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The art of Car Material Rendering by Jack Darton

Pierre Maheut on March 30 2017 | Substance Painter, Stories, Game, Design
Who are you?
My name is Jack Davies, 25 years old from England. I’m based in a town called Warrington in the Northwest where I have spent most of my life. Anybody who knows about my work will know me as jackdarton, or Jack Darton – the “Darton” comes from a place I lived for a few years in my teens. At the time, I wanted to come up with an alias for my work, and my real surname is far too common to use, so I settled on the former!
Where can we find your work?
Most of my work can be found at, or, which links to my Facebook page.
Can you tell us more about yourself?
Absolutely! Currently, I’m a designer and artist for a large automotive manufacturer based in the US. I work from home here in the UK, which was a lucky break for me as some pre-existing health conditions prevent me from traveling. My work involves designing automotive bodies and parts, and rendering them for press releases. I enjoy the work very much, as it’s something I’ve been doing as a hobby ever since the tender age of twelve when I got my hands on a copy of Photoshop 7 and began tinkering with images of cars.
My specialties are concept design, material/texture authoring, and rendering. Throughout the almost 14 years I’ve been a digital artist, I’ve tried my hand at many, many disciplines within the automotive design field, most of which I’ve enjoyed immensely. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that my skillset would be more marketable if I focused my efforts on mastering a few well-chosen areas.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where I gather my inspiration from, as it comes from a wide range of places. Fellow artists are a strong source, many of whom I’ve become close with over the years. I met a lot of them back in my early teens on a forum for modifying images of cars with Photoshop. Since then, each of us has found our niches and diverged, still keeping in close contact with one another. Another place I draw inspiration from is nature. I know it sounds a little cliché, but I’ve found that nature comes up with some of the most elegant and beautiful shapes and materials, and trying to translate their properties to something so mechanical is as much a challenge as it is fun.
Why mostly cars?
Honestly, I’ve always been a fan of anything on four wheels. I can’t really point to a specific point in my life where this became an obsession for me, as it started out like any other hobby. Alongside this, art and design have both been a huge part of who I am. Naturally, at some point on the timeline, these two things diverged and set me on the path that led me to where I am right now. It was always 2D artwork for me… I avoided ever jumping into the world of 3D art due to its apparent complexity and sterility compared to painting a picture, for example. This lasted until a few years ago, at which point I realized it was the next logical step for me – something else for me to sink my teeth into. So, for the past 3 years, I’ve been focusing my efforts on learning 3D and applying knowledge and skills I’d nurtured for the previous 10 years, finding a way to translate them into this new and exciting world of art and design.
I love working with cars because they have such a wide range of materials, each one interacting with light in its own unique way. It provides a welcomed challenge – one I enjoy immensely.
How did you discover the Allegorithmic tools?
I think I first became aware of Allegorithmic through a shared Facebook post, at which point I began researching texturing tools. I learned about the Quixel Suite, a powerful and accomplished range of software, and I also learned more about Allegorithmic and their wide range of tools. I compared the two and settled on the latter due to its incomparable ease of use, a huge repertoire of learning documentation, shallow learning curve, intuitiveness, and hidden sheer power. This isn’t an empty advocation either; I haven’t looked back since.
Which ones have you used on these projects? For which aspects?
I use two pieces of Allegorithmic software in my work: Substance Painter 2, and Substance Designer 6, and each iteration that came before. Substance Painter is amazing for working on organic projects due to the freehand tools, and the control it gives to the artist. Substance Designer, however, is where the real power lies. The node system is incredibly powerful when it comes to creating materials from scratch. Any surface you can possibly imagine can be created procedurally using a wide range of nodes to do so. In my vehicle work, I use these tools for the environment around the cars, and specific materials such as carbon fiber, plastic, leather, tire rubber, etc. The only thing I don’t use them for is the car paint itself, and this is only due to the fact that I have my own material that I’ve spent a couple of years refining inside of Cycles itself.
The Aston Martin project was an exercise in materials, rendering, and lighting. As such, the model itself was purchased so that I could skip straight to the point. Everything in the project other than the glass and paint was put together in Substance Painter. I exported the PBR maps from Substance Painter and Substance Designer (metal, roughness, albedo, normal), and used them in a PBR shader I have set up in Cycles which utilizes the maps to produce a result as identical as possible to what you see in Iray, Substance’s real-time path tracing render engine of choice.
The biggest challenge in this project was probably the carbon fiber. I set out to make a version which wasn’t dependent on a UV map for speed and ease of use on future projects. For this reason, I could focus purely on the material itself. It was a lot of fun to work on, but the hardest part was trying to truly replicate how carbon fiber behaves in the real world. So much of the material happens on such a tiny scale that you have to take into account parts of the material that aren’t readily visible until you really delve into the inner workings of it. Substance provided an easy way to do this, with the node system in Substance Designer and the real-time path trace preview showing immediate results of any changes I made.
Do you have another project you want to present in details?
One project I would like to quickly talk about is actually one of the first I used Substance software on from start to finish: The Gasmask.
I had an idea for a steampunk-esque mask that wouldn’t look totally out of place in a post-apocalyptic world. I knew it would be difficult to use trial and error to find the correct combination of materials to achieve the look I wanted, so having the result right in front of me, appearing just as quickly as I was making the changes was invaluable. I began by using ZBrush and Blender to create the high-poly model, and a combination of those two to retopologize the model for something easier to work with when it came to texturing and materials. The low-poly version wasn’t actually that low-poly. It was just low enough that I could still intuitively unwrap the model in such a way that gave no issues when it came to the textures.
After creating these two models and unwrapping the latter, I used the baking tools within Substance Painter to create the normal, curvature, AO, world space normal maps, etc. Being able to immediately utilize these maps within the same program was incredibly helpful. Everything was self-contained and clean.
I spent a couple of days taking full advantage of the layering system and my trusty Cintiq to get to the final result, one which I am very happy with.
Do you have some techniques with Substance to share with the community?
Not so many techniques as advice. When it comes to creating a material for your models, don’t be afraid to experiment, throw things out that you’ve spent some time on and start over again. If something doesn’t feel right, discard it, or at least work to find out which part isn’t agreeing with you, and change it.
I remember reading about all of the amazing features contained within Allegorithmic software, and thinking to myself, “Wow, I can’t see myself using 99% of them.” This mindset only ended up being detrimental to my workflow and the final result. It was only after I took the time to read through what the various features did and how they incorporated into projects that I realized a vast amount of them either automated or drastically lowered the amount of time it takes to achieve the same things I was already doing manually. The time spent understanding the software paid off.
I’ve been asked a few times for advice regarding 3D work, which always made me feel a little uncomfortable due to the fact that I’ve only been in this specific trade for a few years now. On the flipside of this, it enables me to give advice based on what helped me to progress at a quick pace, and that is linked to what I mentioned above.
For instance, if you’re watching a tutorial, a lot of people will get to the end of the video with one of two types of knowledge. They will either know how to replicate the steps taken to produce the same result as the teacher, OR they will have used the tutorial to question WHY the tools are used to do what they do. You can watch a man build a house, then use that knowledge to create another, identical house. However, once you take a step back and think about why he did things the way he did, you can use that knowledge and apply it to a different project.
This mindset is integral to my own learning curve because it exponentially bulks my skillset compared to remembering word for word how to do specific tasks.
How did your use of Substance change your approach to texturing?
Well, it definitely changed it for the better. It allowed me to focus more on being an artist than drowning in a pool of guesswork. It’s one of the things I love about Substance tools – they simplify every aspect of creation, except for the artistry.
Tell us more about your next projects.
I’m not really sure what my next personal projects will be due to how much work I have going on at the minute. I do have a few ideas bouncing around in my head, a lot of them natural and organic in nature (pun slightly intended), but it’s difficult to settle on something solid. I guess you’ll just have to wait to find out!
Is there a 3D artist that inspires you a lot?
I’m going to give a bit of a cheat answer here, but one I stand strongly behind. It’s difficult to name one artist who inspires me, but very, very easy to name a group of people who do: the Blender community.
I’ve been a part of the Blender community ever since I first dipped my toes into this line of work, and never before have I met a group of people so willing to help, offer ideas, advice, constructive criticism, but also the truth about your work. As you know, Blender is an open-source piece of 3D software, so the variety of characters you meet is extremely diverse and humbling.
Allegorithmic has been doing an amazing job integrating their software with others in the industry to streamline the process of going in between, but I really hope to see some support for Blender in the future. Those guys deserve it.
Can you add a picture of your working desk?
It’s impossible to get a flattering shot of my desk, however, I can describe the tools I use – Twin Dell U2515H monitors, Corsair Vengeance K70 keyboard, Logitech G900 mouse, and a Wacom Cintiq 13” tablet.
Can you add a picture of you?