, by Louise Melin

From Philosophy to 3D

Louise Melin discusses her change in career, from Philosophy teacher to 3D Artist.

  • Interview

Let the youthful soul look back on life with the question: what have you truly loved up to now, what has elevated your soul, what has mastered it and at the same time delighted it? Place these venerated objects before you in a row, and perhaps they will yield for you, through their nature and their sequence, a law, the fundamental law of your true self.

– Friedrich Nietzsche

This extract of a text by Nietzsche is particularly significant for me because, until very recently, I was a teacher of Philosophy, and I would study it each year with my students as part of my course on Personal Identity. As a Philosophy teacher my day-to-day work involved the tasks you’d imagine – correcting papers, preparing students for their baccalauréat exams, anticipation of university applications, and so on. This is no longer the case; I’m now a full-time 3D artist on the Substance team. What happened to bring about this change?

One of Louise’s recent 3D renders.

My path into teaching was quite typical. At high school I was good at literature, bad at science, and passionate about the humanities, and particularly about Philosophy. It seemed a clear choice to go on to study this at university. I realized early on that I wanted to teach, in order to transmit my passion for the subject. And so I spent six years at university, studying.

I always considered myself a creative person. I loved drawing and photography – I received my first camera when I was 15 years old. And so I spent almost all my free time exploring my environment, notably photographing the area where I grew up.

On a personal level, it was important for me to find a connection between my study of Philosophy and my creative side. This led me to specialize in Aesthetics, the area of Philosophy concerned with how we experience and react to beauty. Specifically, I specialized in a field that was fairly new at that time, Environmental Aesthetics. This field takes the approach that people are not merely passive spectators of their surroundings, but rather that they are wholly immersed within it. It might ask, for instance: what takes place within you when you are surrounded by the smell of your garden, or when you switch on the soft lights in your living room in the evening? Here I found a strong connection between Philosophy and my photography, which focused on the environment around me. I felt very fulfilled, both creatively and intellectually.

Following my studies, I went through the process of becoming a teacher in the public sector. Public servants in France have an excellent level of job security; this would essentially be a job for life. This would not focus on Aesthetics in particular, but I reasoned that continuing to do photography alongside my teaching would satisfy my creative impulses.

At some point I realized that this wasn’t the case. I knew that I’d be able to remain in my teaching job for the next thirty years – but rather than providing any sense of security, this was beginning to provoke panic. I became increasingly frustrated that my career wasn’t proving to be as creative as I’d hoped. I began to think about changing career, without any firm idea of what I wanted to do.

Career Disruption

Then, in 2020 the coronavirus pandemic hit the world. My classes were cancelled for six months, and I suddenly found myself with a surplus of free time. I chose to use this time to sharpen my focus on my more creative activities. I began drawing again. I took a lot of photos.

Around this time a friend mentioned to me that it could be interesting to try out creating things in 3D; he said it could be interesting to integrate 3D in my various creative projects. At first, I was hesitant – I’m not at all techy, and I didn’t have any background at all in 3D. I rarely did any post-processing of my photos in Photoshop, even, just because I’d too frequently run into barriers. A large part of me felt that I just didn’t have the skills required for 3D.

One of Louise’s recent 3D renders.

But my curiosity won out. I downloaded Blender, and opened it up. I was greeted by an immense bank of controls, like you might find in the cockpit of an aircraft. Everywhere I looked, I ran into buttons and sliders and absolutely bewildering menus. It was a bit overwhelming.

Moreover, I didn’t understand the language of 3D – terms like ‘albedo,’ ‘bump map,’ ‘shader,’ ‘anisotropy,’ and so on. I searched around the internet to find resources, but I felt that I wouldn’t be able to familiarize myself with these terms. I was coming from a background that was just too far removed from 3D.

But despite all this, I began to grasp that there was something about 3D that appealed to my creative mindset. There was something there of value to me.

Photography, and particularly photography of environments, is by its nature a somewhat passive activity – we can’t ask a mountain to smile, or to turn a little to the left. We can’t control the lighting. We just have to accept what we’re given, and work with that. And there’s a certain humility about that – indeed, it’s one of the more charming aspects of photography. But it can also rapidly become quite frustrating.

During these first, tentative steps in 3D, I began to understand that these sorts of constraints that are present within photography just don’t exist within 3D. You decide the lighting of your scene. If you decide that the scene requires fog, you can add it, and choose its intensity. All of this is under your control – and this is the characteristic of 3D that I found especially appealing.

With this realization, I plunged into a creative frenzy. As a latecomer to 3D, I dedicated all my time to learning, doing everything I could to catch up on lost time.

Louise’s first ever 3D scene.

This, above, is the first scene I ever created in 3D, in Spring 2020, after a month of experimentation, on the theme of Sleeping Beauty. I’m a little bit ashamed of how it looks now – but, at the same time, I’m quite attached to it, because it was the outcome of my very first steps in 3D.

And this is the scene that I created around that same theme of Sleeping Beauty, in Autumn 2021. Naturally, there’s a big difference in quality between the two – I’d practiced, and progressed, a lot in the intervening time. More than this, by this time I’d discovered the importance of textures.

Learning to Texture

The distinctive character of a 3D object is determined not only by elements such as its shape, or the way it’s lit, but also, significantly, by its texture. I discovered this little by little, notably thanks to some of the 3D artists I discovered online, such as Pauline Boiteux, Emma Savary, Elie Paquiet, and Kheyyam Naghiyev . These were specifically material artists – they specialized in the art of textures.

And all of these particular artists had one point in common: they all used the Substance 3D apps.

Their work resonated with me a great deal. I had a growing realization that this was where I wanted to specialize – and that, to do so, I’d have to learn to use the Substance 3D tools.

I started testing out the software at the core of the Substance ecosystem, Substance 3D Designer. It was, I confess, a little intimidating at first. There were lots of nodes to learn about; everything seemed quite complicated. Again, I was concerned that I’d run into barriers quite quickly.

In the end, I was able to learn Designer without great difficulty. Its system of connecting nodes is organized very logically; this allowed me to get comfortable with the software, and enjoy creating in 3D, very quickly.

The Perfect Creative Tool

In my experimentation with various 3D tools, I came to feel that a creative tool requires three main characteristics:

It’s accessible. If the tool is too difficult to learn, you’ll quickly have the sensation that you’re looking through the shop window at all the great artwork being created by other artists. In the case of Designer, a wide range of resources exist online to help people become more comfortable with the software – such as Substance Academy, a series of online tutorials which are frequently updated by the Substance team. Or such as the Substance community, whose networks are on Discord and Twitter and elsewhere; I found in many cases that artists were happy to provide support to help me create what I’d envisioned.

It’s powerful. There’s little point in mastering a tool that will ultimately limit you. And Designer certainly is powerful – it provides the ability to create a truly immense range of 3D materials. It’s also versatile – you can use it to create textures, or to draw, or to sculpt. You can even create animation with it. Artists in the 3D community continually find ways to expand the app’s capabilities, and use it in unanticipated ways.

It’s inspiring. If you have a powerful tool but no idea what you want to do with it, then you won’t do anything with it at all. It’ll remain sterile. A great creative tool should evoke ideas within you, and Designer did, for me. Moreover, with all the great artwork being created by the Substance community, there’s no shortage of inspiration.

Substance 3D Designer has all these elements. For me, it represents the perfect creative tool.

Joining the Substance Team

In December 2021 I was contacted by the Substance team, who asked if I’d be interested in joining them. This came as a surprise; I’d imagined that I might be able find some work in 3D a few years later, once I had a solid portfolio of artwork.

A comparison of lighting, between one of Louise’s photos (above), taken during her teaching career, and one of her more recent 3D renders (below).

But when the offer came, I realized that I’d found what I really wanted to do – I wanted to create objects in 3D, texture them, and photograph them. And so I met with my director and told him that I was quitting my teaching work. And then I left my job for life.

Was this a break or a continuation? The question is almost philosophical. A lot of people experienced this sort of disruption to their career during Covid. When this occurs, it’s natural that we question ourselves about what we’ve done, and how much significance this holds for us. In my case, I’d say that my change was a continuation rather than a break. If I compare my 3D artwork today with my previous photos, I can see I took the same sort of approach in both cases. The general mood of the images is the same, and there’s the same kind of attention to the grain of the textures. I have the same sort of attachment to the lighting, and the general composition of the images is the same. My artistic awareness has remained constant, and my career change has allowed me to reinvest this awareness in 3D, with new methodology.

A comparison of texture between one of Louise’s photographs (left), and one of her more recent 3D images (right).

Here I return to quotation by Nietzsche at the top of this article – and, okay, this is kind of the cliched thing a teacher of Philosophy might include. But it’s true nonetheless – it’s extremely important to find this ‘internal law,’ this constant that each of us has within us. This is what allows us to see such a career change not as turning your back on something, but rather as a means of discovering yourself.

A comparison of composition between one of Louise’s photos (above), and one of her more recent 3D renders (below).

This article is adapted from a talk that Louise gave at the Future of Creativity event in June 2022 (talk in French, with auto-generated subtitles in English and other languages available).

Meet Louise Melin

Louise is a Technical Artist in the Adobe Substance 3D Digital Media department. Her 3D work to date includes the creation of comprehensive material collections, such as her Joseon-era Korea collection.

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