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Intro to Environment Art

A 10-week course for learning to create compelling environment scenes for video games

Course overview Course overview

Course Overview

Breaking down environment scenes

During this class students will get to experience the environment pipeline creation from start to finish. Going from initial idea, block in phase, asset creation, lighting, and presentation. This will allow them to familiarize themselves with all the software packages that are used during production. The goal of the class will be to create several high-quality assets that will come together to create one cohesive scene that is well presented.

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Course Format:   Standard
Lecture Type:   Pre-recorded
Feedback:   Individual recordings
Duration:   10 weeks
Assignment:   Deadlines each week
Q&A:   Once a week
Materials:   Maya, Marmoset Viewer, Substance Designer, Substance Painter, Zbrush, Mudbox
Skills level:   Intermediate
Prerequisites:   Knowledge of Maya, ZBrush, Substance; other course pre-reqs include Intro to Production Modeling, and Vegetation & Plants for Games

Intro to Environment Art WHAT YOU’LL LEARN

What you'll learn

The more you know, the better.

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It’s about the bigger picture | Gathering reference; breaking down your idea | Blocking out your scene in Maya Basics; clean simple texture | Creating a simple ground texture
Let’s get the basics right | Brick wall texture | Substance Designer advanced walls | Model wall detail and unwrap, apply texture and import to Marmoset
Brick low poly and UV’s; cage in Maya | Brick high poly in Mudbox Basics | Brick export, baking, and texturing in Substance Designer
Column modeling and sculpting high poly | Column Maya modeling and unwrap low poly
Let’s get cracking! | Column Substance Painter basics | Baking column Substance Painter texturing
Cover extra useful tools and hotkeys inside of Maya | Make broken versions of the columns | Build the scene and showcase it all together
Alpha cards | Modeling and baking grass | Creating vine cards
Building a trunk | Designing a canopy
Gate high poly in Maya | Practice edge loop control | Gate low poly and unwrap in Maya
Gate Substance Painter importing and baking | Gate Substance Painter texturing
Instructor

Unleashing your creativity

Steve is an Environment Artist whose primary focus is to create visually sophisticated worlds that can create an impact on others. At his core, he loves every aspect about being an artist, and collaborating with others that are also passionate. He has worked as an environment artist on Insomniac Games' Spiderman PS4, and is now working for Respawn Entertainment on "Star Wars — JEDI: Fallen Order".

Student interviews

COURSE BEGINS

October 5th!

fall TERM Registration

Jul 29, 2019 - Oct 14, 2019

Only

$998

COURSE BEGINS

October 5th!

Pricing & Schedule

Even though our courses are the most affordable for the quality of education.

These Finance Options allow you to focus on your goals instead of the barriers that keep you from reaching them.

Employer Reimbursement

Animation Guild CSATTF

Payment Plan

Companies that hire our students

  • Naughty Dog
  • Luma Pictures
  • Google
  • EA Games
  • DreamWorks Animation
  • Blizzard Entertainment

environment design Benefits

Benefits

What makes this learning experience unique?

Personal Feedback

Receive personal individual feedback on all submitted assignments from the industries best artist.

1+ Year Access

Enjoy over 365 days of full course access. This includes all lectures, feedback, and Live Q&A recordings.

Certificate of Completion

Earn a Certificate of Completion when you complete and turn in 80% of course assignments.

Flexible Learning

Learn anywhere, anytime, and at your own pace with our online courses.

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Lessons in Environment Art Production

Interview with Dulce Isis Segarra

Dulce Isis Segarra presented her beautiful environment scenes made during Andres Rodriguez‘s course Intro to Environment Art.

Introduction

Hello everyone! My name is Dulce Isis Segarra and I am a Character Artist currently working at Traveller’s Tales in Knutsford, UK. I come from Elche (Spain) and there I started my studies in game development, more precisely, Multimedia Engineering Degree, University of Alicante.

I have always wanted to be a 3D artist and the degree I was studying was focused on the programming and project management side of video games. Apart from this degree, I decided to take a lot of courses about 3D Modeling and Drawing. Once I graduated I went to Madrid (Spain) to study a Videogames Concept and Graphics Master where I learned about anatomy in a traditional way and also about digital sculpting and drawing.

After completing the Master I was still lacking a lot of knowledge about the technical part of the game art, like UVs, retopology, materials, PBR, and that’s when I decided to enroll in a few CGMA courses, the first one was “Intro to Environment art” taught by Andres Rodriguez. There I learned a lot about materials and other techniques about environment art and created my project, Cambodian Temple. I also took UE4 Modular Environments course by Clinton Crumpler, where I could learn a more technical part of materials, lightning, and UE4. After this course, I was hired as a Junior Character Artist at Traveller’s Tales and I currently have one shipped game, LEGO Marvel Superheroes 2.  Even though I am focused on the Character art and currently working as a Character Artist, I have been always interested in props and environments as I think it is always good to know about other disciplines. 

    

References

The main theme of this project was nature and ruins. With this theme, I started researching about different cultures and trying to find which one I would find interesting to do. After looking for lots of places and references I found that the Cambodian ruins and nature were the most interesting to me. Once I decided what I was going to do, I kept searching for more references, looking for the regular types of plants and trees in Cambodian temples as well as interesting sculptures and patterns. My main goal in this project was to create something small to be able to finish it and learn as much as I could from start to finish, so that is why when sketching my environment I tried to keep it simple, but interesting in the main assets.

First Steps

With gathered references, I started drawing a few thumbnails to explore different possibilities. From the first and second thumbnail, I created a more detailed sketch that I would use along with my references to start building the environment. The assets I really wanted to get into were the top part of the arc and the broken head, as these ones were the most detailed and interesting parts of the scene.

The scene was started with creating all the basic shapes in Maya to have an idea of how it was going to look like. This basic setup also helps to see if the composition is working and know how many assets and how much variation is needed.

      

I started building the brick material for the wall in Substance Designer as for this asset sculpting wasn’t needed. 

        

Once I had the base material for the wall, looking at all the references I started tweaking it. Scaling the bricks, adding more damage and variation to the color and stains to make it more interesting.

To add the moss I first created a separate material. For this material, I used references, Substance Designer nodes (playing with them until I found something I liked) and a lot of help from the instructor. After the brick and moss materials were done, I combined them using masks to add to the top and the bottom of the wall and also to the gaps between the bricks.

     

Asset Creation

For each asset, I first modeled a basic shape in Maya, then sculpted all the fine detail in ZBrush, like damage, wear and also patterns for the columns and the head. Once I had all these assets I took each one of them and started to break them in Maya to create a set of assets and have more variety to fill the scene, without having to create new assets. I think this trick is one of the most useful things I learned.

For the textures, I used the base material made for the brick wall. I took both materials into Substance Painter and started playing with all the smart masks it provides to create the final textures for columns, extra bricks, arc and other assets.

     

Main Pieces

To create the broken head and the archway I followed a similar workflow applied to the columns creation. For these assets, I spent much more time sculpting and studying my references. I first took the meshes I used to make the initial blocking of the scene into ZBrush, and then for the details, I created a lot of stamps to project in the models. For this stamps, I used the references to draw a few patterns in Photoshop and also sculpted other patterns and details in ZBrush using the “Grab Doc” and “Make Alpha” option.

For the columns, I used the same wall, moss and a broken stone material, all of them done in Substance Designer. I took them into Substance Painter and added a few extra layers using smart masks to add additional edge damage and color variation, a few leak marks, and scratches.

  

Vegetation

For the vegetation, I gathered a lot of references as well.

The workflow for the vegetation is a bit different from the other assets. I will use vines as an example.

I first sculpted a leaf in Zbrush. I took this leaf into Maya and there along with a few modeled branches I created a few variations of the vines by duplicating the branches and the leaves and changing sizes and orientation. I also created a few groups of leaves to create an Id Map that you can use as a color mask to add variation to the color of the leaves.

Once I had all the variations I needed, I placed them in a way they would fit in a plane in order to bake them on it, get all the maps for importing to Substance Designer and create the final roughness and albedo maps.

With all the textures done, I went back to Maya and created different cards from the main plain. With these cards, a lot of different combinations were made. This is a really good way of creating vegetation as with only a few cards we can create a lot of variations. The same method was used for the grass, palms and the tree branches.

To create the tree trunk, I modeled it in Maya and then created a Bark Tree material in Substance Designer. Tree sculpting wasn’t needed.

       

Marmoset Setup

For the environment lightning and final setup, I used Marmoset Toolbag 3 and Maya. I first finished adding all the assets in Maya and the imported this in Marmoset. For all my materials I used the roughness, height, albedo, normal and AO textures I created in Substance Painter and Designer and tweaked a few values inside Marmoset to change those things I wasn’t happy with. To create the lights for the scene I used Sky Light with a background with similar colors to my environment. To make the scene interesting I added a directional string light hitting from the left side and a little bit from the back to get strong shadows.

Finally, I added post effects like bloom and grain and also tweaked the saturation of the scene to make it look more colorful.

This environment could be taken to Unreal or Unity as the assets and materials are ready to be used in-game, but the setup of the materials, as well as the lightning, would take a little bit more time to prepare and polish.

Challenges

I think everything in this scene was a challenge as it was my first environment. But the most challenging part of it was the vegetation. When creating vegetation, cards are used to create every leaf and plant, and if you are not careful it can look really rigid and plane. To solve this, when creating the base cards, you have to create at least a few different variations, deform and bend the cards to make them look natural. And look through a lot of references!

Conclusion

Before this course, I had no idea of how to start an environment, and this course made it easy. It provided a lot of resources, and the feedback from the instructor was always great and helpful as well as the Q&A sessions. Apart from learning a lot about material creation, I think what I will take from this experience is to try and reuse every asset and material I can and when that’s not possible anymore, then create new ones. This way you save a lot of time and the scene looks consistent.

When I have a chance I will definitely take more CGMA courses and continue improving and evolving as an artist!

Dulce Isis Segarra, Character Artist at Traveller’s Tales

Environment Art Lessons

Interview with Tomas Ibar

Tomas Ibar talked a bit about the things he learned during the “Intro to Environment art” course from Andres Rodriguez.

Environment Art Lessons

Introduction

My name is Tomas Ibar. I’m from Chile and I moved to Canada back in 2008. I am currently working as a VFX/motion graphics artist at Java Post production located in Regina, Canada. I studied Digital animation at Universidad Mayor (Chile) and Media Communications at SIAST(Canada). While I was studying at SIAST, I got my work experience at Java Post Production, where I was able to land a full-time job upon graduation.

I have always been interested in video games. This led me to enroll in a CGMA class, “Intro to Environment art” taught by Andres Rodriguez. This was the perfect fit for me as I was able to manage my full-time job and work on assignments. The classes helped me to clarify the pipeline for assets creation from beginning to end. At the same time, I learned some useful tips and techniques that apply today in my daily work.

References

At the beginning of the class, we were asked to define a theme for our scene. In this case, my main inspiration was Dark Souls 3. I started searching ideas and references for the Gothic architecture using Google. I put together a reference sheet breaking down how I would tackle the different parts. I enumerated the different parts to visualize how many objects I need to create.

Blockout

The instructor recommended to include a character or basic cube around 2 meters tall. In that way, all the elements could be related to the scale of the character. I started from a block mesh, at the same time keeping in mind what elements could be utilized again. A good example of this is the towers located on each side. At this point, I knew that I needed to make the textures slightly different on each side of the towers and used the foliage to hide/break the symmetry of the scene.

Modeling & Texturing

I used a mix of MayaCinema 4D, and ZBrush for modeling. A really important tip is when you export the models from Maya/C4D try to make an even mesh. This helps in the sculpting process because it provides an even topology helping to keep uniform details on the sculpt with an even resolution. I will illustrate that with the creation of one of the columns. (The same process is applied to the other parts of the scene, sometimes starting from a low poly mesh, subdividing them for the sculpt and then baking the high poly mesh down to the low poly mesh. Other times I started from high poly and created the low poly/retopology inside Maya).

In this case, I created a low poly column inside Maya, then I duplicated the low poly column and subdivided it to create an even mesh which later will be exported to ZBrush to add some extra details.

Inside ZBrush, I used the mallet brush in conjunction with the morph brush and clay build up to create sharper broken areas and some alphas to create the detail of the stone column.

Then, back to Maya, where I used the UV map tools. I started with automatic mapping and then used “move and sew edges”. Once I was happy with the UVs I used “Layout UV” to reorganize the elements inside the UV editor but always kept an eye on the texel density. The checkerboard material is really useful to visualize texel density.

For the different materials, I used Substance Designer and Substance Painter which I had some previous experience with. The class challenged me to try new techniques in both programs. I used Substance Designer mainly for the bricks, vegetations and ground texture.

The rest was textured in Substance Painter using the default materials from the program and some that I created previously in Substance Designer. I did all the baking inside Substance Painter. Here are some examples.

     

Vegetation

I’m going to use the vines to illustrate the process. The vegetation was created between ZBrush/Maya and Substance Designer. First I created a high poly model between Maya and ZBrush. Then in Substance Designer, I baked the high poly model to a plane. Then I cropped the plane creating the different kind of planes you see on the second image. Later I placed the vegetation around the scene.

The tree trunk was created in ZBrush using ZSpheres. For me, this was the easiest way to create the organic looks of the roots and branches. Then I created a low poly model of the tree inside Maya. In Substance Painter, I baked the high poly model to the lower poly model and painted their respective textures.

Lighting & Composition

In this case, the intent of the class was to get the models into Marmoset Toolbag. So I relied on the HDR maps that come with the package for the main light. In terms of composition, I decided to go simple but effective. I placed a spotlight behind the door and cranking up the brightness to make this area my main focus. Finally, I used Photoshop to tweak the scene a little bit. 

       

Conclusion

Building the scene was a real challenge, especially in just 10 weeks. The timeline forced me to push my technical skills and to problem solve at a new level. At the same time, I learned the pipeline of game art production. I don’t work in the video game industry but the class helped me to explore new techniques and programs that I use every day in my work.

Tomas Ibar, VFX/motion graphics artist at Java Post Production

Creating Environment with Substance & Maya

Interview with Giuseppe Fanelli

Giuseppe Fanelli did a great breakdown of his environment scene.

Creating Environment with Substance & Maya

Introduction

Hi, my name is Giuseppe Fanelli, I’m from Italy and I’m an environment artist currently looking for a job in the game industry. My first encounter with the 3D world was at the university when I was studying Computer Science (for an exam, I created some models in Blender). In those years I took a course to learn traditional drawing art and started to study Tai Chi Chuan, a traditional Chinese martial art. These things allowed me to discovered my artistic skills so after the graduation I decided to learn more about 3D Computer Graphics. I took a 6-months course to learn all the basics of 3D, after that I decided to specialize in environment game art, so I enrolled in the CGMA course Intro to Environment Art taught by Jared Sobotta to learn Substance Painter and Designer and understand the game art workflow.

References

The idea was to create an abandoned entrance. I didn’t have a clear idea of what to do, but since I liked traditional Asian culture I started to look for the images of the ancient Asian temples and found the Cambodian temple Ta Prohm. I was fascinated by the predominance of the big tree, so I started to look at other images of this place, its details. Then I did a few quick sketches in Photoshop to decide what elements would compose my scene, bearing in mind that I would have only 10 weeks to finish it.

First Approach

Following the sketch, I made a blockout of my scene to decide the scale of every object and see if the composition worked. After that, I created the ground material in Substance Designer. It was the first time I opened it, fortunately, the first impact wasn’t so tragic.


Then I started to create the assets. I began with the wall first and created the texture. Meanwhile, my love for Substance Designer grew, I really understood the potential of this program and enjoyed experimenting with the nodes and parameters to see what I can achieve. I applied the texture in Maya to the wall and scaled the UV to find the right texel density, then with the multi-cut tool I isolated a brick and created four variations of it. I used these bricks to create some broken walls. In the beginning, I thought to use these bricks for the rubble on the ground and above the entrance too, but to give more contrast and variation to the scene I decided to make a different texture with some dirt for them and painted it in Substance Painter.

  

  

Working on Vegetation

The moss was created in Substance Designer starting from the creation of the base shape of the moss filament:

Then with two Splatter Circular nodes, I created the filaments cluster and used a Splatter node to randomly place medium and large shapes of it.

For the grass, I used the EP Curve Tool in Maya to create the blades and later I created a base shape and extruded the upper faces along the curve giving some twist and taper to it. Then I created a texture sheet with a plane and baked the high poly information (grass blades) in Substance Designer and texturized it. I found the “GradientLinear1” node useful with the 2 tiling to add the same color of the ground to the base of the grass to better integrate it in the scene.

I finished the textures, imported them into Maya and cut the plane to create 4 different cards. Then I duplicated the cards and created some groups of grass from small to large and used them to compose the scene. 

I followed a similar workflow for the vines and branches of the trees. I created a base mesh for the leaves that I sculpted in Zbrush, reduced the polycount with Decimation Master, reimported it to Maya and placed it along the branches (created like the blades grass). I combined leaves in three different meshes in this way as I had the possibility to give some color variations in Substance Designer using the node “Color To Mask” with the baked map “Color Map from Mesh”. Placing the vines was enjoyable, I tried to position them in a realistic way starting from the tree and going to the right. I think that it’s really important thinking in a realistic way during the placement of every object you make.

 

As for the trees, I created the small ones in Maya starting with the EP Curve Tool and then I extruded a cylinder along the curve. For the big one, I decided to try another method: I used the ZSphere in ZBrush and before sculpting exported the low poly in Maya and optimized the model. I eliminated all the edges that didn’t change the silhouette. In the beginning, the Big Tree was simpler, but Jared and I decided that it was better to add more base branches to fit the scene. To do this I added some branches created with the EP curve tool to the original mesh.  

To place the branch cards on the trees I set the object “Live” and positioned them, then I change the vertex normal of every card using a half sphere and the function “Transfer Attributes” in Maya. In this way, the leaves behaved more realistically.

In the end, I added a new plant near the door. After reading an article about vegetation creation in ZBrush, I decided to try that workflow, so in ZBrush, I started with a sphere, Dynameshed it and with the Move Brush created the shape I wanted. Then I used Polypaint. I have never used it, so at first, I had some problem but watching some educational videos helped. I realized that this method was very enjoyable and interesting, during the process I found very useful the masks tool in ZBrush, the cavity mask in particular. In ZBrush, I always obtained the albedo and normal map, then created the roughness map in Substance Designer.

Door Creation

The first thing that I did for the door was the creation of the wood texture in Substance Designer.

All the details were done in Maya. First I drew the ornaments in Photoshop following the reference, then I used them in Maya to create the meshes with the EP Curve Tool or starting with a simple cube.

To create the circular detail in the center I made a base shape starting with a cube, duplicated it and used the Bend Deform to give it a round shape.

For the small details in the center and the angles, I first recreated them in Maya, but they were too intricate. To save the time I decided to create them in Substance Designer starting with a Cell node, applicating the material in Substance Painter by creating a fill node and painting the mask. In Substance Painter, I added the moss by using the “Ground Dirty” Smart Mask. I also added some wet effect using the Liquid Stream particles brush. This brush is really powerful because it can add some realistic effect in a short period of time.

Lighting

The scene was rendered in Marmoset Toolbag 3 with the sky preset “Forest Path” using 3 child light. I added a directional light to better illuminate all the things and a spotlight to focus the attention on the door and the base of the Big Tree. Some post effects were used to give more contrast to emphasize the shadows. I added some saturation, a little bloom, and depth to the scene.

Feedback

In the beginning, I was not sure about enrolling in this class, because I thought it would be too basic, but I realized that there is always something new to learn. I’m very happy that I’ve changed my mind because Jared has been a great instructor and gave me a lot of feedback and tips. For example, in the below image he told me to break up the perfectly straight line of the columns since it was an abandoned entrance. I found this and other little tips very useful. I think that these things make a difference because they can break up and give some movement to the scene. Ultimately,  I found this class very useful. Now when I see some photos of the scenes that I‘d like to reproduce in 3D I know how to decompose them and how to organize the workflow. So I highly recommend taking the class.

Old Southwestern Gate

Interview with Ali Ghadimi

Ali Ghadimi studied Intro to Environment Art under the guidance of Andres Rodriguez and did a breakdown of his small vignette Old Southwestern Gate made within the course.

Old Southwestern Gate

Introduction

My name’s Ali Ghadimi and I’m an environment and prop artist at Northrop Grumman. I went to the University of New Mexico with an interest in film and VFX and eventually found my way into a game pipeline when we started doing a lot of VR stuff at work. Non-entertainment industries are very interested in VR for all kinds of things from equipment maintenance training to PTSD resilience training.

Why CGMA?

I have no game art background so I decided to take the CGMA course Intro to Environment Art to get the best training possible. I think a lot of people are uncertain whether CGMA is worth the cost since you can find so many free resources on YouTube, Gumroad, and ArtStation. But one of CGMA’s values for me is confidence that the process you are learning is professionally tested at studios like Naughty Dog where my instructor, Andres Rodriguez, works.

For people like me who are self-learning something as complicated as environment art, this is invaluable guidance. The problem these days is not too little information, but too much. There are too many tutorials and polycount threads to sift and many of them can teach you bad practices. You can waste a lot of time doing things and actually learning an inefficient or misguided workflow.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed and have trouble even getting motivated to start a project when you don’t know how to approach problems. CGMA lets you take a step back and just focus on one objective for the class. Then at the end, you have a complete portfolio piece that has been critiqued by an industry pro.

Old Southwestern Gate: Blockout

Let’s move on to the environment. It is very important to start with a good blockout when approaching even a small vignette like Old Southwestern Gate. From the very start, it’s necessary to put enough time into blockout because it makes a lot more work for you down the road. You’ll end up putting too much time into pieces that are, in fact, not that visible and forgetting things that you need. It is important to plan ahead, especially when you work on more complex scenes with aspects like modularity and areas the characters will be involved in.

Modeling

I didn’t do anything crazy in the modeling stage. For organic stuff, it would generally go the following way:

  1. Blockout
  2. Mid-poly export
  3. HP Detail in ZBrush
  4. Decimate to LP

If you need a cleaner/lower poly mesh you may have to retopo back in your 3D package after. For hard-surface stuff that wasn’t going to get sculpted on, I often have 3 meshes. I first model the mesh with as few bevels as possible, then it gets split into a low-poly and a high-poly. If you do a bevel too early on your LP, it can be hard to make an HP from that mesh later, so try to keep the mesh intact without bevels as long as possible until I can split it into a high and low poly and bevel them appropriately. Then I can add other details to the HP and smooth it. For some complicated hard-surface stuff, it’s just easier to make a high-poly then retopo it for your low poly, but nothing in this scene was very complex.

Since I was using Marmoset for the final presentation and not a real game engine, I focused on visual fidelity rather than efficiency. However, I still tried to keep everything as low-poly as possible. The most expensive asset ended up being the Prickly Pear clusters, the largest of which was around 10k tris. This is quite high but could be LOD’ed down very low or to cards if I was trying to optimize the scene. I skipped that.

   

For other foliage, I modeled a high-poly in Maya and baked it down to a card in Designer. You can get a lot of variation exporting your maps out of Designer, but for some things like the Tumble Mustard, I actually brought my Designer maps into Painter to do some extra detail work. Here you can get as detailed as you want, with the drawback of it becoming harder to edit them later if you need to rebake. I think Painter is more powerful than people realize for certain foliage work. I actually did the Yucca leaves entirely in Painter. Once you start hand painting you can make pretty much anything just using default materials and fill layers. Everything is situational but it can actually be much quicker than trying to make a custom material in Designer.

Texturing & Substance Designer

Let’s expand on texturing. This was my first project with Substance Designer in the workflow and it is definitely a game changer. At this point, I don’t think you could do environment art without it or Quixel.

If you have used other node-based programs like Nuke or blueprints in Unreal, SD isn’t too much of challenge to learn. I bought some Josh Lynch tutorials on Gumroad to augment my course lectures and those really helped me get a deeper understanding of the software quickly.

Once you get over the initial steep learning curve, you’ll find yourself using a lot of the same nodes over and over again, you don’t have to have a super clever solution to every problem.

You see a lot of crazy complex materials on ArtStation like intricate metal work or sculptures. I think this leads to a kind of false sense of what you need to know to make good materials for environment art. Making complicated materials is good for obtaining mastery of the software and showcasing on ArtStation, but they won’t necessarily be useful in environment art because you don’t want something that is too specific and will obviously tile or relies too much on a height map that needs tesselated Geo. Utility is better, and speed is crucial. Most of Andres’ materials from the lectures were very simple and practical. You can then vertex blend those base materials to get the variation you need, and suddenly a few simple materials look great in the scene.

Joakim Stigsson’s cactus breakdown on ArtStation got me halfway there on this material.

Layout

Since we used Marmoset in the class, I assembled everything in Maya because Marmoset’s transform tools are pretty awful with no ability to adjust pivots. All the foliage were made into different sized clumps for layout. In a real game engine you’d combine clumps of clumps to reduce draw calls, but since this was a small vignette I actually combined everything for export together by shader so it was fast to setup the materials in marmoset. Though this meant if I wanted to move a grass clump I had to do it in Maya then re-export the fbx. For example, all the grass was one mesh, all the mustard plants were one mesh. This made Marmoset run faster and let me set up the materials very easily and drag them on to one mesh.

You can’t get away with this in a larger scene though, because you want to be able to cull non-visible assets and that won’t work if they are all combined.

Lighting

Lighting is one of the most important aspects of your environment. You can make bad assets look good and great assets look awful with lighting. It’s one place you should never cut corners. Anyone interested in environment art should study film lighting. There’s like 120 years experience in dynamic, dramatic lighting for environments there.

Vilmos Zsigmond said, “I like to say that lighting is about taking the light away. I often like to use the shadows more than the light.” That’s where I like to start, by turning off all the lights in the scene then adding them back in one by one. It’s easy to get too many lights battling each other, and a lot of beginning environment art I see is very flat and over lit because of this.

I started by turning off the HDRI since it looks flat and bad by default. I added a moonlit key light, then turned the HDRI back up a bit for ambiance. Clarity of space is important in games so the player knows where to look and what paths to go down. I used the lanterns to draw the focus up the steps into the arch and then used the sky to give the walls contrast. I added a couple spot lights to accentuate some dark areas and give the cacti a bit of rim light. There’s an emissive channel in the lanterns and some orange point lights to make them pop. Then I just added in the skybox in the back and put a LUT on the camera to make it pop some more.

Lessons Learned

Well, this was my first real environment piece so everything was kind of a lesson learned. There were all the software issues like learning Substance, Marmoset, and ZBrush and trying to figure out a good workflow with them. Most importantly, I think even on a small vignette like this it’s essential to make a good blockout and keep very organized. There is the temptation to just kind of wing it, but you’ll end up with problems for yourself down the road. I probably spent several weeks longer on this project than necessary because of bad planning. Every time you are doing a quick fix or just exporting something to test it and you don’t put it in the proper folder structure or name things right, of course, that’s the thing you end up using and things start getting lost.

Another big lesson I learned from the class was how to call something good enough and move on. I tend to get hyper-focused on each asset and take a long time trying to make it perfect. That may be OK for hero props but environment art you must move quickly. I think you can make a great environment with decent assets. It’s more about laying them out and lighting them well. You can spend a week making the perfect grass clump or spend a week making five different plants that will fill out the scene much better and ultimately look much nicer.

If you are interested in environment art but haven’t done it before, I highly recommend doing a small vignette like this before trying anything more ambitious.

Advice for Learners

If this article was interesting to you, I’d suggest that you out the Intro to Environment Art with Andres Rodriguez video on CG Society (below), and, of course, the CGMA courses.

Other good channels for ZBrush training are GDC VaultFlippedNormals, and Michael Pavlovich videos. Gumroad is another good place to get specific tutorials from pros like Josh Lynch.

Afterward

I hope there was something interesting in this article, and special thanks to Andres Rodriguez for the class, as well as everyone at CGMA and 80lv!

Ali Ghadimi, Environment & Prop Artist at Northrop Grumman