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19 tips to master ZBrush

15 tips to master ZBrush

ZBrush is one of the easier 3D tools to get to grips with, meaning that with plenty of practice and the right tutorials, you can soon produce your own 3D art. However, if your aim is stunning results that are suitable for the big screen, then you're going to have to up your game a lot.

Aside from checking out our list of great ZBrush tutorials, to help you out, we asked four A-list artists – Maarten Verhoeven, Gaurav Kumar, Madeleine Scott-Spencer and Matt Waggle for their pro tips on getting the most out of ZBrush to produce work that stands apart from the rest. Here's what they had to say.

And if you're after more inspiration rather than tips, then check out this year's best 3D movies or some of our favourite 3D art.

01. Set work screen

Make sure you're not wasting any screen space

A very basic but important thing to do is set your work screen in a way that lets you utilise it fully. Go to Document in the toolbar and set the size of your document monitor resolution to make sure there are no unused areas. You can also change the ZBrush screen from grey to gradient black for a consistent background screen. Thirdly, I would suggest that you change the material from MatCap Red to MatCap Grey or basic grey material. 

02. Customise your UI

Speed up your workflow by moving your favourite features onto the interface

This is a very effective way to increase the speed of your work. Go to Preferences in your toolbar, select Config > Enable Customize. By pressing ctrl+alt you can move any button, pallet or brush onto your ZBrush interface. Once you've added your most-used brushes and options to your UI go back to Config and click Save UI and Store Config. This will help to make your creative process easier and faster. 

03. Use the timeline

With the timeline you can easily check your model from all angles

This is a great way to move quickly from one angle to another. When working on a large model it becomes difficult to see it from all sides, so you can go to Movie in the toolbar and under Timeline turn on Show. This will put the timeline camera on the top of the screen, so you can position your model and click on the timeline to add a keyframe. This can be done in any position that you may need to see again or work on quickly, and you can move through them quickly using the arrow keys. 

04. Store camera angles in timeline

ZBrush introduced the timeline for animation purposes, but it is also a great way to store camera position quickly. This is useful if you are aligning your sculpts to multiple reference photos for sculpting a likeness. When you have your sculpt aligned simply store a keyframe for each position you need. 

05. Learn ZBrush shortcuts

zbrush tips

(Image credit: Matt Waggle)

There are several ZBrush shortcuts to learn that will speed up your workflow. These include pressing Y to toggle between the Transpose tool and the newer 3D Gizmo. Press C to colour-pick anything on your screen and it will become your current colour. Use Z and Shift+Z to call up and dismiss spotlight. You can make some convenient macros for spotlight. Holding Shift+ctrl toggles from your brush to your current trim, slice or clip curve tool. Plus, while this is held only these types of tools appear for easy picking.

06. PureRef and ZBrush transparency

Use PureRef for creating image sheets of reference when sculpting. You can cover both monitors with the PureRef window so that part of it is always behind ZBrush.  Then use the See-Through feature in the upper-right corner of ZBrush to reveal and check against the reference held in PureRef. 

07. Create basic forms in low subdivision

It's easier to manage a lighter mesh than a heavy one

Create most of the shapes of the model in the lowest subdivision so that the forms can be made correctly with the least poly. It's much easier to manage and edit a lighter mesh than a heavy one. Always try to sculpt in the same flow of muscles or skin to make the model look real. 

08. Transpose smart masking

15 tips to master ZBrush: Transpose smart masking

Transpose will mask an entire surface, leaving out any raised spaces

Transpose is a smart tool for masking certain areas of your model. If you hold ctrl then click and drag the model, you can mask with the Transpose Smart brush. It will look at the surface and mask the rest of the area, leaving any raised spaces, as seen in the image. 

09. Amp detail the easy way

Ryan Kittleson's Macro script can really enhance sculpted details

Go and search Ryan Kittleson's Macro script. It could save you some time when sharpening up your sculpted details. Install the script and find it in your Macros folder, then sit back and let it work its magic. 

10. Make use of Sculptris Pro

Sculptris Pro is another handy way to add details to models

You can use Sculptris Pro to add details to your already-decimated models; instead of re-DynaMeshing your prepared sculpt, just go in again with Sculptris Pro without the restrictions. You can easily modify and add small details until you're happy. 

11. Use Polypaint to add colour

A little bit of Polypaint can go a long way

Polypaint is very useful when it comes to adding colour to your piece. The most important thing, however, is to let the sculpt do its magic. All the sculpted details will pick up the highlights. When applying the Polypaint start rough and tweak it with the RGB value of your brush. A little bit of Polypaint can get a big result when it comes to the final image. 

12. Shrink wrap retop

Retopologising your sculpt can be much more animation-friendly

One of the main ways to create stunning models these days is to sculpt the initial form in programs like ZBrush or Mudbox and then retopologise the sculpt. This is the process where you create new geometry that is more animation-friendly, more predictable with contiguous edge loops and much lower in polygon count, making it more efficient. You can of course do this in Cinema 4D with tools like the Polygon. 

To make it even better you can download scripts like the HB Modelling Bundle that make Cinema 4D into a perfect retop solution, enabling you to draw new geometry right onto your sculpt. Find a range of options here

13. Utilise skin alphas

Try blending different types of alphas with positive and negative values

Try to blend different types of alphas with a positive and negative value over each other. Try switching out between big ones and small ones to give it a natural blend. Also, for adding veins a small trick that I use is to go down a few subdivisions and draw in the vein – if you step up again, it will blend in perfectly like it's under the surface, instead of laying on top. 

14. Use Accurate Curve Mode for spines/spikes

AccuCurve will give you a much sharper Move brush

One aspect of the Move brush is that the falloff tends to create a rounded centre to the brush effect, making it difficult to create a sharp protrusion like a spine, spike or peak. To fix this you can edit the settings of the Move brush. Select the Move brush then go to Brush > Curve and turn on the AccuCurve button. This forces ZBrush to use the brush curve in this menu to define the falloff of the brush. The result as you can see is a sharp, precise Move brush. 

15. Adjust the smooth brush settings

Try editing your Smooth brush to make it more effective on open geometry edges and single points

When using the Smooth brush many users realise how difficult it can be to smooth border edges on poly geometry or single stray points that have been shifted from the original model, as sometimes happens when projecting geometry. Smoothing these geometry types can often produce unsatisfying results. A good tip is to edit your Smooth brush settings to allow the brush to be more effective on open geometry edges and single points. Go to the Brush > Smooth Brush Settings menu and lower the Min Connected slider to 1. The Smooth brush will now be much more effective in these areas. 

16. Turn tablet pressure off

You don’t always have to have tablet pressure on – and disabling it can benefit certain brush effects on your sculpt. You can find the tablet pressure setting under Preferences>Tablet and toggle it on and off. When it’s off you’ll be able to use the pen, but the brush won’t have any pressure effects. 

17. Use Polish Features to clean up panel loops

Give your  model a nice machined look by polishing by features

When generating panel loops from polygroups, we often find that the edges of the mask and the resulting polygroup creates an irregular shape to our panel loop geometry. A great way to correct this and give the model a nice machined look is to polish by features. This slider is found under Tool > Deformations. After you have generated your panel loops open the Deformation sub-menu and click on the Radial button on the Smooth by Features slider. This will look like a black dot in a circle rather than a white dot. Now raise the slider incrementally and you will see the edges of your loops clean up and look far more pleasing. 

18. Use Draw Size and Dynamic mode buttons

15 tips to master ZBrush: Use Draw Size and Dynamic mode buttons

ZBrush now lets you enable a per-brush Draw Size and Dynamic mode

Often when I'm working in ZBrush I will make changes to my draw size and in many cases the Dynamic setting on my brush. Previously this setting was global for all brushes, so if you were to make a change to your draw size whilst working in curves it would impact any other brushes in use. In the new ZBrush you can now enable a per-brush Draw Size and per-brush Dynamic mode. Simply enable the buttons at the top of the screen to have far more control over each brush setting. 

19. Use Morph Targets to help blend off detail

The Morph brush can be much better for blending textures than the Smooth brush

One of the trickiest aspects of adding fine details to a model is finding the best way to fade one texture into another, or to fade out details completely. We want to avoid a uniform 'stamped-on' look. Before I start to add fine details I will store a morph target of my model in its undetailed state by going to Tool > Morph Target > Store MT. Now as I detail the mesh I can use the Morph brush to blend back out to the undetailed surface. This is much better than smoothing because the Smooth brush erases detail while the Morph brush will gently reduce its intensity. It's a much more effective blending brush. 

This is an edited version of pieces that were originally published in 3D World, the world's best-selling magazine for CG artists. Subscribe to 3D World here.

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3D World is the best-selling international magazine for 3D artists, covering the fields of animation, VFX, games, illustration and architecture.