Don’t feel like reading the article? Watch the full video here!
When learning how to become a texture artist, the learning curve one must climb isn’t always the easiest.
As a rule, 3D Software isn’t particularly intuitive, and there are a lot of concepts that any normal person simply would have no reason to know about.
If you’re just starting out, even knowing which software to use can be a bit of a puzzle. Texturing software—the topic of today’s video—is no exception, and each software package comes with its strengths, weaknesses, and price points.
The two most well-known pieces of software for this purpose are Substance Painter and Quixel Mixer.
If you’ve never used texturing software before, what makes it unique from simply painting on the model directly, is the ability to use procedural effects based on the shape of the mesh you’re working on.
This idea of texturing an object without painting it completely by hand is called Procedural Texturing and it is one of the central pillars of any modern texturing process.
If you’re like me and can barely keep between the lines of a coloring book, it’s a great way to get really nice-looking results while never putting pen to tablet.
Both Substance Painter and Quixel Mixer rely on this extensively, so let’s take a look at what the workflow with each piece of software might look like.
Why should I buy Substance Painter?
Let’s get this out of the way right now. Much like Photoshop, Substance Painter is the industry standard.
The software is very mature and Adobe has done a great job making the featureset both comprehensive and reliable. With Painter, the workflow is pretty straightforward:
You give it a low-resolution mesh that will be used in your scene, and a high-resolution mesh to extract detail from.
With a simple three-click process, Substance Painter can bake the details down to a series of maps that capture nearly all the detail of the original. Immediately the low poly mesh will look better, because the ambient occlusion will be putting shadows in cracks where light is naturally occluded, and the normal map will be faking the lighting for bumps and crevices.
From here, we could draw upon a vast library of materials and textures from Adobe’s online library called Substance Source.
By simply clicking and dragging, we could put a metallic material on your mesh, or make it look like leather.
Then you can use a procedural mask to do anything from altering the color in certain areas to using displacement to make it look like the object has been worn away.
Quite often people will have combined many of these effects already, creating something we call a smart material—a material that can utilize the various baked maps to dynamically adjust to the mesh it’s been applied to.
These are incredibly handy and can serve as a great base for your project.
For example, A worn metal smart material might have scratches on the hard edges, polished flat surfaces, and dirt gathered in the nooks and crannies—and all these factors can be adjusted with a simple slider with no drawing involved—the beauty of procedural texturing.
If you want to learn more about smart materials, or just Substance Painter in general, consider joining my Substance Painter course, which is filled with easy to understand tutorials, tons of smart materials, and a large library of ready to texture models.
This doesn’t mean you can’t use it as a more conventional painting software either—rather, some of the best works are the combination of procedural and hand-drawn efforts.
It’s easy to start with a procedurally generated mask dictating where the dirt should go, then manually touching it up with a paint layer to break up that uniform look.
Whether your goal is to produce something stylized or to aim for a more realistic-looking piece of art, Substance Painter can make it happen.
But nothing’s perfect.
If you were paying attention, you would have heard me mention earlier that it was owned by Adobe.
While Adobe’s products are generally great, their pricing plans…aren’t.
Though Adobe’s sole ambition in the world seems to be locking their entire software suite behind a $500/month paywall, you can still buy the software outright on Steam for roughly the cost of renting it for one year. Personally, I don’t like paying recurring bills, so this is what I did.
And perhaps Blender has spoiled me with its breakneck development speed, but it seems like functionality is added to Substance at a snail’s pace, and the software has a lot of small quirks that I find can add up to be moderately frustrating.
It’s the little things, like not having a hotkey dedicated to sampling only the color channel, not the whole material. Seriously, guys, it’s been five years.
And finally, it definitely isn’t the most intuitive software. Sure, 3D Software and Unintuitive definitely go hand in hand, but Substance Painter feels to me like it’s trying to bury its features rather than put them on display.
What about Quixel Mixer?
On the flipside of this, we have Quixel Mixer.
If there is one thing about it I can say with confidence, it’s that it’s intuitive.
Quixel does a wonderful job of making sure all the information is on screen and all its tools are clearly labeled.
Having worked with Substance Painter for two years now, going into Quixel Mixer for the first time was extraordinarily easy.
Granted I did know what to look for, but the interface did a wonderful job of conveying where each of those critical tools was, and I can say that if I were to switch to using Mixer full time, the jump would be extremely easy.
Another huge point to Mixer is it’s price tag—or lack of it.
As much as the internet likes to clown on Epic Games, they’ve been nothing but a boon to the artistic community.
Like the Unreal Engine, Quixel Mixer is entirely free for non-commercial use, making it the perfect tool for a beginner, or somebody who might not be ready to commit to the craft yet.
It shares a lot of functionality with Substance Painter and any experienced artist shouldn’t have any issue producing near identical results in either software. And because it’s part of the Epic Games suite, it hooks in really nicely with the Unreal Engine and the Megascans library, though you do need to pay to access the latter.
But this video isn’t just called Why you should use Quixel Mixer, so what’s the catch?
Well despite the fact that it’s being developed at a healthy pace and is built upon a solid foundation, Mixer simply isn’t mature as a product yet. It lacks several critical features that I expect from 3D software.
Remember all that praise heaped on Substance Painter earlier for its intuitive 3 click baking process?
Mixer can’t compete because it simply doesn’t have a baker at all.
If this doesn’t mean much to you, let me assure you this is pretty significant.
If you’re doing your high-resolution sculpting or modeling in Blender, baking mesh maps can be a fiddly process, and even ZBrush doesn’t always produce the results I want. In Mixer’s official tutorial series, they use Marmoset Toolbag to create the bakes.
While Marmoset’s baking tools are really robust, it’s price tag is similar to that of Substance Painter so this rules it out from a cost savings perspective.
Mixer is also missing more easily developed features, such as working with multiple UV Maps or UDIMs, and much to my dismay it didn’t even have an option for painting in symmetry. However considering the pace of development Mixer has seen in recent years, I don’t expect these to be issues forever.
If you’re watching this video in the future, there’s a good chance that these features have already been added.
So if you have a way to create the mesh maps necessary for use in procedural texturing, Mixer is quite robust.
The process described earlier for Substance Painter applies here too, where we mix materials through procedural and hand-painted masks, and even draw on the mesh if we’re feeling artistic.
Quixel Mixer vs Substance Painter - Which one should I use?
Based on the current states of each piece of software, I recommend them both. Mixer is great if you’re a beginner, and I get the sense it was originally created for indie developers who would already be working with existing assets.
This software did start as a way to blend materials together after all—it’s in the name. It’s very good for quickly altering the look of a model in big ways, but has enough depth that an artist can use it extensively as well. If you’re new to the craft, definitely give Quixel Mixer a chance.
There’s no cost, and you get 90% of the functionality handed to you in a super comprehensible way.
Substance Painter is for the artist who knows they will be committing to the craft.
It’s an all in one texturing suite that includes a massive library of Smart Materials, and has the depth to create truly fantastic results in both the photoreal and the stylized.
If it’s your job, or even just a serious hobby, the price to pay isn’t incredibly high and I can certainly say it is worth the money.
While I already sat down in the Substance Painter camp, I’ll be keeping an eye on Quixel Mixer in the future.
With a rapidly growing featureset I expect it to soon be Substance Painter’s equal if Adobe doesn’t step up their game—and I must say, I am a sucker for clean UI’s.
I hope this has been helpful in understanding the landscape of texturing software. While some of the tools are a little half baked (or bakerless), I like both of them. The free alternative that Quixel provides will put pressure on Adobe to step up their game, and in the long run both softwares will be better for it.