Art Spotlight: The Beauty of Palmyra

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About Myself

Hello! My name is Gustaw Mackay, and I live in Copenhagen, Denmark. I make 3D game art both for fun, and for use in game development, on top of that, I also engage in other things such as music and making YouTube videos.

My interest in video games and art started, or at least, can be traced back to when I was five years old. For my birthday, my father gave me a present, it was a puzzle adventure game called Riven, made in 1997 by Cyan studios. Those that are familiar with Riven know that it is a notoriously difficult game, especially when you are only 5 years old, which resulted in me never finishing it. But that mattered little, as the game’s outlandish visuals, phenomenal sound design, and mystical soundtrack had already left a massive impact on me. An impact that sparked the flames of my creativity, and left me with the passion for video games and art that I have today.

Then, my history with 3D started when I was sixteen years old; at school, we had to do “career choice” presentations, wherein we had to explain what we wanted to do with our lives when we grew up. Now, being fourteen, I had virtually no idea as to what I wanted to be, the only thing I knew was that I loved video games and that I liked being creative. So, being forced to pick, I chose 3D artist. The fact that I knew next to nothing about 3D, and that we only had a week, resulted in my presentation not going very well, and thus, I was graded an F. But that mattered little, for my passion for 3D art had begun.


The circumstances of me undertaking this scan were quite spontaneous. For a long time, I have admired the beautiful work published on Sketchfab, by brilliant 3D-scanners like Geoffrey Marchal, Rigsters, and misterdevious. This admiration caused me to dream of doing 3D-scanning myself one day.

One fateful afternoon, I was visiting Glyptoteket, a large art museum here in Copenhagen. During my visit, there was an extraordinary exhibition about Palmyra, the legendary ruined city, located in what is now modern-day Syria. I am generally quite fascinated with ancient civilizations, particularly eastern ones like Assyria, Gandhara and, of course, Palmyra, but this was the first time that I had seen antiques from one of these civilizations in person. This prompted me to think “today is the day that I will try 3D-scanning.”

There were multiple artifacts at the exhibition, but I picked “The Beauty of Palmyra”, a 3rd-century grave relief of a Palmyrene woman, as it was the most interesting one, especially because her portrait showed visible remains of colours, which was proof that the portrait had once been painted in full colour.

I tried my best to take some photos of the portrait and went home. I researched online what software to use and decided to pick Meshroom, which is a free-to-use, open-source program like Blender. I imported the photos into Meshroom, and set it to render. 2 hours passed, and wow! The detail was incredible, and I could not believe how far 3D scanning technology had come. But it was not perfect, the top and back were completely missing, and her podium looked ugly. So, being the perfectionist that I am, I headed back to Glyptoteket the next day.

beauty of palmyra meshroom

First Meshroom attempt

Taking the Pictures

This time, I had read up on 3D scanning at home, and this time, the whole picture-taking process took roughly 5 hours. This was mostly caused by the exhibition being very busy, which meant that I was not the only museum-goer that wanted a close look at her portrait.

When taking the pictures for your scan, it is a good idea to shoot in RAW format, which is an image format that preserves far more data than say, a jpeg. I also recommend shooting in manual mode, so that you can perfectly adjust the camera’s shutter speed, iso and aperture to suit the particular lighting situation. The room in which the portrait was located had somewhat dim lighting, so to best deal with this issue, I chose a shutter speed of 1/25, which helped to get the lowest amount of blur and the best quality.

I want to note that all the pictures used in the scan were taken with my phone, an LG v20, as I, unfortunately, do not own a camera. But this did not stop me, and neither should it stop you. As a matter of fact, phones are actually a great choice for photogrammetry, considering their cameras typically have very narrow apertures, which is ideal for photogrammetry, as wider apertures produce Depth-of-Field, an unwanted effect that blurs the background, resulting in a poor scan. When shooting for photogrammetry, it is important that everything in the photo is in focus.

Colour Correction

Gif montage of all the photos used for the scan

Now comes the colour correction phase. After I transferred the photos to my computer, I imported them into Adobe Lightroom. In total, I had taken 200 photographs, but after deleting the blurry and unusable ones, I ended up with 109.

The process I use in Lightroom is to edit the main picture and then duplicate the Develop settings of the edited picture on-to the other pictures. This helps to get something that scans better and looks nicer too. When colour correcting, I try to get rid of any crushed blacks and whites, as Meshroom, or any other 3D scanning software, will not be able to scan parts with crushed colours, as they do not contain any data, i.e pixels.

beauty of palmyra color correction

Before and after being treated in Lightroom

Creating the Scan

The next step was to bring the photos into Meshroom, a step that is normally quite painless, as Meshroom is a very easy-to-use software. I pressed the start button, held my breath, the hours passed, and… the results came out looking great! Both the top of her head and her back had been scanned.

However, there were some imperfections, so I imported the model into Blender to do a bit of clean-up.

The Clean-up

Upon importing into Blender, I came to the conclusion that I wanted the scan to be as “immersive” as possible, meaning I did not want any holes, weird geometry, major texture flaws or anything else that broke the “illusion” of the scan. And upon further inspection, the scan did not meet these requirements—yet. And thus, more than “a bit” of clean-up was necessary.

beauty of palmyra extra geometry

The first thing I did in Blender was to remove all the unwanted floating geometry around the mesh. I found that some of the details around the face were kind of muddy in the original mesh, and because of my sculpting experience, I thought “why not just fix these?” I had 109 reference photos after all.

beauty of palmyra sculpting

As seen in the above photo, the details in the original scan, particularly around the eyes, nose, and mouth, lacked the detail and depth of the original. For instance, her nostrils were visible in the texture, but not in the mesh. So, using mostly the smooth and standard brushes, I added these things back into the mesh. featured on her neck and cheek, there were some nasty holes as well, which I fixed the same way.

beauty of palmyra sculpting

Her fingers definitely did not look like that on the real sculpture, so as I had done before, I used the smooth and standard brushes in order to bring the model closer to the original sculpture. One of my favourite features in Blender is that you can sculpt with the texture still enabled, which makes it possible to use the texture as a guideline for the sculpting.

beauty of palmyra fingers

Same problem on the other fingers

As seen in the above picture and below, the podium still did not look very appealing, so I decided to completely remove it. For this task, I trimmed the polys at the bottom of the sculpture in Edit Mode, and then polished the area with the smooth brush. Lastly, I fixed the fingers to make them look closer to the reference.

beauty of palmyra detail

Along with Mesh imperfections, there were also some texture artifacts. In Blender’s texture paint canvas, I used the Clone Stamp brush to remove them.

beauty of palmyra detail

The bottom proved to be especially difficult, as it was quite messy. I fixed the bottom by deleting the excess polygons, smoothing the remaining ones to look more natural, after which I then UV unwrapped the area, and placed it on an unused spot in the texture, which I then painted black. I also painted the sides around the bottom, using an opacity of 50%, to make the transition from black to the rest of the texture smoother.

Gif montage of all the mesh fixes.

Uploading to Sketchfab

Now, all there was left to do was to upload it to Sketchfab. For me, this step usually takes a bit of time, as I like to play around with the settings in order to get the best possible result. The great thing about Sketchfab is that nothing is final, and you always go back and tweak it after you have uploaded it.

beauty of palmyra sketchfab

I chose a FOV of 19° as I think that it makes this particular model look the best.

sketchfab 3d editor settings

I then applied some post-processing. A subtle, yet wide, bloom and a touch of Ambient Occlusion, just to make it pop a little more. I applied some depth of field as well, but not too much, as I find that to be distracting. Finally, I added some sharpness, grain, and a vignette, all in subtle amounts.

In tone mapping I also bumped up the saturation a little, to make it look a bit warmer, in order to give it a “hot desert” vibe, as Palmyra was located in a desert, and to make the pigment traces more noticeable.

Lastly, I wanted the model to be informative, so I added some annotations that explain the portrait in further detail.

Comparison between the real thing and a render of the model, can you tell which is which?

And here is the final model on Sketchfab.


Final Thoughts

I chose Meshroom for this scan, and I consider it an excellent starting point, but if you are looking for something a little more in-depth, I recommend going with RealityCapture; it is not as easy to use, but the final results are often better, and there are far more settings to play around with.

Since doing this scan back in February, I have learnt a great deal about 3D scanning. It is definitely something I will do more of in the future. I have decided that some of the scans I have yet to upload will be published on my new, secondary Sketchfab profile; I feel that these scans do not fit the type of content I want on my main profile, though they are still interesting and strengthen the ever-growing cultural heritage archive on Sketchfab, which I am very happy to contribute to. That is not to say that there will never be a scan on my main profile again, only that there will be fewer, as I want my main profile to contain mostly my personal creations.

Thank you for reading this article, I hope you have learnt something. And thank you to Abby and the Sketchfab team for letting me contribute to the Sketchfab blog. You can find more of my work on my Twitter, ArtStation, and of course, Sketchfab.


About the author

Gustaw Mackay

3D Artist / Photogrammetrist / Sculptor / Musician

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