Sculpt realistic anatomy in ZBrush

During the course of this tutorial I will show you how I sculpt realistic anatomy subjects in ZBrush. 

I will provide you with some tips on how to organise your workflow and explain the things you need to pay attention to during the sculpting process. In addition to this, I will also provide an overall idea of how to sculpt likeness.

The process that you will see here is how I approach every project. By the end of this tutorial you should have a general idea of how to start and finish your work. I always like to challenge myself and test my knowledge, so I thought that creating full body likeness is something I would learn a lot from.

I chose Michael Phelps mainly because of his unusual body; it breaks most of the general proportion rules, which makes it even more interesting. As you will see from the tutorial, ZBrush is an amazing tool for a project like this because it provides you with the much-needed freedom required when shaping forms.

Download the files you'll need for this tutorial.

01. Looking for references

Make sure you have enough reference material before starting

During an anatomy study it's important that you choose a concept that will give you a huge amount of information about the shapes. If you're going for a full body anatomy study, then make sure you have enough reference material for each part. You can find some 360-degree pictures of a model in various poses here. In addition, Google and Pinterest are great resources to search for images. 

I decided on Michael Phelps because of his well-defined muscle structure, the huge amount of reference material available and his unusual body proportions.

02. Body proportions

Use your character's head to get its proportions right

Probably the most important thing in any kind of art – whether you draw, sculpt or paint – is the proportions. It doesn't matter how much attention you pay to detail, rendering and composition, it will all be meaningless work if your character doesn't actually look real. 

The easiest way to measure a character is with ‘heads'. This is why I always start by getting my base shape for the face and using the Transpose tool to measure 7.5/8 heads for my character. 

Of course, you need to be aware that there is always an exception. For example, with Michael Phelps, his torso is longer, he has shorter legs and his arm span is bigger than the average person. 

The steps below explain how to measure your character in ‘heads' using ZBrush:

  • Once you have finished shaping your base head, turn off perspective (by pressing the P key), select the Transpose tool and draw out a line from the top of the head to the bottom of the chin holding Shift. This will ensure that it's straight.
  • In the top menu, go to Preferences > Transpose Units, set Minor Ticks to 0 and Calibration Distance to 1.
  • Now if you draw a line from the top to the bottom of the character, you will see that it's divided by heads.

03. ZBrush body base mesh

Alternatively, just use ZBrush's base mesh

To get an easier start, you can always use the base mesh that comes with ZBrush, if you're not feeling too confident with your knowledge of proportions. The base mesh comes with the Skull SubTool, so you can always take a look at how it's built.

I don't want to spend a lot of time on proportions, so this time I will use the base mesh. To load the base mesh, follow the instructions below:

  • Select Lightbox
  • Click on the Tool sub palette
  • Find and double click on Nickz_humanMale
  • Drag it out with the left mouse button on the viewport and click Edit Object (or press T on the keyboard).

04. Making adjustments to the base mesh

Use Transpose Master to adjust your character's pose

I don't find the initial pose of the base mesh appealing, so I will change it using the Transpose Master plugin, and give it a more natural silhouette. Transpose Master combines the lowest resolution of all SubTools and creates a mesh that you can pose all together. The pose can then be transferred back to the original SubTools. To use the Transpose Master, work through the following steps:

  • Go to Zplugin > Transpose Master and click on TPoseMesh.
  • Pose your model by masking out the parts that you want to move, by holding Ctrl to mask and inverting the mask by holding Ctrl+LMB on the viewport.
  • Once you've finished with the posing, go back to Zplugin > Transpose Master and click on TPose > SubT.
  • Every change that you made will now be transferred to your original model.

While posing your model, you can always export your pose by selecting TPoseMesh. You can then load it manually by going to the scene with your original model and selecting TPose > SubT.

05. Body bone landmarks 

Paint skeleton landmarks to keep track of shapes and proportions

Before I start the sculpting process, I do my best to paint all the skeleton landmarks that are seen on the human body. It allows me to keep a better track of the shapes and proportions. You can paint on your model in ZBrush by following these steps:

  • Firstly, fill it with white colour by selecting white on your palette on the left, going to Colour in the top menu and selecting Fill Object. Make sure that your RGB Channel is turned on before this.
  • Select your Standard brush and uncheck the ZADD above the Intensity slider, while keeping RGB turned on. This will ensure your Standard brush only paints the desired colour, without impacting on the surface of the mesh.
  • Pick the colour that suits you and start painting your model.

The main landmarks that I usually paint are the sternum, costal cartilage, iliac crest, vertebrae, anterior superior iliac spine, curve of tibia, clavicle, scapula, acromion process, zygomatic bone, mandible and the temporal line.

06. Using subdivisions

The powerful part of using the base mesh is having the correct topology on your body from the very beginning. This allows you to use subdivision levels in ZBrush, which increases the polygon count of a model by replacing each polygon with multiple polygons – the higher it is the more detail you can add. In addition, you can always come back to your first subdivision level and adjust shapes, and this change will be reflected when you come back to the highest subdivision. Let's look at an example of how this works:

  • I know that I'm going to sculpt details like veins, skin stretching and so forth on the highest subdivision, as it will give me millions of polygons to work with.
  • In case I want to change the bulkiness of his chest, I can always go back to a lower subdivision and add some volume to it. All the detail I added on the highest subdivision won't be visible on the lower one, but it will still be there when I come back to the highest level.

07. Initial block out

Throughout my whole sculpting process, I am going to use only a few brushes: Standard, Dam_Standard, Clay Buildup, Clay, Smooth and Move.

I am not concerned about the likeness at this time; for now I want to focus on getting all the muscles blocked-in with the correct shape and placement. I use Clay Buildup and Smooth to get the shape, by adding clay and smoothing it out until I get what I want. I try to maintain as low a subdivision level as I can. I go higher once I don't have enough polygons for the shapes I want to add.

08. Adding muscle volume and breaking symmetry

Turn off symmetry before building up the body

I give him some more subdivisions and start adding volume by using the Clay Buildup and Clay brush on very low intensity settings, going slowly and not overdoing it. 

At this stage I stop using symmetry, because I want to be as close to realistic filling as I can. I have noticed that I get the best results when I turn it off early. In addition, I use Transpose Master (like in step 04) to bend the fingers.

Make sure that you are not focused on one part of the body all the time – jump between them. This will make you see your sculpture as a whole. Also pay attention to your references, as they play an important role at this stage.

Next page: 5 more steps for sculpting realistic anatomy in ZBrush