The pro guide to creating 3D textures

Five outstanding artists demonstrate the tricks of their trade, explaining how to create urban, sci-fi, natural, stylised and fantasy textures.

Urban texture

Generally, when I want to create a substance, I start with a list of the materials involved and make a quick base for each of them. I find that the materials themselves aren’t actually as important as the transitions and masks used to put them together, so I spend most of my time working on that.

I then break down the way they blend into a few categories. When blending almost any materials together, they will fall into one or more of the following: weathering, height or environment. Each of these requires some information in order to blend the materials properly. This information could be something like a Curvature map, Ambient Occlusion map or a Height map. An example of each would be: weathering – paint on metal that is peeling or flaking off (requires curvature, ambient occlusion or world space normals); height – puddles in a dirt path (requires height); environment – snow, sun bleaching, scattered leaves from the wind or anything you don’t see in the model itself (requires world space normal or position).

It’s important to know this because you want to develop each of these maps along with your main material. If a Height map that wasn’t created along the way is needed, there are two options to create the map. One option is to go back to the beginning of the project and create the Height map and add edits step-by-step as you changed the material. The other option is to convert the current maps, which will usually result in a loss of accuracy. That loss is accumulative each time the map is converted, so if you used a Normal map to Height map, then to Ambient Occlusion for masking dirt, you will most likely get odd masking.

01. Floral designs

Solid base shapes

It’s amazing what you can do with a few solid base shapes. When I was creating the floral designs for the wallpaper, I regularly found myself going back to using the same base shape and just using warps, tiling, symmetry and circular splatters to make other shapes.

02. Substance does the work 

Note-taking

The plaster substance I made takes in a mask and makes the edge area more damaged and broken than the rest. This makes adjustments easier as I only have to worry about blending two materials instead of three. 

03. Make a tools library

Build your own

Just because there isn’t a default for something doesn’t mean you can’t do it. I wanted to blend two materials based on height, so I used a pixel processor to make one.

04. Optimise early

Faster processing

A full resolution node will make your processing much faster and can be used to get some minor blur into your noise for free. For my first draft of the wall, I took about 13-15 seconds each time I made a change. After doing resolution optimisations, it dropped to 3-4 seconds.

05. Water stains

Realistic water damage

Technique by Kyle Peeters

Sci-fi texture

Sci-fi material

Before any work begins, I start with my points of inspiration. This helps clarify my goal and build a framework for the creative process that comes next. My inspiration for the sci-fi Material Challenge was massive spaceships, like those in Star Wars or Warhammer 40k. Next, I had to plan the whole material skeleton; this design process is similar to the one many 3D artists use to develop complex models from scratch.

Here I can plan what kind of features my substance will contain and how to group them into nodes. Knowing my goal helped me to picture what the material should look like in the end. I decided on big external slabs and plates of solid metal, small luminescent windows that would reside between the plates and fragile structures for the inner hull. Constant experimentation was very important and useful in helping me to achieve this. When I discover something interesting by accident I’ll often make a note of it, as these results might become helpful in future projects. You can’t just rely on a few schemes you already know. Thankfully, Substance Designer‘s node workflow gives you infinite combination possibilities, so allow yourself the time to unleash your creativity.

This brings us to the topic of material flexibility, which, in my opinion, is a crucial element behind all good materials created with Substance Designer. Flexible materials are reusable, give you and other users a wide range of possible applications, and save time. Moreover, creating flexible materials in Substance Designer is relatively easy to achieve – and enjoyable. Exposing parameters should deliver full control of Substance to the user. But remember to expose only those which are most important; too many switches can make Substance harder to control.

01. Create and blend patterns

Use many shapes

To create geometrical patterns, use several shapes, transform them and blend together. Disable Tiling in 2D Transform node – this allows you to move shapes freely. Create switches and expose their parameters to blend patterns and customise layers of your material.

02. Leaks and dirt effects

Rough up your edges

The Ambient Occlusion node is useful for creating leaks and dirt on your edges. You can use a Gradient map to blend it with your Diffuse map. Don’t forget to add it to your roughness layers.

03. Base colour scheme 

Get a good grayscale as a base

Don’t rush colour outputs; focus on creating a good grayscale first – it’s used as the basis for all outputs. Use the Gradient map on it to create a base colour scheme.

04. Histogram scan