The Anatomy of A Texture

Leonardo Da Vinci was obsessed with the structure of the human body. His experiments on humans – both living and dead – are perhaps some of the most famous anecdotal tales of art meeting science. During his life, Da Vinci dissected dozens of human beings. At first, all of his candidates for dissection were obtained illegally. There are tales of him robbing grave yards in the middle of the night, and tales of him illegally purchasing cadavers from ancient coroners before the remains were destroyed or buried. As a result of the somewhat illicit nature of his hobby, many of his drawings and anatomical findings were kept secret for years, and a great many more were lost forever as a result. When Da Vinci died, thousands and thousands of drawings were uncovered – and inside them were some of the most startlingly accurate anatomical drawings that had ever been created.

The study of systems, or Anatomy, is a broad term. It can be applied to the study of the internals of a lion, the complex documents that outline a tax return, or, in our case – the study of art. In this article, we’re going to discuss some of the finer points of the art of our friend Rogelio Olguin. Anyone who has been in the industry for the last ten years has run in to him at some point, and if not – you’ve most definitely been exposed to some of his mind-blowingly beautiful materials. His art is the subject of many portfolios, and his brushes and techniques (which he gives out free!) can be found all over the internet.

His work has been featured in magazines, books, trade shows, forums – and pretty much anywhere else you can think of. He’s spent the last few years being a texture artist at Naughty Dog – and his Last of Us Art Dump is one of the most popular posts on Polycount of all time. If you browse his beautiful work, you can begin to see that Rogelio (whether he admits to it or not) follows a very simple structure in each of his materials – and his structure, while simple to point out – is elegantly executed in each of his works. Follow along and lets take apart one of his materials from start to finish, and figure out exactly the anatomical structures that will make your art tell the story of your world.

What is the Anatomy of a Texture?

Is it the albedo, metalness, specular, gloss, roughness, normal, ambient occlusion, cavity, and height maps? While these map types are all important and definitely work together to create a beautiful material, they are not what structurally supports a good texture. They are each but tiny portions of what make up a successful material. When I’m creating a texture, I choose to think of each specific project as a bodybuilder; where the end result of endless training, and constant dedication is standing on a stage, flexing and posing – showing off muscles and structure for the world. A bodybuilders’ anatomy is comprised of his bones, muscles and systems which are all working in unison.

When a builder hits a front double bicep pose, think of it as his albedo map. It’s one of the many poses that make up his routine, just like an albedo map is one of the many maps that make up a texture set. What is supporting his front double bicep pose? His biceps, sculpted to perfection. His legs, built to look like tree trunks. The large overall shape of his, body perfectly symmetrical to create an anatomically pleasing look from all angles. These different factors of structure that he worked to sculpt all work together to create the perfect pose.

It is much the same with textures. The sweeping large details creating the overall look, the medium details adding information so the texture is readable, and the small details adding realism and refinement to the final result. Textures much like anything in nature have a structure, an anatomy, and it can be studied. Lets start at the top.

Big Shapes

When you’re looking to breakdown a texture, you first need to consider what is the big shape (or shapes). Big shapes will define the texture from a distance and make it readable from afar. Let us look at an example.



Dirt Cliff from Rogelio Olguin (who kindly provided all the texture flats)

Rogelio Olguin is a Texture Artist Wizard at Naughty Dog. His credits include The Last of Us and the soon to be released Uncharted 4 (I wonder what the next two games I’ll be doing write ups on will be…). I’d use one of my own textures, but his work is world class and it’s much easier to break down because he is a master at what he does.

If we look at this material, we can see everything we need to break down a texture’s anatomy. The large shapes of the main stone are clearly visible and give a clear view of the large cliff face. When viewed from afar, your brain will be able to distinguish what the large shapes are fairly easily. When you add in some geometry to support the texture usage, like a cliff face mesh with just a few geometric cuts at the right spots, you will instantly see the texture for what it is. Below, I’ve outlined the large shapes in red and yellow. Look at how expertly they’ve been crafted.

Large Detail


Base Details

Moving on from the large cliff face details that give the texture its overall sharp and bold look, we can focus in a bit more on specific parts of the texture. This is what I would consider the base detail level. If you were playing a game, this is what would be something that’s not very far away but you’re not close enough to see all of the fine details, or about 15 or 20 feet away in real life.

Medium Detail


Look again at the cliff from Rogelio. Here, I’ve outlined in blue what I consider the base details. They include smaller cracks and separations in the stones due to erosion, smaller cliff like edges that add an extra level of sharpness but don’t add too much to the overall shape and silhouette of the texture, and other areas where the detail is still somewhat large but it’s something you’d see from a distance.

If we return to our bodybuilder analogy, we’ve covered the look of the man from afar. From this distance, we can clearly see he’s huge and have extremely shapely muscles but don’t see any real separation. Now that we’re within 10 feet or so of him we can clearly see the separation of his larger muscle groups, such as his pecs are defined, his deltoids are clearly separate from his arms, and the overall shape of his legs and butt are now separated into 3 distinct muscle groups (quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes). He’s a mountain of meat and he’s got a lot of definition but you don’t see the fine details of his form yet.

Small Details

Small Details


Looking deeper and closer we come to the third aspect of the textures anatomy, the small details. This refers to the smaller details of the texture that further ground it in reality. Outlines above in green, it is represented by the small pebbles, stones, and a few of the small cracks in the overall texture. These small details tell you that this weathered cliff face supports life. The roots of some small plants or trees are beginning to break through the rock as they search for water. Or, the opposite could be true. The stone here is very dry and the soil is more like sand than anything else. Perhaps these are drought starved plants that are dying, their once great root systems now reduced to withered shadows of their former selves. These small details don’t add to the overall shape of the texture seen here, but they add greatly to the story it is trying to tell.

Micro Details



The final aspect of a texture is its micro detail. Micro detail is the smallest discernible details you can see. Here, it’s the strata and pitting in the stone, the slight color variations between the cliff faces and the dirt, and the little layering of the erosion in cracks and extrusions. The micro detailing creates the smallest level of separation and detail, which is absent from any view that isn’t up close and inspecting it for perfection. These subtle and tiny details can really only be seen up close, but they give the texture the final touches that take it all the way to that 100% completion state. The smallest of details take it from a great work to an outstanding one, giving it believability in its final form.

Returning again to our bodybuilder, at this level we’ve taken a few steps closer and he’s preparing for his pose. As he prepares, you see the small details, the separation of his biceps from his triceps and where both of those muscles tie into his deltoids. He is quite defined, but he too is missing that 20%. But then, he hits his front double bicep pose and you can see he is instantly transformed into a sculpted man. His biceps, legs, abdominal, and chest all work to support his pose. As they do, the hard work he put in to add detail to his muscles pay off. The separation between each muscle fiber can be seen and you can see how his biceps, triceps, and back all flow to their insertion points in his body. Every little detail, every little muscle fiber can be seen, supporting his pose.

It is much the way with textures and their final outputs. It’s not about the maps, it’s about the work you spent either painting, sculpting, or designing your work to bring out the highest level of detail possible.

In Practice

So what is the right way to go about creating a texture of such high quality? Many of my students struggled with the concept of working bit too small. Many beginners and even a few experienced artists (myself included!) make the mistake of not spending enough time nailing down the form and getting the base level of detail, the large silhouette details, completed before moving on to the next step. The tools might be different, but the order of progression is the same.

  1. Gather as much reference as you can. It doesn’t matter what your object is, you need a visual base to work from.
  2. Large forms first. You need to nail the overall form, which you can test by applying your base height map to meshes and doing test displacements in whatever program you use. It’s important that you see the large silhouette changes, even if you won’t be using displacement in the final product. Think big and think bold, then possibly think big again.
    • This is akin to a bodybuilder thinking about what lifts will get him the biggest and strongest body. This is the core of your texture, and for him it’s his core lifts: Bench Press, Squat, Deadlift, and Bent Over Rows. Those four lifts will hit just about every muscle. It may not give the lifter the veins and sinew filled look he’s really after, but being lean and cut doesn’t matter to him if he has no size.
  3. Now we add mid-range details to the texture. This will be layered on top of the big forms. This adds a degree of shape detail that will make those large, bulky forms start to look sharp and refined or dull and muted (all depends on your reference). At this level, we’re adding more visually defining elements shapes to our texture. If we plug in the height map and take another look, we see something that is starting to look a bit like our final image that’s based off of our reference.
    • For the bodybuilder, this would look similar to additional lifts to support the big lifts. Using the Pecs for example, Bench Press is for building a big chest. But when he adds in Dumbbell Bench Press, he is working the muscles in a few different ways. These alterations (each pectoral is worked individually, different angles affect different portions of the muscle) further refine and add to the form the pectoral muscles will be taking at the end of his training for a show.
  4. Add in the smaller details that ground your texture to reality. Soil, mud, dirt, larger paint chips or dents. This is where your texture goes from being good and vague to great and specific. Don’t be haphazard however. Placement of small details needs to be precise and somewhat realistic, even in a stylized work.
    • Rather than breaking it down by exercise here, I’m going to break it into rep ranges. Here, bodybuilders tend to shift rep ranges depending on their goals and genetics. But in general, 6-8 reps will get you really good size with heavy, core exercises (Bench Press) and continue to be effective for supporting work that can still be done heavy (Dumbbell Bench Press). When it’s time to work on bringing out the smaller details, lifters often jump to 12 or even 15 repetitions while using more assistance based exercises (Dumbbells or Machines mostly).
  5. Finally, after all of your details are built upon each other, make the micro detail pass. Get really into your sculpting or your node tree and see what you are missing. Rock pitting? Small cracks in ceramic tiling? Little scratches or marks in wood flooring. Anything that you see that is at a micro level, add in this pass and use it to push your work to the extreme.
    • In the final stages, a bodybuilder will combine high rep work (15-20 reps) with extensive dieting. This is often the hardest stage for a bodybuilder since no one loves dieting more than men with huge muscles that probably should be eating 5000 calories a day or more. In order to achieve the look they need for the stage however, they need to cut as much fat as possible. They might be cutting weight, but the cut is how they add that fine level of micro detail to their form.
  6. Test it out!

Texturing and Bodybuilding are great analogues for each other because both require the building of a foundation, the refinement of that foundation, and then the addition of smaller details and micro details to be successful. It’s important to keep that in mind as you work on any texture, not just stone walls. Every texture, no matter how flat or cavernous it is has a foundation that must be laid before you can create effective details. Texturing is as much an art as it is a science, and like the human body can be broken down and studied, so can a texture.

Now, go out there and LIFT…err I mean TEXTURE!

Arnold Schwarzenegger photos sourced from:

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Daniel Rose

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