With the multitude of tools available in Blender, just about any material can be convincingly created. But there is a saying in CG, it’s not the tool, it’s the artist that creates art. The same can be said about materials. All the latest, new tools aren’t going to create realistic or amazing materials for you. You still have to know how to use them and more importantly, you have to know how materials are created and what makes them convincing.
So, instead of focusing on tools, we are going to look at what materials are and what makes a good material. With that information, you can then use all the amazing tools more effectively.
Let’s start with a few definitions.
Material: is the base substance of a surface (i.e. wood, metal, glass)
Texture: is the adjective of the material (i.e. rusty iron, brushed steel, soiled cloth, frosted glass)
Anytime you create a new material, you should gather reference materials. It can be an object with the material you are trying to create or a good photograph of it. These reference materials will help you “visualize” what you are trying to create. When gathering reference, very rarely will you find pristine materials without signs of wear and tear in real life. There will be dust, rust, scratches, dents and a multitude of other signs that this material has gone through over the period of time. Notice these signs of wear and decide if they are signs of “material” or “texture”.
Texture attributes/qualities can be broken down by answering the following questions:
What are you?
Often the simple act of identifying an object can help you understand what kind of materials you will be creating.
Example: a fire hydrant tells you its shape; that it is made of thik steel left out in the weather, and most often painted.
What is your essence?
Try to identify the most important feature of the material
Example: a radiator’s most important feature might be its rusty quality. As you identify the most important feature, keep looking deeper and noticing each unique feature of the material, it will give you a list of features to add to the material; adding more realism and depth with every one you add.
What are you made of?
Before dissecting the many layers of textures that make up a material, you need to identify the base material. By identifying the base material, you will more easily see the details (textures) that make it that particular material.
Example: an old metal sign; knowing that it is metal, leads you to realize that some metals are prone to rusting, so look for signs of rust and corrosion. Is the sign painted? (Old paint has a tendency to chip or flake away, new paint will look shiny and somewhat reflective.)
What do you sound like?
As odd as it might sound, sometimes your eyes will fool you. Tap on the object, what does it sound like? Metal, glass plastic…..
What do you smell like?
Often you can identify important clues by noticing how the object smells. Leather smells different than plastic, different metals have different smells.
How can I see you?
Identify the light source, lighting of the material will play an important part in how it is recreated. Warm light sources would produce warm highlights or hotspots, cool lights the opposite. When gathering your reference materials, make sure to note in a journal or mentally what the light source was, time of day (if outside) so you can recreate the material accurately.
Where are you?
Is the object inside or outside? If outside, it will be exposed to weather, heat, moisture. This will affect its appearance. New objects quickly lose their new appearance by acquiring dents, dings, scratches, dust etc. Knowing where it is located will help identify these qualities.
What do you look like?
Now comes the part where you start describing the texture qualities. The better you can describe what you see, the easier it will be to recreate. Some things to look for:
Reflections and shadows
Is the object transparentí
Is the object luminousí
From an outside source?
From the object itself?
Luminescent objects can have one or two of these qualities and identified as:
What do you feel like?
How does the object feel? Is it bumpy or smooth, warm or cool, software or hard?
What’s your story?
Try to identify the history of the object, how has usage contributed to wear and tear?
By answering these questions, you will better understand your material and how to go about recreating it. It will, of course, take practice and lots of observation to master these skills. You need to learn to train your artistic eye to really see what you are looking at. Soon, breaquíng materials down will be automatic and your materials will improve dramatically.
The information for this article was paraphrased from Owen Demers booque ‘Digital Texturing & Painting’ (ISBN 0-7357-0918-1). I highly recommend reading this booque for anyone wanting to take their material skills to the next level.