Racer445's Sword Texturing Tutorial · 2011

Hi there! How are you doing on this fine day? Perhaps you remember me from those videos I made years ago, unless of course, you suffer from some form of long-term memory loss. Anyhow, I am Evan “racer445” Herbert, and I am here today to tell you a little something about texturing, and hey, maybe we can even create something while we’re at it! I hate step by step tutorials, so I always try to teach a certain mindset in my tutoring instead. I find starting with some simple theory helps get people thinking.

Theory I: Observation

I always find it fascinating when people try to make something close to a photo reference or a piece of concept art, and get a result that looks nothing like it, yet it “looks good” to them. Even more surprising to me is when their end result looks “good” to so many other people. Don’t believe me? Raise your standards and hop on any game art forum… you’ll quickly see what I mean.

Why this happens is still partially a mystery to me, but my guess is that it’s a combination of low standards, sugar-coated critique/praise, and in big part due to a lack of any observational skill from the artists or observers. When you learn to observe, you will see your errors and never make those same mistakes again.

You’ll see me using the skill of observation a lot throughout this tutorial, and I’ll try my best to specifically highlight major moments. I had a whole lecture written, but since that was boring I decided you’d probably learn more if you just paid attention instead. You’ll do that, right?

There is a lot more to texturing than you think. You need to have a keen eye for shapes and design, you need to know traditional art theory, you need to be great at observing and picking apart things, and you need to know how to balance your shapes, among many other skills.

Theory II: Structure

As an observationalist, you will learn that some things look natural, and some things look clearly fabricated. No, I am not thinking what you are thinking right now. You will also learn that natural things have structure, as opposed to made-up things which often appear as random. This next statement might not make sense to many people, but… noise does not have to look random!

Let’s say you are making something modern — gun furniture, modern electronics, car interiors — all things that use hard plastic materials. Materials similar to this:

Example of a H&K G36’s plastic material.

There’s a bunch of noise in this gun’s plastic material. The majority of artists would just use photoshop noise to emulate it, but that looks so artificial, and there are better options!

Noise samples generated from Photoshop vs. from pictures.

In this sample, we’ve got three Photoshop gaussian monochrome noise samples on the left, and three samples from assorted photographs on the right. The first Photoshop sample is 100%, and has the most variation of any of the Photoshop samples, but still looks completely random compared to any of the photos. The second example is what most people do. They say “I want all noise all the time” and crank the slider way up, which produces this overcontrasted nonsense with absolutely no variation. Don’t do this, please. The third option, 15%, is the most sparse of the bunch. It’s essentially black with the occasional bright speckle, and it’s similar to an inverse version of the 400% sample.

Now the three photo options I chose. The first is sparse, great for specular only applications. The second is pulled off a metal photo, so it’s great for worn down metal in the specular. The third is my favorite though, and it’s what I use all the time for plastics. Sure, it’s not the tiny scaled noise from the reference, but because it’s larger, it reads better, so you can use less of it. All of the photo examples, however, have structure unlike the random photoshop noise. Just remember that the structured, natural option will always look better than any artificial emulation. That is why we pull directly from real life and don’t just make what we think things look like!

Image based scratches vs. painted scratches.

One more example. On the left there are some scratches painted all old school style with a 1px brush, something many people still do for some reason. Looks completely random, right? Now on the right is an edited photo. There’s so much more variation in the scratches, and everything looks like it happened for a reason. In other words: it has structure!

Exercise restraint if you ever feel the urge to noise up something, and as always; use your head! Everything is situational; there are no definitive answers to anything artsy!

Theory III: Shapes and Frequency

There is a lot more to texturing than you think. You need to have a keen eye for shapes and design, you need to know traditional art theory, you need to be great at observing and picking apart things, and you need to know how to balance your shapes, among many other skills. It’s never as simple as “make metal texture” or “make wood texture” like the people on those internet videos want you to think. You’re going to hear me talk about shapes a lot when I make my texture, because I mean, when you don’t have good shapes that are placed intelligently, the texture just will not be attractive no matter what you do. There’s a lot of balancing involved in placing those shapes too, so the asset doesn’t (or does) get weighted to one side, but I think the most important balance of all is the balance between high frequency noise and the large low frequency shapes.

Example of high frequency and low frequency noises.

This image illustrates the difference between high and low frequency shapes. Low frequency shapes are the big, broad shapes, whereas high frequency things are noisy and detailed. It’s very very important to maintain a balance between these. You must have enough broad shapes to make surfaces easily readable, but enough details so the texture looks crisp and detailed.

Many people aren’t aware of this fine balance, and since they can’t pick out and place good large shapes, they compensate with lots of high frequency noise. Someone has kindly donated some of their old art to demonstrate this common occurrence. Thanks, duder!

Example of art with uniform and high frequency noise.

It’s not readable by any means! Lots of people do this though to try and give plain areas interest, when in reality it simply doesn’t read, and those areas would be better off as a spot where your eyes can rest.

On the other hand, having all large shapes looks bland too if you’re making realistic things, however some games — like TF2 — use this as a stylistic choice, and with smart painting it can look great.

Example of art with low frequency noise.

But since we’re mainly making realistic items here, a balance is very important to keep if you want to maintain interest. Exercise restraint if you ever feel the urge to noise up something, and as always; use your head! Everything is situational; there are no definitive answers to anything artsy!

There are many more essential art skills that are applied to texture art, I just find these are just the three most important/relevant ones, so I hope this inspires you to think more about them in more depth.


I’ve probably bored you enough with theory by now, so let’s get ready to make something!

Clay render of the sword model.

This is the sword I want to texture for you. This is not from a reference, I designed it in my head and modeled it into what you see now in roughly an hour; a prime candidate for me to demonstrate things on. When I start into a project, I instantly get a vision in my head detailing exactly what I want the end result looking like… I can even rotate the object around in my head! Since I can’t capture those voices in my mind, here’s an image plotting out how I would like to texture this:

Material definition planned out.

You can see we have brass, brushed metal, paint on rough metal, that soft touch plastic every phone manufacturer uses these days, and a super special metal that I made up just for this purpose. Yes, I will show you how to make up believable materials, don’t worry!

Let’s go over a material in more detail using our newly developed observational skills. When you take a closer look at reference photos of your material, it will tell you exactly how to texture everything. Yes, it really is that easy!

See how easy things are when you take a moment and think about what you’re doing? We can even determine wear shapes from these photos.

See how easy it is once you learn to observe these things? When we apply this same thinking to all of the other materials we’ve chosen to make, models essentially texture themselves.

Let’s make our own material! Sometimes we need to make one up if real materials don’t quite fit or look as good. If you’re like me, you have a massive library of saved photos containing just surfaces and shapes which you use repeatedly as overlays for textures or as material reference. When you have this kind of library, apply a little common sense and it becomes very easy to modify and combine a couple of your saved materials to make something tailored to your specific needs.

For the blade, I’ve taken a bare steel and put a slightly yellowed protective coating on top of it. This separates it from the blued, heavily brushed metal on the handle, and allows for awesome chipped damage shapes on high impact areas. No, it’s not perfectly realistic, but it’s a believable material that will contrast well with the others ripped directly from real life. That said, don’t just go making up materials all the time; only do it when you can’t find a real one that fits, and only after you have put some serious thought into making your fictional surface.

So, we have our model ready, and we have our materials planned out… Let’s get to work!