I begin personal work by asking myself a few important questions which will help inform my design process and create a point of interest for me to really attach myself to the project. What do I want to learn from this piece? What skills do I want to improve? Are there any new tools or methods I want to learn and adapt to my workflow? By answering these questions, I can quickly build an idea in my mind on the type of subject to create. Ideas flow more naturally once I fully understand what my limitations are.
For this challenge, my main focus was to level up my hand-painted texturing and rendering of materials, so when approaching the design I tried to keep this in mind to not stray from that goal.
Knowing I wanted to make a “Dark” character for Art War 2, I began collecting reference of fantasy creatures to get a feel for my character’s theme and look. To do this, I compiled images from across the web onto a Pinterest board so I could access a library of reference images from anywhere. For this project, I wanted to create a deceptive, hypnotic creature that might hide his true face and intentions and used this as a starting point.
I began the modeling stage by creating a 3D silhouette of the character. I started in Maya with simple box models and primitives, establishing the major forms and representing all individual parts that made up the whole.
Once I had all the major forms established, I brought those primitives into ZBrush and split them into separate polygroups. Keeping the important muscular groups separate allowed me to easily mask forms and use the Move Topology, Move, and Inflate brushes to quickly and more accurately refine them. During this phase I paid careful attention to the silhouette, as these are the forms that became the basis for my sculpt.
I began the sculpt by using Dynamesh to combine the organic forms, then used ZRemesh to create the completed basemesh, keeping essential polygroups and utilizing ZRemesh guides to create a workable mesh.
I start and stay at the lowest resolution possible when sculpting, slowly building up subdivisions as details get finer. I mainly use these brushes for stylized work: Clay Tubes, Clay Buildup, Trim Dynamic, Dam Standard, Planar, and HPolish.
Once my forms and surfaces were clean and the sculpt was near-final, I masked key areas and used the ClayPolish tool to sharpen edges and stamp down smaller imperfections. I’ll often do this for models at the end of the Dynamesh stage as well if I desire sharper edges before basemesh retopology or using ZRemesh.
Hard surface models were blocked in Maya, retopologized when necessary in 3D-Coat, and imported into ZBrush. Using ZModeler, I cleaned up and added edge loops where more density or support edges were necessary. Doing this last step in ZBrush, I can re-utilize my original retopo mesh to help quickly build the final topology for these objects. Once I was happy with the hard surface topology in ZBrush, I subdivided these forms for sculpting.
For the low-poly retopology I brought my decimated mesh into 3D-Coat, which has some great features to build out low-poly models quickly. I also was able to optimize some of the high-poly elements for the final mesh, such as the hair, belts, and accessories. This saved a lot of time!
Once retopo was done, I further optimized the mesh in Maya and laid out my UVs. Afterward, I set up hardened normal edges on the hard surface elements to aid in making cleaner bakes and refined final lighting.
To create a base for my textures, I set up a series of bakes in XNormal and combined them in Photoshop. For this model, I combined information from a curvature map generated from my normal map (for highlights), bent normal map (green channel only), and ambient occlusion map, setting the result to Overlay on top of my base colors to create top-down lighting information. Lastly, I created a top-down fill gradient in 3D-Coat to help ground the character.
Using a gradient map layer in Color blending mode, I colored my bakes to create warmer lit areas and cooler areas of shadow. I later multiplied another low-opacity colored AO layer to push and color the shadows a bit more.
I began painting by establishing upward-facing planes with light Overlay layers, slowly building up value and developing points of interest. I tried to avoid bright highlights early on and focused on defining materials and keeping things low-contrast. By keeping a gray Color layer at the top of my PSD I can quickly switch this on and off to check values and make sure elements are kept separate visually and that my eye is being drawn where intended.
I mainly focused on having the most color variation happen at points of interest, rendering more intense specular information late in the process using a Color Dodge layer with a low opacity brush. During this process, I adjusted the color temperature of materials, cooling them as they receded from the front of the character or those points of interest.
I placed my emissive information near the top of my PSD layers, having a black fill layer beneath to make visible and quickly iterate on.
Once I was happy with how things were reading with the Blending layers, I took a pass over the model with a Normal paint layer in key areas, refining the texture and painting additional information and adjustments by sampling from the model’s colors.
The character’s face underwent a few design iterations throughout the project. I initially imagined that his face might never be seen, being a mysterious ghostly figure with a mask, but quickly realized it was a critical element that couldn’t be left abstract for 3D.
In the sculpting phase, I envisioned his body as a vessel for the souls he consumes, and his “face” behind the mask being a sort of mask itself with alien forms underneath. I later iterated on this in the texturing phase (a huge benefit of the hand-painted workflow), as it wasn’t reading quite how I intended from a distance.
I planned early on to have a simple environment for my character’s background rather than a traditional pedestal to get a feel for the larger space he inhabits. The Marmoset scene helped inform the character’s colors, values, and focal points in context and contributed heavily to the final look.
Hopefully this tutorial has given some insight on my process and how this character came to be. I encourage you to reach out to me or comment if you have any questions. Thanks for looking!