Tips: AAA Texturing for the Masses

Sep 26, 2019 at 10:00 am by Warlord720


Without AAA texturing a model is just a mesh… and meshes are a dime a dozen. A lot of us can make meshes but can we texture them? Not so much for some of us. Maybe even a lot of us.

I have always held Texture Artists, Technical Artists, whatever you want to call them in the highest regard as their skills could take a mundane mesh to new heights. Years ago, we had to model just about everything but as time went on we sculpted less and less while letting the textures do the work with less overhead and strain on our systems.

Height, bump and normal maps started replacing things like greebles and other minute details that sell a mesh to the audience. Today the load continues to shift away from physical sculpting to texture sculpting whenever possible.

In most of the pipelines I worked in the texturing was handled by the pros, the technical artists that understood light and shadows as much as any fine artist. I was only the mesh cog in the machine… someone else always made it look great.

There was talk of baking but there were no ovens present nor folks with funny shaped hats. Height maps were mentioned but no sign of climbing gear. Yeah… some of us were that clueless as it wasn’t our job to learn this skill.

This led to texture envy as my texturing skills lay dormant with no clear road or time to improve them as I didn’t get paid for that and practically no shop I worked for had people that did both. They hired the best at each and then put the two together to make a great 3D model.

Yes, I was in awe of them, still am but now… this lowly mesh maker can put out PBR based textures that when rendered in something like Iray can be difficult for the average viewer to distinguish from the real deal. Notice I said average viewer… not other digital artists as that threshold is a bit higher.

Now I’m not comparing my basically drag and drop smart material texturing to a true texture artist that has a better grasp of their field and their software but I’m no longer on the outside looking in. I can, in a matter of minutes, take a plain mesh, untextured but UV Unwrapped, into my texture tool of choice Substance Painter.

Notice also I said UV Unwrapped. That could also be stated as properly UV Mapped since smart materials detect edges and similar areas to place the wear and tear that makes it look real. This includes dirt, grime, and dust layers too. All these layers can be adjusted in Substance Painter.

 Grandpa's Lantern
Left - Textured in Substance Painter with mostly Drag and Drop Smart Materials. Right - UV unwrapped mesh from 3DS Max before texturing.

In my simple example, I made a generic lantern, but I wanted it to look like it was Grandpa’s old beat up lantern. I created and unwrapped the mesh in 3DS Max.

I confess to hating unwrapping objects, so I use a nifty little tool called the PolyUnwrapper that works with the Max Unwrap UV modifier.  With the push of a button, I can unwrap just about anything in a few seconds. Now I’m not saying it will unwrap it like you would, but it unwraps to a very usable state. Plus… the author keeps it updated and never fails to inform users of a new version.

Being the texturing newb that I am with little to no technical knowledge and apparently fearful of technical manuals or even reading the help section I am very pleased to be able to drag and drop the Smart Materials on some objects while painting on other objects. By painting, I simply mean brushing on a solid color then dabbing on dirt and grime sort of thing. Not Da Vinci or Michelangelo by any stretch but I think they would approve after seeing the end results with little to no effort.

So… if drag and drop is this good, just imagine how good you will be when you get a firm grasp of the software. While you can’t drag and drop your way into being a top technical artist you can improve your 3D models by taking them to the next level in texturing with tools like Substance Painter and, I’m sure, many of its peers.


M.D. McCallum, aka WarLord, is an international award-winning commercial graphics artist, 3D animator, published author, project director, and webmaster with a freelance career that spans over 20 years.  Now retired, M.D. is currently working part-time on writing and select character development projects. You can learn more about MD on his website




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