What are UVs?

What are UVs?


by pluralsight

UVs are two-dimensional texture coordinates that correspond with the vertex information for your geometry. UVs are vital because they provide the link between a surface mesh and how an image texture gets applied onto that surface. They are basically marker points that control which pixels on the texture correspond to which vertex on the 3D mesh. They are important in sculpting as well. 

3D model of a werewolf

UV mapping is the 3D modeling process of projecting a 2D image onto the surface of a 3D model to create texture mapping. The 3D object is unwrapped and the 2D texture is applied to it. 

A UV map is the flat surface representation of a 3D model used to wrap textures. The process of creating a UV map is called UV unwrapping, which is done using 3D modeling software. 

The letters U and V are used to define UV mapping because it signifies the axis of the 2D texture on the UV grid. X, Y, and Z are used for the axes on the 3D object. 

Why is UV mapping important?

By default, most 3D applications will create an automatic UV layout when the mesh is originally created. However if you were to drop the texture for your character’s head directly onto the 3D model, the chances are good that you would see very undesirable results. This occurs because during the modeling process, the UVs aren’t usually taken into account and, as a result, the 2D image can’t wrap around a 3D object the way you would expect to see. 

Once your model is complete, in order to properly texture your model, you need to begin the process of laying out the UVs (often referred to as UV mapping). This basically is the process of creating a 2D representation of your 3D object. Imagine your model unfolded and flattened out into a flat 2D image. Where would the natural seams occur? Where on the 3D model would the most detail be needed? Those are the types of things you’ll need to take into account when creating your UV layout. 

2D to 3D distortion
Distortion from a layout without UV mapping

How UV mapping works

Each 3D application has a UV editor that you’ll use to unfold and edit the UVs for your model. Depending on your 3D application, each face or polygon on your 3D model is tied to a face on the UV map. UV mapping is a critical skill to master for accurate textures on a surface.

The actual creation of UVs is done through a projection technique. Think of this as a projector showing a movie on a screen. The concept is the same, except in a 3D application there are typically several different UV projection types available to you. These are based off of simple geometric shapes and often times are a great starting point when beginning to layout UVs for a single object.

UV mapping on a 3D velociraptor
What UV mapping looks like in action

UV mapping works by unfolding or unwrapping the 3D model at the seams and laying it flat on a 2D space, similar to how you’d make a pattern in sewing a new pair of pants or a sweater. This is a crucial step in 3D modeling because there is no such thing as a 3D texture since they’re based on a 2D image.

In 3D, the horizontal x-axis will be the in 2D space, where the vertical y-axis is the Y.

Three types of UV maps examples

Here are three types of UV maps with examples:

  1. Spherical maps
  2. Cylindrical maps
  3. Planar maps

Note that while these projection types are great, they generally aren’t an all-in-one solution to every UV layout. As soon as you start creating complex meshes you’ll quickly find that a single planar or cylindrical map simply won’t create the desired result.

Fortunately, every face on a mesh can have its own projection applied and the UVs themselves can be manipulated and edited extensively after projection. This really gives you a fine level of control over exactly how the UVs look and, by extension, how the final 2D textures will be applied to your 3D model.

3D map on a sphere

Spherical Map

If you have a 3D object that is spherical you can apply a spherical projection to it. This creates UVs that are based on a spherical shape wrapped around the mesh.

3D map on a cylinder

Cylindrical Map

Cylindrical mapping creates UVs for a 3D object based on a cylindrical projection shape. This is great for objects that can be completely enclosed and visible within the cylinder. So something like an arm or leg.

3D map on a plane

Planar Map

Planar mapping projects UVs onto a mesh through a plane. This projection type would be best for objects that are relatively flat. If your models form is very complex, a planar projection can produce UVs that overlap and look distorted. So a planar map should be used on very simple shapes.

Dealing with seams

When laying out the UVs for your 3D object there will always be a seam on your texture, so plan out where you want to your seams to be. Look for places where they can be hidden or less likely to be visible on your 3D model. You can also use the paint tool inside your 3D application to paint directly over the seam in the texture.

When you have the UVs properly laid out in the UV editor you can create a snapshot of the UVs using a UV Snapshot tool or the Render UV tool (it’ll have slightly different names depending on your 3D application). Basically this tool will take a picture of the UV layout and save it as your desired image format so you can import it directly into your favorite 2D paint tool. This gives you a guide to see where you are painting on the 3D model.

UV map seams
Seams in a UV map

Seams are a crucial element of the UV mapping process and are unavoidable when you flatten any 3D object. A seam is the part of the texture or design of the polygon mesh that has to be split for the design to convert the 3D mesh into a 2D UV map.

These seams are similar to the ones in our clothing, but with UV mapping, the stitches are removed.

A distortion means the image texture and various pixels look stretched or pinched when applied to the model. A lot of distortion affects how the details look on the final 3D version of the model. 

To make seams less noticeable and to avoid distortion:

  • Make seams follow hard edges where they are usually less noticeable.
  • Hide seams behind other parts of the 3D model. For example, when unwrapping a head, place your seams behind the ear or where the hair will be.
  • Hide seams underneath or behind the focal point of your model, where people are less likely to see them, like the back of a head.

Automatic mapping

In 3DCoat there is an automatic mapping projection tool. Automatic mapping creates UVs for a mesh by attempting to find the best possible UV placement by projecting from multiple planes. This is useful when you have more complex shapes where the basic projections don’t produce UVs that are useful. Manual editing of the UVs is usually still required, but automatic mapping is a good place to start from.

Automatic mapping separating objects into shells
Automatic mapping separates object into UV shells

UV Shells

Like the geometry they represent, UV points can be connected together to form a larger shape that is referred to as a UV shellUV island and UV cluster. Despite their different names in different applications, they serve a common purpose. 

UV island is a group of UV points connected with edges and separated from other UV points of the model by edge cuts

Often when working with these shells, some of them may overlap in the UV editor. If this happens the texture will appear to repeat. Unless there is a specific need for it, as there sometimes is with game textures, overlapping UV shells should generally be avoided. 

UV shells
Overlapping UV shells separated

Overlapping UVs

Overlapping UVs happen when two or more of the polygons in your UV map are on top of one another. This means these two parts of the model will display the same area of the texture or design, as they both take up the same UV coordinates.

Usually, overlapping UVs is something 3D artists avoid, so the UV map texture looks varied and consists of the preferred layout. However, there are times when designers intentionally have overlapping UVs.

When a texture is basic or generic, a designer may choose multiple parts of the polygon mesh over the same UV space to repeat the texture.

UV channels

UV channels allow the same object to have multiple UV maps. There can be no overlapping UV maps with UV channels, as this will display shadow information in the wrong areas of the 3D model. If designers attempt this in 3D software, they’ll receive an error message within the program.

Since they cannot overlap, the solution is two UV channels. One UV has information regarding textures, colors, and other detail, while the different UV channel has information for lighting. UV channels allow 3D objects, especially objects like animals and humans, to look more realistic with a combination of texture, shadows, and light.

Software Solution for UV mapping

To help with your texturing and UV layout process there have been a few programs that can help speed up your workflow. 3DCoat is a great application designed specifically for laying out the UVs for your 3D model. It has some great features to speed up the process so you can spend more time texturing and less time setting up the UVs. 

Also is an application designed for the sole purpose of painting textures for your 3D model, and has some great features that significantly speed up the process when designing the textures. For example, you can paint directly onto your 3D model which allows you to see exactly where these textures are going to be placed. Once completed, you can simply export the texture map. Now that you are familiar with UVs and their purpose, make sure you utilize them when creating complex textures for your 3D models.

Image made with UV Layout
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