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Making Of 'Barack'

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Date Added: 7th August 2009
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Portraying a real person is an artistic challenge that I've always wanted to take. I chose Barack Obama, not only because he's someone that inspires me, but also because his omnipresence in the media meant it would be easy to find reference (Fig.01).

Fig. 01

I actually started his portrait before he even got elected, but I only got time to finish it much later. I decided early on to not simply recreate one particular photo taken at a given angle, but instead to portray him in an expression and lighting of my own.  However it turned out to be much more work than expected, since there was absolutely no leeway for any interpretation. I realized that it's one thing to just sculpt a bust of someone and make it look good in ZBrush, but it's much harder to maintain the likeness once you add textures, shaders and a non-uniform lighting.

I had a good idea of what I wanted the final image to look like. My ambition was to portray him in a less iconic and more human way, thoughtful and slightly troubled. This would be reflected in numerous details like a bad tie knot, a tilted US flag pin or an imperfect shave. I think it's essential that one's work expresses something. I'm tired of seeing CG art being used mainly to create monsters, pin-ups or super heroes.

Using Silo, I started modeling a bust that would then serve as a base for some ZBrush sculpting. Image planes of a frontal and a side view were used only at the very start of the modeling process in order to learn the particularities of his physiognomy. As you can see in Fig.02, the topology follows the anatomy of the face muscles, especially around the eyes and the mouth. This helps to keep the mesh in a good flow even after extensive sculpting. Already at such an early stage, I tried to push the likeness of the model as far as I could.

Fig. 02

Once I was satisfied with the overall proportions, I exported the mesh to ZBrush. When sculpting wrinkles and minor facial features I avoid using masks, which sometimes produce unnatural results. Instead I swap between the standard, inflate and clay brushes. I also work a lot with layers to maintain an optimal flexibility. For instance, I tend to sculpt everything much more deeply than needed and subsequently adjust the intensity of the sculpted layer. As you'll notice in Fig.03, I don't sculpt textures like skin pores as they might conflict with the final painted textures. And even though sculpted textures look nice on a ZBrush sculpt, they sometimes draw the attention away from crucial mistakes.

Fig. 03

In order to be able to work in symmetry for the initial sculpting, I posed the bust in a separate level 1 layer and turned it off. Every now and then I activated it to check if the facial expression held up (Fig.04).

Fig. 04

continued on next page >
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