Elsa Alexandra talked about the workflow behind making a stylized sword in Blender and Marmoset Toolbag and discussed the importance of passion projects.
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Hi! My name is Elsa Alexandra, and I’m a 3D game art student from Spain. Last year I finished my studies of Higher Education in 3D Animation, Games, and Interactive Environments and although the course was not focused on anything particular, I knew I wanted to get more into game art.
In order to graduate from my studies, I had to do an internship in a company, and I was fortunate to gain some experience working as a 3D Artist at Petoons Studio. There I was assigned tasks like the modeling, sculpting, and texturing of props, and I also did some layout and placing of assets inside the engine.
The game I mainly worked on was Curse of the Sea Rats, a hand-drawn ratoidvania that combines both 2D hand-drawn animation and 3D stylized environments.
Overgrown Sword Project
When I finished my internship earlier this year, I knew that there were many things I still wanted to learn before getting a job and I decided to learn at home. However, sometimes it’s hard to distance yourself from something when you’re doing it all the time. Because of that, I burned myself out after the last project I worked on since I was not that happy with the end result. So as to recover from that but still practice, I decided I would create a piece that made my heart happy: the Overgrown sword.
I had been looking at Christina Kraus’ beautiful sword concept for a while and this felt like the right time to do it. The colors were what captivated me, the blues and greens in confluence with the dazzling yellows.
At my school, we were taught how to model with 3ds Max; the studio I interned for, however, works with Blender, which forced me to get out of my comfort zone and learn how to use Blender. Since then, I have only used this software.
For this project, I started by importing the concept image and started shaping the sword from a cube and its crest from a cylinder. I modeled the skull and sides of the sword too, but to get their shapes right I brought them to ZBrush since I work faster this way. There I have the freedom to move the geometry much easier and iterate as much as I want until I get a result I like.
Once I was done, I brought them back to Blender and created the low poly versions from the sculpts, using the Snap to Face tool to move the vertices. Following this method helped to have a better topology than if I had modeled the pieces directly.
The ground is just a plane with a shape similar to the concept, with some SubDivisions so it has some volume. As I didn’t know if I would want to paint a bigger patch of grass than the one in the original image, its shape is bigger and you can see there is quite some space left where the alpha ends in the wireframe render.
As for the leaves and flowers, I made use of planes again and moved some of the vertices so they wouldn’t look flat.
Topology and Unwrapping
From the start, I decided the sword and top cylinder were going to be mirrored in the Z-axis, to save some texture space and also because those parts weren’t going to be seen.
When it came to unwrapping, I used Blender’s tools. At first, I wanted to have only one texture for everything, but for all the assets to have the same texel density, a single texture wasn’t enough. I could have gone for a bigger texture, but in the end, I preferred to have two separate smaller ones: one for the sword and ground and one for the vegetation.
When making hand-painted textures, it’s useful to create a high poly sculpt to bake some maps later and have a base to start from. In this case, I just went straight to painting the model. Inside Blender, I smoothed the meshes and used Auto Smooth where necessary. From there, I imported the scene into Substance Painter.
I started by creating some folders with masks to group elements that had a similar color and to ensure each element didn’t affect another when being painted.
Next, I created a Fill layer in each folder to establish the base color of the section. After that, I added a Paint layer and painted rough strokes to block out the colors. To get the colors right, I rely heavily on the Color Picker tool and pick them from the concept. Once this is done, I start detailing each part individually, paying close attention to the reference.
In terms of brushes, I usually stick to the basic soft brush from Substance and change the flow and opacity values as I paint.
Lighting and Rendering
The scene was rendered in Marmoset. At first, I was going to render the sword with an unlit setup, making use of the lighting painted in the textures. However, as the project evolved, I envisioned the mood I wanted to create – a scene that looks soft, with mellow sun rays coming from the side and some trees on the top casting shadows.
The lighting is pretty simple, I used a Sky Light to lighten up the shadows and a warm Directional Light coming from the top right. To achieve the soft feeling, I added a Spot Light in the same position as the Directional Light and an Exponential Fog for the Spot to become volumetric, with a really low opacity value. This effect was intensified when I added the God rays, which consist of an alpha texture I created in Photoshop using the clouds and blur filters. You just need to create a circular selection and apply a clouds filter. Then, apply a radial blur to that, playing with the settings to determine the directionality you want for the sunrays. After that, you can transform and stretch the rays to get the desired result. Different texture sizes can help in getting different results; the noise of a bigger texture will have more detail than the one in a smaller texture.
The falling leaves are planes that use the foliage texture I painted. I cut four different leaves and fed them to a particle system in Blender. In the settings, I set the Render as an option to Collection and selected the collection containing the four leaves. Afterward, I tweaked some values, namely the rotation, lifetime, scale, number, and velocity. This particle system was used as a reference to animate the leaves I then exported to Marmoset.
Exporting as an FBX didn’t give me good results and sometimes the files didn’t even have the animations exported correctly. What helped me in this situation was exporting each leaf as an Alembic file.
To round up the scene in Marmoset, I tweaked the Bloom value and made sure to check the Include Diffuse box for the sunrays' material. At this point, the scene was finished but I did not like how abruptly the leaves disappeared when landing on the sword. To fix this and create a smoother ending, I gave each leaf a different material, which had its opacity animated accordingly.
Personally, I think the most important thing when you’re working on hand-painted projects is to pay close attention to details. Having a great concept also helps a lot in the process. My approach has always been to look really close to the reference, but it’s also useful to keep in mind how the different materials look in real life and how they interact with light.
In the end, if you get lost in painting too many details, you can end up with noisy-looking textures. It all boils down to having a good balance, which can be achieved by checking the scene from different distances and angles. All in all, details are the essence of projects like this and lighting has a huge impact on the effect created – the perfect balance can only be found through trial and error.
Thank you so much for reading!