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Texture artists are the digital painters of the virtual world. They are used in everything from 3D animation films, TV series, visual effect sequences in live-action movies, commercials and video games. They responsible for creating the overall colored look for 3D models, based on designs made by the '2D concept art' department in pre-production.
3D models are a flat grey or uniform color, if any, when coming out of the modeling departments. They do not come by default with any color or details because there is an intermediary step, called the 'UV mapping', in between modeling and texturing.
Texturing is not only a simple matter of adding uniform colors to an object, it is so much more. First of all, the color of every 3D object can be patterned, textured and painted like a separate blank canvas. But most of all, texture artists design and create the materials and shaders for those 3D objects, from which color is only one aspect.
Color, also referred to as 'diffuse color', is actually only one attribute of the bigger ensemble that is the material of an object. A material is a collection of different properties that determine how light reacts when reaching the surface of an object. This combination of attributes define the specific appearanc of an object, often regardless of color, as black and white films can confirm.
The material determines how a surface will react, appear and be recognized consistently, under varying light circomstances. Each of these materials can be of any color in the spectrum and still not look alike, because of its other defining attributes. Such materials can range from: metal, fabric, plastic, glass, earth, water, gravel, granite, wood, organic, etc.
The 'diffuse color' is certainly the most noticeable of those material properties, but others can be just as important, such as reflection, transparency and luminosity. In fact, a material can contain many colors at once, like car paint or metals. Sometimes, other properties can overpower the diffuse color entierly, such as a glass or mirror.
CG texture artists paint texture maps for all the different material properties that need detailing and they set value parameters to control the other attributes. By adjusting factors such as the color, luminosity, reflectivity, specularity, roughness, refraction and reflections, they can recreate the appearance of any type of real material, and then some... It takes skills, precision, patience and an artistic eye, but every out-of-this-world creature you've seen in 21st century sci-fi movies has been painted by a texture artist somewhere.
What Do Texture Artists Do?
Texture artists generally use a graphic pen and tablet to digitally create textures for CG film productions, VFX, TV and games. This can be done either in 2D or directly in 3D, with today's modern GPUs.
The reason texture artists are like painters is that most of their work is done with a virtual brush & canvas, painting onto a 2D surface, even if it is translated to 3D in some way. Texture artist create the color and material applied on a 3D object and every pattern, texture, material and attribute maps for it. They also create customized collections of materials called shaders or shading networks to create exactly the look desired for the project. This can be photo-realistic or stylized in a cartoon fashion, depending on the project, budget and desire to avoid the uncanny valley.
- Unfold adequate UVs for the planned texture
- Develop the look for textures in 2D
- Design the materials for 3D objects
- Paint textures for each attribute map
- Establish shading networks for the textures
- Quality Control the result of the texture in 3D
- Render Test images with contextual lighting
There are a few different aspects of a project where texture artists can be tasked to work on:
- Props (Accessories)
- Character & Organic Materials
- Hard Surface Surfaces
- Environments (natural and urban)
- Digital Sculpting
Wear & Tear
One of the most important aspect of textures is the passage of time. Objects in 3D are always too perfect-looking by default and it takes a good texture artist to make it look worn, used and real. For example, one could add cues for the age of the object or how it's been used, such as discolorations, erosions, imperfections and dirt. The object itself should also reflect how it would theoretically have been used in the context of the story, to make it believable
Texturing is not only skin-deep, it is also about surface relief. Texture artists are also tasked to create all the small surface details, that could not be modeled because they are too small. For example, the surface of a rugged sandpaper, or a rusted metal would require too many polygons to model, but would be perfectly suited for a good texturing. Therefore, texture artists have a few tools available at their disposal to create surface details.
- Bump Maps: Are only for small details as long as they do not change the silhouette (most used)
- Normal Maps: a vectorial kind of bump mapping, often used for game details instead of geometry
- Displacement Maps: for bigger details that actually deform the geometry of the mesh (most used)
- Vector Displacement Maps: A vectorial version of the displacement, used for very complex details
Lead texture artists can contribute to the R&D for the LookDev with reasearch for the style of textures. LookDev or design R&D is the process of developping the look and style for the objects of a project. The main objective is to evoque a coherent style, in the mood of the story of the project. This is usually done through a series of 2D color drawings, but it can also be done through iterative tests with 3D renders and 2D paint-overs. This step can also be done by the art director or in pre-production.
File textures are the most common type of texture type used when texturing. They are the simplest and most controllable way of adding texture to a 3D object. They are made by painting the texture over a 2D image, with a mask in the shape of the UV map of the 3D mesh. A texture file is generally applied to only one attribute of a material, generally the 'diffuse color'. However, they can be made to connect to many using a shading network, as discussed below. Read more about texture maps here.
Projecting textures, or projection mapping, is a way 3D software use to avoid the process of creating UVs, which can be useful in certain circumstances. Let's say you're painting a wall in your living room. There are 2 ways you can color it: you can either paint it, or put a projector in the room to simulate it. This is what projection mapping does.
It works, more or less well, but only when the surface is very flat, or slightly and uniformly curved. In fact, there is generally only three types of projection mapping: flat, cylindric and spheric. Sharp angles and complex or organic surfaces don't usually fare well with this type of mapping, especially when you add camera movements and CG animations that interact dynamically.
Procedural textures are textures generated parametrically by setting algorithms that create overlaying patterns. It has an infinite level of precision, theoretically, but it still relies on correct UVs and texture baking for effective resolution. The main drawback of this type of texture is that it lack the human judgment for the best placement of effects on textures. It has improved over time, but there is still nothing like a texture artist to create a judiciously placed texture effects based on real life observations.
In any case, procedural textures are often woven into a shading network of multiple procedural generatos, combined with texture maps and masks, for added control of the detailing.
Baking texture is the technique of flattening dynamic textures, like procedurals, into file textures. For example, game engines will combine textures, color, reflections and lighting into one large segmented file map, to avoid calculating ray casting during gameplay. This texture baking is similar to the rendering process in CG film productions.
Shaders & Shading Networks
In computer graphics, a shader is the way the 3D software interprets and renders the material applied to an object. For example, a wood material can be displayed in realistic 3D, in toon shading, in drawing outlines, etc. It is made from a file texture connected to the color attribute of the material, which is connected to the shader determining its display mode.
A complex mix of materials made of multiple shaders connected together is called a 'shading network'. This refer to web of shading nodes that is created when artist connect those attributes to form the final texture. It is that custom interaction of parameters between shaders that create the mix of materials and their placement. 3D software often use a nodal interface for this step, creating a visual network of connections. Shading network are used for most good textures nowadays, especially in photo-realistic projects.
2D or 3D Texture Software
Every major 3D software package supports any type of textures, but they are most often made externally by dedicated applications. They are then exported as 2D image files to the main 3D software. This is also convenient for 3D texturing, as dedicated applications have a lot more tools, options and creative possibilities to offer.
Textures are not 2D or 3D per say, they are actually all 2D textures, applied to 3D models. In fact, 2D or 3D only refers to the creation process with the software interface. Both are using a digital pen and graphic tablet and require similar skills. 3D texturing requires a very very good GPU as well.
- A 2D texture software lets you paint on 2D image that has a mask in the shape of the UVs (e.g. photoshop)
- A 3D texture software lets you paint directly on the 3D model in real-time. UVs are still required, unless ptex is used.
2D Texture Software
Here are the main 2D texture software used by texture artists. You can also read more about the old Painter vs Photoshop debate here.
3D Texture Software
Texturing is an entry level position for recent graduates from a 3D animation program, either as juniors or texture artists. Junior texture artists are usually assigned props (accessories) to start with, before moving on to larger and more important 3D models like characters and environments.
Another entry-level alternative is to start as a 'UV layout artist', unfolding and mapping UVs for another texture artist. However, that task is most often integrated with either the modeling or texturing departments. It is more useful to have the texture artist make his own UVs, because he/she can create UVs that will facilitate his work later on. Having the end result in mind, the UV layout can be made to facilitate some texturing methods over others.
- UV layout Artist
- Junior Texture Artist
- Texture Artist
- Senior Texture Artist
- Lead Texture Artist
- LookDev Artist
- Art Director
- Traditional 2D art experience is an asset
- Knowledge of the 3D production process
- Ability to research and gather visual references
- Capability of adopting a visual style and stay consistent
- Ability to coordinate with a team for uniformity
- Producing high quality textures for close and wide shots
- Experience with a 2D image manipulation software
- Ability to use a graphic pen & tablet
- Creative problem solving skills in 2D and 3D
Back to the careers Table of Contents
Careers in the 3D Animation & Visual FX Industry
- The different 3D Modeling Specializations for the next Digital Age
- Check out our complete Guide on 3D Computer Hardware
- Or just vote for your favorite 3D software
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