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Art Spotlight: Dystopian Data Reader

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About Me

I’m Jane Stolyarova-DeSiena, a 3D Environment and Prop Artist currently living in California. I specialize in stylized work and love creating hand-painted textures. My background is in art and fashion—I have an AAS in Textile and Surface Design and have worked in the fashion industry creating patterns and illustrations for children’s clothing for several years. I’ve always loved games and have been drawn to stylized game art. Some of my favorites over the years are WoW, Wildstar, Torchlight, Slime Rancher, Animal Crossing, and Muramasa to name a few.

In early 2019 following a company closing and layoffs, I reevaluated my career path and chose to follow my heart and dive deep into 3D game art. After learning the basics from Tyson Murphy’s Hand-Painted Tutorial, I’ve devoted most of my time to honing my modeling and texturing skills, studying other artists’ work, working on my portfolio, and getting involved in the online community Handpainter’s Guild. One of my favorite things about getting into gameart is the community. I’ve met so many skilled artists who are open to sharing their tips and tricks, helping each other learn and grow, and being overall a supportive and positive force. This was such a welcome change after the colder and harsher fashion world I was used to.

Last year I had the opportunity to do a Brushforge mentorship with Jordan Powers where I created my Arrakkoa Chest. It was a major level up moment for me, and it gave me the confidence and ability to push myself further into bigger projects and to work further outside of my comfort zone.

I recently finished a CGMA Stylized Prop Creation course with Ashleigh Warner for which I created this prop as one of my assignments.

Inspiration and Motivation

For Week 3 and 4, we had to create a sci-fi prop for the CGMA course. This was challenging for me because I tend to do fantasy work more, so I don’t really flex my sci-fi muscles a lot.

I started out by just looking at a lot of sci-fi art online. There are so many different directions sci-fi can go, so I just looked at different styles (cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic, dystopian, etc.) until I found a direction that really resonated with me.

I also didn’t know what type of prop I wanted to make. I love painting glows and effects, so I knew I wanted to have something that had a glow of some sort.

dystopian data reader inspiration

Between the work of Simon Stålenhag (who’s one of my favorite artists) and looking through ArtStation for inspirational pieces (especially the Rusty Robot Mage by Viktor Titov and the Wildstar concepts by Andy Cotnam) I decided I wanted to create some kind of device that was made of old scavenged electronics powered by an old car battery and possibly cooled by water bottles (I liked the aesthetic of this piece by Tano Bonfanti), and had some kind of magical quality to it.


To create my piece I used: Maya to model and UV unwrap, 3D-Coat and Photoshop to paint the textures, and Sketchfab to render and apply post-processing effects. I use a Wacom Intuos tablet to paint. I mostly use the hard round brush for painting and a soft round brush for effects and shadows.

Concepting and Blockout

I considered creating a magic converter (something that would convert electricity into arcane energy), or a teleporter, before deciding on creating a data reader. I thought it would be an interesting take on a book or pedestal.

dystopian data reader sketch

After I did my initial sketches, I started on the blockout to help me figure out perspective and the details. My goal was to then paint over the blockout to finalize my concept. When working on personal pieces, I tend to have very messy and loose sketches. Following Ashleigh’s process and advice from my CGMA course, one of my goals was to have a cleaner concept.

dystopian data reader blockout

When working on the initial blockout, I like to import my concept sketch into Maya on an image plane. I only have one screen currently, so it really helps to be able to see it all the time. To import an image plane press Spacebar, go to the Front View, and then import it from View > Image Plane > Import Image.

I also like setting a camera angle that the final model will be presented at (or something close) to help check the silhouette and detail level. To do this in Maya you left-click the bookmark icon in the viewport to set it, and right-click it to go to that angle. You can set multiple bookmarks too!

dystopian data reader camera angle

You can see in the blockout, it’s all basic shapes—mostly cubes and cylinders. Tools I like to use often are Extrude, Multi-cut (hold CTRL for edgeloop!), and Soft Select (B to turn it on, then hold B and hold middle-mouse and move it to set how big you want the selection to be).

When the blockout is finished, I just took a screenshot in the viewport and painted over it in Photoshop.

dystopian data reader paint

I painted in all the wires and extra details instead of modeling them since I wasn’t sure where I wanted them to go yet.

dystopian data reader gradients

I like to use gradients to help quickly decide my shadows and lighting and make the concept feel less flat. It’s still pretty messy and sketchy, so this extra pass with gradients and effects helps polish it up a little more.

With Ashleigh’s guidance and some paintovers, I changed up the model a little bit. She thought I should have a base to the stand and have the battery be external, as well as remove the bottles. I really liked the idea of them as a cooling mechanism, but it wasn’t very clear what their purpose was the way I had them. In the end, II chose just to remove them and move on to modeling and texturing instead of spending more time in the concept phase trying to make them work.

Modeling and UV Unwrapping

I created a base for the model and moved the battery out in the front. It also helped create more clutter around the prop, which supported my scavenged objects aesthetic.

dystopian data reader model

I had some fan vents modeled into the base but removed them because they made it look busy and were taking attention away from the book.

I modeled the wires using the EP Curve and the Extrude tools. It’s similar to the Pen tool in Adobe Illustrator/Photoshop. Here’s a simple guide from Autodesk on how to do it. Make sure you put the object you’re extruding from at the beginning of the curve, and not the end. After you extrude, you can make edits to your curve and your model will reflect that.

Even though a lot of my objects are “square” and should have right angles, I added a little more geometry to them and bowed them out in the middle to make it less rigid and more stylized. I did this using the Lattice Deform in Maya.

dystopian data reader UV map

Almost everything on my model is mirrored except for the pages. My base, “book”, control box, floppy drive, and batteries are mirrored left to right. My car battery is mirrored left to right and front to back. The pages are unique because they’re the focal point, and I wanted each one to have different writing on it. The clamps are mirrored and duplicated, but I unstacked the clamp handle UV since they’re supposed to be different colors.

I like to keep my UVs very straight and clean. All the lines that were almost straight, I straightened and aligned. This makes it easier to paint in Photoshop. I like to arrange all my UV islands side by side to figure out how many texture sheets I will need (like in the screenshot above). After I was able to fit them into two squares, I made sure they were both in the 0-1 UV space. I used two 512x512px texture sheets for this model.

UVing wires seems really terrifying, but it’s actually really easy! This short video tutorial describes it pretty well. It utilizes the Unitize tool in the UV editor.

Since all my wires are pretty basic, I used the bottom portion of one of my texture sheets as a trim sheet and stacked all the wires on top of one another, so I only had to paint one wire texture that will tile.

dystopian data reader UV unwrap

I like to group all objects that will share a texture sheet and group them (Control + G). I had two groups for this model. This method makes it easier to quickly see all my UVs, take UV snapshots, and export.


To begin texturing, I froze all transformations, deleted history, and then exported each group to 3D-Coat (I only had two groups that I exported: Bottom.obj and Top.obj). I’ve had trouble with 3D-Coat not recognizing multiple UV sets sometimes, so importing objects that share UV sets one-by-one helps avoid that.

3D-Coat texture group export

After importing my model into 3D-Coat, I hit 2 on the keyboard—this turns off lighting and displays everything flat shaded. When working on handpainted textures it’s best to paint in flat lighting to make sure that you’re painting in all the lighting information. I also hit W to toggle wireframe.

In 3D-Coat, I filled in the base color of everything using the Paint Bucket. Since I figured out most of my colors already in my concept, I was able to colorpick them (hotkey V) directly from my concept in 3D-Coat.

3d-coat colorpick

Then I used Calculate Occlusion, Calculate Curvature, and filled with gradients. I like to fill with a dark gradient from the bottom, and a light gradient from the top. I kept all these on separate layers.

3d-coat texture

After I finished all that, I exported each texture to Photoshop (Ctrl + P) and changed the colors of all the bakes. For this prop, I set my Ambient Occlusion to Multiply and changed it from greyscale to bluish-purple (Image > Adjustments > Color and Saturation); I set Curvature to Soft Light and changed to a warm light yellow color; the dark gradient to a cool bluish color and set to Soft Light; the light gradient to a warm yellow and set to Soft Light. Then I played around with the opacity until it looked right.

Picking your light and shadow colors depends on what mood and style you’re going for. Generally, lights and shadows will be on opposite sides of the color wheel. This guide has good tips on picking color, but it’s a very big separate field of study that’s definitely good to know. For my prop, I chose to have a warmish light, so it needed to have cool shadows.

dystopian data reader base color

This is what the prop looked like with only the base color, gradient, occlusion, and curvature. I then began painting over it—all these bakes are just a guide to help me get started painting quickly. By the end, you can’t see the bakes at all, and it ends up looking quite different.

I switched back and forth between Photoshop and 3D-Coat when painting the textures. I really like painting in Photoshop, so I tend to be sketchy and loose in 3D-Coat, and then clean up and polish in Photoshop.

After this point, I spent a lot of time painting and checking my model in Maya to make sure that textures make sense. I like to check the texture in both 3D-Coat and also in Maya, because they can display differently sometimes.

I didn’t save every single step to show, but these animations demonstrate my basic process I used in painting the textures. They go from base color to occlusion, curvature, gradients, color tweaks, and then steps in the hand painting process.

I like to work big to small—focusing on the bigger and main pieces, then moving on to smaller parts, then adding wear and tear to everything, and then doing emissives/alphas/effects at the very end.

Polishing and Exporting

After I finished texturing everything, in Photoshop I made a new layer on top with my flattened artwork in it and ran a Sharpen filter. Then I changed the opacity a little so it wasn’t too harsh. I think Sharpen really helps scratches and sharp edges stand out. And since this prop is really worn and scratched up, it helped a lot!

To get my prop ready for exporting, I saved my textures in Photoshop as TGA. Textures with alpha need to be saved as 32bit TGA (If you select 24bit, which is default, the alphas don’t show up). I made sure my file was clean and all my objects were named properly in Maya and everything displayed correctly. Saving as PNG works as well.

To export to Sketchfab, I used the exporter plugin—it’s available for a lot of software. It makes exporting to Sketchfab really quick and easy. I find it much faster than exporting and applying all the textures manually through Sketchfab. I highly recommend it.

Follow the instructions on the above link to install the plugin. After it’s installed, it’s really easy and self explanatory to use. It lives in the Custom shelf. Make sure to uncheck “Publish Immediately”! It takes a couple of minutes to upload depending on how complex the model is, and then a link will appear where you can go to edit it in Sketchfab.

sketchfab maya exporter

Sketchfab Rendering and Settings

I think the Post-Processing in Sketchfab is one of my favorite parts. 🙂 I usually spend a lot of time in here making sure everything looks just right.

After getting my settings how I wanted them, I wrote a short description, addes some tags so it’s easily searchable, and I published my project!

To get some nice renders of it for my portfolio, I used the Sketchfab Screenshots feature. This is much nicer than just taking screenshots from the model page—it lets you set the size you export at, and you can toggle Post-Processing on and off. It also allows you to render your model on a transparent background. Using that feature I was able to take a bunch of screenshots and compile them together in Photoshop to make some nice images for my portfolio.

I think it’s really important to present your renders nicely too—I always present my work in my portfolio like this: Main shot, a few different angles, breakdown (textures sheets and/or geometry). I also like to include my sketches and concept—it’s nice to show off your process. And on every image I always include my name, portfolio link and contact info in a small stripe on the bottom of the image. ArtStation has a nice guide on best practices for uploading images to your portfolio.

dystopian data reader

These were my final renders:

dystopian data reader final renders

Sketchfab also has a cool turntable GIF exporter. This is great for sharing on social media to show off your project.

sketchfab turntable gif

I’m happy to have had the opportunity to share my process and hope it was helpful and informative. 🙂

About the author

Jane Stolyarova-DeSiena

3D Environment & Prop Artist

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