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In order to squeeze more juice for little performance cost out of my low poly models, I was told to look into normal editing. Powerful stuff, but how do I create normals? So far I've only made them via unitys built in normal generation feature, but that doesn't allow the user any control over it.

Is there a free tool to hand paint normals ?
You can do it in blender, watch a tutorial on jewtube. There's lots of other options ofc.
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It does not let you hand paint normals directly, but you can make normals (and other map types) out of ANY image. And it's free.
You can just bake them from high polys, it's easier and gives you better results than trying to paint that stuff by hand (nobody that I know really does that).
If you wanna make organic, stylized stuff, sculpting is the way to go, both for unique meshes and trim/tileable textures.
Different anon, I can recommend modlab https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfU1NzicwpQ which is also free
Photoshop lets you make normal mas out of 8 bit textures. Your engine should be able to control the intensity/depth. There's free software too, like awesomebump.
There are 2 ways i know of.
Sculpt > Retopo > UV map > Bake normal map
UV map > Use procedural textures > Bake normal map
Bake them from high detailed textures
models not textures
Really not the best idea to handpaint a normal map bud, Google how to bake a normal map, it's not too difficult
if you wanna handpaint them here's how:

There are many type of normal maps but the most common and useful one is a tangent space normalmap like the one in your picture.

The color you see there will be used to skew the normal (direction of the surface) according to this pattern;

in the green channel gray means it points towards the screen, white means it faces the top of the screen, black it faces down.
in the red channel gray is towards you, white it points to the right, black it point to the left.

* some applications flip this convention so you need to invert the green or the red channel to make it point in the right direction.

in the blue channel white means it points towards you, and it is to be shaded blacker according to what degree the pixel isn't facing towards you.
The blue channel can be calculated from the red and green channel using some clever blending or using one of the many normalmap filters that allow you to normalize a map.

It's not a very mainstream technique but I modify or even handpaint certain features on normalmaps all the time since it's super useful to touch up and enhance areas of a normal texture.
Conventionally you will generate these maps them by baking from high-density geometry inside a 3D software or generate them thru various filters and software.
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>handpainting normal maps
I don't know if I should be impressed or afraid that someone actually does this.
Just bake them from a sculpt/high-poly like a regular person, please.
Just use Substance Painter. Normal maps are a solved problem. Pirate it if you absolutely need something "free."

You can bake normals, stamp normals as decals or paint manual corrections by hand, you can blend/layer them like Photoshop, and you can use the height channel for a completely independent way to do normals. There are 100 tutorials teaching you how to do this.

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