Jobs in Unreal Engine — Surface Artist
What is a surface artist?Typically seen in the gaming industry, a surface artist is responsible for defining the look and feel of all kinds of surfaces in an environment. Through the use of materials and textures, they describe how objects’ surfaces respond and interact with lighting. A surface artist’s role is centered on a combination of art and tech. Surface artists must excel at painting and sculpting, but also need to be well-versed in the technical aspects and workflow of real-time projects.
Surface artists have a strong focus on:
TexturesIn order to create realistic and accurate real-time textures in an environment, it’s critical that a surface artist has a solid understanding of 3D sculpting software, painting software, and high to low poly baking software. When working on a project, it’s also imperative for a surface artist to collaborate closely with 3D modelers and game designers, as well as art directors/concept artists in order to match the art/style direction. Preferred skills generally include:
- Strong traditional drawing and painting skills
- Ability to sculpt and paint highly detailed 3D and 2D images
- Experience with baking textures from high-res meshes
- Ability to create the UV layout for tiling and 0-1 mapped textures
MaterialsA surface artist must have a thorough understanding of creating efficient real-time materials. An important aspect of a surface artist’s role is working with their lead, art team, and/or art director to develop high quality, complex, and realistic materials. Surface artists also collaborate with other environment and character artists to help improve the quality of materials, and lead technical artists to develop advanced shaders. In regards to materials, a surface artist should:
- Be skilled in generating new materials using proprietary in-house shader editors
- Have the ability to model and sculpt geometry for use as elements in materials
- Have the ability to oversee, maintain, and develop a studio’s material library
- Be skilled in designing, implementing, and maintaining material pipelines and physically-based rendering (PBR) workflows
Why are they needed?Surfaces are the first visual interaction someone has when they scan an environment. It’s the surface artist’s job to depict how a surface in a 3D environment reacts with light, or how a material exists in the perception of the world.
"Surface materials help to reinforce scale, composition, tone, and narrative. Surface artists are essential team members because they are the ones to blend believability and immersion. Without surface artists, our world would be flat and gray." - Brad Smith, Pipeline Developer, Epic Games
Surfacing defines the entire look of an environment. Quite often, it’s noticeable when surfaces are done incorrectly because it will interfere with the scene. When mistakes in the models are prevalent they can appear too flat or the materials won’t react well with the lighting.
What industries need surface artists?
GamesSurface artists are core team members in game studios. Sometimes, some of the skills and responsibilities of surface artists can also be found in materials artists, texture artists, and shader artists.
Surface artists can work on entire environments or individual characters. They can be responsible for describing both the form and the manner in which light interacts with every object in the scene.
Larger studios have surface artists work on characters and environments, materials, and textures. In smaller game studios, character modelers are also expected to have some of the skills and traits of a surface artist. Typically in a game studio, surface artists are more focused on textures and all of the materials are artists defined, unlike architectural visualization, where the artists are mostly importing content.
“When we are trying to reach believability, good surfaces can make or break a scene.” — Harrison Moore, Technical Artist, Epic Games
In film, there is often an entire department focused solely on surfacing, as it is a highly specialized position. The role is usually a combination of scanned or hand creation. It is also very common for the surface artist to be importing materials that cannot be edited.
Media and Entertainment
ArchitectureSurfacing plays a major role in achieving fidelity for architectural visualization too. In game development and in larger teams, this role is often labeled as a “surface artist,” but here, a visualization specialist would be expected to master these workflows. The skills are the same, given the demand for photo-realistic results to demonstrate the look of the intended materials used in construction.
In Architectural Visualization, visualization specialists (or surface artists) typically source content that is already physically defined (known as, “measured materials”), and they are more concerned with how materials interact with physically correct lights (usually based on IES profiles). In this workflow, the surface artist is more focused on photogrammetry — the science of deriving fine surface details from photographs.
Industrial DesignSurfacing for Industrial Design is more photography-based and photo-scanned heavy. In these roles, the surface artist would take photos of a surface and then reconstruct them.
Industrial Design is comprised of clean pictures of detailed and specific surfaces, thus these types of roles are less painting-reliant and more focused on creating reflections, metals, and base colors.
What types of skills do they require?
- A great artistic eye
- Good foundation of sculpture and color theory
- Excels in light and surface interaction and typical shading model approximations
- Understands human vision and 3D projection
- Knowledge of cameras and how lenses interpret light and record images
- A solid understanding of PBR rendering and material/light interactions
- An understanding of image color space relating to texture painting
- The ability to balance colors in the real world and to match them in the game world
- Ability to master a proprietary material authoring system
- Art direction
- Color theory
- Linear Algebra
- Adobe Photoshop
- Substance Designer and Substance Painter
- Shader authoring skills (HLSL, GLSL, CGFX)
Being a team playerA surface artist must be proactive in their role and work well in a large-team environment. They are typically communicating and collaborating across multiple teams such as computer graphics, modeling, and art teams in order to execute the required look for an environment.
When working as a surface artist, it is also important to note that there are often time constraints and deadlines associated with a game. Someone in this role must be able to deliver on schedule and work calmly and efficiently under pressure. It is important to show respect for the procedures and requirements of a studio’s production and pipeline.
In an advanced, high-level surface artist role, it is imperative for them to inspire, mentor, and support other artists on their team. It's also important to keep a library of high-quality materials for other team members to utilize. When real-time materials are in need, this unblocks the pipeline and allows other artists are to use these tools to improve their work. Together, team members can share assets in library and improve the pipeline.
What does the career path look like?
Entry levelLooking at the career path of a surface artist, there are both entry level positions as well as advanced positions. An entry-level surface artist is often responsible for sculpting and adding surfaces to a pre-existing material, or texturing at a basic level. Usually in these roles, all materials handed off are already defined.
High levelThe high-level surface artist will create and define the material and lighting behavior. If they need more of these materials produced, they will then pass it off to the lower-level surface artist to duplicate it. Someone in a senior/lead surfacing position will also be responsible for research and development of new tools to improve workflows.
At some game studios, surface artists are required to only use specific materials. Here at Epic, there is more freedom to create using all parts of the toolkit.
Advanced surfacing and ProceduralismThere’s a new trend in the industry called Proceduralism, which focuses on using new tools that manage texture and shader efficiency. While working in a Proceduralism-type role, one is responsible for researching new texture tools and techniques to create more efficient and visually appealing environments. They are also responsible for texturing game environments usings a library of materials.
Someone looking to enter into this role should be highly skilled in Substance Designer, producing benchmark materials and developing powerful and efficient workflows to improve functionality, speed, and quality for the entire art team. They should also have the ability to master a proprietary material authoring system — surface artists that specialize in this area are in high demand. The skills for a procedural-based surface artist requires the individual to be object-oriented, highly organized, great at managing assets, skilled in defining the process to create and mutate workflows. To work as a procedural-based surface artist, one must have a very strong foundation in surface art. Proceduralism often overlaps with texturing.
Stylized vs. photorealisticFor those interested in working as a surface artist, it’s best to choose to work on stylized projects (think animated entertainment) or to go the more photorealistic route.
Stylized projects can bring more creative freedom and most recommended adjustments are generally more opinion-based instead of being obvious mistakes.
On the photo-realistic side of surfacing, projects are more detail-focused. This type of role will spend a lot more time making sure projects are accurately and flawlessly depicted. Being a photorealistic surface artist can also have more to do with photography than painting. In addition, photo-realistic projects can open the door for many avenues outside the gaming industry.
How can they excel?When one is deciding if they want to become a surface artist, they really need to decide whether they want to produce art or if they want to problem solve and define workflows. An industry perception is believing texturing is simple and art driven, while it is actually very technical. For a surface artist to excel, they must master both creative and technical skills.
Tips from the professionals
- Learn Substance Designer in order to master Proceduralism, which is in high demand now and will be for the foreseeable future.
- Learn Photogrammetry for working with photorealistic surfaces.
Other helpful tipsFor someone interested in this career or any Unreal Engine career path, it’s important to gather a portfolio reflecting high-quality art and tools with many material samples. These samples should include workflow, result, and application in a scene and/or assets.
Would I be a good surface artist?
✓ I have a great understanding of color theory
✓ I have the ability to anticipate and find solutions to problems
✓ I have a great understanding of human vision and 3D projection
✓ I am skilled in shading and form
✓ I am skilled in both art and tech
✓ I enjoy painting and photography
✓I am skilled at picking out fine details
✓ I enjoy constantly making adjustments
Interested in mastering your Unreal Engine skills? Head over to the new Unreal Online Learning and take advantage of free, video tutorials.