How to Learn Substance Designer - A Beginner's Approach

Article / 05 May 2020

Hi Everyone,

A fellow artist reached out to me about my approach to using Substance Designer, and had a few great questions about using the program. With a sincere interest in offering support to others who are deciding to embark on this journey, I share my experience. Substance Designer is one of those programs that can be extremely challenging upon first use. It has a very steep learning curve, and requires a great amount of time, energy, and commitment to develop even just the basic skills, especially if you're trying to learn it on your own. My goal here is to provide some suggestions, tips and challenges that I encountered while teaching myself the program.  I’ve only worked with it for one year so I’ll approach this from a beginner’s mindset, as that appears to make the most sense since I still consider myself a beginner, also due to the numerous complex and creative possibilities that may be discovered with this amazing program. With that said, for anyone looking to break into this node-driven system, I hope you find this information helpful and inspiring. 

1./ DON'T be afraid of failure! 

I can guarantee that from the start, you will fail many times, so don’t let that get you down. This program takes time to get accustomed to. As a self-taught material artist with only one year of Substance Designer experience under my belt, the single most important piece of advice I can offer for anyone trying to learn it is to practice often. While using Substance Designer you’ll learn that there really isn’t a "right" or "wrong" way of doing things. Once you master the basics and understand what its node library has to offer you, your creative talent and technical skills will take over the rest.

2./ Start with small easy projects, and work your way up. 

This may seem like a no-brainer, but I firmly believe in this philosophy. Making a simple brick and mortar material can be quite easy when you know the general process for creating it, but keep in mind that there's over 1000 ways you could go about it; some of which are easy, but others more difficult. I recommend starting with a simple project that is small and easy to replicate with basic nodes and then recreate it several times using different nodes, or add onto what you already have to make it more complex. 

3./ Learn the nodes! 

The Substance Designer node library is constantly expanding. Once you fully understand what each and every node does, or understand the general idea behind what it creates, you can begin to add onto it. You can use a node in different situations you may not normally use it for in order to create more complex shapes and/or patterns. 

Here are my top 20 nodes that I recommend for beginners: 

Blend, Shape,Tile Sampler, Shape Splatter, Transform 2D, Flood Fill, Flood Fill to Gradient, Slope Blur Grayscale, Levels, Auto Levels, Histogram Range, Blur HQ Grayscale, Bevel, Shape Extrude, Directional Warp, Gradient Map, Histogram Scan, Non-Uniform Directional Warp, Uniform Color, and the Curve node.

Once you fully grasp these nodes, you may then expand and begin adding onto them. I also recommend that people not deviate away from a certain task. I learned this the hard way! Work on a task until it gets completed, and once you feel you've reached a level of mastery with the task, node, or item, then you can continue moving onto other things. This just helps in creating some work structure during your project.

4./ When it comes to creating materials, work "big to small". 

I've learned that working on the tertiary details first can be problematic. Beginning with the height map first is a much more efficient and responsible way of tackling complex materials. DO NOT MOVE ONTO OTHER THINGS UNTIL YOU FINISHED YOUR HEIGHT MAP! This is the driving force behind 99% of what you'll be creating in Substance Designer. Without it there's no point in continuing a project. You would most likely be better off starting from scratch. Typically I work with the height map first, then the normal map, then the roughness/metallic, then AO, and lastly, I’ll finish with the albedo map.

5./ Use references! 

We may know what bricks look like, and blades of grass, but I highly suggest that you always work from a reference source. Also, it may even be a good idea to look at other 2D/3D references as well, as you might be able to access actual material breakdowns of how they were created. It's pretty helpful!

6./ Identify the key elements or larger shapes within a material or element, and work from that first. 

This connects to my point about working in the direction of large to small. Breaking down materials into their core elements or shapes will help guide you with developing it from scratch. For example, in regards to the color of rocks in game art, you might see more saturated colors being used in addition to baked lighting. Metals for example may have more visible blues, purples, reds, and oranges. A cool trick that one of my college professors taught me is to bring a reference into Photoshop and crank up the saturation to 50 or 75%, and that will help you to identify the color palette you'll be using for your project.

7./ Always frame and comment on your Substance graph. 

This helps you and others (if working in a group) to remain organized and keep things easy to follow. I’ve seen plenty of messy material graphs from people (myself included!) that don’t utilize the power of comments or framing to their advantage. You will easily get lost after hours of work unless you can keep everything clean and organized. In addition, converting your connection lines into straight lines will help reduce the “spider web” of a mess that you may encounter later on down the road. Adding custom pivot points to your connection lines and snapping them together may also prove to be helpful. Hitting “D” on your keyboard after selecting a connecting node will dock it to the node it's connecting to. “S” snaps nodes to the grid.

8./ Open Critique vs. Internal Critique. 

It’s very helpful when you share your work with other artists and colleagues as they can offer you different perspectives and valuable recommendations. However, listening to too much feedback from different people can often be troublesome as it may paralyze you from making solid decisions that you are actually in alignment with. Don’t lose yourself in the opinions, judgments, projections and “suggestions” of others. Although, you must know that when you follow your preferences and make decisions based on your own truth, even if it’s for your own work or professional brand, there will always be people in this world who will have a sense of entitlement and the expectation that you do as they say.  Be prepared to be told that you don’t listen, are unable to take constructive criticism, etc. My advice in this area would be to take everything with a grain of salt, unless of course the work that you’re doing is for someone else. If several people comment on your work and say something like, “I think your rocks could use some more roughness variation”, then you should probably consider making those changes. In regards to internal critique, my advice would be to make something, step away from it, and come back to it on another day. Having humility, self-awareness, and the willingness to be open to exploring where you can improve your own work (or in any area of life!) is a skill that often takes time to develop. Too much ego can never be a good thing.

9./  Save your projects! 

You may find yourself trying to figure out how to make something for a project that you're working on, and spend hours troubleshooting or "testing" different options. This can be very time consuming. However, if you were to save your projects, it would be extremely helpful for referencing similar strategies or workflows used, on demand, which you may need in order to complete a task. Each project that you will work on will have its own challenges, and looking to past projects for guidance is a great way to break down those barriers or blockages you’re facing in your own work.

10./  Purchase material graphs online! 

I found this to be a very helpful aspect to the learning process especially being self-taught. By doing this, it helped me to learn a lot more about different workflows and approaches to material creation from other artists. Finding the right materials and material graphs online for your own personal learning is a great investment.  Explore the internet! Look up different biomes, locations, building materials, organic alien-like substances, and just about anything else you can think of. Incorporating real world elements into your projects will help your work look and feel more believable. I would highly recommend doing some research on the materials and/or places you’re referencing to learn more about how they're made and/or what happens to them after they’ve been exposed to the environment. You will learn a whole lot more about the world we live in through that process of mindful research.

11./ Rendering & Thumbnails.

This might not seem like a big deal, but in terms of presentation and the marketing of your work, I find this to be a very crucial aspect to the packaging of your project. The first thing people will see when they stumble across your work on ArtStation will be the thumbnail which links them over to the full project. I've provided a small list of tips and pointers for how to create a successful material package of your work to showcase on ArtStation, or your portfolio site. Here are my recommendations:

Thumbnails! As I mentioned before, thumbnails are very important. They are the first presentation of the work that you've created. The thumbnails shouldn't have too much text, and shouldn't take away from the overall work that you're promoting. The goal here is to find the best way to present your work, and to make sure that the elements, details, and rendering techniques used in the creation of your thumbnail communicates your "brand" and what you have to offer to the rest of the world. Sometimes I'll use DOF effects in my thumbnails or closeup images to show the details in my work, followed by a simple Substance Designer logo. The following image is a clear example of what I’m describing.

The thumbnails shouldn't have too much text, and shouldn't take away from the overall work that you're promoting. The goal here is to find the best way to present your work, and to make sure that the elements, details, and rendering techniques used in the creation of your thumbnail communicates your "brand" and what you have to offer to the rest of the world.

Material Breakdowns, Progress Shots, and Detail Renders are CRUCIAL components in the packaging of your project. This was something I learned in great detail from my professor at Champlain College. This is super important! Showcasing all aspects of the project in both a final presentation and technical breakdown form will not only show potential recruiters the process you went through to create your work, but it will also bring in more traffic from other artists browsing the internet. People want to see a breakdown of your work! Sure, the final renders may look gorgeous, but the road to get there is what people really enjoy seeing. Here are some examples of what that could look like:

I also recommend that you create your own rendering templates using either Photoshop or Illustrator. They can help save a lot of time with placing logos, icons, and breakdown related imagery. Having all of the necessary tools and visuals in place so you can just throw your work in and export completed and rendered portfolio items is really nice.

12./ Invest in Marmoset Toolbag! 

FYI, I was NOT approached to promote this product, but after purchasing a license and using it to render my work, Toolbag has won me over! This software is incredibly powerful, and as a first-time user, I have to say that I'm quite impressed with what it can do. With just a few little settings, you can make some mind-blowing stuff! When I use Marmoset Toolbag, I'll usually import a few modeled planes, walls, and/or spheres to showcase the material. It's a very straightforward and easy to use program. If you're looking to invest in some additional products, I'd recommend grabbing this one. You'll be amazed with the results you can end up with. Below are a few screenshots of common settings/parameters that I work with when rendering my work. Also, at the end of this post I’ve provided some resources that I have found to be extremely supportive in the learning process. Here are some settings I normally use when putting together my work.

I’d like to give a big thank you to Antoine Brunelle. It is because of his interest in Substance Designer and that he took the initiative to reach out that this post landed here. Thank you everyone for reading it. I hope it is helpful and offers encouragement for you on your journey!

Best regards,


Websites, Talks, and Discords:

- LevelUpDigital: 

- The Mentor Coalition (Materials Mentorship with Joshua Lynch): 

- The DiNusty Empire Discord Server: 

- Substance Designer Documentation: 

- Substance Discord Server: 

- Experience Points Discord Server: 

- 80Level: (search for anything and everything Substance Designer)

- JROTools:

- Pinterest (search for Substance Designer tutorials or guides):

- Search GDC Substance Designer talks or something on YouTube (there’s one by Daniel Thiger and Jonathan Benainous that are really thorough)

Software & Tools:

- Marmoset Toolbag (a VERY reliable and highly recommended choice for rendering you materials):

- Jonas Oleson’s Marmoset Breakdown Shader:

- Ultimate Trim Generator by: Justen Lazzaro

People to Follow:

- Daniel Thiger's Gumroad & ArtStation:

- Joshua Lynch's Gumroad & ArtStation: 

- Matthias Schmidt’s ArtStation Blog:

- Martin Schmitter's Blog:

- 3dEx YouTube & ArtStation:

- Kalyson:

- Charlie Foreman:

- Javier Perez:

- Jonathan Benainous:

- Ben Wilson:

- Eric Wiley: 

- Chris Hodgson:

- Enrico Tammekand:

- Alex Beddows:

- Bohdan Bilous:

- Pauline Boiteux: