day version:
And then, a night version.
Why did I create a PBR scene for a handpaint-like final result? The Substance Painter workflow is quick and efficient, unlike the unlit classic workflow, which is too destructive. And I think it’s crucial to iterate often, even if you are super-skilled. This is the same reason why I start with a sketch: preproduction saves a lot of time in the end! So this PBR scene, which may seem like an extra step, allowed me to work faster altogether.
When I have a good feeling with lighting and PBR, I bake everything. I switch to Marmoset Toolbag again, and create a light map and a light mask. Then, I export them back to Substance Painter.
At this step, I focus on the lighting, contrast, saturation, and focus point, playing with 3D sphere and levels.
The 3D Brush Stroke Step
In order to prepare my scene for the ‘brush stroke’ I add a grunge map with slope blur and — finally! Real hand-painting. You should always keep the real hand-painting for the very end, because it’s quite destructive. I know that it’s hard to wait, but save it for the end.
I go back to ZBrush, and create a ‘shell layer’ on top of all my assets (duplicate everything + merge + dynamesh + inflate + relax), then add a few IMM curve planes for the most important silhouettes.
Get your Automatic UV Unwrapping in Substance Painter, then bake your previous painted version on this one. All that’s left is just to add an opacity filter in Substance Painter, with a triplanar grunge brush stroke pattern. Clean it up with handpaint.
I also ended up experimenting on a few things. For instance, I tried to fake some volumetric fog and particles with a grid of plane, check it out!
Why I Keep Hopping From One Tool To Another
You probably noticed my workflow is full of different tools, back-and-forth steps, and a lot of experimentations. I think it’s because, as I mentioned above, to be a good specialist I have to be at least a bit multi-talented. I like experimenting beyond my scope, and that’s taught me a lot of useful skills.
For instance, working on lighting in production taught me that shadow can be used to give information, like pretty leaf shapes on the ground. And that information shows best on a simple ground. Level Art also teaches a similar thing — that most of the time the simplest shapes are the best to create the most epic compositions. Similarly, SFX helped me understand that sometimes my props, textures or environments have to be simple to let the FX be clear and express itself.
Animation taught where scratches and impact will be on my props, and to avoid random scratches on impossible axes or positions.
Character art taught me how to model statues, and how to do clothing, and even anatomy. If you want to give to your tree a spooky feeling, knowing human anatomy is great. On the other hand, botany also teaches loads of useful skills. For instance, wood veins are not random, knots are located where branches spawn, that the base of a plant is always larger, that different flora grows in the shadow of tree than in the sun.
I like to write stories, and that helped me figure out how to implement storytelling information in my scene. Feeding your brain with another passion (anything — music? History? Cooking?) will help you to think outside the box.
Tangi will be live Wednesday with Wes McDermott for a deep dive into the korrigan’s house!