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10 top tips for sculpted hair in ZBrush

By James W. Cain

Web: http://jwcain.artstation.com/ (will open in new window)

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Date Added: 11th April 2016

Sculpting hair can be one of the most challenging tasks to undertake in ZBrush; James Cain shares some of his top tips to help you create great hair

© James W. Cain

Well sculpted hair can really make the difference between lacklustre and professional looking sculpts. Hair should be the crowning glory of all your pieces. What if your hair ends up looking like a blobby mess of spaghetti, how can you improve your technique? I've selected these 10 tips from my own experience with sculpting hair in ZBrush to help you choose the right tools and techniques for the job. These techniques also assume the hair sculpt is either for physical reproduction or display purposes, hair systems and specific game engines are beyond the scope of this article.

Tip 01: Resolution

A good way to avoid the lumpy look that sometimes occurs with hair is to start sculpting at a very low resolution and then subdivide gradually. This way you are only able to think about the larger shapes before getting too detailed. A common error when sculpting hair is to get too detailed too quickly (this is what can make hair look lumpy). Sculpting hair for me is the reverse of the popular maxim; start small and end big!

Starting the sculpt at a lower resolution then slowly adding resolution as needed

Tip 02: Silhouette

A well defined silhouette is essential to help establish the overall shape of the hair and how it informs the rest of the head. A good way to check the silhouette is to swap the mesh colour from white to black by pressing V (make sure PolyPaint is turned off).

Checking the silhouette by pressing ‘V' (make sure PolyPaint is turned off)

Tip 03: Clay Buildup brush

I find using the Clay Buildup brush essential to building up forms, whether it's straight or wavy hair. You will find the brush can produce hard edges in certain situations where it's undesirable especially when going for a softer look. In this case I turn off the default alpha, which produces a much more subtle build-up, ideal for straight hair which demands a softer approach.

Building volume using Clay Buildup with alpha switched on (top) and off (bottom)

Tip 04: DamStandard brush

Probably one of the most versatile brushes, great for cutting into a mesh with nice tight lines. I use DamStandard for further defining clumps of hair on a low setting (the default strength is 33 which I normally turn down to around 20). Use the Alt key to pull out lines for further definition, sometimes I also use a really large brush size with this to pull out larger forms early on, great for stylised sculpts.

Adding some more definition using DamStandard

Tip 05: Slash brushes

The Slash brushes are a great, often overlooked, alternative to the DamStandard brush. These brushes do not have the pinching effect of DamStandard and I find them really useful for cutting drastic lines for hair partings. Slash 3 is in the main ZBrush brush set by default and you can find the other Slash brushes via the LightBox under the brush section.

Adding detail with the Slash brushes

Tip 06: Curve brushes

Using the CurveTube brush is a great way of adding loose individual strands to hair. For stylised sculpts you can take this one step further and make hair completely from Curves. For best results, play with the curve profile graph under Stroke > Curve Modifiers, which can change the width of the geometry created by the curve it is drawn by.

Creating tapered strands of hair using CurveTubes and the curve modifier graph

Tip 07: SnakeHook

Really useful for spiky and ruffled hair, the SnakeHook brush is like just like the Move brush on steroids! I use it for pulling out strands or clumps of hair from larger forms. However, one big problem with this brush is that it's very destructive, so only use it in conjunction with DynaMesh to ensure you have enough geometry to sculpt further. Note that if the sculpt's final destination is 3D printing then it's best to avoid using SnakeHook as the features it creates are normally too fine to print.

Pulling out features with the SnakeHook brush

Step 08: Lazy Mouse

When sculpting long straight or wavy hair it's sometimes tricky to get nice flowing lines in your sculpting. Lazy Mouse lets you average out your mouse or pen over a set distance giving you far more control over the stroke. The two main settings to play with are Lazy Radius, which increases the length of the ‘string' that controls the Lazy effect and Lazy Smooth which increases the smoothing effect. You can find the Lazy Mouse function under Stroke > Lazy Mouse and can be turned on for most brushes.

Using lazy mouse to sculpt long flowing hair

Tip 09: Movement and action

Hair can greatly enhance the look of a character, or scene, in the way it moves and flows. Hair has an action line like any other part of the body, when planning a posed sculpt use it to enhance your work. For example, I used the characters hair in my recent personal work ‘Guardians' as a device to imitate the water in the scene.

Creating movement in the hair that echoes the water in ‘Guardians'

Tip 10: Study the Masters!

If you ever have problems with sculpting hair, a specific style or aspect of hair, I guarantee someone has had similar problems and solved them. I maintain a large library of master sculptors' work that I can dip into when I feel I need some help. Whether it's the simplistic approach of Rodin or the tight wavy curls of a classic Bernini I always find something in the techniques of the past that I can bring forward in my own sculpts.

Bust of the Saviour by Gian Lorenzo Bernini

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