How to create a realistic digital portrait

3D artist Aybars Turan reveals how to create a lifelike portrait without tumbling into the uncanny valley.

How to create a realistic digital portrait

Aybars created this portrait of his wife using ZBrush and Maya

Creating any 3D art is a complex and time-consuming process, but developing a realistic digital double is one of the most complicated tasks in the CG world. Recently I challenged myself to create a digital double of my wife Elaine Turan, in my free time.

My planned pipeline was mood study, measurements, likeness sculpts, detailed sculpt, retopology, UV unwrapping, texturing, initial shader creation, hair/grooming, final shader creation, lighting, rendering, and compositing. Overall it was a great study and an experience.

I highly recommend and encourage artists to leave their comfort zone and try sculpting/painting someone they know in person, rather than a celebrity or an imaginary figure. It's the ultimate exercise for traditional and digital artists. Since my model is my wife, I had the chance to examine her face in person; it's quite different to what you would see on digital reference images.

This stage is very important; examine your model, take notes, and notice asymmetrical differences. I started with a base low-poly female head mesh that I had. Keep your polygons low from the beginning, as it will make everything go faster and smoother.

In this project, I used ZBrush and Maya. My best advice before you start modelling is to match your focal length settings in Maya with ZBrush and lock your settings, otherwise whenever you bring your model into Maya, you will see a difference on your measurements. I used a spotlight to see the forms and planes change on my model's face.

Shadows will give you the best hint about the transition of the planes. Gradually start building up the details. Another key thing at this stage is to keep measuring and double checking everything. Make sure to work on every facial zone at the same time. Do not get lost in details.

01. Likeness sculpting

How to create a realistic digital portrait - Likeness sculpting

Try to get the likeness right at the start, and don't get lost in details

I spent a couple of weeks getting the likeness right on my wife's portrait. At this stage there was a lot of going back and forth with forms, planes and proportions. I used many photographs of her to get every angle of her face as a reference. The key thing is not to go too far in details and get lost. Keep it simple and get the likeness right at the start.

02. Fine skin details

How to create a realistic digital portrait - Fine skin details

Get the fine skin details right and you're well on the way to a realistic sculpt

I used surface mimic displacement maps to get fine facial details. It's important not to rely on stamp brushes, alpha maps and repeating the brush strokes on the sculpt too much, as each plane is different. I fine-tuned and used specific sculpt details that were unique to my wife. At this stage the slightest detail will bring so much more realism to the sculpt.

03. Eye texturing and shading

How to create a realistic digital portrait - Eye texturing and shading

It pays to learn about the anatomy of the eye if you want it to look good

It's very important to understand the anatomy of the eye in order to make it look real. I sculpted the cornea, iris, sclera, pupil, caruncle and tear line that sits between your lower lid and cornea. I used physically accurate shaders in V-Ray and painted the sclera and iris in Mari. I used both projection and painting methods to get rich eye details.

04. Skin texturing, shading and lighting

How to create a realistic digital portrait - Skin texturing, shading and lighting

The lighting of Aybars' portrait was inspired by Rembrandt

Skin texture is done in Mari and shaded in V-Ray. I projected images onto the 3D model as a base texture layer and painted all the details layer by layer. Rembrandt's portraits and the dramatic lighting in his paintings was a big inspiration; I tried to create a similar look and feel in my final image.

Words: Aybars Turan

Aybars is a 3D artist who uses his fine art background to imbue his sculpts with realism. He works as a senior concept modeller at Tesla Motors. This article originally appeared in issue 203 of 3D World.

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