Art by Zhelong Xu

Back to the Source Part Two: Zhelong Xu

Vincent Gault on November 30 2016 | Substance Painter, Substance Source

Following the release of Substance Source, we decided to interview two of the great artists who created the launch visuals. After having the chance to chat with Guillaume Mollé in Part One, we are going introduce you to one of the Allegorithmic CEO’s favorite 3D artists: Zhelong Xu.

Flipping through Zhelong Xu's portfolio is a bit like walking through a Chinese art gallery. The contrast between the purity of the compositions and the complexity within each model is simply stunning. The harmony of lights, material definition and once again composition seems to whisper a story to that you can hear with your eyes.

Hi Zhelong, it’s an immense pleasure to talk with you. You define yourself as a “digital artisan”, but can give us some more information about who you are?

Thank you for your introduction. I'm from Shanghai, China. I have been working in the CG industry since 1998: I generally spend half of my time working for clients, and the other half working on my personal projects. While working, I always see myself as an artisan rather than an artist. Therefore, I am quite happy with the term “Digital Artisan”.

In the introduction of this user story, I was writing that watching your art is bit like walking through a Chinese art gallery: where do you really take your inspiration from?

I was born in Jingdezhen, a small town in the Province of Jiangxi, China, with a history of over a thousand years. In ancient China, it was the Nation’s center of porcelain manufactures. Furthermore, my grandfather is a Chinese painter: he may have played a role as well in the direction I took. I truly believe that this cultural foundation is what explains the work I do today. Not the goals I am pursuing, but the innate “cultural genes”. I am Chinese, and every day of my growing life, China's traditional culture affected me: you can definitely feel this in my work. Traditional Chinese painting, calligraphy, poetry, and music are my inspirations, of course, but also the vast number of ancient literary works and immortal works of art. The more I learn, and the more I feel that human civilization is so brilliant.

You always pay a lot of attention to how your scenes are lit. How would describe the usage of light in your work. Any tips about lighting you could give to the audience?

From a technical point of view, lighting and rendering a scene today, is way easier than a dozen years ago! Technologies like global illumination and subsurface scattering are now really easy to apply, and it’s much easier to render photorealistic images.

In my works, the light settings are not complicated: there are even some cases where I only rely on the HDRI lighting and don't use additional lights. I think that keen observation and study of traditional art will make you understand the lighting and rendering the feeling of the screen. CG physical cameras and physical lights respect the same rules you would have in real world photography. So if you manage to get it in real life, it shouldn't be difficult to apply what you learn to your CG scene.

Some of your assets have this “hand-crafted” feeling, and when I looked at one of your speed sculptings in ZBrush, you somehow mimic real handmade techniques: is it something you are aiming for (or just based on real world sculpting experience)?

I think that the feeling of touching and crafting mud (or other mediums) with your hands is still an irreplaceable experience, just as traditional painting is compared to digital painting. Artists who are good at painting on paper can quickly transition to Photoshop painting. However, the two remain different, and artists have to make sure they get rid of the “clean” aspect of their work, that you will get by default with a digital software. As humans, we react with emotions, and we instinctively get a feeling with a hand-made object. That’s why I tend to mimic and implement some handcraft techniques into my workflow, to replicate some imperfections. I think it has a better chance of connecting with your heart, compared to some "perfect" digital works.

You recently switched to Substance Painter for texturing your models: what led you to take this direction?

I have been using 3ds Max and ZBrush to create CG works for years. But I hadn't found a convenient texturing software until earlier this year when I discovered Substance Painter. I can’t express how excited I was: it was the texturing tool I have been dreaming of! It is so convenient and – the most important thing – so SIMPLE. Substance Painter is intuitive and the interface easy to understand. With almost no learning curve, your can generate, paint and export high-resolution textures.

What are the main advantages of Substance Painter compared of the previous tools you were using?

I've been using Mudbox and Photoshop to paint textures before Substance Painter appeared, but the workflow was too old-fashioned: each channel is drawn separately, which does not help the artist to focus on the intuitive workflow of "art."

My ideal tool is "What You See Is What You Get", something that replicates a real-life creative process, such as: “add a thick metal material”. Then you would control this with a variety of properties to fine-tune the result, so you don’t need to start each material from zero. This is exactly what I get with Substance Painter. Another great point is that you can really take advantage of the PBR-based workflow by being able to visualize and work on each channel individually, to really understand your material. These are some of the main reasons that led me to the Substance world :)

Now you had the opportunity to discover Substance Source before anyone else, in order to craft the stunning artwork “Fearless Journey”. What is your general feeling about our new material library?

This is fantastic, and it's really the key to the rendering and texturing that I've been able to accomplish in just 10 days. Using these perfectly calibrated materials and textures saved me a lot of time, and the important thing is that the exposed parameters allow me to modify and tweak them directly in Substance Painter, so that they are unique to any individual piece. For example, I used two rock materials to make the underlying rock, and then fused them together with an automatic mask in Substance Painter. And since the procedural material’s resolution can be modified, I can export the texture at 8K resolution for the final render to get a clear and sharp result. I have no doubt that Substance Source will become Substance Painter's best partner.

We are going to end the questions here and let you describe the process of creating “Fearless Journey”, from the idea to the final image. Once again, thank you for this awesome piece of art!

Concept

This project started with a pencil drawing. When I was a kid, I was particularly fascinated by dragons, the mysterious fantasy animal. In Chinese culture, the Dragon is not an evil creature, trapping a princess in a castle. It doesn’t like gold and silver :-). The dragon is the highest form of creatures: the Chinese people call themselves the descendants of the dragons. Interestingly, in an ancient Chinese legend, it is said that if certain carp can climb a waterfall called “the Dragon gate”, they will be transformed into dragons. This legend is used to remind and inspire people that an ordinary person who works hard, can become a great character.

But because the dragon is too mysterious and has divine power, ordinary people still cherish it. So when I conceived the work, I remembered that, when I was a child, I dreamt of crossing the mountains and the sea to find a real dragon. There is a huge difference of volume between the dragon and the child, so I thought it could make a memorable shot if the child is directly facing the Dragon.

The key idea in this piece was ”contrast”: volume size contrast, material contrast, composition contrast… For the story: the ferocious dragon is good for the boy, the boy is closing his eyes and enjoying this moment. Although his body is full of dust and stains, he looks very happy, this is a moment of inner peace: his dream came true!

Modeling & texturing

For this project, I dedicated two weeks for modeling and two weeks for texturing. Because of the time constraints, I decided to stay within Substance Painter, and rely on Iray for the rendering. I made a test, and was convinced that Iray would do the job (just as I did several times before).
I created the model in ZBrush in two weeks, and at this stage I decided that I would opt for a “not completely realistic” style.

After some modeling and debugging, I had to texture and render in only 10 days, which was a great challenge for both me and Substance Painter. Fortunately, Substance Painter’s bakers are incredibly fast and did not require any additional setup. For the most important part of the dragon's head, the texture had to be 4096. But when I painted, I switched to 2048: I just switched back to 4096 when it was time to render. This greatly sped up the production.

I began with a fill layer, using some different layer stacks one after the other. It is important to note that the dragon seems to be old and experienced, but not too dirty. It is not a big crocodile in the quagmire :) I used large areas of warm colors, with a variety of mask to make the textures of the dragon get richer, and finally I added a golden material to the head, that I chose in Substance source. I decided that it should appear in various parts of the dragon: the bones may also have gold elements!

The other parts of the dragon’s body were much faster, thanks to one of Substance Painter's key features: smart materials! I was able to save the material I used for the head, as a smart material, to reuse it on the other parts! Once I baked normal map and additional maps of the body, I just applied this smart material directly to get a rough result. Remaining work consisted of playing with the layers to add and subtract details so that they merged in large, yet slightly different color tones. I used the same techniques in other parts like fins, which share the same smart material that I tweaked individually.

Once the textures were created, I set the proper size for each TextureSet and rendered the maps. Then, I opened a new .spp file, containing low-res versions of the different elements. Then I pasted the rendered textures back in. As there is less geometry and fewer layers, this trick drastically accelerates the rendering process! Finally, I picked a suitable HDRI and then opened the Iray renderer (F10). First, with a lower resolution preview, to tweak and check the result, then, once I am satisfied, I switched the size to 8K for a final detailed render (I7-6700K, GTX970). Iray is really great, and seamless integration with Substance Painter makes the process extremely fast.

Thanks to this project, I was able to improve my Substance Painter knowledge a lot. Substance Painter is now only in version 2.4.1, and I am confident it will continue to grow as the reference texturing tool (and even a rendering solution). Delivering a piece like this in such a short period of time requires experience, but also software and content you can rely on: hopefully Substance Painter and Substance Source allowed me to be extremely efficient! Thanks again to Allegorithmic for giving me this opportunity. It was a challenging and wonderful experience! :)

You can find Zhelong's ArtStation right here.

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