Art Spotlight: "Aquarium"

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In Art Spotlight, we invite Sketchfab artists to talk about one of their designs.

Hi! My name is Rik van den Biggelaar, I’m a Dutch 3D artist currently studying in Kortrijk Belgium at Digital arts and Entertainment (DAE). My future goal is to work in the game industry as a 3D Artist. In this spotlight I will give you an insight into my workflow for making the aquarium scene.

The Beginning

This scene was an exam assignment for the course Game Graphics. The goal was to create a hand painted building with a small environment to accompany it.

When this assignment was given the first thing that I noticed was that a lot of people were going for the floating cube version, where the house will have some foliage around it but the bottom and sides were just cut of and maybe not even textured. This was one of the things I wanted to avoid because I wanted to make a scene that feels complete. After some brainstorming and writing down some ideas I started the concept phase.

Ref Ref Ref Ref!

The first thing I do when I start my concepts is look at reference images of real world objects. Try to stay away from concept art by other artists, just try and find objects or environments that could fit together. My first idea was to make a tropical house rooted inside a small jungle. After some playing around with it and asking friends for feedback I switched to an aquarium scene. I really liked this idea because people could look inside the aquarium and see something interesting from different angles. Sketchfab was the perfect platform for it because it really gave the same experience as looking through a real aquarium.

After I found some good aquarium reference I started working on an interesting scene. I started with a simple fishbowl, which was ok but wasn’t really interesting outside of being an aquarium. So I decided to search for more creative aquariums which weren’t just a fishbowl or a glass box. After a while I saw some aquariums which were inside of an old diving helmet, this triggered my inspiration immediately, I started looking for old diving helmets and combined the parts I liked about them.


After being satisfied with the aquarium concept I started iterating on the house to really make it look interesting as well. I saw some pictures of rowboats and played around with the angle at which they were placed. In the middle concept you can see that I tried to make it stick out of the ground which was ok but a bit boring because of the sides. The second thing I tried was to turning the rowboat upside down and use them as the roof. This turned out to be the correct approach and allowed me to further decorate the roof using corals.



After I had my concept I started blocking out my scene in 3ds Max. I always start as low poly as possible to make sure I can tweak everything without too much of a hassle. I also stick a lot of my meshes into each other so I don’t have to worry about edge loops and smoothing group issues. While working on my model I was already thinking about the unwrap and where I was going to place the seams, this translated to edges which were placed on specific parts of my model to make my unwrapping process way easier. This of course had a lot of iterations and when I was done modeling I started working 3D-Coat. I really enjoy 3D-Coat because of 2 reasons: It has a great unwrapping workflow and some of the best painting tools.

Painting My Textures

After finishing the unwrap I started painting. I always try to work as non-destructive as possible with hand painted textures, this means that if I want to for example change the color or the helmet I can just go to the right layer or group and change the color without destroying the rest of my work. Also keep in mind that while using this method it is really important to name your layers otherwise it’s going to be a pain to find the correct layers afterwards! I started by creating 3 layers: A base color layer that contains only flat colors, a shadow layer that is set to blending mode multiply, and a highlights layer that is set to screen. From here on out I just go at it, I don’t have a specific order but just go with which I have the best idea for.

After completing the block out of my textures I uploaded my first version to Sketchfab to check if everything looked ok, this is also something I do a lot to just see if my scene is working out in the program I’m going to present my work. When everything looks ok I start importing my textures into Photoshop, while I love working in 3Dcoat, Photoshop gives me a lot more control over my brushes. My level of skill in Photoshop is also way higher than it is in 3DCoat. What I also tend to do in Photoshop is making tiling textures which I then apply to the blend with the unique textures I made in 3D Coat.


Adding Foliage and Fish

After finishing my helmet and House textures it was time for the best part; making some corals and fish to really fill up the aquarium. I again started by looking at reference of corals which would be interesting to make. I came to a nice selection of 8 different corals and started making them in 3ds Max. After this I just scattered them around my scene to really bring it to life. I used the same approach for the fish: I looked up some cool tropical fish made them in max and with the same technique as mentioned above I textured all of it in 3D-Coat.


Make It Presentable

One of the things I really like to do is make my scene interesting to look at. Something that is easy to do and really spices up your project is adding animations. In my scene you can see the fishes swimming around and even some fancy bubble particles. This was a little hacky because Sketchfab currently doesn’t support particles. What I did was make the bubble and the water that is coming out of the back of the helmet start at scale 0 and animate their scale and position. You can see an example of how to approach this in the image below.

Besides adding animation I also really took advantage of some of the features that Sketchfab has to offer. I added a custom background (need PRO for this), a vignette and bloom to give my helmet a nice shine. I also wanted to recreate the atmosphere that you get under water. I faked this effect in my scene by adding a blue emissive color which is set to 1..
You can check out my Sketchfab Aquarium scene here:

After completing the real-time version, I switched to marmoset for the high resolution renders. You can really guide the viewer’s eye using a combination of depth of field and camera focus points. You can see an example below.


Some Final Notes

It was great fun to work on this project and one of the things that kept me motivated were my friends. I’ve made a lot of changes while making this piece and by asking them for feedback I kept getting new ideas to add or change. This is also a tip I want to give everybody struggling with working on a piece. Show it to people! They can give ideas, tell you what’s wrong or what could be added, even if they aren’t in the creative industry, people can give great advice, because when you are looking at the same thing for too long you end up missing things that could improve your piece even more!

I’d really like to thank Sketchfab for their awesome service that enables you to show your models really easy and fast without having to let your friends install programs to view your art in 3D. You can even make the models private if you don’t want to show them to everyone.

Thank you for reading my Spotlight and I hope I helped or inspired you for your next piece!

You can check out my other art here on Sketchfab, on ArtStation and on Facebook.

Thanks, Rik!

About the author

Seori Sachs

Community Person!

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