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Creating colorful images

By Mariano Tazzioli
Web: Open Site
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Date Added: 6th October 2015
Software used:
Photoshop, Maya, ZBrush, Misc

Junior character artist Mariano Tazzioli takes us through his workflow for the adorable Squirt the turtle using ZBrush

In this tutorial I will show you how the process I used to make this scene of Squirt. We will start by gathering references and inspiration, moving on to how to sculpt the character, then look at the lighting and shading, and finally we are going to render it and compose it. I will also to talk about what makes a good composition and maybe a bit about colors.


I find that when you first start a new artwork you must have an impulse or inspiration that will push you to do it; for me this was two artists, Aaron Blaise and Jeremy Vickery. Their understanding of light, composition, and color is so mind blowing that makes their work look amazing. They have led me to take some courses on lighting and color and I have begun to microscopically analyze their work to try to gain a better understand, and learn from, what makes their work stand out. The work of these two geniuses is so amazing that I it has inspired me to do something in their style - but in 3D because they are mainly 2D guys!

Here you can see Jeremy has a good understanding of color and light

Finding reference

Once you have the inspiration, your next step should always be to find reference images of what you are going to create. For me this was an existing character (Squirt the turtle) which makes the reference gathering a bit easier; although I intended to do a new, completely different scene and lighting from what exists in the film Finding Nemo. I started to gather references from the film to help with the modeling and also reference of lighting and composition. I usually put together a collage of the images and I keep it open, to refer to, until I have finished.

I usually collect as many references as I can, from lots of angles


When you have collected together the references you can move on to the fun part - modeling the character. Since this is a personal project done for fun, and is not going to be animated, I don't need to worry too much about topology and posing for animation. This allows me to have more artistic freedom, so I go straight to sculpting in the pose and expression of the final look. If this was for production, we would need to model first in a neutral pose, do some retopology and then in ZBrush or Maya rig it in a pose.


I usually start with a sphere. This is my personal preference when starting a new sculpt but you can start whichever way suits your work best. I like to put the references side by side to help match the sculpt to the character. I define the overall shapes and proportions, which always looks ugly at first because the shapes are not yet defined and the personality of the character has not yet emerged, but by working slowly and paying attention to the forms and shapes you will start to get it right! I work with DynaMesh until I have all the correct overall volumes and proportions, then use ZRemesher before I start defining all the shapes, planes, volumes, etc.

I start from the basic form, define the planes and start to refine the forms


I made the UVs in ZBrush, which is very easy. You only have to grab the SubTool, go to ZPlugin > UV master, then click ‘Work on Clone'. With the Standard brush, enable control painting, then click Attract and fill the SubTool with blue. Then click Protect and mark the seam in red. Now the only thing left to do is click Unwrap, and there you have it! Now copy the UVs from the Clone to the original SubTool and violà, you have the UVs!

Again, if this was for production, I would have done the UVs in Maya and laid them out correctly; but doing work for myself is the only time when I don't need to be worried about all that technical stuff.

The blue color represents the UV space and the red one the seam

Painting time!

For painting I use the Standard brush with different alphas. I start by giving it a flat base color, and then define some opaque spots. Afterwards I add some highlights and finally a layer of little freckles.

Alphas are a great help when creating skin patterns, markings, and freckles


As I said since this is a personal project and I was not going to animate this, I did not retopologize it (it would have been the correct thing and a good practice), so for exporting this to Maya, what I did was export a 4k Displacement Map from ZBrush and a bum map and then import it into Maya with the lowest subdivision mesh of the turtle model, I exported the displacement mainly for the wrinkles and the skin texture in the fins.

I exported a 4k displacement map to apply it in Maya and have the same level of detail

Lighting and composition

I used a Dome light with an HDRi to give overall warmth to the fill light; I added a key light, and afterwards, some bounce lights. Once all the lights are in you can play with the color and temperature of the lights. I wanted to create a kind of "sunset” lighting, so I started to move lights around to match something like a sunset. One important light here is the directional light; this is because it gives you the same feeling as the setting sun, with hard shadows and nice colors.

To find a pleasant composition you can apply the Rule of Thirds and use the Golden Ratio, which helps to give a balanced composition with places were the eye can rest and move around the page.

My lighting set up is simple HDRi, key light, fill light and the most important the bounce lights

You can see the golden ratio and the rules of three applied to my composition


I used mainly the V-Ray FastSSS2 shader material which gives you a very nice organic feeling because of the SSS. Creating a nice shader is a matter of observation and keep tweaking until you find something that you like, also tweak the lighting to make the shader behave the way you want. The most important parameters in FastSSS2 are the prepass rate, scale, the Specular and the Scatter color. With the prepass rate you control the "quality” of the shader so something around 0 or 1 is finding. The scale is like a multiplier of the scatter radius it controls the amount of light is scattered. The Specular palette controls the specular parameters such as the amount and the gloss. And the scatter color controls the color of the shader when the light is scattered.

Here you can see the overall parameters I used for the skin shading


I gave this scene several passes. Try to render out the turtle and the plants and sand separately this gives you much more control. I like to use After Effects to do my compositing; I usually start by giving it some contrast, then I blur the background. I apply a color correction layer with Magic Bullet Suite by Red Giant, which has a lot of cool tools for color correcting a scene. In Photoshop I make a few final tweaks and touches, such as accentuating the bright spots by painting in the image with the brush in Color Dodge mode – its gives a more appealing light effect. I try to give the scene a "volumetric atmosphere” with depth.

The finished piece

Related links

Have a look at more of Mariano's work here
Have a look at Moonbite games
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