Japanese 3d Zen Stones

In this tutorial we are going to create a serene japanese style 3d image in 3ds Max. We’re going to model a shiny dark pebble stones and create a balanced pile out of them. This is a simple tutorial where emphasis is on the lighting and materials. I am using 3ds Max 2011 but several older versions should work as well.

Step 1 Mental Ray Renderer

We’re going to render the image with Mental Ray. By default 3ds Max uses the Scanline renderer so we have to change that. Change the renderer to Mental Ray ( Rendering > Render Setup… > Common tab > Assign Renderer > Production > mental ray Renderer ).

Step 2 3d Stones

Create five geospheres ( Create panel > Geometry > Standard Primitives > GeoSphere ) in the top viewport. Modify the geospheres ( Make a selection > Modify panel ) according to the following parameters :

  • GeoSphere001
    • Radius: 58
    • Segments: 12
    • Geodesic Base Type: Octa
  • GeoSphere002
    • Radius: 44
    • Segments: 12
    • Geodesic Base Type: Octa
  • GeoSphere003
    • Radius: 30
    • Segments: 12
    • Geodesic Base Type: Octa
  • GeoSphere004
    • Radius: 38
    • Segments: 12
    • Geodesic Base Type: Octa
  • GeoSphere005
    • Radius: 14
    • Segments: 12
    • Geodesic Base Type: Octa

Five spheres with varying sizes

Step 3 Scaling the Stones

Go to the front viewport and scale the stones ( Make a selection > Main toolbar > Select and Uniform Scale ) about the Y axis according to the values below. ( While the scale tool is activated, Click and drag from the Y axis of the transform gizmo to scale an object about an Y axis. While scaling, you can see the scaling % in the bottom of the screen. ).

  • GeoSphere001: 21
  • GeoSphere002: 46
  • GeoSphere003: 59
  • GeoSphere004: 15
  • GeoSphere005: no need to scale this one

You don’t have to create exactly the same kind of stones. Feel free to experiment and to be creative.

Effect of the scale operation

Step 4 Deforming with the Noise Modifier

Add Noise modifier, one at a time to each stone except the first one ( Make a selection > Modify panel > Modifier List > Object-Space Modifiers > Noise ). By right-clicking you can copy and paste modifiers. Apply the following parameters ( Make a selection > Modify panel ) to the Noise modifiers.

  • GeoSphere002
    • Noise
      • Seed: 11
      • Scale: 690
      • Fractal: YES
    • Strength
      • X: 40
      • Y: 40
      • Z: 40
  • GeoSphere003
    • Noise
      • Seed: 11
      • Scale: 700
      • Fractal: YES
    • Strength
      • X: 60
      • Y: 60
      • Z: 60
  • GeoSphere004
    • Noise
      • Seed: 6
      • Scale: 750
      • Fractal: YES
    • Strength
      • X: 40
      • Y: 40
      • Z: 40
  • GeoSphere005
    • Noise
      • Seed: 6
      • Scale: 560
      • Fractal: YES
    • Strength
      • X: 60
      • Y: 60
      • Z: 60

Deforming 3d zen stones with the Noise modifier

( If you need more segments I suggest you add TurboSmooth above the Noise instead of raising the segments value. This method produces smoother surface. )

Step 5 Pile of Japanese 3d Stones

Create a pile of stones balancing on top of each other. It’s a typical arrangement of stones seen in many zen-like photos and illustrations. Move and rotate the stones as you see fit.

Pile of balanced stones in 3ds max

Step 6 The Water Around the Stones

Next we’re going to create a water surface and some ripples around the pebbles to make the scene more interesting. Create a Plane ( Create panel > Geometry > Standard Primitives > Plane ) in the top viewport . Modify the Plane ( Make a selection > Modify panel ) according to the following parameters:

  • Length: 10000
  • Width: 10000
  • Length Segs: 20
  • Width Segs: 20

Add Edit Poly modifier to the plane ( Make a selection > Modify panel > Modifier List > Object-Space Modifiers > Edit Poly ) and activate the Polygon sub-object level. Select one polygon approximately in the middle of the plane and delete it ( Press delete in keyboard ). Deactivate the Polygon sub-object level.

Deleting polygon

Step 7 The Ripples Around the Stone

Now we’re going to create a dense mesh for the ripple effect. Create another Plane ( Create panel > Geometry > Standard Primitives > Plane ) in the top viewport and apply the following parameters ( Make a selection > Modify panel ):

  • Length: 500
  • Width: 500
  • Length Segs: 130
  • Width Segs: 130

Place the new plane into the hole of the large plane. Add TurboSmooth modifier ( Make a selection > Modify panel > Modifier List > Object-Space Modifiers > TurboSmooth ) and then Ripple modifier to it ( Make a selection > Modify panel > Modifier List > Object-Space Modifiers > Ripple ). Go to the modify panel and apply the following parameters to the Ripple modifier:

  • Amplitude 1: 2
  • Amplitude 2: 2
  • Wave Length: 25
  • Decay: 0,02

Tip. If you need more polygons to your object you can just increase the iterations value in the Turbosmooth modifier.

Effect of the Ripple modifier in 3d max

Step 8 Prepare the Scene for Rendering

Let’s prepare the scene for rendering:

  • Place the pebbles into the center of the ripple.
  • Create a Target camera ( Create panel > Cameras > Target ) in the top viewport. Right-click on the Perspective view and press C in the keyboard to change it to the Camera view.
  • Move the pebbles and the camera around to get something like pictures below.

camera placement

Hit render ( Main toolbar > Render Production ) and you should see something like the picture below.

balanced stones

The colors of the objects don’t matter because we’re going to create materials for them.

Step 9 Material for the 3D Zen Stones

Press M in keyboard to open Material Editor ( Rendering > Material Editor > Compact Material Editor ) and create the material for the stones:

  1. Click ‘Get Material’ button and select ( doubleclick ) ‘Arch & Design (mi)’ from the material list.
  2. Select all the stones and assign the material to them.
  3. Reflectivity: 0,6
  4. Glossiness: 0,1 ( very blurry reflections )
  5. Glossy Samples: 16 ( quality of the blurry reflections )
  6. Add ‘Composite’ as diffuse color map ( Composite map is a container that lets you combine several maps as layers )
  7. Add Smoke map to the first layer of the Composite Map ( large scale details )Size: 40# Iterations: 20Color #1: black ( RGB 0, 0, 0 )

    Color #2: dark gray ( RGB 15, 15, 15 )

  8. Add second layer to the Composite map. Change the blending mode of the second layer to Addition. Add Speckle map to the second layer ( small scale details )Size: 0,2Color #1: dark gray ( RGB 10, 10, 10 )Color #2: black ( RGB 0, 0, 0 )

Material for japanese 3d stones

Step 10 Water Material

Select a new slot in the Material Editor and create the water material:

  1. Click ‘Get Material’ button and select ( doubleclick ) ‘Arch & Design (mi)’ from the list.
  2. Select both water planes and assign the material to them.
  3. Select template from the drop-down list: Water, Reflective Surface.
  4. Turn Bump map off ( we’re going to create calm water with just the ripple effect so we don’t need any additional waves ).

Arch & Design water material without waves

Now materials are ready. However, there’s no point in rendering the scene now because everything we have is almost black. Let’s create illumination and environment first.

Step 11 Illumination and Environment

We’re going to illuminate the scene with the Daylight system and use Mental Ray’s physical sky as environment map. Daylight is a system that mimics a real world sun. Create the Daylight system ( Create panel > Systems > Daylight ) in the top viewport. A new dialog appears. 3ds Max suggests that you use mr Photographic Exposure Control with EV=15. Just click YES. ( If the dialog doesn’t appear, apply the setting manually ( Rendering > Exposure Control )). Select the daylight, go to the modify panel, and apply the following parameters:

  • Daylight Parameters
    • Sunlight: mr Sun
    • Skylight: mr Sky(A new dialog appears. 3ds Max suggests that you use mr Physical Sky. Just click YES. If the dialog doesn’t appear, apply the setting manually ( Rendering > Environment… > Common Parameters > Background > Environment Map ))
    • Position: Manual ( this setting allows us to place the sun manually, instead of using a real world location and time )

Place the daylight according to the picture below.

Placing the daylight

Render your scene to see something like the picture below.

3d zen stones

Let’s examine our 3d zen render for a while. There are several problems that need to be addressed.

  • The whole image is very dark
  • Some ground can be seen in the horizon
  • The bluish coloring isn’t appealing

( Note that these are artistic observations and your taste might be different. Feel free to experiment. )

Step 12 Tuning the Settings for Better Impact

Select the Daylight, go to the modify panel, and apply the following parameters:

  • mr Sun Basic Parameters
    • Multiplier: 10 ( really strong sunlight )
    • Shadows
      • Softness: 20 ( softens the edges of the shadows )
  • mr Sky Parameters
    • Multiplier: 5 ( brightens the sky )
  • my Sky Advanced Parameters
    • Horizon
      • Height: -0,1 ( lowers the horizon )

Render the scene to see the effect of these adjustments.

3d zen stone in the water

Look closely and you’ll see the color variations in the stones. Smoke map produces the large scale variations and Speckle map produces the small scale variations.

Personally I think that black and white image works better in this case. Let’s go to the mr Photographic Exposure Control settings ( Rendering > Exposure Control > mr Photographic Exposure Control ) to make the image black and white:

  • Image Control
    • Color Saturation: 0 ( saturation of the colors of the whole image )

Render your scene to see the image in black and white.

3d zen

Step 20 Render the Final Japanese 3d Zen Image

If you look closely you’ll see some jagged edges. Let’s adjust the sampling settings to get a more polished render. Go to the render setup and increase antialiasing quality by increasing Mental Ray’s sampling values ( Rendering > Render setup… > Renderer > Sampling Quality ):

  • Samples per pixel
    • Minimum: 4
    • Maximum: 64
  • Filter
    • Type: Mitchell ( For most scenes the Mitchell filter gives the best results. )

japanese pebbles in 3d

Render the image and you’re done. That’s it for today. Let’s continue in the comments!

91 Responses to Japanese 3d Zen Stones

  1. muffin says:

    I am having trouble render the scene:( It says application has run out of memory each time i try to render. I am using 2009 version.

    • polygonblog says:

      Turn TurboSmooth off in all objects to see if polygon count is the problem. Additionally you could try to tweak Final Gather settings or turn it off altogether.

  2. 3dfan says:

    you are a genius, thanks for sharing your knowledge

  3. muffin says:

    It worked! Thank u so much:)
    Love all your tutorials btw:)looking forward for new ones:)

  4. Mimo says:

    Im a long time visitor, first time commentor. And I have to say compared to other tutorial sites, I learn new things on your blog all the time. Good Job, keep it up ;D

  5. naveen says:

    Gr8 Tutorial… Thank You :)

  6. Alex says:

    hey dude great tut but im having some issues with the water it well wont work it keeps rendering out as white or a funny brown colour i cant figure out what im doing wrong, sorry for being so vagaue its kinda hard to say whats going on.

    any help would be much appreciated.



  7. Wazed says:

    Thanks for the tutorial man, this is hard but you made it easy for me and i am only 12

  8. okalrajhi says:

    Great tutorial! The grey parenthesis, next to a the more trivial steps,really kept things clear. I didn’t feel like I was at a loss at anytime during this tutorial.

    Thanks for keeping things clear and concise…really makes re-doing the tutorial far less burdensome.

  9. Froberry says:

    I’m having a problem here, when I render the stones with the small plane only, the ripples look natural, like yours. But if I include the large plane in the rendering, the ripples don’T have the “fade out before next ripple” kind of thing, its like: ___/^\__/^\__/^\__

    Not quite natural, any tips?

  10. IceQueen says:

    Thank you for your tutorial! It was great and very useful espacially for beginers like me. I’m looking forward for new ones…..Thank you once again.

  11. Shakir says:

    Thanks for Cool Tutorial!

  12. Iovo says:

    Thank you very much. I love all your tutorials!

  13. Scott says:

    Thanks for the great tutorial, I used Max9 and even though some of the features in 2011 were not available I think it came out well- you can view my result here http://scottroantree.blogspot.com/2010/05/recent-3d-renders.html

  14. bromat says:

    What I appreciate in all your tutorials is the clarity in which you explain the details of various steps. You could be an excellent teacher.

  15. John says:

    Very realistic stone effect! and very useful the tut thanks

  16. Brittany says:

    This tutorial was great, but I just have one problem that I’m hoping someone can help with. When I render the scene, the water looks perfect but the rocks look very grainy and pixelated. How can I remedy this?

  17. kuzy62 says:

    Great tutorial!! It came out perfectly!! Thanks so much!

  18. vahid says:

    hi thanks very much for your work i dont know how thanks from you please make pdf format

  19. heather says:

    this is fantastic :) thnk you !

  20. sherif says:

    thats nice , while i was trying to make it in the materials (m) i do every thing and when u say change the composite to addition i couldn’t find the composite layers i have only composite parameters so i cant make the rock , isn’t the composite addition found in (3ds max 9 sp2)plzz tell me on my e-mail


  21. Rahul says:

    Its a good Tutorial to understand the material and Lighting,

  22. bilkata says:

    Thanks :)

  23. Daniel says:

    Amazing tutorial i never got water to work until now after this tutorial thanks!

  24. kruthi says:

    yepiii….:):):) … thx a lot it worked…… good tutorial to work out for sure

  25. F.M. says:

    This tutorial is great. I must really thank you for that :) Now i can finaly work on my final exam work :)

  26. Blrrgstrm says:

    Thank you for this tutorial, I have been asked to teach 3DS Max to a year 10 class with only 2 weeks to familiarise myself with the program, this had gone along way to help me.

  27. Glauco says:

    I can’t assign the material to the object, i don’t know what happened, how can i fix it?

    • polygonblog says:

      You must select the object before you can assign the material. If you can’t select the object, selection lock is turned on ( press space in keyboard to turn selection lock on or off). Another way to assign a material is to just drag a drop the material to the object.

  28. toni says:

    thank you. i learned alot. pretty much awesomeness.

  29. Chaitali says:

    ur tutorial is gr8.But i am having a problem in exposure control.I get all the options in “Exposure control” like
    but I dont get the option for “mr Photographic Exposure Control”

    can u fix it up plz.I m using max9

  30. shahzad says:

    really u doing gr8 job. I like ur tuts. So, please contine. thanks 4 this tuts.

  31. Sebastian says:

    Great Tutorial.
    Helped alot =)

  32. Benji says:

    Another amazing tutorial. thankyou very much!

  33. noppapat says:

    Good tutorial. I waiting for a new one.
    Thank you very much for sharing.
    Amazing idea.

  34. rodhey says:

    i have quetion that i can’t found the geodesic base : octa

    can u tell mw what is it and where i can find it


    btw its realy one good tut

  35. steph says:

    Hi, thanks for the brilliant tutorial. I have a bit of an issue:

    Can you see the rippling? I can’t seem to understand how I’ve managed to do that..

  36. steph says:

    Oh Brilliant! Thankyou :)

  37. krushal says:

    hey nice tutorial…easy to understand…..

  38. nevidljiv says:

    Great tut… thank u very much…. keep going

  39. Mardem says:

    guys i just checked some of your tutorial and i have to say are amazing because you explain every little change what affect will have..i using 3ds max for a year now and i found some interesting tutorials..good job..i will be checking for more..

  40. kemuri says:

    thanks for this perfect tutorial, its mind blowing! you just forgot to tell that you cant get arch and design material untill you change render to mental ray. anyway, im really thankfull for this tut, thanks mate!

  41. Donald says:

    its realy amazing!!

  42. felix says:

    first of all thank you very much for your work,

    i still have the problem of some ground being seen in the horizon…scaling the water objects or adding another water plane didnt help…

    thnx alot !


  43. felix says:

    problem solved!
    i think i got it … the lights …



  44. Sareth says:

    Great tutorial again :D

    Could you do tutorial which explains how to use different types of lights and materials? and at the same time explaining what those all things (I mean those things where you can change numbers etc, sorry for my english) are for?

  45. Überlamb says:

    Sweet! Did the tutorial in no time and it was real easy for a beginner! It’s great how the rendering settings are explained so clearly, unlike in other tutorials because I always get stuck on those parts. :3

    Thanks little green monster!

  46. Seth says:

    The best site of tuto 3D ever :D, u r doing a great job green monster.


  47. _Halder_ says:

    muy buen tuto!!!!

  48. Desmond says:

    Hi there,

    Indeed, nice tutorial. Nice artistry as well, by the way. I was just curious, couldn’t you just change the exposure value to 13 in stead of 15? This gives the same results and you don’t have to change te mr Sun and mr Sky Multiplier Parameters



  49. alzahraa says:

    thank you very much for sharing your information it was very helpful tutorial, hope to see more creative tutorials soon :)

  50. LEOLJZ says:

    very good

  51. Rita says:

    Super!!! would like to see more of your tutorials!

  52. Ahren says:

    Great tutorials, you should get a book out with more of these, they are really helpful

  53. Timon says:

    Man, I am learning tons of things with your tutorials, I love it man. Amazing, that you doing it just for nothing. Keep it up man, as I mentioned before, you are amazing.

  54. bt123456789 says:

    Wow, I’m a beginner with MAX and I must say, this is probably the best tutorial I’ve seen yet that wasn’t video. I was able to follow everything perfectly.

    thanks a lot, and keep up with the tutorials.

  55. lups says:

    love this blog, so much. I’ve just found this site and wow!! Nice tutorial and easy to follow btw, Keep up the good work!, wait for your next tutor:)

  56. Mehrdad says:

    hi this is great
    thank you loads of time

  57. Niall says:

    Yet another great tutorial (i suspect there all great) :)

    My version, added bokeh effect, extra stepping stones, desaturated like yours but with a tiny blue hue added in photoshop.


  58. ADTroy says:


  59. Eldar says:

    I’ve got almost identical Zen Stones like you :D but I would like to know how to get those materials and skylight using Vray, because I’m doing all my scenes in Vray and I don’t really know how to use mental ray :(. Please tell me how to do it :D

    Thx again for a great tutorial :D

  60. Yosi says:

    Your tutorials are amazing – well done! Thanks.
    After I did the tutorial, I turned saturation to 2.0 and changed the stones material to “Clear glass” – HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

  61. Mangy says:

    You are a Legend!

  62. noeta says:

    just perfect! thank you!!

    _we don’t like reality the way it is_
    _let’s design the reality we like_

  63. Yamen says:

    thank u …just did it and it’s just like yours!… your works keepin me like WOWO !!! ..I just found your page after graduation :(..what a bad luck…u must be workin 4 a big company…lol

  64. nidhi says:


  65. Yamen says:

    what abt Vray rendering…do u think mental ray is better?…although many people using Vray now adays !…I tried to render the same scene in Vray enviroment but I liked the one with mental ray more…maybe cause of mentalray advanced shading rendering….dont know…thanks anyway.

  66. polygonblog says:

    V-Ray is very popular but it’s hard to say whether it’s better or worse than Mental Ray. Personally I think both are good enough. And even Scanline renderer is really good for many purposes. And there are also other amazing render engines such as finalRender and Brazil. I use Scanline and Mental Ray because they come with Max.

  67. Ed says:

    All your tutorials are brilliant and well written. Probably the best tutorial site I have found for 3DS Max. I look forward to learning more from you. Here is a little scene I created following your tutorial. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6P7VgoNB_Jk Thanks very much for all your tips!

  68. Slayer says:

    Hi there, really need someone’s help.. got everything right (i think) but the indirect illumination just takes a million years to calculate… i really need this so i can understand how to make calm clean water… appreciate all the help in advance

  69. Nirav says:

    Tooooo good..
    Thank you sooo much.

    Best Tutorials only on polygonblog.

  70. Nirav says:

    Its winter, please we need snow tutorial.
    Like snowman or something. !?

    Thank You

  71. Tommy says:

    Hello polygonblog! thank you for the great tutorial it was incredibly useful. I have been using 3DS Max for one week and I will be sure to look at your other tutorials

    Could you please review my render (1280×720):


    I have highlighted shadows which have a “stepping” effect I would like to smooth out. I also could not achieve the defined dark shades in my stone texture that you have. I am curious how my stone material was a little different from yours as I have followed the colour values very closely

    send me an email! It would be great to hear from you

  72. polygonblog says:

    Glad to hear you made it. I see the stepping, but not sure what to do about it. Maybe you could try to increase soft shadow precision in the rendering settings.

    Material settings in the tutorial should be exactly the same as in my rendering…

  73. Tommy says:

    Thanks. I found some improvements in my material by adjusting the light and camera. Also today I have reopened the project file and it rendered without the stepping:


    I did try everything (soft shadow precision/shadow parameters in daylight object) No luck! but now I will assume it was some kind of bug with mental ray.

    Regarding materials, the only difference is that I have (this time) used brighter values for the speckle/smoke maps (as well as the black 0,0,0 of course) to try and bring the details forward a little more. They were identical to yours in the previous render but I believe the light/camera position are probably what caused the softer/blurry surfaces.

  74. Josh says:

    I’m currently having trouble with the parameters. What Units are you using?

  75. Francesco_96 says:

    I love your tutorials!

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