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Reptilian creature concepts in ZBrush

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Date Added: 28th November 2016
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Learn some time-saving ZBrush sculpting tricks from Joshua Wu and his awesome mutant raptor design...


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Having a strong idea before you start really helps the whole process to be much faster and refined. First of all, think about what kind of creature you want to create. What kind of habitat does this creature live in? What does it eat? Is it huge or small? I had some idea of the type of creature I wanted to make from the start; I wanted to make a raptor! The question was what kind of raptor? A prehistoric one, or maybe a sci-fi one? Ask as many of these types of questions as you can to get a really good idea before you start.

Step 01: Sculpting

In order to be fast, I chose to work only with ZBrush and Photoshop. After I've got a strong idea of the creature I'm making, I instantly move to ZBrush to block out the basic shape using DynaMesh. One of the most important things to note is to stay on the lower subdivision levels for as long as possible! You don't want to make the mistake of going straight into the detailing stage.

Having a strong silhouette allows the model to be easily recognizable from a distance, whether it's in videogames or movies. A strong silhouette can define the characteristics of a creature.

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Sculpt to your heart's content

Step 02: ZRemesher

After I finished blocking out the base shape and the design, I duplicated the sculpt and used ZRemesher on it in order to have better topology distribution for the second detail pass. I transferred the detail from the DynaMeshed mesh onto this new one by selecting the new mesh with the DynaMeshed one, then starting to subdivide, pressing the Project All button every time I subdivided the model.

I subdivided my mesh until I was satisfied with the density of the mesh, then did the next detail pass. Now it's time for me to continue my sculpting.

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Duplicate your mesh and use ZRemesher on the DynaMeshed model

Step 03: Details

I personally do not use a lot of alphas to sculpt detail, so half of the scale detail was done manually. However, sculpting the scales one by one would have taken me forever to finish, so I searched for scale alphas and photo textures on Google. While using alphas, your mesh subdivision level has to be very high to get a good result. But even after that, it is better to do some clean-up on the mesh. Sculpt on top of the alphas to blend the scales nicely. Having a clean mesh is always better to work with.

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Combining alphas and hand-sculpting

Step 04: Textures

Texturing the creature was one of my favorite stages. The result of texturing a character always changes the overall aura of it. Since this wasn't a realistic character I allowed myself to go crazy with the texturing, but at the time I had no idea how it was going to turn out, so I started by collecting lots of references. I used snakes, crocodiles, and Komodo dragons as my main references. Again, gathering references is very important.

Once I chose my main references, I started to block out the base color for the creature. I spent around an hour and a half on getting the basic color.

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Reference images courtesy of Dollar Photo Club

Step 05: Color palette

While I was experimenting, I decided to use complementary colors such as green and red as my main color palette, and from there I tried to introduce another color to give more variation to the skin. The reason why I used green and red is because they create the strongest contrast which is dynamic and pleasing to the eye.

For the patterns and second layer of details, I used the photo texture references I found and bashed them onto the mesh using Spotlight. Spotlight can be found under the Texture tab in ZBrush. Import the image you want, and you can use the color and detail from the photo to enhance your mesh drastically.

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Color palette consistency is important

Step 06: Rendering

ZBrush is able to generate a quick render called BPR (Best Preview Render). Unfortunately, this method is not very well suited for production. This rendering technique is fast but very conceptual, focusing on the aesthetic side.

I saved a view using ZApplink (Document > ZApplink Properties) to ensure that all the passes would be rendered at the same angle. For the final image, seven render passes were used: color pass (base render), ambient occlusion, key light, Specular (reflection), rim light, shadow and cavity. I also applied a black background to all the passes.

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Rendering the passes to experiment

Step 07: Bringing it together

I started by opening the color pass (the base render of the character) in Photoshop and applying the key light using the Screen layer blending mode. I then applied the rim light, which was given a greenish-blue tint in Photoshop using Hue/Saturation. I also changed the intensity using Levels and Screen layer options. I used a Multiply layer mode for the shadow and AO pass; once again I gave a slight bluish tint to get the feel I was aiming for. The Specular pass was then added in Color Dodge mode. I erased some of the areas such as the teeth, hair, and a little bit near the neck. Lastly, I added the cavity pass in Soft Light mode.

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Bringing it all together!

Step 08: Final image

It was a great process and I learned a lot from this as well. However, I also realized that there's always room for improvement. I believe that everyone should go out of their comfort zone in order to learn and improve further. There is no denying that practice makes perfect. I hope you can learn something from this breakdown. Thank you for reading!

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The final image!

Related links

To see more of Joshua's work check out his portfolio
Looking for inspiration? Check out the 2dartist magazine
Take your skills to the next level with ZBrush: Characters & Creatures

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