Deep dive into environment design

Breakdown of the Artstation Challenge: Feudal Japan

In 2018 our environmental concept artist Andreas took part in the Artstation Challenge; Feudal Japan, and managed to snag home an honourable mention award in the Environment Design Category! 

Ideas and story

Before diving into my normal workflow (Story – mood boards – layouts – final) I wanted to let my mind lose on some warm up sketches. These can serve as to set a mood and as a springboard for further ideas.

Next I focus less on drawing and more on the story. I stumbled on the Gashadokuro skeletons from the old folklores, and found them a perfect match for what I wanted to say in my painting. I like to always embed the image with a story, because the environment should say as much as the action taking place in them. I see the environment as big silent actor telling all the background information the viewer needs, to feel like it is a “real” world. 

My idea is that a giant battle has taken place between the Warlords of the border regions and the Gashadokuros of the north. The battle was won and we see the remains of the skeletons in the landscape being reclaimed by nature.

The wall between the human occupied regions and the wild north, is still heavily fortified with giant bolt throwers. My choice of design language is to emphasis the practical and down play the beautiful. In this region, survival is tougher and that shows through the architectural design language. Big and strong pillars and heavy and pointy roofs. 

At this point i was still building on the story.  Merchants and scavengers has seen the opportunity to use the fallen giants for trading goods. The teeth are an excellent source of ivory and even though people say that it is still cursed, it’s easy to sell in the southern markeds. 

from 2d to 3d

By now, I have more or less settled on the idea that I’m going to go with.  The first picture depicts the battle and the second one, the periode after. I have set up most of the two shots in maya in a very rough stage. The primary focus now is to setup the camera so that I can lock the composition and to get a sense of scale and proportions between the skeletons and the walled fortification. 

Step by step, I’m laying the foundation for the images that I want to create. I have settled on the story and the two main layouts are more or less locked. Now I’m transitioning between 3D and Photoshop, using what methode suits me best to reach the result I want.

 So far I’m still exploring how the wall and castle should look and I think that I’m going to do some more 2D exploration, before jumping fully into 3D.focus now is to setup the camera so that I can lock the composition and to get a sense of scale and proportions between the skeletons and the walled fortification. 

I always feel that i need to inform myself as much as possible before jumping into 3D modeling or photo bashing, as I see it as quite a linear process where the foundation should be solid, otherwise it will show up in the final result.


I rely on 3D to get an overview of the structure and the size realtion. As im going to use the wall and castle in both shots, it justifies that I’m spending some more time in 3D, creating a solid kit-set that I can use for both shots.

I’m going to build the wall and castle as small pieces that I can fit together to save time. The objects that are too complicated to build in 3D, I will add in photoshop later. Here I tried two renders in KeyShot, a day and a night setting. I also just quickly added som foliage in photoshop to see how it feels to paint on top of the renders.

I have still now reached a point in my development where I know how much 3D to use vs. just painting it all in PS. I’m still trying to find the balance, but with each project I get closer to an understanding under what circumstances to use 3D and not.

I focus on getting the 3D model up and running . I have decided to abandon the idea of texturing it in Substance Painter as it would take too much time to set it all up with correct UVs. I will instead render out flat colors and then add the albedo in Photoshop, so to speak. 

For that, I have made some test to see if I could pull it off and the result is 20 minutes of paint over. It looks pretty crummy, but I figure with some more love and care, It will work.

 As a part of the callout sheet, I am going to elaborate on the design of the giant crossbow (shooting telephone pole sized arrows)

Layout and final composition

I ran into some issues with my first layout and no matter how much I tried, I could not solve the composition. It was super frustrating and a good excuse to jump to the callout sheets. I think the layouts was the hardest part of this challenge.  I had to leave it for a day, before I could look at it again to see all the things that I had to change.

The current stage is super messy, but I kept it that way for the sake of being able to work fast. So, the first layout idea was too static, but after some thoughts and a good talk with Peter Han, I changed the layout. Basically it was too static and didn’t support the idea of an ongoing battle of epic proportions. I took the camera down and made more of an up shot with a bit of a tilted angle. This way the skeltons towers above the structure, posing a bigger threat to the castle and wall.  

I separated the skeletons out, by leaving them as silhouettes against the relative bright sky and background. I took the color and turned it towards the green spectrum to give the scene a more oppressive/sick look and to play the red up against the blue/green as a complimentary color scheme. The light on the skeletons I kept to more or less a simple rim and a bit of ground color from the burning oil. This way I could keep the main shape simple and still pick out some form-details. I added some overgrown to the skeletons as they have been assembled by the remains of slain warriors. 

When i was satisfied with the compositions, all it took was detailing and rendering. You can see the final compositions and callouts here or over at artstation, and i hope you have enjoyed reading this!

Andreas Husballe
Andreas Husballe

Lead Concept Artist - Partner at Vizlab Studios

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