I get a lot of my inspiration from old paintings. While visiting the Tretyakov Museum in Moscow, I came upon a French painters exhibition from the 18th century. The canvases stood out for their refined aesthetics and authentic look. There was one painting in that room that everyone gathered around and the guide spoke passionately about. When I approached, I found that it was Thalia, muse of comedy by Jean-Marc Nattier. The protagonist in this painting, the inspiration and muse, was teasing the viewer with her half-naked form, and drawing the attention behind the curtain leading to the stage. I will take you through the process of re-creating this painting, what issues came up and how they were solved.
Overall, I do my projects in 3ds Max, and render them in V-Ray. Getting started, the first thing I had to do was to measure the scene, as well as adjust the perspective, angle and framing. To do this, I modeled the key objects as boxes and cylinders, and arranged the people from biped.
I model scenes in 1:1 scale, so that the dimensions of the objects correspond to the real ones they are replacing. This way, building a scene is intuitive, and the light and shadow in the render looks natural. To find perspective in 3ds Max, I used the "Perspective Match" tool. When placing characters and other objects in the scene, you have to take into account the focal length of the lens. There are a lot of examples on the Internet of what the image looks like from real cameras when using different lenses. Comparing the original picture with the examples of photographs, we make sure that the focal lens used for the picture is about 65 mm. It is not uncommon for authors to paint their works with assumption for the sake of compositional integrity. And Thalia is no exception. According to measurements, the distance from the main character to the actors on stage is 42 meters.
I arranged the objects on the scene until they fully matched with the picture. For convenience, I have divided the scene into three plans. The foreground with the portrait of a woman, the middle ground with the column, and the background with the group of actors. Of course, you can fit the whole project into one file by splitting the scene into layers, but splitting the scene into plans made the project logically easier. I knew that when the number of objects grows, a lot of time would be spent on dealing with layers.
Organize your digital project
At this point, I collected reference points for the painting. Looking for information about materials these objects could be made of and collecting textures for them. It is also important to determine what types of light sources might have been used by the master when painting. The next step is to study the anatomical features of facial expression. For example, the average height of a European man in the 18th century was 167 cm, the average height of a woman 153 cm. This is useful information for calculating the dimensions of objects. I learned that the typical lighting in French theatres in the 18th century were massive candle chandeliers, oil lamps, and ramps that filled the bottom of the forecourt - that's how I determined the position of the light sources and it's stiffness. It usually takes me up to 30% of my time to organize a complex project like Thalia.
I break projects down into directories. Materials, scenes with lights and cameras, assembly scenes, renders are all stored separately in the appropriate folders. In this work, I also put the three scene plans in separate directories.
The materials are allocated in the Mtl folder as 3ds Max files with the simplest lighting. This way, I always know where the most recent material setup is. The lighting with the camera is recorded in the LCA folder. Then, I make the adjustments in a separate file.It does not need to be high-quality materials and rendering, just simple stuff will do. The assembly of the entire scene is stored in Compiling.
When modeling people, I use DAZ Studio which is the most convenient tool for me. Firstly, I set up the pose of our main character. I wanted to make sure that it was natural and elegant. When the pose was complete, I set up the facial expressions and did the same for the actors in the background.
Draping and clothing
The drapery in the original painting is very present and very airy with many folds and big gaps. The creases play the role of lines leading to the scene. My main fabric design tool is Marvelous Designer, and it's great for setting up the basic shape.
I experimented a bit with Marvelous Designer, but I found the result to be rough and synthetic. It looked as if the fabric was flying off the heroine and the sleeves of the man were not wavy enough. Due to the fact that there was no camera in Marvelous Designer, the shape of the cape on the man was necessary to fit to the right angle.
Therefore, I made all the adjustments needed in ZBrush. I softened the roundness of the shapes, landed the fabric in a few places and added pleats. The scene started to look a lot more expressive and vintage.
The background of the composition is a very minor area. I did the architectural elements in low polygonage, adding chamfers. Chips, scuffs, and other surface defects were drawn in Photoshop.
I often use high-poly models, and I do not have to worry about the growing polygonage of the project because I convert objects in VRayProxy. I upload HiPoly objects in separate files, and leave LowPoly preview in the 3ds Max scene. During rendering only those objects that fall into the frame will be loaded, which reduces the use of RAM.
UDIM and Texturing
Texturing in Substance Painter is done in 4K resolution, which is sometimes not enough for key models. The advanced UV scanning tool, UDIM, allows you to use several UV blocks at once for texturing the model. So in the case of the heroine, the total of textures is 7 times larger than 4K. I like doing textures in Substance Painter because the painting is done in layers, just like in Photoshop, and you can also draw over the model with UV blocks. The model is flattened as usual, and then it determines the number of UV blocks you want to divide the textures into.
I made most of the materials with a simple VRayMtl shader.
VRayBitmap, tiled exr.
During rendering, all the textures used in the scene are loaded into RAM, and to reduce the use of resources, VRay can convert them into tiled exr format. This type of file is loaded into memory not all at once, but in small blocks.
I prefer to work creatively with light, so I can experiment freely with the placement of lamps without getting hung up on the brightness of the lighting. By adding more and more light sources, the process of lighting the heroine became tedious. To manage the lighting, I added a VRayLightMix component to Render Elements. This gave me a render in which the lighting from each lamp was recorded in separate layers. In Photoshop, I adjusted the visibility of each layer until I was satisfied with the full picture.
I used the standard V-Ray settings. The only thing I changed was setting the Secondary engine to BruteForce to get more realistic shadows. I also changed the type of Image Sampler to "Bucket", so it renders in squares. The renderer is exported to VRay raw image file. So each rendered square is immediately saved in the file, and if for some reason, the renderer is interrupted, it will not be necessary to start it all over again.
For clipping masks of objects in Render Elements, I use the VRayCryptomatte component. For me, this is the most accurate way of selecting objects in Photoshop. All the masks I need are written in one file, and with the Exr-IO plugin for Photoshop, they are converted into separate layers.
Thalia’s render in Daz Studio.
DAZ Studio has many quality character models with customized materials. Therefore, the fastest way to get a render of a character is to make it inside DAZ Studio. The lighting and camera are set up just like in any other program. It is important to place the light sources and camera in the same positions as in 3ds Max. Because of the fact that the work was done in natural units (millimeters), I had no problems with the conversion of the scene from 3ds max.
I do the assembly of the render in Photoshop in 32-bit. At this stage, I assemble the layout of all the rendered images and do the lighting correction.
Classical painting is a good example to learn to see through the eyes of an artist. Working on the project made me realize how important the emotionality of the work is. That graphic authenticity sometimes goes into the background for the sake of the story. And with
a clear organization of the project comes a clear understanding of what to expect as a result.