Art Spotlight: Lowpoly Serval Diorama

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Artist Background

Hello! I’m Valentina Hawes (AKA Valociraptor), and I’m a 3D modeler/texture artist with an illustration background. My goal as a 3D artist is to create imaginative characters, creatures and props for games. While there are tons of amazing concept pieces to choose from, I often find myself inspired by illustrations and paintings that weren’t necessarily created with games in mind, and my ultimate goal is to find ways to translate these styles into 3D through handpainted textures and PBR materials. I’m also very interested in 3D as an illustration medium, which results in pieces like this one!

Part 1: Project Overview

The cat illustration I referenced is by Heather Nesheim, whose Daily Cat Drawing blog I’ve been following for a while — my pinterest boards are full of those kitties.

All the models in this diorama are pretty simple, but the challenge was translating a 2D concept that was only ever going to be seen from one angle into 3D without losing the shape, silhouette and other qualities that make it such an appealing drawing.

For example, the way the serval is drawn, it has the face directly facing the viewer, and the body perpendicular to the viewer — in 2D it looks great, but in 3D the body would have to be clearly twisting toward the viewer to make sense from other angles. Another tricky part to model was the tail, which has a quirky shape and sharp bends and is hugely important to the silhouette — if I bent it too much, it would appear too short from the front view and I’d lose that negative space, but if I left it stick-straight, it looked inorganic.

I did all the modeling for this diorama in Maya 2016. I wanted this to be a very lowpoly scene, with my goal being to keep it sufficiently optimized — while this isn’t going to be used for a game, I try to stay in good habits and use a game-ready workflow, that way I can add all my lowpoly models to my kit to use later if I so wish.

Part 2: Modeling Tools

The main tools I used for this piece are the bend deformer and the pencil curve tool. Other than that, it was straightforward box modelling, using the reference image to overlay the model periodically to check that the silhouette was accurate.

The bend deformer was integral in adding a more organic quality to the model, particularly in places like the ears — if you’re unfamiliar, the bend deformer creates an axis through your model that you can control the rotation and start/end points of, which you can then bend the model along.

The pencil curve tool is my favorite for creating lowpoly organic curves. Personally I find it much faster and much more intuitive than extruding each section of the curve by hand, but that method is just as valid.

Below I have a quick overview of which tools I used where on the cat model. I also used the pencil curve for the trees and the bend deformer for my plant leaf cards.
Part 3: Composition

I finished the cat model first, then I took a screenshot into photoshop and did some rough sketches of what the model stand could look like. Sketching is an integral part of my process — these are hardly beautiful or refined, but they did the job of helping me visualize colors and shapes for the diorama itself.

As you can see from the final wireframe, I didn’t follow any one of the sketches perfectly, but they all contributed to final details like the shape of the sky, the color palette, and placement of key elements like trees. Sitting down for just an hour or two and exploring where the composition could go is worth it, and will save you tons of time rearranging things in 3D and creating new assets to fill space you didn’t initially account for visually.
Part 4: Texturing
I texture in 3Dcoat with my shading mode to “flat shade” (which is also referred to as “unlit” when you’re talking about materials and shading models). This means you get no shadows or lighting information, so when untextured the model appears as a blank silhouette.

As far as UVs go, I like to use Maya and Headus UVlayout. I had 3 UV sheets for this project — one for the cat, one for the 3 big pieces of the model stands, and one for all the trees, plants, and butterflies. The 3 textures are all 1K and I matched a lot of uv shells to save time — the cat ears, whiskers, and legs all share their UV shells, as well as the palm tree leaves, flowers and ground plants. There are much better guides out there for how to pack UVs efficiently, but here’s my general method:

  1. After unwrapping, get texel density as consistent as possible across shells – create hierarchy for shell size/importance
  2. Designate a corner for smaller elements that need transparency (like kitty whiskers)
  3. Lay out largest, most important shells first, maybe try 3 different configurations
  4. Add the medium shells, try to reconfigure again to maximize texel density
  5. Pop in the small shells — If you did a good job, you should have no problem placing the small shells in remaining gaps

The painting process is different for everyone and technique can vary widely by style. However, some methods I feel hold up for both very simple and very detailed styles, so here are some texturing tips:

  1. Line mesh borders with a lighter color. It reduces the appearance of harsh 90 degree angles and adds just a little bit of dimension and readability. Here you can see that on my leaves.
  2. Keep gradients in mind. Objects with a vertical gradient (darker at the base, lighter near the top) look more grounded in their environments. For example, I layered my plant cards so that the lower layers are darker, and the individual leaves themselves are darker near the base.
  3. Shade with color. Shading with white or black tones desaturates your texture, if you want a vibrant, painted look choosing a blue or violet tone (or a tone that complements your main colors) will keep texture from looking drab.
  4. Check your values. Take a render of your model and do a linear desaturation to see if the values have enough variation, and if the gradients are apparent enough.

Part 5: Designing for Sketchfab

I knew from the beginning that I would be showing this piece in Sketchfab, so I had to consider what the model would look like from all angles — I decided it would be sort of a 2/3rds diorama where there is a definitive backing, so I could keep the sky framing the character from its key angles. Being able to interact with my work in Sketchfab changes the way I view my composition. After viewing my work as an interactive 3D diorama, I put more emphasis on incorporating all 3 axes in the final composition — after all, what’s the point of making something in 3D if you only have one “good angle”?

An example of the sorts of details I added after doing my test import to Sketchfab would be the the bright blue butterflies that add vertical interest, movement and color contrast. I also made the entire scene deeper because I felt it lacked the depth after viewing it in Sketchfab.

Overall I feel like Sketchfab is like a new tool or medium for me as a 3D artist. It isn’t just a way to present work, it’s something I’m actively designing projects for — and a way for people to interact with work and learn from it. I’m already working on new dioramas for Sketchfab alongside my character work.

That’s all I got! If you have any questions or want to get in touch, you can shoot me an email! I’m also active on these sites:

My Portfolio Site

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Seori Sachs

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