In this interview, we talk with Bert Willemsen, the 1st place winner of the Abandoned Space Station Challenge from the Netherlands. He will give us some insights of his journey as a CG Artist and a look behind the scenes of his winning artwork.
1. Tell us a bit about yourself: Who are you, what do you do, and where are you located?
Hi, my name is Bert and I work as a C#.Net developer.
In my spare time, I like to play around with Blender and other creative tools. I mostly create sci-fi scenes and fan art of various subjects.
2. Tell us more about your creative path: How did you get to the point you are now?
My first experience with 3d software was when I was still in school (around 2005) and we had to do some assignments with 3ds Max.
I also experimented a bit with C4D, but I lost interest after a while and I went back to programming in my spare time.
In 2017, I was building a new PC for myself and I used Blender to benchmark it.
I’ve never used Blender before that time, but I thought it looked interesting and that triggered me to get back into 3D and use Blender for that because it’s free.
The Blender Guru tutorials helped me a lot in the beginning to understand the basics, and it didn’t take long before I could make basic scenes.
Since then, I’ve been modeling scenes by imagining a scene whenever I get inspiration and learning the techniques that I need to create that scene on the way, and preferably learning a new element/technique every time.
3. What was your main motivation for participating in the challenge?
I’ve seen some challenges before, but I never really got the motivation, or I thought I couldn’t make anything good within the timeframe.
As I’ve made space stations before, this was the perfect opportunity for me to give it a try.
4. Where did you find the inspiration for your latest entry, and what inspires your work every day?
When I read ‘Abandoned Space Station’ I immediately thought of Simon Stålenhag’s book ‘The Electric State’, where the protagonists travel through environments filled with abandoned structures and spaceships.
In my opinion, a scene like that would also make it a more unique entry than a space station that’s literally in space
In general, I get my everyday inspiration from (sci-fi) movies/series, music, video games and by browsing artstation/instagram.
5. What software (and plug-ins) did you use to create this image? Are there some other tools that make your life as an artist easier (maybe not only CG tools but also something you use to organise your work etc.)?
I made this render entirely in Blender 2.93, with the Botaniq addon for the trees/ivy.
Some other addons that make my life easier are Hard Ops, Camera Manager, Node Wrangler, ANT Landscape, Box Cutter and Fluent. I also use MakeHuman a lot whenever I need a basic human model or body parts in a scene.
Another ‘tool’ that I use daily is the 3Dconnexion SpaceMouse. Some people hate it, but for me, it makes it much easier to navigate in 3d space.
6. Are there any particular techniques that you use often?
One thing that I learned this year was how to use imperfection maps in textures, which I described in the breakdown below.
I use it in almost every render now.
Another thing that I like to use a lot is the object offset option in the array modifier to create circular arrays.
Very useful for space stations.
7. Can you give us a short breakdown of your entry?
I always start with some basic shapes, in this case a hexagonal tube and rings.
Then it’s a matter of adding the smaller space station parts like connecting tubes, airlocks, solar panels, tubes, cutouts and other sci-fi elements.
For texturing, I mostly get the textures either from AmbientCG or the ArtStation marketplace.
For the main fuselage, I used a sci-fi panels texture, and then I like to use a Mix RGB node to subtract imperfection maps from the base color to make it look damaged.
For some of the contrasting parts, I just copied the texture and made it a bit darker.
I generated a landscape with the ANT Landscape add-on, added the trees & ivy with Botaniq and added some extra sci-fi objects on the ground.
I also added some fog at the bottom of the station, which is just a cloud made by following this tutorial by CGMatter.
To create the damaged parts of the station, I added some icospheres with a displacement modifier and subtracted them from the main mesh with a boolean modifier.
For the grid around the rings, I used a bit smaller icosphere so that it sticks out of the hole.
For the solar panels, they are all array instances, but I’ve hidden some of them by covering them with cubes and applying a boolean modifier after the array modifiers, this is an easy way to keep it nondestructive in case I want to change it later.
Lastly, one of the most important steps was compositing.
I only discovered how this works after like 2 years of working with Blender, but I can’t imagine making anything without it anymore. Specially the glare node, color correction, the mist pass and the soften filter can change a scene completely.
For this scene, I also added a vignette with the ellipse mask node to give more focus to the space station.
8. What was the hardest part on creating your entry?
Probably adding all the little details. It’s something that you can keep doing for days before deciding that it’s enough.
9. Have you learned something new from participating in this challenge, and if yes, what?
A few days before this challenge was announced, I finished a fairly similar looking render, so I could use the same techniques again, and I didn’t really have to learn any new techniques.
I did however learn from the critiques, one of them was that the human in the foreground blended in with the grass too much. That was a very valid point, and I learned that I should pay more attention to the lighting and to make sure it highlights the points of interest.
10. Any advice for people who want to learn 3D art or join challenges like this?
For beginning 3d artists (like me) my advice would be to set realistic goals but keep the expectations low(er).
While ArtStation is a great source of inspiration, don’t expect to get near the level of the top artists anytime soon, most of them have many years of experience and comparing yourself to them can be very demotivating.
Another thing that greatly helped me improve my renders is to learn more in-depth about the physics behind realistic rendering. Instead of following a tutorial and just copying every value until you achieve the same result, learn what the values actually mean.
Blender Guru has some great videos about this.
For example, in this one (and the old version) he explains everything about photorealistic shaders, the difference between dielectric and metal materials, what roughness actually is and much more.
Once you understand what the options do, it’s much easier to create the result that you have in mind, and it will probably look more realistic.
11. Who are your favorite artists, traditional or digital, and can you explain why?
Paul Chadeisson – My biggest inspiration for sci-fi scenes.
Daniel Hahn – One of the first artists that I followed when I got back into 3d, I love his incredibly detailed robot models.
Simon Stålenhag – He has a very distinctive painting style and his work always has this mesmerizing melancholic/dystopian vibe.
Alice X. Zhang – One of my favorite 2D artists because of her unique style and use of colors