Our thanks to Tom Bramall for this tutorial
Texturing is one of the most important and sometimes overlooked aspects of 3D art.
It is especially important for games, where textures can make or break the look of a low-poly model. Substance Painter has quickly risen to become an invaluable asset in the 3D texturing pipeline and a formidable alternative to traditional texturing in Photoshop. With it’s vast array of tools and intuitive painting features it’s a must-have for any 3D artist these days.
In this tutorial we’ll be looking at how you can use Substance Painter to quickly and efficiently create amazing PBR textures for your models. We will be breaking down my own personal thought process for texturing step by step and see how Substance Painter was used to create the textures for the suit of this sci-fi pilot.
We’ll go in depth on how the various features of Painter work and how to get the most from them, as well as show you how working smart with Painter’s artist-friendly tools can speed up your workflow dramatically. This tutorial is suitable for a beginner, but assumes a basic level of knowledge of the tools given to you. If you’re unfamiliar with Substance Painter I recommend reading up on the online documentation before diving straight in!
Dedicating time to planning what you want to achieve early on can save you from wasting valuable time getting stuck and not knowing what to do next at a later stage. If you’re not working from a concept or you don’t have a clear idea of what you want, you may find it useful to experiment on a clean grey render of your high-poly model before starting. Just some simple modifications in Photoshop – planning out colour palettes and material looks you’d like to achieve can make things much easier later. For me, personally, this is a vital step and not one to be overlooked.
Along with the typical maps that Painter needs (Normals, Cavity, AO and so on), one map to ensure you bake is an ID map, also known as the Clown Pass. Substance Painter itself has excellent baking tools, which can generate this texture either by reading vertex colours provided by ZBrush or by randomly colouring each element of your high-poly mesh. Choose which option best suits your project. This map will be used extensively in this tutorial to mask areas of your model in line with its sculpted details (saving huge amounts of time), so it’s very important to have!
Giving unique material IDs to areas of your model before exporting will separate them into different TextureSets when importing into Substance Painter. This is an effective way to isolate areas that overlap or would otherwise be quite hard to paint. The drawback to TextureSets is that when you have several of them filled with layers, it can become quite resource-intensive. If your computer is not very powerful, you may consider splitting the mesh and texturing each piece individually in its own project. Any work you do can be saved out as a Smart Material, which can be quickly transferred between groups or projects, so either method is fine.
Layers in Painter don’t work how you would expect them to work from a Photoshop-style background. A layer can be directly painted into, but it is more commonly used as a miniature group for holding layer effects. For example, a fill effect will flood the entire layer with a colour, texture or Substance material, affecting colour, Roughness, Metalness and Height channels as you specify. You can also add blur, sharpen or even levels filters directly into a layer. The same rules apply for masks. Look at the Smart Materials and Masks that ship with Painter to see examples of how these effects can be used and combined.
Before getting into any hand-authored painting, one of the most important steps in creating a great texture is making believable base materials. Painter’s built-in Materials and Smart Materials libraries can be extremely useful in creating these. Experiment with the Metalness, Roughness and colour values of existing materials and you’ll find you can adapt them to almost any role. During this early stage it’s also critical to use good references to make sure you capture the look of the material you’re aiming to re-create. For this model my personal set of motorcycle leathers was used. Pictures are great, but you can’t beat the real thing!
Here’s where that ID map comes in! We’ll be using it to allocate the materials we’ve made to specific areas of our mesh. Start by Ctrl/right-clicking on a layer and hitting Add Black Mask – the material should disappear. Then, Ctrl/right-click on the mask and select Mask By ID. This allows us to use the ID map we created in Step 1 to quickly choose areas of colour for our materials to fill without needing to paint the mask ourselves. This saves huge amounts of time over painting masks manually. Do this with all your materials until your model is completely covered – this is a good base from which we’ll begin detailing.
Smart Masks are a great way to quickly add basic wear and tear to your materials. An example of this would be automatically generated scratches at the corners and edges of your model, where a reflective metal base could shine through from underneath. To use a Smart Mask, simply drag and drop it on to a layer. Be sure to play with the settings and move away from the cookie cutter default appearance. You can also try stacking multiple on top of each other, using layer styles to blend them. Aim to re-create what you see in your references.
You can get advanced with masks by incorporating textures, custom generators and manual painting – you could even try masking your mask! To create the subtle scratches seen in the leather of this suit, first add a new layer above the base leather and fill it with a light-brown colour with negative height. Add a black mask and then add a Scratches generator. On top of this add a Mask Builder to exclude all the deep areas (where scratches are less likely to damage), then add a blur effect to soften the scratches slightly. Finally, add a paint effect on top and use the ‘Dirt 2’ brush to manually paint out some areas to break up the uniformity.
One or two accent colours work well, but use too many and you’re going to make your texture too busy. One technique we can use to add variation without using lots of colours is to duplicate existing layers and change their values slightly. Create some areas in your model with a different Roughness or Metalness value, or perhaps a slightly darker or brighter accent colour. You can manually paint a mask to do this or use the ID map to mask where you’d like these areas to appear. This is a very easy way to create subtle material variation that doesn’t overload your eyes.
Grunge is easy to overdo, so we’ll tackle it gently. Create a layer and make it affect colour and Roughness. Fill it with brown and add a grunge texture to give it some grit. Mask this layer with a dirt Smart Mask, which will create some heavy, brown dirt in all the cracks. The trick to make it less overwhelming is to tone down the opacity of only the colour to 5-10% and let the Roughness do most of the work. This will affect how the light catches on the model, creating subtle disturbances in the specular and just a hint of brown. If you need more dirt, simply increase the opacity of the colour, but remember that subtlety is key!
At this stage it’s time to go in and hand paint extra details and grime in logical places. This will show you went the extra mile and will really help your work stand out. You can do this by either painting into your Masks or by painting into new layers. The advantage of a fresh layer is that you can set the colour, roughness and metalness values on your brush, but I find masks are typically faster because that setup is already done. The scuffs and wear on the inner thigh for example were made very simply by painting into the mask of a plastic damage layer with the Scratches and Cracks brushes.
Create a black layer set to Multiply. Lower the opacity to 25% and set the height to a small negative value. Mask it black so that it disappears. Now, by painting with white in the mask, you can create recessed details! You can quickly create extra detail that wasn’t included in the base sculpt, which is perfect for panel lines. On this model all the embossed text and metal panelling lines on the back of the torso were created this way. It’s tempting to go wild with this effect, but like the dirt, be wary of making too much visual noise.
Decals, stickers and other personalisations are great at adding that final layer of realism and visual interest to your textures. Create a decal sheet in Photoshop with all the things you’d like to add and import that into Painter by dragging and dropping the file into the shelf. Hit ‘3’ to enable the Stencil function, add your texture to the Color channel and it will pop into view. Use the regular camera controls to resize and position the sheet as you need it. Now wherever you paint, it will transfer the texture from the decal sheet to your currently selected layer.