10 March 2015

Enrico Valenza - Blender Cycles Materials & Textures Cookbook 3rd Edition - Ebook Review

Another day another Ebook reviewed in my recent catch up session to clear the backlog of unreviewed books that I have left to read through.

This time around it's a book by Enrico Valenza a very experienced Blenderhead who has written multiple books for Blender.

This is Enrico's 3rd book from his "Blender Cycles Materials & Textures Cookbook" series.

Unsurprisingly given the title of his book, it covers using Blender Cycles to create material and texture node setups in Cycles to achieve various different styles and types of materials that can be applied to objects.

Because this book is presented in the form of a cookbook it presents it's contents as a series of recipes, each recipe describing a particular method for achieving a particular visual effect in Blender Cycles.  Once the recipes have been documented the book then explains the recipes in detail showing why it was created the way it was and what the advantages/disadvantages of the recipes are.

Given that the information in this book is in recipe form, it is important that the recipes are accurate and as far as I was able to determine they are very accurate, there did not seem to be any silly errors.  This is unsurprising as the reviewers for this book were all very experienced Blender users.

Product Specifications:

        There are lots of recipes described in this book (40+) covering many different areas of material and texture creation. This is one of the reasons the page count for the book is 400 pages.

        The 400 pages are split up into 9 chapters which cover very broad areas:
        • 1 - Overview of Materials in Cycles
        • 2 - Managing Cycles Materials
        • 3 - Creating Natural Materials in Cycles
        • 4 - Creating Man-made Materials in Cycles
        • 5 - Creating Complex Natural Materials in Cycles
        • 6 - Creating More Complex Man-made Materials
        • 7 - Subsurface Scattering in Cycles
        • 8 - Creating Organic Materials
        • 9 - Special Materials 
        The introductory text in the book takes some time to explain the major differences between Blender Internal render and Blender Cycles.  Although this book is aimed at a Blender user with some familiarity with Blender, if you are completely new to Blender you will be able to follow along while reading.

        The versions of Blender covered in the text range from version 2.71 to 2.73, so if you are using older versions of Blender you may notice some differences between the book and your version of Blender.

        All the recipes in the book come with the resultant Blend files, so if you do not want to follow along and just pick apart blend file to see how to achieve the various effects you can do so.  The blend files are available on the Packt Publishing website.

        Chapter 1 - Starts with a basic introduction to some of the terms that are used with Blender Cycles and details how to setup and activate Blender Cycles render so that you can use it on your projects.  The advantages and disadvantages of Cycles are covered in brief.  As is the advantages and disadvantages of using Cycles Rendering on a Cpu/Gpu.  Followed by a quick example of how to use Blender Cycles Node setups to affect rendering.

        How to improve render quality and remove noise is covered so as to allow you to get better results from your renders in a shorter amount of time.

        Procedural textures are explained and demonstrated using various basic nodes, as is the bump and normal texture nodes.

        World Materials setup is covered as well as the often asked question of how to make the background transparent in renders.  The coverage of how to use environment textures and sky textures was very easy for me to understand and I think will save newer Blender users a lot of time.

        Various options of the Lightpath node are covered which allow the user to only have certain elements that are visible in a scene show up in a final render.

        Ambient Occlusion is described and there was a useful section describing what is and is not taken into account for material properties when Ambient Occlusion is being generated.

        Blender Cycles Mesh Lighting types are covered and contrasted to the lights that are used with Blender Internal.  The basics of how to control the amount, color and weather light is emitted from both or only a single side of a mesh light is explained, as is setting a mesh light up to light a scene but not have the mesh itself visible in a scene.

        Having gone though the more basic properties of materials and textures the chapter moves on to Blender Cycles support for volumetrics and how to use them to achieve some simple but interesting looking effects.

        And finally for this chapter using textures to enable displacement of meshes is covered.  Be aware that when this book was written this feature was still experimental so may change in the way it works.

        Chapter 2 - Goes over some of the major ways to make your workflow with Blender Cycles more organized and efficient by showing you how to arrange Blender's interface to make it more responsive when using Cycles.

        Topics such as setting up new screens, altering and saving a new defaults file is covered.  More basic but none the less very useful advice such as giving materials and textures informative names is covered.

        More advanced method of organizing elements in Blender are also covered such as Node Groups, Layout Frames, Coloring of Nodes and importing and exporting elements into and out of Blender.

        I learned that you could use ctrl+p to parent nodes into frames which I wasn't aware of.

        Chapter 3 - With the basic concepts covered the book then moves on to the process of taking the information from the previous chapters and creating usable materials.

        Specifically in this chapter the creation of Natural Materials is the purpose.

        The first material that is created is a rock material which is created with image textures and combinations of bump maps.  I think this is the first book that I have read that details using the Box Blending method to achieve good texturing results without having to UV Unwrap a mesh.

        After explaining how to make a rock texture with image textures the book then explains how to make a rock texture entirely using procedural texturing methods.

        Where there is rock there is often sand which is handy as the next recipe covered is how to make a simple sand material, again using procedural texturing methods.  Another handy tip was shown describing how to make the materials generic and tweakable using Node Groups with alterable options.

        By this point in the book the node setups and recipes can be somewhat involved and you will be glad that you have access to the blend files.

        Next in the recipe list is a very simple and basic method for making a rocky ground type texture.  Not the best looking but is very simple and quick.

        If you are getting bored of all the rock based materials then have no fear the book moves on to explaining the softer material of snow and how to create it using procedural textures and translucency.

        Snow being a material that only generally looks right with SSS applied it can be slow to render, so usefully a method of faking SSS using translucency is described.

        One material that is often requested by Blender users, is a good method for making a material that looks similar to how ice would look.  So an ice recipe is provided.  It's not the most advanced ice material ever but it is good enough and since you have the blend files you can always tweak it as you see fit to get the results you require.

        Chapter 4 - Concentrates on creating materials which look man made specifically:
        • Generic Plastic
        • Bakelite
        • Expanded Polystyrene
        • Glassy Polystyrene (clear hard plastic)
        • Rubber
        • Antique Bronze
        • Configurable Metal
        • Rusty Metal
        • Wooden Material

        Chapter 5 - Covers creating more complex and larger scale materials.

        If you have used Blender for any length of time you will often want to have a quick way of generating large scenes with ocean water.  Blender has an ocean water feature, but it is not the most flexible feature.  So instead the book documents a method which gives an ocean which is created manually using various Cycles Nodes to increase flexibility.

        After creating the ocean surface obviously you need to create a material which can represent what the environment looks like when you are under the ocean, so the book moves on to creating an under water environment material.

        Rendering a underwater scene using volumetrics can be very slow so a method is used which fakes the volumetric effect.

        While in previous sections of the book materials such as snow and rock have been described, combing these types of materials to form a shader which creates mountains which have rock and snow on them and reacts to the height/angles of the mountain surfaces to determine where snow should be is described.

        Finally for this chapter we go out of this world and a recipe for creating a render of earth as seen from space is demonstrated, using a combination of image textures and various other types of image maps to create elements such as land maps, clouds and water sections of the earth render.  There is no outer atmosphere but the earth shader looks good at a quick glance.  The techniques shown here can be used with many different types of texturing tasks, especially with regard to unwrapping a UV Sphere.

        Chapter 6 - Covers creation of 4 materials:
        • Cloth Pattern Shader
        • Synthetic Sponge
        • Leather
        • Spaceship Hull Shader

        According to the book these are more complex man made material types.  While I can't comment of the complexity, they are useful material types to know how to make.

        The Spaceship hull shader is the standout recipe in this chapter and shows some very clever techniques to use very simple textures to displace a torus to make a futuristic looking flying torus craft.  Also covered is a way to apply decals to the craft.

        Chapter 7 - Subsurface Scattering In Cycles chapter covers various features of Blender's SSS tool and details most of the SSS node control values explaining how to use them.  Because SSS is slow to render the chapter explains various techniques to fake the look of SSS.  For this the translucent shader is use as well as the Dirty Vertex feature and the Ray Length Light Path node.  They together help to achieve SSS in efficient ways and for the most part look very similar to real SSS.  If you are ok with the slow speed real SSS is also covered.

        Chapter 8 - This chapter covers creation of shaders for living organic materials:
        • Blobby Skin Shader
        • Wasp Chitin
        • Irridescent Beetle Material
        • Tree Bark
        • Tree Leaves
        • Human Skin
        • Alien Grey Skin
        • Fur And Hair

        The Tree material was interesting to see how it worked, the book also had a handy method of getting rid of seams on the tree branches.  The skin shader looks nice but I can't say how accurate it is compared to real skin.  I also liked the fur/hair material, as it gave a nice effect and I haven't seen enough coverage of Cycles fur or hair in many books, so it's good to see it mentioned.

        Chapter 9 covers a grab bag of materials which didn't fit into other chapters, such as:
        • Fire
        • Smoke
        • Materials that take depth into account
        • Shadeless Materials
        Fire and Smoke have got a lot more flexible in recent versions of Blender Cycles and it has also gotten easier and faster to create.  The book initially shows you how to make fire and smoke using the Quick Effect method and then shows the manual way to create the same material.  This helps to understand how it all works behind the scene.  The fire and smoke effect looks pretty good for a static image render.

        I really liked the depth based material effects and they were surprisingly easy to create compared to most of the other mentioned materials in the book.

        As any book on material in Cycles must do there is a recipe for creating clouds.  Which with some tweaking could be very useful.

        All in all given the large range of material recipes described by this book there is highly likely to be some recipes that you find useful and will want to use.  Yes some of the materials are a little simple and some could be made to look better with some tweaking.  But on the whole I like how most of the recipes look.

        Cycles has improved a lot with its supported materials and different node types, that it supports, making it easier and easier to make complex looking surface and depth based materials.  This book does a good job of showing off Blender Cycles power.

        This book is well worth getting if you don't have the older editions and even if you do there is enough in this new one to make it worth purchasing.

        Review Score 93%