Yulia Sokolova did a breakdown of her real-time stylized character Samurai made with ZBrush and Substance Painter.
Hi, my name is Yulia Sokolova, I’m a 2D/3D Сharacter Artist from Russia, currently based in Spain. Video-games and animated movies have been a huge chunk of my life and my passion since childhood.
I’m a self-taught artist and haven’t been attending any art schools. Like many of you, I just loved drawing since I was a kid. I think, Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks influenced my style a lot as I literally grew up watching their movies and admiring their characters.
Back then, I didn’t imagine that drawing and modeling would become my real profession, as I was studying Linguistics at the university while doing some freelance illustrations here and there, as a hobby.
My first job in the game industry started just before I graduated, in a branch office of i-Jet Media. At that time various games for social networks, such as Happy Farm, were all the rage and that was something we were working on. It was a step forward for me since I had to learn a lot of new programs and gain new skills.
A couple of years later, Disney contacted me and offered me to work on the Star Darlings franchise. As a huge Disney fan, I was over the moon! It was a truly amazing experience working on this project for almost two years.
Finally, I realized that I enjoy creating characters in 3D more and more, rather than only drawing concepts and 2D illustrations. It just overwhelms me seeing how everything comes to life with all the details and it’s really worth all the efforts spent on every character.
At the moment I’m working on a game project that is going to be announced soon and I’m responsible for the entire visual part of the characters starting from concepts and to the game-ready 3D models. Can’t wait to see how everything turns out!
Samurai is based on the amazing concept by Kati Sarin S. I really like her style, so I started sculpting this character immediately after the moment I saw it on the Feudal Japan contest at Artstation. Initially, I was planning to finish my model during the contest, too, but the deadline was quite close already and I didn’t want to rush, so I decided to take my time and try out a couple of new techniques.
No doubts that most of the time it’s faster and easier to use a base mesh for your work, which already has some basic proportions that you need to adjust and it is a great time-saver. However, when working on a personal piece, you can set yourself free from any boundaries by using spheres, tubes, and primitives, and just experiment with the silhouette and proportions by pushing the shapes to the extreme.
Yet, it doesn’t mean that you need to make up everything entirely from your head. Always remember to collect a good amount of proper references before you start because any stylization is based on real-life examples.
I’m gathering a bunch of various anatomy and clothes references from Pinterest and using PureRef to collect my own boards. Sometimes it is hard to find some particular pose or, for example, a photo of a hand from the desired angle, so it’s easier to make a photo of your own hand or to use a mirror.
What I like about this particular character is a contrast between her thin limbs and baggy clothes. I made her hands and feet slightly bigger than they should be to emphasize this contrast between large and small details. She also has a lot of sharp and pointy lines in her silhouette that I’ve tried to transfer into 3D as well.
Working on the Details
I did the entire block-out in ZBrush, except for the weapon. As for the shoes and the shoulder-pad, I modeled them from a simple cube with the help of Zmodeler. It is a very powerful tool that is still underestimated. It might look confusing at first, because of its huge list of commands, but once you get familiar with it, it can speed up your work a lot.
As soon as the block-out was done, I added more Subdivisions and used Orb Cracks Brush to depict the wooden texture. I really like how well Michael Vicent (Orb) and other Blizzard artists, work with wood, stone, and other materials, colors, and textures, preserving a well-recognized style.
As for the clothes, I also made them in ZBrush. This time I used the Topology Brush to draw a clean topology on top of the body. Then I just deform it with the help of the Move Tool until it looks like a kimono. Finally, I used Geometry > Edge Loops > Panel Loops to add thickness. The same can be done using the Zmodeler with the help of the Extrude or QMesh functions.
Another way that works well with the clothes is masking some part and then using Extract (in the bottom of the Subtool menu) to create a mesh from the mask. I usually use it for sculpting pants or T-shirts. You will have to Zremesh it anyway, but it is quite a fast method to sculpt any detail that is lying on a surface.
Here I also used Orb Brushes for making folds on the clothes. They work great for stylized characters, so I don’t need to switch to Marvelous Designer in this case.
I like to add colors to my sculpts at the early stage. Some people are more comfortable working with greyscale values, but I just like to see everything in color, because it doesn’t distract me from the shapes while adding a lot of life to my character, especially when I paint skin, face, and eyes. You can actually switch back to Flat Color Material in ZBrush at any moment if you need to check the silhouette.
I love how well Polypaint works in ZBrush. You can use a Standard brush, set it to RGB mode and vary its opacity with the help of the RGB Intensity slider. I also enjoy using the brushes made by Shane Olson and available for free on his website.
As for the color choice, I tried to keep it as close to the original as possible, but I also added subtle gradients to everything. I used this approach in the final texturing as well, because gradients help to set the right focus and to make things less flat.
If you have a decent concept with colors, you can actually add the image to the Spotlight in ZBrush as a reference and press C to pick the colors and apply them to your model. But I prefer to pick the colors by eye, because they may look different depending on what shader you’re using in ZBrush.
Substance Painter Workflow
Once I finish up with the high-poly and low-poly, I take everything to Substance Painter for baking and texturing. I bake using the exploded version of the model so that nothing intersects. That helps me to avoid weird shadows and errors. After all my maps are baked, I just replace the exploded mesh with the combined version of the low-poly.
I’m not using the textures directly from ZBrush, I just keep them as a screenshot for the reference. I’m using a lot of Fill Layers for every color that will be presented on my model. As for the textures, I used the standard ones that are presented in Substance Painter – Weave texture for the clothes and a subtle Skin Pores texture for the skin that I’ve taken from the Skin Face Smart Material.
A also applied some masks with textures, such as Grunge Concrete to make the edges «shabby» and to add color variation to the surfaces. I’m not adding too much of those as I want to keep things simple with this particular character.
My biggest challenge in this project was balancing between stylized and realistic details. Especially at the stage of texturing. At first, I just wanted to paint everything in 3DCoat, keeping it as simple as possible in terms of style. But I ended up painting it in Substance Painter and combining the colors with some materials and textures, using the PBR features of the program. I wanted the cloth to look a cloth and metal like metal.
I did a simple rig in Maya just for posing and once I’ve taken everything to Marmoset Toolbag, applied the textures and set up the scene with all the lights, it started to come together. I’ve spent some time adjusting the lights and camera settings for the final presentation.
If you’re interested in how to render a character the same way, creating some nice shots for your portfolio, I have a breakdown article describing the whole process here.
Thank you for reading.