Stylised Character Sculpting In ZBrush

Stylised Character Sculpting In ZBrush

Lorenzo Panacci, an aspiring 3D artist, shares insights on creating a character based on European mythological creatures for a Skyup Academy project.

Lorenzo Panacci, aspiring 3D artist and student of the masterclass in 3D computer graphics at Skyup Academy, shares insights on a project derived from an assigned school task. The task was to create a character based on European mythological creatures. Read this article great tips to help inspire your next stylised character in ZBrush.

Project Inspiration

I started by researching and studying the creatures narrated in the legends of various European people, in particular I was intrigued by the Leshy, creatures from Slavic mythology. These creatures ruled and protected the forests. Once I chose the creature, I created a historical background for him so that my character would have a story to tell, a reason for existence. In fact he’s Burnroot, a leshy from northern Europe to whom his forest, his kingdom, was burned. Burned by hunters who after several attacks in his territory forced him to attack in order to defend the creatures under his protection, frightened by having never seen anything like it, they decide to set the place on fire and run away. Having survived the tragedy and filled with grief he now wanders from forest to forest to help his kind protect the creatures that inhabit their kingdoms.

Turn table

Software used

Reference gathering

Once my character was established, I started looking for references of other similar creatures to better define what my initial idea was. Then I looked for images of the material, real and stylised, the assets I wanted it to be composed of, and the anatomy I wanted to give it. This part of the work was really helpful in helping me delineate the shapes and volumes I wanted to give my creature.

Sketching the idea  

Once the idea was defined and clear in my mind, all that remained was to bring Burnroot to life on paper. I envisioned a character made entirely of wood but with animal parts and human anatomy. I decided to give him limbs composed of branches and roots, with a tall and slender stature to resemble a tree. For the head, I imagined a fusion of a deer and a bird, with feathers on the neck replaced by leaves. I then drew the burned left arm growing back to reconnect with the character's story.

I made several drafts in multiple poses to help me understand the three-dimensional aspects. Although I improved and updated the concept in later steps, this phase was crucial for refining the design and better defining my initial vision, allowing for more precision and focus in the subsequent stages.

The monster clay sculpture

The next step was to create a monster clay maquette of Burnroot to define his volumes in three dimensions. Initially, I made a base with wire, paper, and foil. Then, I applied a layer of clay and defined the primary details of the silhouette. Next, I refined the secondary volumes, such as the branches running through him, and finally added micro details and various assets.

Working in three dimensions allowed me to better define my idea, making Burnroot more slender and giving him a more dynamic pose. This helped me convey the emotions I wanted to express, particularly his pain.

Sculpting process

It was my first time using ZBrush, and although I was fascinated by the program and enjoyed myself, I admit it was not easy to reproduce my idea in 3D. My inexperience with the program and the choice of a character entirely made of wood did not help.

After the initial blocking, I decided to work on the character by dividing it into head, eyes, back, body, and accessories. I then joined the back and head at the end to get the necessary dark highlights I needed. For the wood detail, I mainly used brushes such as DamStandard, Slash3, Trim, and Spolish. For blocking the branches, I used CurveTube. The pose was the most difficult part, and I achieved it using the Gizmo combined with masks and Polygroups.

I finally decimated the topology of my sculpture with the Decimation Master to make it ready for rendering with Maya. However, I had to go back because I realized the character was less slender compared to the clay version, and as a result, the pose came out too static. So, I brought the model back to ZBrush, raised his stature, and extended his limbs to make it more dynamic.


The lights and  rendering

After addressing the pose issue and decimating my model, I transitioned to Maya. Here, I chose a neutral background, gray colors, and warm lighting to convey the state of pain in which my character was prepared to fight. Lighting posed a significant challenge; finding the right combination of lights to render the intertwined shapes I created and evoke the desired emotions was quite challenging.

For the lights, I employed a neutral Key to highlight the head, the focal point of attention. A warm fill covered the front part of the character, while a cool fill balanced the other part. Additionally, I added a rim light to emphasize the blurred edges and a warm backlight to create color and atmosphere, always directing attention to the focal point. I utilized V-Ray as the rendering engine.

Final thoughts

I've gained valuable insights from this project and realized the importance of having clear ideas from the outset to optimise workflow at every stage. Understanding how each step is interconnected and none is an endpoint was enlightening. Exploring the production process behind character creation and learning new tools has been both fascinating and stimulating. This project has fueled my passion for exploring this incredible field capable of conveying a myriad of emotions. While I acknowledge I still have much to learn before becoming a professional, I hope you enjoyed this work and found the article engaging.

Your time spent reading is greatly appreciated, and if you're inclined, I invite you to view my profile and share any feedback you may have—I would be truly grateful.