I make it my focus to find a project that best suites the skills I wish to improve upon. This time I wanted to step up my texturing skills with a prop that had both wood and metal.
I decided to try to replicate my grandad’s old hammer, since it had the two materials I wanted to practice, plus all sorts of interesting wear and paint. The hammer head is about 100 years old and it’s covered in some white paint due to some recent work we did in the house.
⦁ Blender (Modelling, sculpting, UV Unwrapping and UV Packing)
⦁ Marmoset Toolbag (Texture baking and final rendering)
⦁ Substance Painter (Texturing)
⦁ PureRef (Reference)
⦁ Photoshop (Editing)
⦁ Lightroom (Colour grading)
Being able to take photos of the real object yourself is a great opportunity to collect plenty of angles, high resolution references to work with.
I went out, grabbed the hammer from my dad’s workshop and started taking pictures of it from every angle that I thought was valuable. I took one from each side where the whole hammer is visible so I can copy the proportions, and some close-ups to the sides and wear areas.
01 – Blockout
In this stage, you want to nail (pun intended) your proportions. It’s super important to go back and forth from between the ref and the model and check them, otherwise, you’ll carry on mistakes onto the next steps and it’ll look off. Remember it’s always easier to make large changes in the blockout stage than it is to make them on the high poly mesh. This is where borrowing a couple of eyes from someone comes in handy, get someone to look at your model and point out disproportions you might not see.
You also want to make sure to make the pieces individually as they would be in real life. You don’t need to make everything from one single mesh, so the head, the handle and the little circle on top have their unique meshes.
Orthographic views can be helpful to check the profile of your object, but it’s important mentioning that you should be using all that reference collected earlier too.
02 – Sculpting
This is where the model starts to look a lot more like the reference. I already have the blockout mesh, but it’s not ready for sculpting just yet. You want to have a consistent topology before you start, otherwise, it’ll deform incorrectly.
I used Blender’s remesh modifier to generate a new quad-based mesh where I can start sculpting on the base shapes of the wear. I continued re-meshing my sculpt whenever the faces started to get too big or act weird.
If you’ve ever used ZBrush or watched people use it you might have heard of a brush called Trim Dynamic, which is useful for making hard flat surfaces. You can set up a similar brush in Blender by using the Scrape tool and adjusting these settings. See Gleb Alexandrov’s video for further explanation.
When sculpting, I started with a fairly low remesher resolution of 6 or 7, so I can focus on just those bigger shapes and not get distracted in the details.
Always have in mind what the material properties are and think about the type of wear you’re making; is it a piece that broke off? Is it a dent in the metal? It’s important to make sure your shapes make sense and it’s good to have a nice look at your reference and study it.
Always compare your work to your references, and ask other artists for feedback to help you see mistakes you didn’t notice. Taking and giving feedback is a very important aspect of artists.
Once I was happy with my forms, I proceeded to incrementally raise the resolution by remeshing with a higher Octree Depth and started working on finer details and polishing. I kept the focus on the primary and secondary shapes of the hammer and left the tertiary details such as wood grain for the texturing stage.
03 – Low poly
Using the subdivided high poly as a base, I started removing the support loops and any additional edges that didn’t contribute to the silhouette of the prop. The low poly was lacking all the wear I gave the high poly with the sculpting, so I deleted those areas and started edge modeling (extruding edges) over the high poly with snapping activated. I gave the “low poly” a different preview colour for better visibility.
Once I finished working on that I was left with a poly count of about 6k tris and a very inefficient mesh. Edges that don’t contribute to the silhouette at a reasonable viewing distance can be removed, since the normal map will be doing the heavy lifting after baking.
I ended up with a poly count of 1790 tris down from the 6k I initially had, and I decided it was good to start UV unwrapping.
04 – UV Unwrapping and packing
Before we can start testing bakes, we need UVs in our lowpoly. Since this is just portfolio work, I decided I’d like to have some nice 4K textures for this project, but I also have a very long handle to deal with, which is going to interfere with our scales, so a 2048×4096 non-square texture seemed like an excellent idea.
When you’re marking down your UV seams, you have to always have a seam when there’s a marked sharp, but not necessarily the other way around, avoiding extreme gradients in your lowpoly. I started out from there and marked all my sharps as seams and gave it a quick unwrap to visualize where I’d need more seams.
After straightening and packing my UV islands I ended up with this layout:
Remember to only straighten the external edges of the islands, otherwise you’d be distorting them for no benefit.
That big, long island at the left is the handle. I tried to keep it all as one shell, so it is easier to texture, and I packed it first since it’s also the biggest one.
05 – Texture Baking
Once I exported both the high poly and the low poly, it was time to bring them into Marmoset Toolbag for baking the mesh maps. Marmoset excels in this department because it has got many features that let you solve your baking errors within the program itself, letting you paint skews and cage offsets in real-time.
Note that I left “Ignore Groups” enabled in my AO settings. I did it so I could get that nice AO on the intersection of the hammer head and the handle where it’d get all dirty and rusty.
Here’s a little demonstration of what I’m talking about:
06 – Texturing
Before I even started to texture, I had to go back to the reference and analyse what was my hammer actually made of.
Try to go and recognize as many different elements that make up for your subject. What type of metal is that? Why is it that colour? Is that paint or a chemical reaction? How is the interaction with this prop? Where would it make sense to have scratches and other types of wear?
Feel free to research how and why do those reactions/variation happen so you can better understand why it’s there. In my case, the head was casted iron with a lot of rust, some exposed raw iron due to scratches and constant friction, and about three different paint stains.
As for the wood, it had some valleys that were naturally filled with dirt in the areas where the hands would usually be at, as well as some colour variation, chipping, layering, paint, and grain.
I then moved into Substance Painter and started working on the wood. I use masks a lot, that way you have a lot more control for future adjustments. I usually start by creating a new fill layer with the colour/roughness/height I want to add, then I give it a black mask and start adding fill layers to it, playing with the blending modes, generators and hand painting if necessary. It’s a very non-destructive way to work that I highly recommend if you don’t already work this way.
Here’s a quick gif showing the different layers of the wood in action:
Same process for the hammer head:
It’s also important to note that I order my layers the same way the processes happened. What I mean by this is that I start with a clean, raw iron, followed by the natural process of dark oxidation on casted iron, then there’s oxidation and rust accumulation and on top of that there’s surface details such as paint and/or dirt.
Have in mind why and how do these layers affect each other. Doing things this way gives the final texturing a more natural and coherent look, which is exactly what we want.
After I’m done with the first iteration of texturing, I ask for feedback and critiques and start working on those until I’m satisfied with the result and there are no critical flaws that need to be fixed, that’s why it’s so important to work in a non-destructive way so you can more easily make changes and adjustments and iterate over and over without having to redo everything from scratch.
07 – Rendering
The prop is done! It’s time to play with the lighting to show that work off. Remember, you can have an excellent prop, but if it is badly lit, it’s going to look bad, no matter how much work you put on it. But on the other hand, if you have a good enough prop, you can really make it pop with proper lighting setup.
I’m going to be explaining my thumbnail shot and how I came up with my lighting setup, as well as some very basic image adjustments that I use for better readability of the thumbnail from a small view.
Let’s start with the background: I wasn’t sure if I’d do a bright or dark background at first so I started experimenting with both and decided the dark one was better suited for the type of prop I was making, though I really liked the white as well.
Main light: I want my main light to reveal the main area of interest, which is also located around the centre of the shot. Not much science to it, you just must know where you want the viewer to look at first.
Next thing I did was to place my fill lights. You don’t want to have your object completely lit from every direction, but you need to be able to look around easily. Also remember that shadows are just as important as light. It’s also extremely useful to point the eye in the direction of cool details you might have.
For area 1: I wanted to have some subtle bouncing light from that big face with cool little details and roughness variation for the viewer to be pleased if they were curious enough.
For area 2: I felt like it’s a very important area, lit with a strong white light so it catches the eye. I also wanted the scratching on top to be noticeable since it’s got an interesting and unique shape with lots of roughness variation too.
For area 3: I lit this one with a very dim, warm light since I didn’t really want it to be too bright, instead letting the main light reveal its shape from the bounces on the many edges.
For area 4: Lighting the wood with a medium intensity warm light, so the viewer can also look down and get the feeling of the wood, but also keeping it dim enough so it doesn’t distract the eye from the main point of interest. I also wanted a nice subtle specular reflection to be there.
Okay, almost done, we just need a better contrast between the prop and the background, because the silhouette is getting lost now. Here’s where the rim lights play a big role:
I went for a subtle cold colour for my rim lights and lit a tiny bit of the handle, to create separation between the subject and the background.
You really don’t want to overdo these since otherwise they’ll just draw too much attention and it’ll look bad.
Last thing I did was to also add some rim light on the bottom of the hammer head so the metal lip is a bit more noticeable and also making sure my silhouette is not lost.
The lighting is setup in a three-point light format, but I’m using additional fill lights to lift the super dark areas on the subject and guide the viewer to other detailed areas.
Last thing I did was to open the shots on Lightroom and adjust the image to my liking. I increased the clarity up by +15 to bring up the details to read better as a thumbnail.
08 – Conclusion
The most important thing when creating prop art, I’d say it’s paying close attention to the reference and getting feedback. Seeking feedback and consulting your reference are great ways to develop and grow your artistic eye.
It’s been a pleasure to be invited to write this article for GamesArtist. I hope describing my approach to making this old-fashioned hammer has been useful for someone. Thanks for reading through it all!
Please feel free to contact me through Artstation or send me an email at [email protected].
Thanks a lot, and take care,
Mauro Nicolás Avalos.