, by Matteo Scopel

Procedural Illusion: The Alchemist’s Workshop

Matteo Scopel discusses how he evokes Faustian mystery in Substance 3D Designer.

  • Interview

My name is Matteo Scopel and I am an Italian material artist.

My background is quite unusual for a 3D artist. I’ve studied philosophy, focusing in particular on the relationship between urbanism and political philosophy. This has led me to develop a passion for urban photography, which I’ve cultivated over the years… until the pandemic made it difficult to move freely around the city to take pictures. When this happened, I focused on what I found to be the closest approximation to photography: creating 3D images. And over time, I realized that I love texturing and material creation.

The Alchemist’s Workshop

The Alchemist’s Workshop is my first portfolio entry. It is meant as a tribute to some of my different influences and passions. Art always has an illusory, alchemical nature, inasmuch as it concerns fiction and illusion. I find this particularly true of 3D art, as it strives to dispense with the necessity of the real world by replacing it entirely with a fictional representation. I wanted to convey this Faustian feeling by depicting the workshop of an alchemist.

Parable of the rich man *oil on panel *31.9 x 42.5 cm *signed b.l.: RH. 1627.

The Parable of the Rich Fool, painted by Rembrandt in 1627.

Painted representations of alchemists in their workshops, and the symbols and recurring elements within each scene, have always fascinated me. Influences for scene include Flemish paintings, and their symbolic use of objects to convey their society’s moral values, and paintings by Rembrandt, such as The Parable of the Rich Fool. Rembrandt’s use of lighting and materials to evoke mystery, and the quest for knowledge, is masterful.

I also drew upon some medieval Italian masterpieces; the walls of the workshop echo the stunning frescoed walls of the Parrot Room in Palazzo Davanzati, in Florence, and you can see the starry pattern of Giotto’s painted vaults in the Cappella degli Scrovegni, in Padua – which evokes a sense of elevation, allowing the mind to soar to greater heights – in the background of the moon calendar, covered in more detail below.

Tools of the trade

For this project, I planned early on to do most of the work through texturing and material creation. Thus, I relied on three creative tools: Substance 3D Designer, Substance 3D Painter, and Blender. Where it seemed most appropriate, I worked in a fully procedural way, creating objects in Designer, using displacement. At other times, when using a more conventional modeling > texturing workflow, I worked in all three apps in parallel. To facilitate this, I used a simple, free Blender add-on called Auto Reload. This allows you to reload textures in Blender, either manually or using a timer. By enabling ‘Automatic export when outputs change’ in Designer, and using this Blender add-on, I was essentially able to make changes to my materials and view the resulting changes to my scene immediately. This was extremely helpful.

For this project I created 50 Substance graphs in Designer: some are utility nodes which I’ve used in other graphs, some are alpha maps used for texturing in Painter, others are materials that create objects directly through displacement, or that I applied and weathered using Painter. I even created a sort of grain that I applied in compositing over the render, to provide the kind of dry paint grain effect that real-life paintings often possess.

I’d often move from Designer to Painter, adjusting materials and alphas as needed on the fly. Designer and Painter work fantastically well together. I like to create textures in Designer and then apply them in Painter; this allows me to avoid the sense of tiling repetition, and I can weather realistically wherever it makes sense. I’ve found this mix of node-based workflow and manual creation and refinement with brushes in Painter to be really fruitful, as it maintains the speed and reusability of a procedural workflow without sacrificing the individuality and flexibility of handmade creation.

A few technical decisions I made: all textures were exported as .exr files. I wanted to keep the resolution of the scene as high as my computer could handle. For the first two renders, showing the whole scene, I typically rendered at a 2k resolution, as I found this was the limit my computer could handle with so many assets. For the detailed close-up shots, with a smaller number of assets, I could afford to increase the resolution to 4k; this allowed me to showcase the highest possible amount of details. For rendering, I used Blender 3.1 and Cycles.

I will now focus on the creation of two assets, specifically: the manuscript and the moon calendar.

The Manuscript

The manuscript was inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks. The most interesting part of it is certainly its content, which is procedurally generated by a series of graphs created using Designer. Let’s go through them.

Alphabet

This extremely simple graph serves the purpose of generating the text that will go on the page. Here, I just warped a rectangle and then rotated and blended it to create six simple letters. These letters were fed to a Tile Sampler. The most important part here is the Mask Map input I have created. Through this, I could mask specific sections of the “page” and create the illusion of paragraphs and the space for drawings.

Some parameters of the Tile Sampler were exposed, such as the X & Y amount, and most randomization values. In this way. I could establish enough variation to give each page its unique feeling. After the sampler, I used a Slope Blur node to create some variation in the letters. Its intensity was also exposed as a parameter.

Shapes

Another simple utility graph. I used this to generate the drawings that appear on the page. Here, I provided a shape in an input node, and fed it to a Shape Extrude node (whose parameters were exposed) in order to create a three-dimensional shape. In the section of the graph shown above, I extracted the edges in the nodes shown at the top; at the bottom of this section, I used an Anisotropic Noise node to create the sketching effect. I then masked this noise using the output of the RT Shadows node. Finally, I blended the edges and the masked noise together. The final result was quick and simple, yet provided the feeling of imaginary geometric structures.

The page

Finally, I brought all these pieces together to create the page. It is here that the importance of the Mask Map input in the alphabet generator shines. I was able to create a map that included the shapes I wanted and the types of paragraph structure, and the text could flow inside this structure.

First, I assembled the shapes I wanted to include on the page. As the image shows, I’ve just used some very simple polygons.

I used a Tile Random node to create a map of the paragraphs into which I wanted to break up the text. If you look at Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks, you’ll see that he followed a very similar structure! I blended this structure with a blurred and inverted version of the shapes I’d created earlier. In this way, the text would only appear around the shapes. I was able to use the blur intensity to choose how close I wanted the text to the illustrations.

The rest of the graph is a very straightforward parchment material. I added some random letters here and there, which provide more randomness and organicity to the page. I also made sure that the parchment is dirtier as it gets closer to the book binding.

The rest of the manuscript

The manuscript also consists of a leather cover, even if it is not quite visible in the render:

I created the material for the cover using Substance 3D Designer, and used Substance 3D Painter to apply it to a simple mesh. To create the cover decorations I relied on Marco Vitale’s great MV Follow Me – Curve Tools. The most important thing was to give the leather that kind of reddish, worn-out look.

The sides of the manuscript are also a material which I created with Designer and applied with Painter. The most important part here is the height map; this provides the illusion that this shape is a collection of individual pages, by providing irregularity of size and thickness for each ‘page’.

The Moon Calendar

My favorite part of this project is probably this imaginary moon calendar/orrery. I do not think such an object ever existed in reality – but then, neither did the philosopher’s stone, as far as I know. The design is based on existing orreries, which are incredibly fascinating devices. I did a rough sketch of the design of the moon calendar, and I more or less followed that when assembling the piece.

A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery, by Joseph Wright of Derby, the ceiling of the Cappella degli Scrovegni by Giotto di Bondone, and Matteo’s orrery sketch.

The asset consists of some real geometry and some materials that are created just using Designer. Let’s go through them.

The sun

The sun is the focal point of this asset. It was entirely created using Substance 3D Designer.

The node setup is quite straightforward. I arranged the circle of rays using a Splatter Circular node. The center of the sun was created using the Reaction Diffusion node.

The beautiful anisotropic reflection, which contributes in a fundamental way to the graceful shine of the sun, is based on Xolotl Studio’s setup for anisotropy.

The material is directly applied on a simple plane with displacement.

The gears

The gears are also another material created with Substance 3D Designer. However, the initial gear shapes were created with Blender using the Extra Objects add-on. I have created four variants.

I then imported the models into Designer and used the baker “Convert UV to SVG” to create a simple gear shape.

The node tree is quite simple. I fed the gears into a Tile Sampler node. The color random value of the sampler allowed me to give the gears different grayscale values. In this way, they can appear to be layered at different depths.

To save computational power and memory, I decided that displacement wasn’t necessary for this material. The diffuse map already fakes the different shadowing of the gears, and since they are hidden behind the sun and the frame of the moon calendar, displacement wasn’t needed.

The rest of the object

I created a few more graphs in Designer to provide me with elements to be applied later using Painter.

In particular, I created a basic starry pattern. Note that it is completely flat, without any sign of noise. This is because this makes it easier to smoothly remove the stars in Painter where they do not fit (for example, when too close to the borders or when overlapping with other decorations).

I also created a simple silver moon generator that includes the various lunar phases. And there is also a sun ray that works as an arrow to point to the right moon phase.

I then used Painter to apply all the pieces to a mesh I’d previously created with Blender. In Painter, I also created the brass material for the frame, as it didn’t make sense to create such a basic material in Designer. Using Painter, I was able to avoid tiling and place the dirt and weathering precisely where it was appropriate.

Closing words

This project encompassed a large number of assets, materials, and hours of work. For me, the preparation work is equally as important as the actual creation: a material is not a bubble on a screen, it is the substance of an object. Understanding its history, its context, its usage allows the material to imbue an object with life.

Designer’s procedural workflow taught me to think about art as a holistic process, the union of individual and collaborating parts. Each node is a word in a sentence, each map a paragraph on a page. I think that a good material should manage to provide a background and a story to an object, and it should also somehow leave a door open to questions, to mystery: who created this? Who lived here? Which force shaped this world? The illusion is total when the mystery is complete. We, as 3D artists, are alchemists, creators of images and fictional worlds.

Meet Matteo Scopel

Matteo Scopel has a background in philosophy and photography, before specializing as a 3D material artist. He welcomes questions and feedback on ArtStation, Twitter, and Instagram.

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