Turning a Real-Life Plant into a Hand-Painted 3D Model

Turning a Real-Life Plant into a Hand-Painted 3D Model

RMIT University, School of Design student, Cuong Nguyen, shares his latest project: a lilac hibiscus flower pot made in Maya, Substance 3D Painter and Photoshop.

Hoang Tri Cuong Nguyen (Owen) is a student from RMIT University, School of Design in Melbourne studying a Bachelor of Design (Games). In this article, he breaks down the process of making a beautiful 3D hand-painted model of a lilac hibiscus.


Inspiration to concepts

The inspiration for this project was sparked when I stumbled upon Sophie Rose Stübinger's Sunflower 3D model on Sketchfab. Intrigued, I explored my local area, capturing photos of interesting plants to serve as references. I settled on the lilac hibiscus with its distinctive shape and vibrant colours. To give the 3D model with a stylised appearance, I opted for oversized, vivid petals and leaves, focusing on a bold and colourful aesthetic over sheer quantity.

References to concepts

Setting up in Maya and Photoshop

Initially, I found myself in a rather intimidating position, unsure of where to begin, given that the model was entirely made of soft surfaces. To tackle this challenge, I decided to break the model down into its most elemental components, including the petals, buds, stems, leaves, ground, and pot. For the petals, leaves, and ground, I opted to use planes with texture maps that incorporated transparency. The remaining components were created using standard basic primitives within Maya, allowing for a more manageable approach to the project.

Separate parts of the model

Making of petals and leaves

To start, I initiated the process by defining the shapes of the petals and leaves in Photoshop, employing a basic colour as the foundation. I then exported this work as a PNG file with a resolution of 1080 x 1080. Within Maya, I proceeded to create a low-poly mesh in accordance with the shapes I had designed for the petals and leaves. Given that I used a PNG texture map, the software recognised the areas without content as transparent, thereby rendering only the petals and leaves visible.

Using transparent colour map to make low-poly flower

Because some parts of the model will be duplicated later on, it was better for me to UV them first and put them in place according to the texture map.


Substance 3D Painter

When it came to the texturing process, my approach focused solely on the base colour layer within Substance 3D Painter, driven by my aspiration to further refine my hand-painting skills. My initial step involved filling the entire flower model with flat colors to gain a comprehensive overview of the model's composition. Throughout the texturing process, I found myself navigating through a series of trials and errors; not every move was premeditated. Instead, I followed an intuitive path, taking action based on the need to achieve specific effects, be it manual adjustments or the combination of layers and functions. An important part of this creative process was introducing variations to the initially flat colours, a technique mirroring the nuances of real-life colouring. To achieve this, I used a fill layer, black mask, a fill effect featuring a grayscale box set to 'cells 4,' followed by a warp filter and a blur filter. I really like how the colour turned out and it is achievable with a fill click.

Different processes used for each part


To refine my texture map, I relied on Photoshop. My first step was to make a mask to entirely remove colour from the transparent background, safeguarding the integrity of transparency in render engines. I then made slight colour tweaks to enhance the visual appeal. While experimenting with Photoshop techniques to achieve the desired watercolour effect, I found that the 'Glass Distort' filter within the filter gallery was the most efficient route.

Masking and Glass distortion


Marmoset Toolbag 4

Material Setting: I used the Albedo for the Colour map, maintaining the default settings for all other options. To ensure all faces of the planes for petals and leaves were visible, I had to enable the 'Cull Back Faces' option in Marmoset Toolbag, as it usually displays only one face of a plane.

Lighting: My preferred lighting setup typically consists of two lights – one acting as the main light and the other as a backlight. This configuration offers greater control over the scene's illumination.

Sky: For the background, I opted for the flat colour setting within the Backdrop, providing a simple and clean background for the model.

Main Camera: I employed the 'Safe Frame' feature to display the final render's resolution, aiding in framing and composition.

Render: While 'Occlusion' is an optional setting, it proves to be a valuable one. In the 'Image' section, the user can input the desired image resolution, which directly affects the 'Safe Frame.' To render the model without the background, I enabled the 'Transparency' option, facilitating easy post-processing in other image editing software. Additionally, to render the model with its wireframe, I navigated to 'Render Passes' and clicked the gear icon to access the 'Wireframe' option.

Settings used in Marmoset Toolbag 4


To maintain consistency with the style of my final render in Marmoset Toolbag, I aimed for a similar look when rendering in Sketchfab. This included using a flat colour background and adhering to the default lighting preset with the same light rotation for shadow direction.

In terms of materials, I made a deliberate choice to use 'Specular' instead of 'Metalness' for the unlit shading. This adjustment helped achieve a flatter appearance for the model, as it responded differently to the incoming light. Additionally, I incorporated an opacity cutout for the petals and leaves to enhance their visual effect.

In the post-processing phase, I made slight adjustments to ensure that the final render in Sketchfab closely matched the style and appearance of the Marmoset Toolbag 4 rendering.

Settings used in Sketchfab

Final thoughts

Overall, the workflow was very simple, with the texturing part being the most time-consuming. I’m really happy with how the project turns out. I’m looking forward to making more models as it’s the key for further improvement. I hope this article was helpful to anyone who comes across it. Thank you to The Rookies for this wonderful opportunity!

You can reach out to me if you have any questions via my Rookies profile here.