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Building creatures in ZBrush

By Cameron Farn
Web: Open Site
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Date Added: 24th March 2015
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Polypainting is one of my most favorite parts of a project. The character is fully formed and ready to be given a push over the edge of realism with a splash of color.

I use many techniques to apply Polypaint, from projected textures with spotlight, to straight hand painted touches using the many masking options within ZBrush. Being flexible and experimental generally provides my best results. Sometimes I'll work through the subdivisions from low to high applying color with the spray stroke and alpha 22. It blurs and builds some nice variations in patterns and color intensity.

Using color is great, but creating skin patterns or markings of some type help to enhance the impression the character will leave. So I did some research and added a little extra where necessary.

Taking the color and detail over the top with Polypaint and Spotlight

Color pattern render test, ©2014 Cameron Farn


The fibre system in ZBrush allows for additional touches that really push the realism. I used them to spread fine hairs across the surface of my sculpt, and to create the large hairs and quills on Thill's back. Although the smaller hairs were not useful when exporting my characters to be milled 5' tall, for the painting and design work it added a great deal of appeal.

I tested all my fibres on a simple sphere and saved them out to become personal hair presets. I found it better to adjust all my settings before applying them to my character as it was much quicker to test and adjust at that time.

Applying fibre tests to the character

Fibre render test 2, ©2014 Cameron Farn

Posing and variation

Posing is entirely story-driven and made with a narrative in mind. I began by adjusting the trunk using the hips as an anchor. I followed with the chest, legs and arms, moving outward toward the extremities. Transpose Master is my tool of choice for any project with a great number of SubTools, and as the adjustments become finer, I revert back to using simple masking and the transpose action line.

Getting a great pose using the Transpose Master

Rendering and compositing

For me, the shift from sculpting to rendering out a scene is a jarring one. To keep things rolling I'll often build a ZBrush studio scene using a polysphere to predefine the light caps, materials and BPR settings with its filters. I have several studios saved out as projects where I can start a sculpt or import a sculpt, so it becomes a matter of minor lighting and filter changes to achieve a good result. In the case of Thill I started in a premade studio and as the sculpt evolved I made changes to the shadow, AO, blur depth, lighting intensities and their color.

A good final painting relies on getting a good render so I spent time producing the best one I could in the time I'd blocked out for myself. Breaking the render into additional passes, separating lights, color, depth, spec highlights etc, gave me more flexibility when doing the final composite. As a student of theatre, I also like to add an element of texture and grit back into the render using photos as well as several painting passes by hand to bring the final design images to a close.

I did small renders first with a low sub pixel setting, and made sure I was happy before cranking up the document size and sub-pixel depth to my machine's max and committing it to an evening of chewing out a render. Most of my renders take overnight or longer to complete. When it was complete, I exported the document along with all the BPR passes.

A studio scene with settings and lighting already established helps to maintain a respectable pace

Final accessories

Accessories include elements of scenery, additional characters, weapons, gear and bases. Each one is added to enrich the story and fill out the scene. I spend as much time designing these elements as I do creating a character in many cases. Most are destined for the milling machine and full scale reproduction along with the character, so they need to hold up in terms of design aesthetic and quality.

Various accessories to work with the character; Thill

Final images

Thill; the final character placed in a scene.

Thill - Sand Storm, ©2014 Cameron Farn

Related links

Take a peek at the finished sculpts in Cameron Farn's sculpture collection on his website
Interested in one of Cameron's favorite parts of the process? Try our polypainting tutorials
Like to learn more about creature creation in ZBrush? Take a look at our best-selling books

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