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3D Environment and Prop Artist Alexander Nguyen was ready to jump back into the world of stylized art, so he planned a challenging, Zuldazar and Taiwanese-inspired environment. In this breakdown, Alexander explains each step of his workflow, including:

  1. References and Inspiration
  2. Initial Sketch
  3. Model Strategy
  4. Modeling
  5. Textures Workflow
  6. Vegetation
  7. Low-Poly Geometry
  8. Fountain and Pool
  9. Final Scene

Hi, my name is Alexander Nguyen. I’m a 3D Environment and Prop Artist from Southern California. I’ve always been enamored with video games and animation, so it felt natural to gravitate towards stylized game art. After earning a BFA in Entertainment Arts: Animation from California State University Fullerton, I worked on a lot of 3D prop art and environment art gigs. But then, I decided to follow my heart and re-focus on creating stylized art.

1. References and Inspiration

This 3D stylized environment project required a scene with plants, architecture, and blended ground texture. I knew that I wanted to make a diorama of a flooded temple, so I gathered all of my references and organized it in PureRef. When it comes to references, I usually combine games, travel experiences, real-world locations, films, and illustrations.

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In this case, Zuldazar and my experiences from exploring temples in Thailand were my main inspirations. I also looked at background art from the 1967 Jungle Book film, the Balinese Tirta Empul Temple, and various concepts from artists such as Jourdan Tuffan for additional references.

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Check out CGMA’s Creating Stylized Game Assets taught by Senior Environment Artist Ashleigh Warner.

2. Initial Sketch

I wanted something sculptural to stand out in my scene, so I sketched a water fountain with an ornate serpent to serve as the focal point. The design went from being based on a cobra to being a blend between the mythological Naga and Quetzalcoatl.

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Another idea that I wanted to tackle was a cross-section of a pond with fish in the scene.

3. Model Strategy

It’s beneficial to strategize and figure out what parts need to be modeled from trims versus what needs to be uniquely unwrapped for modularity.

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4. Modeling

The bricks began from a tileable texture that I painted in Photoshop. To get the chunkier brick pieces, I used the multi-cut tool and extracted them from the plane. I also pushed around some vertices to get the volumes that I desired.

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When I made the columns, I started with a 12-sided cylinder. From that cylinder, I made a trimsheet and added some embellishments. After finishing the column’s clean version, I deconstructed it and created a ruined version with the multi-cut tool.

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The tree stump started as a cylindrical base with flared edges. To add roots to the stump, I created a curve with the CV curve tool and undulated it from its sides. I then made a diamond-shaped plane with the Create Polygon Faces tool and snapped it to the curve.

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After selecting both the curve and diamond shape plane, I extruded it along the curve. Then, I played around with tapering, thickness, divisions, and twist until I was satisfied with the results. Once I had the desired root shape, I welded the verts of the base with the roots.

Read “CGMA Students Sweep World of Warcraft Environment Art Contest” to see more award-winning projects from this course.

5. Textures Workflow

When hand-painting in Substance Painter, it’s crucial to isolate the viewport to the Base Color view to represent the diffuse texture accurately. I usually set up a base fill layer first and then add paint layers for the forms, details, and colors to blend with the smudge brush.

To get the wear-and-tear and organic look on my surfaces, I alternated between Kyle’s Paintbox and Spatter brushes when I painted and smudged the colors around.

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Joe Pikop’s SoMuchMaterials plug-in helped establish the initial base color, lighting angle, and roughness for the serpent’s head. To fully take advantage of that plug-in, I had to sculpt a high poly version of the statue’s face with ZBrush first and then bake the volumes down onto the low poly mesh. After the bake, I painted in the scratches and sharpened some of the edges to get a more chiseled look.

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6. Vegetation

To make my lotus set, I blocked out the silhouettes of petals, buds, leaves, stamen, stems, and a seed pod in Photoshop with the lasso tool and made tweaks with a hard brush. Doing this allows me to set up an alpha channel early to use for the modeling phase. After rendering everything out, I added padding to the plants by duplicating the layer, applying Gaussian blur, duplicating the blurred image a couple of times, then finally merging the blurred layer with the original layer on top. This step is crucial to avoid bleeding and artifacts.

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My ivy bushes were composed of a bunch of duplicated leaves. To add some depth and variation, I made shaded versions with the levels editor and liquify filter. After creating all of the leaves, I made two sets of vines and placed the brighter leaves on top of the darker set.

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When I make plants, I generally start from a polygon plane with the diffuse and alpha maps applied. Then I toggle on preserve UVs before cutting out the leaves and petals with the multi-cut tool. Doing this allows me to adjust the vertices without any stretching. Once I’m happy with the topology, I’ll turn off preserve UVs, extract the selected faces and either deform the shape with lattice or push around the vertices with soft selection turned on. Next, I’ll duplicate and rotate the foliage card around a center point to build up my plant. After finishing the top portion of the plant, I’ll make a stem and attach it to the bottom.

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My approach to making plant stems depends on their thickness. The fern’s stem was modeled directly from a plane and kept flat while the monstera and lotus’s stem were made from separate meshes and attached to the base of the flower or leaf. To make a low poly stem with enough volume, I needed to make a flat triangle as the base and then extrude it to the desired length. One of the things I learned to watch out for is overdraw, so I modeled the leaves as close as possible to the plant’s shape.

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Enroll in CGMA’s Vegetation & Plants for Games course taught by Naughty Dog Environment Texture Artist Jared Sobotta.

7. Low-Poly Geometry

Since this is a portfolio piece, I wasn’t too concerned with the polycount. My main concerns were with the overall silhouette shape and avoiding shading errors. I wanted to leave the rest of the detailing to the textures. Most of the assets in this project are between 500 – 4,000 triangles.

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8. Fountain and Pool

I based my water texture on some water caustic photos that I found on Google. I started with a mid-tone for the base and then painted the brighter caustics on top. I wanted my caustics to be subtle, so I painted it with a lower value. To get my transparency map, I desaturated the diffuse texture and adjusted the levels to reduce any extreme values.

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The liquid in the water fountain started from a circular plane. To get the cascade and rim,  I selected some of the edges and extruded it to its destination. After adding additional edges and getting the shape down, I UV’d them into strips and placed them on a trim sheet with vertically tiling streams on the right and horizontal ripple lines on the left.

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The direction of the flowing water depends on the orientation of the UV shells. It helps to test the stream’s path by vertically dragging the UV shells.

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To make a ripple effect that spreads outward, start with a circular plane with the vertices merged in the center. Select the outer edges of the circle in the UV editor and scale them down until you have a pyramid shape.

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To get a softer transition between the edge of the waterfall and basin, I applied a duplicated waterfall material to the mesh and combined the gradient mask texture with the albedo’s alpha.

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The pond reuses the same tileable water shader and the water stream trimsheet.

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Danilo Paulo’s Collection of Custom Shaders for Marmoset Toolbag 3 was crucial to getting the water to pan and animate. I ended up copying the alpha map from my water texture and increased its contrast to utilizing it as my gloss and displacement map.

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9. Final Scene

Here is the result!

Final Thoughts

  • Seeing all of the progress from the students of Ashleigh’s previous term and her incredible work on World of Warcraft were significant deciding factors of my enrollment. The various topics covered throughout the course outline seemed like perfect opportunities to hone my skills.
  • For me, figuring out the shape language for the secondary assets and the scene’s overall composition were the biggest challenges for this project. I was a little lost with my pillar and gateway designs until Ashleigh painted over them.
  • She also helped me improve the pool’s shape by getting rid of the sharp corner and making it curve towards the viewer. Other suggestions that helped with this project were the addition of bigger plants up top and varying the bricks’ wetness and size.
  • The 5 weeks of feedback taught me a lot about shape language, balance, and the reuse of specific motifs to tie everything together.
  • After finishing the course, I revisited and polished the scene by adding fish, FX, and animations. Overall, I had a lot of fun working on this and learned so much from this experience.

LEARN MORE

CGMA provides comprehensive instruction for Art, Games, and VFX industries in a variety of courses for a range of students, from 2D and 3D artists looking to supplement their college studies to industry professionals looking to stay up to date on emerging trends and techniques in the field.

RELATED LINKS

Explore Alexander Nguyen’s other work on his ArtStation!

Check out CGMA’s Creating Stylized Game Assets taught by Senior Environment Artist Ashleigh Warner.

Read “CGMA Students Sweep World of Warcraft Environment Art Contest” to see more award-winning projects from this course.

Enroll in CGMA’s Vegetation & Plants for Games course taught by Naughty Dog Environment Texture Artist Jared Sobotta.