Making a Stylized Character with Realistic Features
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Making a Stylized Character with Realistic Features
21 November, 2018
Character Art

Mido Lai did a breakdown of his outstanding character Emily the Assassin, shared the full workflow and gave a bunch of useful tips for character artists. Software used: ZBrushMarvelous DesignerMayaMariSubstance Painter, and Toolbag,


Hi, I am Mido, and I recently graduated from Gnomon School of Visual Effects, specializing in games. Some people may have seen my old work, Gina. I really enjoy creating characters in my free time, and I would like to share a project that I did as a student, Emily the Assassin.

Make sure to check out Mido’s wonderful breakdown of Gina here:


Concept by Kyoung Hwan Kim (Tahra)

I really like Tahra’s concepts, his creativity and shape language are amazing. He combines modern clothing with some fantasy elements. The whole character also symbolizes a killer whale in its design. Her hat is similar to its head shape and the cape is similar to its fins. The psycho mask indicates her dangerous personality. The blue dress represents the ocean, and the white blouse represents her naive nature. The redness of her shoes also alludes to her violent nature. By combining all the elements above, that reveals her profession, that she is an assassin.

Before Emily, I had two past characters, Gina and Necromancer Skuthus. Skuthus was my first attempt at creating a realistic character for games. And Gina was my first attempt at creating a Stylized character for games. I used techniques from these two characters and applied them to Emily to achieve a blend between stylized and realistic. Finding the balance between Realistic and Stylized is a major key, and so far I am happy with the result.



I came up with this workflow throughout my experience of making characters. I hope it will be helpful for aspiring character artists.



My first step was focusing on capturing the overall volume and silhouette of the character. Then, I sculpted the body up to its secondary forms which are the muscles and bony landmarks. From that base, I created her outfit using a combination of ZBrush tools and Marvelous Designer. I used Marvelous to help give off a sense of realism to the clothing so as to get the most realistic folds possible. Accurate anatomy serves as an important base for your model. The more accurate your body proportion is the more believable the clothing will drape over your model.

Tip: Shift+S to get screenshots and compare different views of the model.


Cloth simulation in Marvelous Designer or Maya will probably give you the most natural cloth detail next to scan data. This process can save you a lot of time from sculpting it in ZBrush. Usually, I will build up a base clothing mesh out of it, and then bring it to ZBrush to add further details.

Marvelous Designer

The challenge for this model was to recreate the back view of this concept with a similar design language. The cape has a very unique style that is hard to reference in real life. I had made some sketches and tried out several versions of the cape to see which shape fits her the most. Sometimes, you will have to compromise the shape when building a 3D model from a 2D concept. In this case, I sacrifice a little bit of the fin shape to maintain the balance of the overall silhouette.

Tip: Taking your screenshots and adjusting in Photoshop will help you ideate.

Adding color during the modeling stage helps to get an overall idea of the character’s image. The main color of the model should be the most obvious and also have the most contrast compared to the rest of the model. And the secondary color can break up and add more to the themes and backstory of Emily. Adding the red color to the shoes not only enhance the main color, but it also strengthens the contrast and gives depth to the character.

Tip: Filling up your subtools with color will give you a big picture of the overall character.


At this stage, I was trying to achieve a stylized character with a realistic touch. Skin is a key factor in achieving realism. Therefore, I decided to go with the most realistic skin texturing as my base, and stylize the features later with further adjustments.


Texture XYZ has the greatest scan data of human skin. I textured the albedo map and displacement map with Mari, a software that has one of the best projection texturing tools, in order to get a fundamental base for my character. And then export the maps into Substance Painter for further texturing.

Substance Painter

I finished the rest of my textures in Substance Painter, because of the efficient procedural texturing workflow and PBR rendering. The albedo map is imported into the “color” channel as a base color. And on top of that, I add three color adjustment layers: blue, yellow, and red. By keeping them in separate layers, this allows you to have more control of the color area while maintaining a non-destructible workflow. The displacement map is imported into the “height” channel as a new layer. And because it is a stylized character, over detailing the skin will take away from the stylized look. Masking out the area that you don’t want too many details in is one of the keys to keeping the whole character balanced.

Texturing makeup was a big challenge, after multiple attempts at makeup from just reference I had to look up a lot of YouTube makeup tutorials and ask my female classmates for tips. In the end, I followed the makeup tutorials step by step and recreated every material or brushes they used. I achieved a better result this way.

Tip: Subsurface scattering is the area where the light penetrates and allows you to see the color beneath the skin. For example, the bony areas are distributed around the eye socket, and the chin, the fat areas are more distributed around the cheek.


Rendering was the most enjoyable part of this project because you get to see your character come to life. The key to this stage is to capture the stylized silhouette while maintaining the realistic material details.

Marmoset Toolbag

I chose to use Marmoset Toolbag for rendering because it can quickly set up my materials and lighting.

Skin material settings

Adding subsurface scattering detail to the face will bring out a lot of overlapping layers to the skin.

Leather material settings

Tip: Adding a secondary reflection to the shader will increase its complexity, which is very useful for the material that needs more contrast such as leather.

Detail Normal Map

One of the biggest difference between game cinematic pipelines is the limitation of your texture size. In my case, I tried to keep all the UVs with the same material in one UV. The cape, gloves, mask, and hat are all in one 2k map. By adding a detail normal map, this will increase the texel density and give you an HD quality. Because it is tileable, you need to hide the seams in a hard-to-notice area, such as the inner side of the clothing, or the seams that actually exist in the model.

This tiling method can also work with fabric and patterns, but the UVs will have a huge effect on the result. For example, the tileable cloth fabric normal map has direction. So you will need to make sure your cloth UV is also aligned in the same direction.


The render and lighting were done in Marmoset Toolbag 3. I tested several lighting setups and picked out my favorite. The key light is placed 30 degrees in front of the model to capture all the details on the front. I then added multiple rim lights to capture the silhouette of her hat, blade, and cape. Adding a fill light to colorize the shadows, and a little bit HDRI to brighten up the whole scene.

Different lighting can create different moods and stories:


Overall, this was a really fun project for me to work on and a great learning experience. I hope this article will help all of you make beautiful characters!

If you found this article interesting, below we are listing a couple of related Unity Store Assets that may be useful for you.

Mido Lai, Concept & 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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