Sculpting & Texturing a Stylized Shinobi

Sculpting & Texturing a Stylized Shinobi

Matheus Fernando did a breakdown of his ArtStation Challenge Feudal Japan submission Shinobi, a stylized character made with ZBrush and Substance Painter.

Matheus Fernando did a breakdown of his ArtStation Challenge Feudal Japan submission Shinobi, a stylized character made with ZBrush and Substance Painter.


Hello there, my name is Matheus Fernando B. de Lima and I come from São Paulo, Brazil. I’m a 3D generalist and illustrator.

Road to 3D

Since I was young I wanted to do something related to art and games, but here in Brazil, these subjects were quite “new” (and still are). Right after high school, I attended a graduation course named Digital Games in a public college. Even though I knew the course was all about programming, I decided to give it a shot but quit after a year and a half. By that time I wanted to work as a 2D artist, so I self-studied drawing and painting until I discovered  Melies college, here in São Paulo. The college has different courses, all related to design and art, and I attended Audiovisual Production, and there I found out about the 3D world.

I wasn’t so engaged in 3D until the second semester. There, however, we had a class that involved character production where we started working with ZBrush and I just loved it. I decided to give it a shot and created my first 3D character, the Number 18, based on the concept by amazing Gop Gap. I could say I was really proud of myself about that particular piece, but I also realized I needed to study even more.

Around the middle of the next year, I got a job in a cosmetics company. I learned a lot about VFX there and had to deal with modeling, sculpting, texturing, shader, rendering, lighting, cameras, some animations, post-production, and even some concepts thanks to my drawing skills. Basically, I was working as a generalist. Here in Brazil being a generalist is the best way to get a job in the industry as most of the things related to 3D here are about publicity and VFX Production. In this regard, the college was great because I learned about most of the areas of the industry.

After a couple of months, I graduated from college and by that time I had already discovered my passions for 3D: modeling, sculpting and texturing.

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It was hard to choose a concept for the challenge as there were excellent artists competing there, but I was delighted with this concept by amazing Servane Altermatt. I chose it because all of the elements were simply beautiful and sweet, everything worked together: the silhouette, colors, the design of the character itself. I just added my own touch to the atmosphere and some other elements to make the theme darker and less colorful.


I prefer to begin my projects with a base mesh. I tend to start all of them from scratch because it’s always good to keep practicing. When I’m satisfied with the base mesh, I dynamesh everything together and, by doing this, I can get the proportions and the body type on point. I still struggle a little when getting the proportions 100% accurate, so sometimes I fix and change them during the sculpting phase. This is just visual practicing: the more you practice with references, the better you are able to do it next time. Sometimes I even go to Photoshop and do some sketches of the proportions, paintovers are always welcome.

After this, I immediately work on the shapes. The mesh by this point is extremely low, that’s a rule that everyone should follow. In the beginning, the shapes are way more important than the details, especially if you are creating a stylized/cartoonish piece. The secret is to always keep checking the shapes for the overall character, the body, the clothes, and accessories.

As you can see, the character is starting to get the form. Still, there are lots of things to work on. This is the beginning, so don’t mind if the model is weird-looking. Usually, by this point, I check some Photoshop notes I took and make a paintover. The liquify option in PS is awesome for this, you can edit any part you want and get a different view of your model quickly without losing time in ZBrush. Again, I’m talking about silhouette and shapes.

After finishing the “first phase”, I start to sculpt the meshes to approach different kinds of materials and get the details. I like to organize how I am going to deal with them because I would rather create most of the micro details in Substance Painter, but some details are better to be done in ZBrush.

The major scratches, cloth folds, and damaged parts are created in ZBrush. When I get the shape done, I go back to dynamesh. Dynamesh is better when deforming the sculpt because you can always update the mesh and clean some weird stuff that may happen. But yeah, I tend to update all of the parts of the model at the same time, simply because by finishing the major shapes, everything should be already working on the model.

For some details, I like to work with Zremesher and the divide option, so I can create good UVs with UVmaster inside ZBrush. Keep in mind that these UVs will only be used inside ZBrush. The final UVs will be created after the retopology phase, of course.

The waist flower details, for example, were created with a tileable (almost) texture in Photoshop that was used as an alpha mask in ZBrush. The problem here is that it’d be really hard to modify it, so I just made everything it was working totally fine. After that, I would use the cavity map done in Painter to enhance the colors and details. Just a quick tutorial for the noisemaker and how I created the pattern for the waist piece:

For the micro details, such as little metal scratches and fabric textures, I prefer to use Painter, just because I work there with fill layers. This way the entire process is not “destructive” meaning that you can always go back and edit what you have done. I picked up this tip from Glauco Longhi by watching his videos and interviews. He creates most of his final details inside Substance Painter, and this is just awesome. You can achieve awesome results with different kinds of workflows.


I love getting a lot of references which led me to some videos about Japanese fashion. From them, I learned some information about kimonos and even how to wrap an Obi around your body. When you have the right information about something, you can modify that in your piece as you wish. Most importantly, you will know what you are doing.

I created all of the clothes in ZBrush as it was faster for me. Depending on the complexity of clothes though, I start with a mesh in Maya, then go back to ZBrush and start sculpting. ZBrush is really versatile in terms of creating new meshes, you have lots of different ways to get the same results.

For me, the best result is achieved by creating a group in a part of the mesh and splitting it to a new subtool. There, I work with group loops, Zremesher and panel loops. In the next phases, I usually end up using dynamesh on it for easier modification. I applied it to all of the arm and leg straps, for example.

The High Poly is always separated, I don’t sculpt things together unless it’s a shirt or something like that. So yeah, I need to be very organized with my projects because I use too many subtools.


After I bake the maps in Substance Painter, I build a Greyscale map using the AO, the Curvature and the Normal Map. I normally paint and fix some issues with the AO map, then with only the green channel of the normal map (as a multiply layer), I can get some kind of grayscale gradient. In the end, I refine the dark and light edges with the Curvature map (you can use one layer as an overlay and another with Hardlight to strengthen them even more). With this, I can get a pretty nice transition from the dark to the light parts. Just remember this is a PBR project and this is normally a workflow for hand-painted characters to fake light, so you need to use this new AO map with subtlety. Only for the face, I prefer to polypaint the base in ZBrush, just because as I said before, I was studying 2D painting for some years and I got used to it. I kind of like the brushers and modifiers that ZBrush has for painting.

When the greyscale map is ready, I use gradient maps to get the color base for the whole character. With this, you can get a nice transition of colors for your models. But this is just the base. After this step, I go to Painter where I add the textures and if needed, I change some colors as well. I even like to use the position map in some edited masks to get better colors inside Painter.

The patterns were easy to do,  especially inside Painter. Since I already foreseen this part, I created some alphas for those cloth drawings. Some of them were created with the offset tool in Photoshop. Since they are simple forms, it was relatively easy to be done. With this kind of alpha, you get tileable (seamless) textures that make your life easier when texturing. Inside Substance Painter, I can try on some parameters like the scale, offset and rotation to get the desirable final version of the masks.

The other ones were created by hand, again in Photoshop.

As I got a lot of references for this part, the texturing for the drawings was all about tests and more tests. I knew that I wanted them to look like they were sewed, so I tried to achieve as closets result as possible.

Metal Pieces

After I created the base color for the whole model I started texturing the armor as well. As I said previously, it’s better when you update the whole character at the same time. Again, Painter works really good with the little details, especially because you can change the roughness and height position (normal). I always use some ready materials for the first pass. I modify a lot of parameters, then build the final material and paint most of the details by hand. Just be careful when using Smart Materials, since they may look good at first sight but still need some work. Don’t just throw the material in there. There are a lot of combinations you can create with masks and smart masks and you can even take some parts of other smart materials to build something totally different. Just try them.

When I make steel and iron materials I don’t use the metallic channel at 100% (in terms of PBR), unless I want something like gold, silver or another very polished metal. And of course, it depends on what project you are working on, but you will end up doing a lot of tests anyway, there’s no way to escape from it.

Weapon Ropes

I created the high poly of the string (it was just 3 lines interlaced, almost like a braid) using a custom curve in ZBrush and baked it on a plane in Painter. Just have in mind that the string needs to be tileable comparing to the plane, meaning that you won’t see any seams at the end and start of it. I even created the fabric textures in Substance including the opacity map (this one is really important). If you have some problems with getting a good bake you can create a cage for it – in this case, you just need to duplicate the plane and put it above the high poly. Then, in Painter, you choose the cage option and bake it.

As I already had the textures ready, I duplicated the plane many times and created a long one. In this case, the “planes” will still have the same UV. After that, you can pose the plane the way you want, just be aware of some distortions.


By far, the most challenging part was the hair, both the sculpt and shader for it. The sculpting phase for the hair took around 2 weeks because I made 3 or 4 variations, and none of them pleased me. When I started to do the baking phase, I decided to give it one last shot. By that moment the challenge was already finished, and I had some free time to work on it a little more. I modified the hair and made it shorter than it was in the concept.

The shader was a real challenge for me. I wanted to create something like Blizzard’s Overwatch hair shader inside Marmoset. I still don’t think I got that right, actually, I am pretty sure about it. I probably could have worked more on the intensity of the reflections to get the anisotropic highlights working better. You can see it working really smooth on the hair but in the end, I created some stripe patterns with roughness inside Substance Painter to break up the specular and I ended up liking the result.

Matheus Fernando B. de Lima, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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