The Roots of Bud: Character Art, with Ecem Okumuş

One of the great joys of working on the Magazine by Substance team is when we happen across a 3D artist with outstanding talent. This was the case when we spotted Bud, by Ecem Okumuş – we were blown away by the level of skill involved in the portrayal of the cute little plant guy. We reached out to Ecem, who took the time to talk us through her creative process. 

Finding Bud

Ecem: My ultimate source of inspiration is always nature. It’s a kind of meditation for me to walk around plants, and take a closer look at their details, textures, colors and at the tiny hairs on their surfaces. Their transformation from a tiny seed to a beautiful plant is magical, I find. 

Bud was born after one of these walks. I just wanted to compose the things I like about him: adorable big eyes, his fragile plant structure, and a newborn innocence. Everything came together randomly. For me, the most fluid and beautiful way to create a character is to develop it spontaneously, with the inspiration of the moment, without any particular goal. 

Reference photos, taken by Ecem

I’m lucky that I have a garden full of inspirational plants. So I was able to take a lot of photos related to the character I had in mind. I generally collect everything that I like even if I won’t use it later, because even a tiny detail in those photos can give me a good idea.  

The Color and the Shape 

Concept drawing

I always start with a rough drawing first, then add more and more elements later on. Although I sometimes redesign some parts when I turn it into 3D, this still gives a good starting point. 

ZBrush screenshots

First, I start the sculpting process in ZBrush. If I’m happy with the blockout and silhouette, I retopologize it. Otherwise, if I’m not sure yet, I go a bit further with the sculpting, adding some rough details. But at some point in the process I need to keep going with a clean topology. For this project I mainly used ZRemesher, and Maya for tweaks on some parts to retoplogize it. Then I completed the model with its details. However, almost every time, I come back to this stage a few times and make some subtle or dramatic changes. And this is okay on my personal projects, like Bud, because I have endless freedom; if I want to change something, this means my eye for detail is improving, which is a good thing.

Maya screenshot – topology

Before the painting process, I unwrap UVs in Maya and for maps (normal, AO, curvature etc.) I usually use ZBrush, Substance Painter and sometimes Marmoset Toolbag and xNormal. Different programs can give slightly different results. For painting, I love using Substance Painter since it makes everything easier for the artist; you just focus on your artistry, and you can get really satisfying results. I think it has a very user-friendly interface too, so you don’t have to delve into its documents to understand how to cope with it. 

Rejected color schemes for Bud’s head

At first I was thinking of a different type of paint on his head. I wanted to add some color variations and patterns similar to some kinds of frog skins; also, there are some patterns on his head on my concept sketch that I wanted to add. But I ultimately decided that this approach didn’t work well. This stage was a bit experimental for me as I tried and tried again to reach a better look. Sometimes the piece goes in a different direction to what you planned, and this can and work better, so it is always advantageous to be flexible. 

Head layers in Substance Painter

Smart materials are definitely my favorite feature of Substance Painter. They’re a great time saver since they provide a good base. You just need to customize them according to your needs. I almost always start the painting process with a smart material which is close to my concept. Then I continue by changing and adding layers. For Bud I used a skin material for his head, first changing the base color. After that, I added two fill layers with curvature masks as a soft light at the top of all layers. This is a great way to increase the volume of sculpting details, and to provide the character with a much better look. I created and transformed layers in between to add some characteristic details (stains, spots etc.) and color variation.  

One thing that I prefer to do at the painting stage is to create a fill layer with a mask rather than just a painting layer. I find it more practical to work with a mask, especially if you need to return to that layer later to change the paint, or some other values. For example, in a fill layer you have the freedom to play with the sliders that define roughness, height, scattering etc. later on, if you wish – but if you work with a paint layer you need to add an extra filter to the values you want to change.  

Another thing I’ll typically do while painting is to jump between model and UVs. In particular, working on some narrow areas and combined meshes (like Bud’s eyelids) might be a bit complex while painting on a model. And so you can change the alignment of your brush to UV, and continue to paint on UVs if needed.  

Comparison between material and color mode in Substance Painter interface

For Bud’s head I generally painted layers by hand, and didn’t use generators or filters – though, really, this area depends on your current project’s needs. Sometimes it’s possible to feel that if you use more tools and features, you’ll achieve a better result. But I find sometimes that keeping it simple establishes a better overall look.

This image shows the maps that I exported from Substance Painter. At the shading stage I added some nodes to play with their values in Maya, instead of turning back to Substance Painter. I find this method more practical if it isn’t absolutely necessary to go back to Substance Painter. 

Final look of painting

I test-rendered throughout this process to see the result in a proper lighting setup, since that provides more control over the project. I used three lights in this scene: one main light and two back lights to emphasize the subsurface scattering effect on him.  

One of the exciting parts is adding hairs, as this really increases the realism of the character. I used XGen for peachfuzz and slightly longer hairs on the surface of Bud to give him a silky soft look like a baby plant. For rendering, I used Arnold and organized render passes in Photoshop at the final stage.  

The whole process is very experimental and educational for each personal project. I try to choose different ways to challenge myself, and to reach the final look. 

Keeping Perspective, as an Artist 

I think there isn’t a single way of being good at what we are doing. Which way and techniques to choose varies from person to person. The important thing is not to lose your enthusiasm and wonder, or even your sanity, as you’re finding your way. You have to be able to take a breath and recover even when those times come. It is a never-ending learning process. 

While learning, I like pushing my limits to present the exact image in my mind. That’s prompted me to learn other processes such as texturing, shading, rendering, and compositing; this all required a lot of research and experimentation. As a self-taught 3D artist, I think this is the most exciting part as well as the hardest – I’ve had to learn how to deal with the problems that arise, while I’m still discovering the art of 3D. For six years, I have been trying to improve my skills while I work as a character artist in different kinds of art projects. 

As well as all the resources I’ve been able to find – all the great tools and documentation – I’ve also had an enormous amount of help from my friends and family. So, huge thanks to them for helping, criticizing and motivating me whenever I’ve felt anxious on my journey. 

Meet Ecem Okumuş

A self-taught 3D freelancer, Ecem studied Stage and Costume Design at the Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts in Istanbul, before developing her growing interest in the creation of games and animated movies. She currently works in the commercial, film and animation industries in Istanbul, while continuing to push her skills by working on personal projects such as Bud and Reincarnation.