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Vehicular Hard Surface Detailing using Quixel NDO

jonathan-holmes-tanker

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Intro to NDO

NDO is Quixel’s definitive tool for creating normal maps from scratch or adding detail to existing baked normals. NDO makes the process fast and simple – many different effects can be created quickly and accurately using a variety of tools in Photoshop: vectors, rasterized images, selections, etc. Working with Layer Masks and a library of shapes and images, you can add a lot of fascinating details to your model that would take significantly longer to create in geometry. The baking process for these details is completely bypassed, allowing you to add things like text without requiring extensive re-bakes to ensure that details are captured exactly the way you envision them.

Now that you’re familiarized with NDO, let’s explore what NDO is capable of!

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A general overview of the 3DO interface with my tank car loaded.

Before we start doing any work, here’s the vehicle that I’ll be demonstrating. I’m building normal details for a Trinity Rail 31,808 gallon tank car used on United States and Canadian railways. I’ve already baked out the normals I need for rounded edges, but I’ll be doing the rest of the detailing entirely in NDO. Bear in mind that while I’ll be working on a vehicle that’s probably different than what you’re developing, the techniques and theory will be perfectly compatible with any hard-surface (and even organic) project.

To build this vehicle’s normal map, I’ll need a lot of references to properly reflect its real-world details. To start,  I suggest that you begin collecting reference images into a scene organized with a tool like PureRef. Using a camera or camera phone, you’ll be able to photograph things that you may have trouble getting reference of with a Google Image Search. I prefer to get my own up-close shots to supplement anything I find on Google – here’s some of my personally photographed reference for this project.

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PureRef is an amazing tool and comes highly recommended from the Quixel staff.

Setting Up Your Workspace

Laying out your workspace is another vital part of successfully working with NDO. Photoshop’s default layout is not entirely intuitive for most texture artists – its default layout is cluttered with unnecessary panels and doesn’t really have important tools within easy reach. It’s a good idea to lay out your Photoshop panels to utilize less screen space in your main display. I use three 1080p monitors, so I keep Photoshop’s primary window on the right with Layers, Channels, Paths and Navigator located adjacent.

Using as much of your screen(s) as you can will help you work efficiently and keep your workspace clean of the plethora of Photoshop panels available in an unmodified workspace. You can create your own workspace that the program will use each time you load it if you’d like to keep your workspace the same when you start Photoshop: just position your windows and panels the way you prefer them, then click Window → Workspace → New Workspace. The name you give it is entirely up to you, but I’d suggest picking something you’ll remember easily if you ever need to switch to a different layout.

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PureRef is on the left with the 3DS Max Command Panel. 3DS Max is in the center with two Photoshop panels, and Photoshop itself is on the right.

I’ve provided the layout that I personally use in the image above. Photoshop is located on the right, 3DS Max is located in the center, and PureRef occupies the left monitor. There’s some overlap in the programs – Max has the Command Panel torn off which sits on the left monitor, and Photoshop has several panels taking up the right-most part of the center monitor. This allows me to see more of my work with the least amount of navigating and unnecessary moving-about. Photoshop will pop under or above what I’m doing in my center screen depending on which program I’m actively using, while PureRef is aligned to the edge of the Command Panel so that it never pops up over Max.

With Photoshop customized a bit, let’s move on to working with NDO and any optimizations necessary there.
I have references gathered and the model is done, so the next step is to export directly to NDO. FBX or OBJ both work well in the 3DO viewer, provided as part of Quixel Suite. The NDO Project Creator will come up once you follow these steps:

 

NDO Project Creator

After you click Create New Project, NDO will create a new Photoshop document. This PSD uses a very specific naming structure which 3DO uses to update changes being made to your normal map in real-time.

The file naming convention is MeshGroupName [TextureType].PSD.

My PSD is called Tanker [Normal].PSD because I loaded a file called TankCar.FBX which contains a mesh called Tanker. NDO sees this in the Mesh Group dropdown below the mesh input in the Base Creator. NDO names the PSD after the mesh group name instead of the filename of the exported model – this is because 3DO links materials by mesh group name. The [Normal] tag tells 3DO how to handle the file – it’s treated as a tangent-space normal map in this case. The naming convention for your NDO and DDO projects will be identical. If you change the name of your mesh and reimport it into either program, you’ll lose the ability to preview the textures on the model in 3DO. Before reimporting, ensure you’ve kept the same mesh group naming to avoid any issues.

 

NDO Basics

Before we get started, let’s ensure that you’re using NDO’s full potential. NDO defaults to simplified UI in its shipped configuration. We need to change this to open up advanced features are only found by unchecking the Minimal UI option.

NDO Minimal UI

 

Disabling the Minimal UI option will open up Falloff, Anti-Aliasing, Z-factor, and Planefill. With the options opened up completely, let’s go over what each one does and what to expect from them. If you’re familiar with Photoshop’s Layer Effects, these settings will be recognizable. NDO essentially acts as an overlay controlling many different effects within the Layer Style for each layer you work with in NDO.

Shape: This defines the type of beveling.
Bevel: This defines the bevel’s appearance.
Slant: This controls the direction of the bevel, whether the bevel is inset or extruded.
Curve: This defines the shape of the beveling.
Blend: This controls the layer blend mode in Photoshop.
Size: This controls the width (in pixels) of your normal layer’s beveling.
Depth: This controls the strength and sharpness of the beveling.
Contrast: This controls the opacity of the beveling effect.
Opacity: This controls the opacity of the entire NDO layer.
Softness: This controls the smoothness of the beveling.
Falloff: This controls the tightness of the beveling, based on the bevel. Some bevels are not affected by Falloff.
Anti-alias: This applies anti-aliasing to the layer.
Z-factor: This sorts layers by height, but it only has an effect when converting to Height (Hard Surface).
Planefill: This controls the opacity of the flat, unbeveled surfaces of your normals.

Zip: This flattens an NDO layer non-destructively, reducing CPU usage in Photoshop and file size in the PSD.

Sculpt Mode: This allows you to edit an NDO layer’s contents and duplicate or modify what’s contained within. You can still edit NDO settings while in Sculpt Mode.

Single Normal: This works with all versions of Photoshop, CS3 and up. It supports all bevel types and allows for the use of Sculpt Mode. The drawback to this is that you’re only able to work with one layer at a time. Each Single Normal can be Vector or Raster, but not both simultaneously.

Multi-Normal: This requires Photoshop CS6 or better. Anything placed within a Multi-Normal becomes a normal map. You can use several different layers and switch between raster or vector data using a Multi-Normal. There is no conversion of vector or raster data required. Almost all Photoshop tools will work with a Multi-Normal within the same layer. Multi-Normals also support NDO Painter, which allows you to paint normals directly in 3DO. The main drawback to a Multi-Normal layer is that it supports only Inner Bevel and cannot be used with Planefill.

I’ll cover the use of both Single Normals and Multi-Normals throughout this tutorial. Both Single and Multi-Normals are viable workflows. I generally prefer to use Single Normals to contain multiple shapes, selections, or rasters within the same kind of bevel or object type I’m developing – e.g. 8 pixel bevels kept on the same Single Normal, or handles and bolts, etc. I find Multi-Normals to be superior when I need to quickly lay in details using heightmaps and shapes, or when I need to use NDO Painter to add welding marks or other tricky details that aren’t as easy to 2D paint.

 

Setup Basics

The next step to setting up an easily-paintable NDO project is to place your UV overlay into your NDO document, along with any blueprints or line art that you’ve gathered. I keep all non-NDO layers within the NORMAL group above the adjustment layer that NDO uses to colorize the normal map. It looks cleaner to me and is generally easier for other people to understand, especially if you’re working in a pipeline environment with many other artists.

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A predominately black UV layout with white wires must be set to Screen in order to properly display.

I also use Photoshop groups to organize my work and ensure everything is named. Logically named NDO layers and groups make it easy to come back to your work later on to understand what you were doing or thinking at the point when you last touched the project. It’s very easy to get into a habit of not naming your layers or folders. Taking the time to name everything will make it much easier to find specific layers. You may also find it helpful to apply colors to your layers in the layer stack to break up the stack into groups by color. This is done by right-clicking on any layer or group and assigning a color to the layer from the menu.

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Of course, individual preferences reign supreme. These are only suggestions, but they’re suggestions that are an integral part of my workflow. If you’re more comfortable using different techniques, you can still follow along – just try to adapt the theory and practice displayed here to the workflow you’re used to.

Photoshop and NDO should now be optimized for texturing. The rest of this tutorial will focus on creating normals of various shapes and sizes, different techniques and tricks to improve your speed and your computer performance with Photoshop, and a variety of quality-of-life tips that I’ve accumulated.

 

Working with Vector Shapes and Single Normals

As I mentioned, I generally prefer to work with Single Normals and vectors. I prefer the non-destructive nature of vector shapes for details like panels. I find it easier to develop normals with vectors, especially since I can easily duplicate vectors or change anything about them with minimal work. Here’s an example of a basic vector shape workflow that I use.

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Converting any existing layer or selection to NDO is as simple as clicking a button!

To build the rounded rectangle shape you see in the top-left, I created a basic rectangle and used the Properties menu (Window → Properties) to fillet the two right corners of the shape. This method is only possible using Photoshop CC 2014 or greater – Adobe introduced a feature called Live Shapes which allow you to change the corner radii of the shape so long as the shape’s vertices haven’t been moved using the Direct Select tool. You can Free Transform (CTRL+T) the shape with rounded corners, too! The radii of the corners will stay the same, but the shape will expand or contract depending on how you use Free Transform. It’s really a game-changer for this workflow.

 

Live Shape

You can also click the Link button in the center of the radius dialogs to adjust the corner radii independently, or leave Link enabled to adjust them all simultaneously. If you enter Sculpt Mode on the new Single Normal you’re working with, you can use the Direct Select tool (A) and open the Properties window to change a Live Shape even after you’ve converted it to NDO.

The Live Shape functionality only exists in Photoshop Creative Cloud (2014+) – if you’re using CS6 or earlier, you can add Rounded Rectangles by clicking and holding the Shape Tool in the Photoshop toolbar and select the Rounded Rectangle option.

Using Sculpt Mode on vector images allows you to duplicate details easily. The body bolster pads I added to the tank car are simple to duplicate over by entering Sculpt Mode, using Direct Select (A), then holding ALT+LMB to drag off a copy of the shape within the Single Normal.

 

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Duplicating Sculpt Mode details is a very effective way to lay down detail.

Working with Vector Shapes and Single Normals

Let’s work with some more shapes before moving on to other techniques. I’ve added more detail to the surface of the vehicle while writing this tutorial, including the panel linework on the tank body. The process for paneling is pretty simple and requires only some minor adjustments to the default NDO settings when a vector is converted to Single Normal. The surface of the tank car’s body has raised lines that are soft and curved. You could model and bake this detail, but I find it easier to get the result I want by using NDO.

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A little bit goes a long way with subtle details.

To get the panels set up on my model, I overlaid the reference lineart on top of my UVs with the lineart set to Multiply. Since the lineart was broken up into Smart Objects, one Smart Object per direction (Front, Back, Left, Right, Top), I can non-destructively rotate and scale the lineart to match my UVs without worrying about increasing pixelation from scaling and rescaling raster data. Smart Objects act like an instance of Photoshop data, so you can infinitely scale, rotate, stretch and otherwise distort them without worry.

I traced over the lineart using a simple rectangle, converted it to NDO, then adjusted its normal settings to produce a soft indented crevice along the bounds of the shape.

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Simple settings adjustments can produce a wide variety of results.

I’m using an Emboss bevel and a Cone curve. Combined with the size, depth, contrast, and softness, these vsettings produce a very convincing rounded indent into any surface. You can make this effect stronger by increasing the Depth and Contrast. You’ll likely want to adjust the Softness as well to keep the roundness consistent as the strength increases in the curve. 

The vertical line in the above image is using the same settings as the indented panel. I’ve copied and pasted the settings to another Single Normal using the Manage Normal Settings menu at the bottom right.

 

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I’ll do one final focus pass on shapes before moving on. Another area of interest for this model will be the Department of Transportation hazard placard holders. Working with these will demonstrate using shapes subtractively to avoid manually cutting in details.

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Working from lineart details is good practice, if the lineart is accurate.

I’ve traced over the lineart to create the DOT placard. I created a Rectangle, set its corner radii to match the roundness of the lineart, then rotated it 45 degrees and placed it over the image.

Creating the cutout that the placard shows through was a similar process. This required a bit more manual work. I created a Rectangle again, and then Cut (CTRL+X) the shape, which deletes the new shape layer. I then switched to Path Select (A) to Paste (CTRL+V) the new rectangle into the same vector shape layer as the first rectangle for the placard. I placed the pasted rectangle over the cutout of the plate where the placard displays, then added the rounded corners manually using the Path Select tool, right-clicking on the desired line position for a new vertex, then selecting Add Anchor Point. By default, adding a new vertex this way will create a bezier that averages the distance between the two nearest vertices. Anchor points can also be added via the Photoshop toolbar if you’re so inclined.

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Adding anchor points will allow you to get curved details.

To edit and move the vertices, you’ll need to enter Direct Select mode. This is also accessible from the (A) keybind. Direct Select is the alternate form of Path Select. The shortcut to Direct Select is holding CTRL while Path Select is activated. Clicking anywhere in the Photoshop canvas will switch Path Select to Diraect Select and vice versa. You can also click and hold the Path Select icon in the toolbar to choose Direct Select.

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Use Path Operations to add, subtract, intersect or exclude shapes.

The Path Operations tools become available when any path is selected in your canvas, or when you’re actively placing a vector shape. In this case, the cutout details I created were subtracted from the placard’s shape, yet are still indepenent shapes that I can continue to edit or change as-needed – or even re-use the shapes for similar details elsewhere on the model by copying and pasting them into another NDO layer.

 

Working with Raster Graphics and Heightmaps

NDO works great with shapes, but sometimes you’ll find it easier to create normals from selections, things you’ve painted yourself using the vast array of Photshop tools, or heightmaps you’ve downloaded or created yourself. Heightmaps are especially useful because they’re essentially 2D representations of 3D geometry. This makes it exceptionally easy to convert them over to NDO and push the details.

 

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Selections, paint, and heightmaps are all able to be used with NDO.

The tank car has a lot of bolts all over the model. Many prominent ones are located at the front and rear of the main body’s bulkheads. To add the bolts, I could go take some of the bolts I’ve modeled and turn them into heightmaps, but I already have an extensive library of bolts courtesy of Eat 3D.

Important: NDO discards black values of raster data. If you convert images comprised of black, you’ll end up with a blank normal map. This doesn’t affect vector shapes, as the shape itself is converted, not the color data.

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Converting heightmaps to normals is a huge time saver and allows you to propagate details easily.

We’ll focus on heightmaps for the majority of the raster section, since it’s a common way to work now that there’s a lot of free (and paid) heightmap collections on the web. The beauty of heightmap conversions is that you can generally drag-and-drop right into Photoshop and convert to NDO. A lot of the tedious design elements like bolts (who hasn’t made tons of these already?), nuts, and vents can be placed quickly with no real discernible loss in quality compared to baking – in many ways doing it right in Photoshop gives more control over the end result. Normal maps are always 2D, so if you can do it in 2D, you take out a lot of the guesswork of baking and can focus on improving visuals instead.

I find myself using the Eat3D bolts frequently. They show up well on my 8k vehicle normals like this tank car, so I use them as much as I can to break up the surface by placing them where they’d naturally belong. Again, this is where references come in handy. Breaking up surfaces is great, but adding detail for the sake of detail often looks incorrect, especially if you’re trying to build something that actually exists. Since I have a lot of images of this vehicle, I can check the images in my PureRef scene to ensure I’m placing bolts and nuts where they exist on the model. Let’s take a look at what a converted heightmap looks on the vehicle.

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At 8k resolution, these bolts show up really well.

The bolts scale well with the texture and look like geometry from a short distance. It’s hard to argue with quick, good results! Just like vector shapes, raster layers in NDO also support Sculpt Mode. I used Sculpt Mode to lasso a single bolt using the Rectangular Marquee Tool (M), then switched to the Move Tool (V). Holding ALT at this point allows one to duplicate selected details, exactly the same way that it’s done for vector shapes.

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Sculpt Mode: Use it often. It saves time, files size, and speeds up work.

The vehicle needs rivets to attach the side ladders and railings to it along various points of the exterior. I’ll make extensive use of Sculpt Mode to add those details.

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Keeping your UVs up in your modeling program can help you locate small islands quickly for detailing.

Adding these smaller rivets was simple, too! Following the same techniques as before, I entered Sculpt Mode, selected and duplicated one of the bolts, then scaled it to fit the approximate size of one of the ladder rivets. From there it was simply a matter of placing them in the correct position on the UVs. The bolt becomes a rivet because the size of NDO’s beveling doesn’t change when individual pixels or shapes are scaled within an NDO layer, so the bolt became significantly rounder as it scaled down. This technique won’t work for some of the additional rivets I want to add to the upper catwalk frame, so let’s cover how to add more types of bolts within the same NDO layer.

 

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Make extensive use of Sculpt Mode where you can. It is always fast.

The easiest way to do this is to add the rivet heightmap to a set of customized Photoshop brushes. I use a specific set called NDO Brushes.ABR which I load from my Dropbox so I can have it anywhere I go. If you’re unfamiliar with converting brushes in Photoshop, Adobe has a handy guide.

Loading a few of the Eat3D bolts (or any other detail) into a brush library will allow you to select a new heightmap and place it within the Single Normal layer using Sculpt Mode. Much as you can copy and paste vector shapes into a vector Single Normal, you can add any raster data into a raster Single Normal with Sculpt Mode using brushes.

 

Working With Multi-Normals and 3D Painted Details

Multi-Normals are a very useful tool to add a lot of detail without using separate Single Normal layers. Unlike Single Normals, Multi-Normals support raster and vector data simultaneously.

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You can add any detail you desire directly above Normal Layer. Multi-Normals support everything you can place within the Multi-Normal layer group. The drawback to Multi-Normals, as mentioned earlier: they require Photoshop CS6 or better, and Multi-Normal layers only support Inner Bevel and cannot be used with Planefill.

My workflow dictates that what the Multi-Normal contains determines what I call the layer in Photoshop’s layer stack. Since I generally use Multi-Normals for creating 3D painted welds using NDO Painter, my Multi-Normals are usually called Welding. A common theme you’ve no doubt noticed throughout this tutorial is that naming layers makes it significantly easier to work with them – I’ll touch on the reasons for this when we get into general tips and tricks later.

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Multi-Normals combine all types of Photoshop layers into a single effect, allowing for a lot of creativity.

There’s a lot of good things about Multi-Normals. Being able to work with multiple layers within an NDO layer allows for a very unique approach to developing normal maps. Let’s take a look at my favorite part of Multi-Normals: NDO Painter.

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NDO Painter is enabled by clicking NDO Painter Mode in the NDO UI. This instructs NDO to change the layer structure slightly by adding new layer and a mask for your painted details to show through. For example, the new layer should be called “Paint layer [NDO CODE]”. You’ll need to ensure that you’ve selected this layer before entering NDO Painter mode, otherwise painted details you’ve added will be lost.

Another effect of opening NDO Painter Mode is that the 3DO UI becomes a painting interface. A new tab is opened at the top called Painting and should be the default when launching NDO Painter. Within the Painting tab, you can change brushes, paint opacity, brush scale, etc. If you’re familiar with Photoshop already, NDO Painter will be simple to use! Let’s start by selecting the white circle at the top-left of the UI. Clicking it will open the brush options. You can click and drag on the title bar above the the brushes to slide the categories left and right. For this tutorial, I’ll adjust the basic circular brush to work as a welding tool.

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Here’s the settings Im using to create the welds for the tank car. You may need to adjust these to fit your project.

With my weld brush set up, painting is the easy part! I prefer using my Wacom tablet to do this, but it’s easily doable with a mouse if that’s all you have. I’ll place welding seams where the vehicle has components joined to the main body, and any other smaller areas I can identify through my PureRef scene.

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Welding is significantly faster to create with NDO Painter than it is to create in geometry.

In the above image, I painted where I wanted my welding to appear, then applied the paint using SHIFT+SPACEBAR. It may take a moment or two to apply the paint, but the painting itself should be fluid. As mentioned earlier, I’m working in 8k and painting welds with no noticeable slowdowns whatsoever.

When painting in NDO Painter, you can switch between the mask and the PBR viewport by pressing M. This might help visualize the painting process a bit more clearly. Bear in mind that if your “Paint layer” isn’t selected when you press SHIFT+SPACEBAR, you won’t see anything update in the viewport. Select the “Paint layer” again in the stack and reapply using SHIFT+SPACEBAR.

You can also use NDO Painter to apply any other brush outline shape in 3D, too! It’s really useful if you’d like to work with your heightmap collection. To work with your own custom brushes, place your heightmaps into a folder (I use Dropbox for this to sync across computers) and give the folder a name like My 3DO Brushes. Open the 3DO brush window, click Import at the bottom, then select the folder that your brushes are contained in. I have a specific weld brush that I like to use which I’ve imported in the same fashion.

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Optimizing Photoshop: Zip Mode and Smart Objects

By this point, you’ve probably added quite a few Single Normals and Multi-Normals. Even if you’re working with a high-end machine, Photoshop will eventually start having trouble keeping up with your work pace. At the time of writing this, I use a system with 32 GB of RAM and a 4 GHz i7-6700k. I work almost exclusively in vector shapes for the majority of my paneling work, with up to ten Single Normals overlapping one another to mimic how panels tend to be laid on top of each other. When I’m done detailing a vehicle, I can easily have over 500 vector shapes in a single PSD. This coupled with the layer styles and amount of layers per NDO layer can cause even the best machine out there to slow down to a crawl.

Enter Zip Mode, and Smart Objects.

Zip Mode was briefly touched upon on the third page of this tutorial. F-rom page three: This flattens an NDO layer non-destructively, reducing CPU usage in Photoshop and file size in the PSD.

Let’s take a look at what Zip Mode really does.

 

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On the left is a default NDO Single Normal. On the right is a zipped NDO Single Normal. The zipped Single Normal is significantly less CPU intensive and requires less storage space when you save the PSD. Additionally, the zipped file is non-destructive. You can unzip at any time and get the original result, and there’s absolutely no loss in quality. There’s really no reason not to zip NDO normals. Unless you need to rotate them, in which case I recommend doing it with an unzipped layer. Zipped layers are essentially flattened, so if you rotate a zipped layer its normal directions will be incorrect. The layer styles will match the rotation of unzipped layers.

It’s worth noting that you can rotate a zipped layer – unzip to fix normal directions and rezip immediately after.

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Zipped normals cannot rotate correctly. Be sure to unzip them.

Zipping layers is a good habit to get into. It will postpone a lot of slowdowns that many users encounter with Photoshop, namely the more layers a document has (especially with layer styles) the more RAM and CPU intensive the program will be. Zipping layers will also speed up NDO’s responsiveness, since NDO depends entirely on how quickly Photoshop can communicate with it. If you notice a lot of sluggishness in NDO and Photoshop, ensure that your layers are zipped. If your layers are zipped and you still encounter sluggishness, then it’s time to focus on the next aspect of optimizing Photoshop: Smart Objects.

You might still be encountering sluggishness after zipping your NDO layers. Normally, zipping is the extent of what you can do to optimize performance – but I’ve developed a technique for tricking Photoshop into thinking the active document has been flattened, while retaining editability. This increases responsiveness by many orders of magnitude so you can keep working as though you had just started the program!

Begin by creating a new layer. Since I group my normal details and name them based on what part of the model they belong to, I’ve named this layer Main Body Container. This is simply for organization’s sake – the Smart Object will take on the name of the topmost layer in the stack, making it easy to understand what it is. I also filled Main Body Container (ALT+BACKSPACE) so that the layer is 8k x 8k pixels, and set the layer opacity to 0%. This is important – I’ll elaborate on why momentarily.

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Once you right-click on your layer selections in the stack, you’re presented with an options menu. Choose Convert to Smart Object. This will create a flattened instance of the layers. Double clicking on the layer thumbnail will take you inside the Smart Object. You’ll end up with something similar to this:

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What you’ve done here is create a new document that matches the same pixel dimensions as your main document, which means you can duplicate any details from this Smart Object into the main document at any point. The XY positions on the canvas are the same for the Smart Object and the main project, so everything syncs up perfectly. You can paste your UVs within this Smart Object just like you did at the beginning of the tutorial and continue to work as normal… Except the Smart Object is missing NDO layer hierarchy, so it’s not going to recognize that you’re working with an NDO project. Any layer you select within this Smart Object will prompt you to convert them to normals, even though they already are.

The background is also transparent, so you might find this a little odd at first. Let’s fix the editability issue. Select everything, press CTRL+G to group it, then rename the group and call it NORMAL. It literally must be called NORMAL, capital letters included. This tells NDO that this document is an NDO project, and anything contained within NORMAL will be editable with NDO.

Now that the Smart Object’s layers are contained within a group called NORMAL, NDO will allow you to work with the NDO layers again. The container layer can be safely deleted at this point – its only purpose was to name the Smart Object and to set its pixel dimensions.

 

Unzipped

 

With NDO editing restored, you can set up the document to be a little easier to look at and understand. This step isn’t necessary, but it can help if you’d like to work within the Smart Object. The document is currently missing the NDO adjustment layer, which gives the blue height information to the project, and the flat 50% gray background which ties everything together. These two layers don’t need to exist in the Smart Object, because the 50% gray background exists below the Smart Object in your main PSD, and the adjustment layer exists above it, so the main project looks perfectly fine. Editing inside of the Smart Object can be a little easier when it looks like your main project, though – so let’s add those two layers back to your Smart Object.

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Select the adjustment layer and the 50% gray layer, then right-click in the Layers window and select Duplicate Layers. Choose the Smart Object – it will be named after the top-most layer when you created it initially. In my case, it was called Main Body Container.PSB. Switch to the Smart Object and move the adjustment layer directly below NORMAL, and place the 50% gray layer below everything else in your stack.

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It’ll look like a standard normal map again. If you prefer editing normals like this, just be sure to follow the workflow and place the two layers within your Smart Object. Otherwise, you can work normally without them and the Smart Object will look correct inside of your main document.

Be sure to disable the two layers before saving the Smart Object, otherwise anything below it will be covered by the 50% gray layer, and the normals themselves will be adjusted twice – via the Smart Object’s adjustment layer, and then the main document’s adjustment layer.

This technique should improve your work speed significantly – here’s hoping you find it as useful as I have!

 

General Tips and Tricks

We’ve covered a lot of ground here, so this page will focus entirely on some helpful advice and workflow-related tips I’ve developed over the years.

Quickly find layers by using the Move Tool (V). You can right-click on the canvas and see what layers are directly underneath your cursor. This can help you quickly select a layer without hunting through many different ones in the layer stack. This is also another reason why naming layers is important – you’ll reduce the amount of time required to figure out what something is.

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You can also stay in mask mode using NDO Painter and press W to enable the wireframe overlay, if Post Processing is enabled in the Options tab. You’ll see the wireframe on your model while you’re painting in masked mode – this can help identify trickier areas while you paint.

NDO Painter can be used to visually identify where details should be placed. Create a new Multi-Normal, enter NDO Painter Mode, then paint a dot to mark the location in 2D space or sketch out a rough outline of the shape you want to add. Press SHIFT+SPACEBAR apply the normals you painted, and switch back to Photoshop to place the normal detail you’d like to add precisely.

You can shrink the size of your layer stack by opening the Layers menu –> Panel Options –> Uncheck Expand New Effects.

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Create a Photoshop Action to turn off Snap Vector Tools and Transforms to Pixel Grid. You may find yourself needing to move objects without having them snap per pixel in your document. Use the Actions window (Window → Actions) create a new Action. Click the Create New Action button, name it and assign a keybind (I use F10 and SHIFT+F10 to turn this snap function on and off), then click Record. Go to Edit → Preferences → General (CTRL+K) and uncheck Snap Vector Tools and Transforms to Pixel Grid. Select OK, press the Stop button in the Actions window, and then repeat this process to enable snapping. You can then use the two actions you’ve created to switch between vector/transform pixel snapping.

Enable Path/Direct Selection Mode (A) to toggle between All Layers or Active Layer: Go to Edit → Keyboard Shortcuts, switch to the Tools menu if it isn’t the default. Scroll to the bottom of the keybind list. Give Direct Selection Mode Toggle a keybind – K works well, since it’s one of the few unbound keys in Photoshop. The beauty of toggling vector selections to All Layers is that you can have several Single Normals (Or shape layers in a Multi-Normal) in Sculpt Mode and duplicate several vectors using ALT+LMB across your normal map. Each vector stays within its respective NDO layer, which allows you to work on an almost unlimited amount of normals simultaneously. It’s a huge time saver for overlapping panels and anything else you can imagine with vector shapes!