15 tips for lifelike sculpts in ZBrush

Digital artist Glen Southern offers simple ways to make your sculptures look more natural

ZBrush is used in so many different ways now that sometimes you might be forgiven for forgetting that it’s a 3D organic sculpting solution at heart. While many artists are now using it for texturing, creating hard-surface models, UVing, extracting maps and using it for illustration, the core toolset has always been geared to making organic models, from characters to vegetation.

One of the biggest workflow changes in ZBrush lately has been the addition of DynaMesh. Being able to add geometry by sticking on a new piece and blending it into the mesh – and then having the polygons evenly distributed – is a real treat for an organic modeller.

01 Always use reference

This seems obvious, but you should look to real-life reference with almost everything organic. Most 3D artists I know keep a reference library or inspiration folder. The best way to sculpt anything organic convincingly is to model from life – whether it’s muscles, skin, horns, bark or bone.

02 Anatomy rules

Every living thing follows a certain set of rules for how it develops, grows, moves, breathes and eats. To be able to accurately recreate a living thing, it is essential to understand as much as you can about its anatomy. Whether you are drawing, taking photographs or simply studying things around you, the more you know about anatomy, the more realistic your creations are going to be. If possible, take some life drawing classes, and get into the habit of carrying a sketchbook.

03 Skeleton and muscles

Taking the anatomy study one step further, it’s an excellent idea to focus specifically on the skeleton and muscles. One great thing to practise is to create a core skeleton with ZSpheres. Add every major bone that would be found in your creature then, once you’re happy, begin to layer on the correct muscle groups.

04 Plants and vegetation

Plants and vegetation follow rules in the same way that fleshy living things do. You can see repeating leaf patterns and branching in specific ways. By DynaMeshing new parts into a model and using tools like Radial Symmetry, you can create weird and wonderful plant life with very little effort.

05 ZSpheres

ZSpheres have been a feature of ZBrush for a while now, and are a fantastic way to start a project. Not only can you quickly build up the anatomy of your desired model, you can also repose it on the fly. In addition, you can extend limbs, rotate joints, and try out things elements such as tails and wings – all by adding a few ZSpheres. To preview your geometry while working, simply press [A].

06 Real world mass and physics

Accurately recreating mass, volume and weight are crucial to an organic modeller. One of the first things you should aim for in your sculpt is to get the overall form looking strong. Keep turning the model so that you can see if you have thin areas or areas that need building up. Creatures with a lot of fat or loose skin are more affected by gravity than thinner ones: for example, the belly will usually hang down and fold, so reflect that in your sculpting.

07 Pose with Transpose

Building a symmetrical model can save time because you only really need to work on half of the model at once. That said, at some point you need to see how it looks posed. Rather than having to send the model out for rigging, you can quickly and easily use the Transpose tool to pose your creation as needed, while still retaining the base pose on a layer.

08 Break symmetry

As mentioned, the Transpose tool helps you to pose your model. Nothing in nature is perfectly symmetrical, so breaking the symmetry helps to make a creation look much more natural and believable. Try slightly turning the character’s head or simply twist one foot out a little bit and shift the weight of the model onto one foot. To so easily and non-destructively, use the Transpose and Mask tools.

09 Brushes

At the heart of ZBrush is the Brush palette, which contains the tools you need to create your organic masterpieces. To become a great digital sculptor you need to spend time learning what each brush does and where best to use it. Every artist has a small set of core tools that they use for the majority of their work: my toolbox includes Clay Buildup, Move, Move Topological, Insert Mesh, Polish, Trim Adaptive, Rake and the all-important Smooth (which you can access by holding down [Shift] while any brush is selected).

10 Configure your tools

As you develop as a modeller and sculptor, you will quickly get to know which tools and brushes work best for certain tasks. Customising your interface is a great way to always have your important tools to hand: you can move all parts of the interface around to suit your needs. (Go to Preferences > Config > Enable Customise.) Select all the brushes you want to have to hand, and arrange them at the bottom of your interface.

You can also set up your most-used interface options as keyboard shortcuts: hold [Ctrl] + [Alt] and click on the interface item you want to assign a hotkey to, then press the hotkey. To manage your hotkeys, go to Preferences > Hotkeys > Store.

11 DynaMesh

Models can become so stretched out that the underlying polygons become a problem. This is fine up to a point, but the stretching can make your work look odd when it comes to finer details. With DynaMesh switched on, you can simply redistribute the polygons evenly across the model’s surface. This may not help from a polygon flow point of view, but it does allow you to sculpt detail accurately.

12 Clay Buildup

The Clay brushes are my favourite tools, and the Clay Buildup brush is my most used option. This brush allows you to slowly and steadily build up muscle groups and volume by simply stroking along the model. Keep the Z Intensity low, and hold down [Shift] while brushing to smooth things out.

13 Insert Mesh

Sorting out stretched polygons is just one aspect of DynaMeshing. With the Insert brush you can add any ZTool (model) to any other ZTool and DynaMesh them together. Want to add geometry for a head? Simply use the Insert Sphere brush, add a sphere onto a body and DynaMesh it in. As you can use your own pre-existing model parts, this can be quick and simple way to develop a creature.

14 Advanced Insert Mesh

Once you are familiar with the Inset Mesh brush – and have explored all the available Insert brushes – you will want to make up your own library of parts to be reused on future models. You can make any model you have into an Insert brush, so you can build up libraries of parts like arms, heads, ears, horns, claws, fingers and tails etc. Simply use the Create Insert Mesh option in the Brush palette to make your own.

15 Move Topological

Once you have made your organic model, you will want to tweak and rework it. Using the Move brush allows you to do just this – however if you wanted to move a lower lip over an upper lip, for example, you would need to mask out the upper lip. When using Move Topological, the moving only takes place based on the polygon flow, making this a must-have tool for detailed anatomy tweaking.

Glen Southern runs SouthernGFX, a studio specialising in characters for videogames, TV, and film