CG art: how to create beautiful skin

Previous to his work at Blur Studio, Mathieu Aerni worked in the VFX realm on feature films such as Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, X-Men Origins and Underworld: Rise of the Lycans.

“This image started as an improvised sculpts in ZBrush, a portrait without a model or references.

“Most of the characters I create in my professional work have to match precisely real actors or concepts. This is nice, but the freedom of improvising without references is always very liberating.

“The creation of this image was pretty straight forward technically speaking. ZBrush was used for modelling and texturing, 3ds Max and V-Ray for rendering and Ornatrix for facial hairs.”

“I did use Ornatrix for the small facial hairs, and at that time I was not familiar with that software, so that was unusual, at least for me.

This is the Ornatrix hair setup

“I did a simple three-day beard with very short hair on the scalp. This project was also my first experiment with the V-Ray SSS2 material and I really liked it. It turned out to be a very accurate shader in my opinion.”

“It’s hard to tell for certain how long I spent on the image, because I was working on and off on in my spare time, but I’ll say about 40 hours.”

ZBrush sculpting

“I really enjoy every step of the creation of character, from design to modelling, to texturing and lighting, but the aspect of character that is the most fascinating for me is sculpting.

The ZBrush sculpt contains all the imperfections in the skin, such as the subtle acne scars on the cheeks

“Anatomy is an endless source of fascination for me. I’m also very inspired by creature creation. To create credible creature and monster, you need to combine good anatomy and form with invention and imagination. I love that!”

Click on the image to open it up and see the level of detail that Mathieu has added to the skin

The making of Casual Man Portrait

“I started this project by opening in ZBrush a base mesh created in 3ds Max, a very simple all quads mesh.

“When I started blocking this character, I did not look at any references because I wanted to practice my improvising skills. At that stage I used nothing but the Move Brush and the Clay Tubes Brush.

“When I was happy with the primary form I moved to the secondary and tertiary form, using the Clay Tubes brush in conjunction with the Smooth Brush and the Standard brush.

“I really wanted to include as many details as possible in the sculpture rather than in the colour textures. I sculpted all the pores and wrinkles, and also subtle acne scars on the cheeks. Then I moved to texturing.

“My approach for the texture was to go with a very detailed displacement map and a simple colour map, so all the details in the final render are from the ZBrush sculpt, not from a photo-projected texture.

The textures were kept simple, with all the detail work going onto the sculpt

“Then back to 3ds Max for lighting and shading. The scene was rendered in V-Ray using one planar V-Ray light as key and one small spherical V-Ray light placed behind the character as rim. The key light was placed above the head on a sharp angle to create dramatic lighting.

The lighting setup for Casual Man Portrait

“Everything was rendered as one pass straight from 3ds Max. I did some fine-tuning afterwards in Photoshop, like playing with the curves and colour balance to set the image in a specific tonal range.”


Achieving realism

If you’d like to learn more about anatomy, check out 10 anatomy tips for 3D artists