Adrienne Lange did a breakdown of her character and talked about working on the face, clothes, skin texturing, aging elements and presentation in Toolbag.
My name is Adrienne Lange, and I am a 3D Character Artist from New York. I’ve been learning 3D for about a year and a half. A few years ago, I wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to take with my career but since I have a background in 2D traditional art and have been playing games my whole life, I decided to blend the two and look into what it would take for me to learn 3D art. I started out with Youtube, Gumroad, and 80 Level tutorials, and just recently completed Game Art Institute’s Character Artist Bootcamp. My Wise Woman character was created in two months, as my final project for the bootcamp.
Wise Woman: Concept
This character comes from an amazing concept piece by Ivan Dedov made for Artstation’s “Ancient Civilizations: Lost and Found” challenge from 2017.
I found the Wise Woman concept very captivating and mysterious and wanted to challenge myself to sculpt an older face and capture the eeriness that Ivan portrayed. I like the simplicity of the clothing, as it draws attention to her face while still telling the audience so much about her character. I wanted the main focus of my 3D interpretation to be on the face as well, and for this, I compiled a lot of reference for different kinds of wrinkles and very old faces.
Modeling the Body Mesh
I started with a simple base mesh that I had made for a previous character. I first sculpted the primary forms of her face in ZBrush and then focused on her hunched pose. The pose immediately communicates her age from afar, so I felt it was important to nail it in the body mesh. Her back is very rounded in the concept, so I researched what happens to the skeletal and muscular forms when someone develops a hunched posture in real life. The shoulders drop down and the neck juts forward at a very severe angle. I imported my base mesh into Marvelous Designer to use as an avatar when creating the clothing.
For the high poly stage of this project, I spent the majority of my time working on the character’s face in ZBrush. I wanted her face to be exaggerated, but still realistic. I’ve struggled with sculpting faces in the past, usually failing to bridge the gap between an unfinished-looking sculpt and a convincing, realistic face. A few things, in particular, helped me to make some small improvements: using 3D scan reference and reference images, and attention to anatomy. Ryan Kingslien, Game Art Institute’s founder, suggested sculpting heads from a base sphere with a time limit of a few hours, to practice building up primary forms and establish anatomical landmarks. I highly recommend doing this as an exercise and still do it frequently. I also referred to Flipped Normals’ Youtube videos on sculpting faces in order to convincingly build up the forms of the eyelids and lips.
For building up wrinkles, I create creases using the DamStandard brush on a low-intensity setting (10-15) and then the Standard brush with a very small brush size (1 or 2) to build up along one side of the crease. Reference was very important since wrinkles are not uniform across different parts of the face. When looking at a face, the viewer’s attention typically goes first to the eyes, and since the eyes were so important for capturing the look of this character, in particular, I devoted more attention to the wrinkles around her eyes than I did on the mouth. I waited until the face was mostly complete before adding some subtle asymmetrical wrinkles to the brow and lips. I then retopologized the character in Maya. I made sure that the edge flow around the eyes followed the flow of the larger wrinkles to ensure that the bake captured all the fine details from the high poly mesh.
I textured the skin entirely in Substance Painter. Substance has added a collection of different skin materials to the default library which I used to paint in pores in different parts of the face. I used a fairly time-consuming (and not very efficient) method for painting pore detail: I would create a fill layer (height and roughness only, with roughness at .3) with a skin material, add a black mask, and then paint out the mask with a low opacity to reveal the skin detail in the appropriate areas. In the end, I had around 8 layers with different skin materials, to capture the different pore patterns of the forehead, nose, eyelids, chin, and cheeks (again, reference was crucial for this). I tested many different materials for each area, as the materials that are labeled for certain areas (e.g. Human Nose Top Skin) might not actually have the sort of skin detail you want for that area.
For color and roughness, I started with a fill layer with a base beige color and roughness of .4. The environment map you use is very important for portraying your roughness accurately. I work with Studio 02 and switch between other studio settings to get context and contrast, but some environments (such as Studio 03) will make the skin roughness deceptively exaggerated. I then added a fill layer (color and roughness only) with increased roughness and a red tone. The cheeks, eye sockets, and lips should be redder and have less roughness. I found that a roughness range of .25 (for shinier areas such as lower eyelids, lips, the tip of nose) to .7 (deepest part of wrinkles) was the best range for skin roughness. On top of these layers, there are four color-only fill layers (blue, red, yellow, green), each with a very low layer opacity to demonstrate the color zones of the face. Finally, there are three fill layers (height and color only) with pink to brown tones, where I painted over a black mask with a splatter brush to create age spots all over the face. I manually painted in some larger moles and age spots on one of these layers.
Substance’s viewport will look very different than a real-time engine, so at this point, I sent my model into Marmoset Toolbag so that I could compare between the two. Once the model was in Marmoset, tweaking the shaders to make the face look like real human skin was the greatest challenge of the whole project. After days of troubleshooting and a lot of help from the GAI bootcamp, I have a short list of mistakes I won’t make again.
- Check your scene scale! Marmoset’s scene default is in meters, but my model was in centimeters; this had serious effects on the Subsurface Scattering, which relies on the units of the scene.
- Check your normal map. I had to flip my map’s Y channel in Marmoset, after exporting maps from Substance Painter.
- Don’t be afraid to switch back and forth between Substance and Marmoset, or Photoshop, to make small changes to your maps. Save many different iterations and toggle between them.
I highly recommend Saurabh Jethani’s Marmoset tutorial for guidance on how to set up the skin shader slider parameters and creating additional maps such as normal detail, cavity, and translucency maps. For subsurface scattering, I played with the sliders in the Diffusion menu until the effect is only just barely noticeable. Subsurface scattering, transparency, secondary reflection, and occlusion and cavity maps will make a very noticeable difference in the quality of skin presentation in Marmoset. My settings (below) will not guarantee a similar result in the viewport; setting up the skin is a game of trial and error and iteration.
I often look at other artists’ work and try to pinpoint what exactly sells the skin in the final renders. Some great artists I refer to when it comes to skin presentation are Magdalena Dadela, Jakub Chechelski, and Jared Chavez.
This project was my first time working in Marvelous Designer, and it was a lot of fun. Creating the various pieces of clothing turned out to involve a lot of trial and error as I learned the intricacies of Marvelous. For pieces that involved a lot of overlapping and layering, such as the turban, I eventually abandoned trying to recreate it as it would be in real life (a single piece of cloth looped around many times) and instead created patterns that gave an illusion of the real-life construction. The turban in its final form is a three long, closed, twisted loops, pinned to a turban-shaped base mesh (made quickly in ZBrush), and fleshed out with smaller rectangular patterns of cloth to fill in the gaps and create fullness. I used the same principle for the boots.
To break up the edges of the clothing, I went into ZBrush and used the Move brush (with AccuCurve turned on) to pull out the edges of the cloth and create a layered, torn effect.
After retopology of the high poly in Maya, I created a plane to use as an alpha card for frayed threads, painted the textures on top of the UVs in Photoshop, duplicated the plane, and placed them among the edges of the clothing. In Marmoset, I used the transparency menu set to Dither and the albedo map information to make the cards transparent.
I created the character’s eyes following Peter Zoppi’s amazing Gumroad tutorial and then added my own tweaks to the albedo map to get the clouded cataract effect from the character concept. Peter’s tutorial does an incredible job of outlining how to get that refractive effect using two meshes: one for the cornea, which is transparent but highly reflective, and another similar mesh which sits just inside the cornea, and which has albedo, normal, gloss, specular, and parallax maps.
I wanted the renders of this character to be dramatic and mysterious, like the character herself. In Marmoset Toolbag I chose the “Mountain Sunset” pano for its strong colors and set the brightness low (.04) and the mode to Ambient Sky. This set a good base tone for the scene, and from there I could place the key, fill, and backlights to highlight the character. I start with a bright fill (selected, in the photo below) and then create lights experimentally from there. The face was the most important part to light, so there are 5 or 6 spotlights coming from different angles to highlight certain parts of the face (eyelids, wrinkles, etc.). I try to give all the lights in the scene a slight color, and to make the lights on one side of the scene warm tones (pale oranges and yellows) and the other side cool tones (light purples). This adds to the overall tone and drama of the scene. I added a fog to the scene to amplify the scene lights and add a purplish aura.
A Few Words About Toolbag
I love Marmoset Toolbag and think it is a very powerful tool for not just presentation but baking as well. I choose to bake in Marmoset because of its baking groups and the amazing paint skew and offset tools. It’s very convenient to see the preview of your bakes in real-time, and then to very quickly export them to Substance Painter or another texturing suite. Once I’m in the end stages of a project, Marmoset also helps me to pinpoint flaws in my textures that I might not have noticed in Substance and allows for very quick changes and a high level of customizability. I’m still learning about all of Marmoset’s capabilities and am constantly surprised to learn about things that I didn’t know it could do.
This project is by no means perfect, but I did learn a lot in the process that I hope to carry into my next project. The biggest hurdle was getting the skin to look right, and it took a lot of help from peers and from mentors to figure out what was not working and why. It can be very hard to persevere when you get to the stage of a project when you have tried everything you can think of and are still flailing, and I think that is when peer feedback becomes invaluable. I fixed my biggest mistakes through research, and — when research did not work — reaching out to other artists on Discord servers or in the Game Art Institute network. I would like to go back and spend some more time texturing the clothing or tidying up the hand meshes on this character at some point, but sometimes it’s time to move on! I’m looking forward to the next character and more challenges.
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