Jay Travers shared his general approach to 3D weapons and some tips gathered along the way as well as talked about education and experience with Marmoset Toolbag.
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I’m Jay Travers, a 21-year-old aspiring 3D artist from England. I have been studying and creating 3D digital art for about three years in both my past education and now free time.
My published work as of now predominantly revolves around hard-surface weapon art intended to be used in games, however, my portfolio can still delve into other themes.
Currently, all personal projects are on hold as I’m undergoing a large self-taught journey in learning both new and traditional game development weapon art workflows that are to be expected of those working within this industry. I have been maintaining and learning these various methods via free and charged tutorials, alongside communication with various other high-end artists on ArtStation.
My first published portfolio project was weapon art – as is my latest. All the while I progressed in between. In fact, during my time at college, my first large-scale piece of work was weapons as well. This is where I had my first hands-on interaction with CG via studying a 3D Modelling and Animation course and a further HND for four years in total. Likewise, it was there that I was taught the basic fundamentals of 3D work.
What inspired me to undergo this path was initially product and graphical design. I believed then that the use of 3D know-how could have aided that – and it certainly did… However, my view soon changed when I realised that digital art within the industry combined some of my key interest in games and strengths within both Art and Graphics. I’ve been glued to it since.
My studies primarily brought me to using Autodesk Maya as my choice of 3D suite. Maya is one of the leading industry-standard software solutions alongside others such as 3ds Max and Blender. They all have pros and cons, however, the same can be achieved in all, especially with the extra usage of custom hotkeys and plugins. Although, I have always found myself returning to Maya as I’m most comfortable in it. Despite this, as a student, I was urged to expand my understanding of other software – and rightly so. Whilst Maya is my home, I do find myself putting my hand into every jar so to speak. If you are able to demonstrate that you can transition or expand in this way, keeping on top of evolving workflows that can make your and others' lives easier, it can become a very valuable trait. The earlier you can undergo this the better.
Inspiration and References
I find inspiration from near enough anything. Nevertheless, I'll usually draw from two main areas:
- My interest in various game titles. For example, my Colt Naval Revolver is inspired by Red Dead Redemption 2. The Cyberpunk Custom PC Case – Cyberpunk 2077. The AK-47 – Metro Exodus.
- Other artists' conceptual 2D work is also a great resource. Many artists will happily let you use their beautiful work as a reference as long as you reach out, ask for permission, and give them credit. I have done this before using art by the incredible Fernando Correa.
Because the majority of my work is based upon existing counterparts (fiction or otherwise), reference is rather straightforward to obtain.
With real-life weaponry though I’ve found that inspection or disassembly videos of firearms are extremely useful – especially the latter if you're aiming for the higher levels of detail. Additionally, auction companies, legal sellers, and museums give great and reliable high-quality images. Some will even take the liberty of creating the perfect front and side shots for you to use as a reference alongside accurate measurements and some lovely little insight into the weapon's history… If that part interests you.
Personally, I would recommend Forgotten Weapons YouTube channel and Rock Island Auction website or social media pages. Luckily though, many more companies and creators like these exist so you should be able to find plenty!
When I started working with 3D, it was pretty much entirely subdivision modelling. It was about the creation of the form, likewise the challenge to avoid any surface artifacts and bugs caused by a bad topology and edge flows.
I never really knew about the existence of most other workflows or helpful tools when I was starting out. Because of this, it was originally all about having to create the topology by hand. Whilst it can be great to improve your problem-solving like this, I'd personally no longer support this method unless it’s a smaller LOD asset. This is solely due to the fact that clean-up of such over the top topology can be rather strenuous compared to the average low poly retopology phase the majority of other artists go through.
However, this workflow is still viable. It consists of jumping rather haphazardly straight into the fray, with no blockout or pre-conceptual designs. Just simple topology manipulation like extruding and placement of edges followed by adding supporting loops to all edges that affect the silhouette with the use of Bevel, Multi-cut, and Insert edge loops. One useful thing I gathered from this rather loose approach is the additional benefits of custom hotkeys; these will make your life a little bit easier and save time in any workflow.
My textures typically involve a more weathered look. I would like to make some more cleaner/ factory-new looking weapons, but I’m drawn to that broken look far too much to stop any time soon. It just adds so much more character I think.
I learnt how to texture by examining other people’s premade and sold smart materials and have just made my own since.
It simply comes down to the use of procedural generators and the understanding of roughness. I also amplify the sharpness of these generators quite a fair bit. However, generators can never add those extra unique and precise details you may want. This is why I also use a lot of brushwork – though I would recommend the extra help of a graphics tablet for this.
I don’t use any custom brushes really, I typically opt for the vanilla Dirt brushes and change their Jitters and Spacing settings.
I do use a lot of custom alphas, some made by me and others bought. Though be wary of these, they can be rather easily identifiable by many artists and possibly considered overused. For example, JRO’s collection of ornate alphas are extremely popular to the point I can identify them almost immediately when playing games or browsing others' work.
Despite learning so much in Substance, I’m currently planning to try and use the Quixel Megascans library for quick environment building and premade high-end textures in my next project.
For setting up my lights I’ve begun working in Marmoset Toolbag. I generally use 3-point lighting as follows:
- Key light: Gives the majority of the light.
- Fill light: Fills the shadowed areas.
- Hair light: Makes the asset stand out from the background.
This approach is rather popular for many.
In terms of my setup for rendering, however, I followed a method provided by Marmoset. Their Tutorials & Resources page has a section dedicated to hard-surface modellers – which comes in handy!
Why Marmoset Toolbag?
Real-time rendering, a look comparable to game engines, simple UI, scene building, in-built baking tools, the ability to set up your own lighting and sample those lights directly from HDRI images... It's relatively easy to use, its main focus is rendering, and it allows you to use 3D viewers within your digital portfolios. What else is there to say? It’s perfect.
Marmoset Toolbag is rather expensive for beginners but does have a free trial, so everyone should give it a whirl at least once.
Challenges and Afterword
I still somewhat regard myself as a beginner, but I’ve learnt a fair bit along my way so far.
Finding work can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be with the right beginnings. I would recommend that anyone who knows early on that they want to study CG in a more specialized way, look for the right courses and institutions properly. Some artists are capable of landing a job during or immediately right after studies because certain places can have close ties with studios.
What has proven to be my biggest issue in the past and likewise the biggest thing I’ve learnt from others, is that you must dedicate yourself to your work – and I mean really push yourself. Whilst this can be difficult, you must keep learning. If you have an off day from production then do some research. Watch streams, examine others' published work, reach out if you can, or just do some light reading – 80 Level, for instance, has some incredibly useful coverage!
As much a bore as the saying is – practice really does make perfect.