Sculpting & Texturing a Stylized Sword

Lucas Maxfield did a breakdown of his stylized PBR prop Fisherman's Sword sculpted in ZBrush and textured in Substance Painter.


Hello, my name is Lucas Maxfield, I’m a 3D Artist from Bristol, UK. I began my journey into 3D at the University of South Wales studying Computer Animation and have since worked, amongst other things, in the defense industry making planes, tanks, engines, and other manly stuff. Recently I had the chance to do some 3D character lookdev for a Disney-style animation feature, which, unfortunately, I can’t tell you about due to non-disclosure. I now fancy a change so I’m prepping to move into games as an environment/prop artist.

About Sword Projects

My last 2 portfolio pieces have been swords, by accident. I think mostly because I was used to making modern weaponry at work, I wanted to make something more fantasy-based. Swords are nice self-contained props that serve as good modeling and texturing practice as they contain hard edges mixed with flowing and smooth surfaces and a variety of materials.

Fisherman's Sword & Arthur's Excalibur

Fisherman’s Sword: Concept

The Fisherman’s Sword was my first attempt at stylized prop art, which I was inspired to make after seeing Elodie Mondoloni’s amazing concept.

I’ve always been a fan of stylized art and I thought I’d push myself a little out of my comfort zone. I started by looking at a number of other stylized pieces that I enjoy, such as the work of Fanny Vergne and Michael Vicente. I observed the use of exaggerated shapes and simplification of smaller details in their pieces. I knew I had to nail the balance between flowing organic tentacles mixed with the hard crystal/stone of the blade.

Sculpting the Base in ZBrush

The sword was done in ZBrush using the Zmodeler and Move brush to make the base. Luckily, the concept art is flat on, so I was able to use Pureref (highly recommended free reference imagery software for any artist) in overlay mode on top of ZBrush to get the silhouette nailed.

The rope was made using 3 cylinders, twisted and stretched then moved into place.

From there, I used Inflate and Claybuildup without an alpha to get the medium details. I recommend the Smooth Stronger brush if you’ve been a bit heavy-handed with your mesh density, it can be found under Lightbox Brushes. It’s useful for smoothing out janky bits when using the Move brush also.

The hard shapes of the blade and scales were beaten up using the trim dynamic and trim smooth border brushes. The latter is great for creating that layered effect and I highly recommend it to anyone doing rock-like shapes. It can be found in Lightbox Brushes as well.

Retopo & UVs

For the retopology and UVs, I used 3ds Max. Attempting to save time when creating my low poly, I tried both decimating and zremeshing to get something to work from but ended up scrapping most of it. I took a decimated version of my model into Max and used Step Build alongside traditional modeling techniques to get the desired result.

The UVs were unwrapped with hand-painting in mind – keeping as much of each element intact as possible. Additionally, I mirrored all the symmetrical elements to save space.

All the information you need about UV-mirroring for baking is in this Polycount thread.


The texturing process was inspired by Fanny Vergne’s tutorial on stylised PBR texturing Substance Painter. One of my main goals for this project was to increase my skills with color harmony, and I’d like to thank Mike Redman for providing me with feedback regarding this.

I baked my maps in Painter (normal, AO, curvature, position) and began making
color gradients using the 3D linear gradient and 3D distance generators. I then used the curvature map to generate the exaggerated edge highlights typically seen in stylized work. Additionally, I added some shadows using the AO map.

One thing to keep in mind is creating interesting color relationships through warm and cool variations. For example, on the blade, I used cooler shadows to contrast nicely with the warm reddy base colors. The addition of cooler accents in the form of highlights helped to sell it further.

Probably the most challenging part to paint was the tentacles. Achieving that subsurface scattering feel (where light penetrates through the surface and bounces around) was tricky to hand-paint. My approach was to add lighter pink tones to the areas where the tentacle got thinner, to simulate the light passing through. I had to fight against over-detailing, to keep areas where the eye can rest a little. More detail isn’t always better!

Sword's Glowing End

I deviated a little from the concept, especially at the end of the blade. I wanted to add some more interest in the form of that green tough inside the blade and the wispy glow emanating from it. To keep to the Fisherman theme, I wanted to make those elements look a tiny bit like glowing jellyfish. I painted them in Photoshop and stuck them on a plane with an alpha map. I looked at images of the Aurora Borealis as a reference for the inner green glow.


Finally, I used Marmoset Toolbag 3 to render the scene, pretty standard stuff. I used one of the native HDRIs with additional point lights to add some rim light and accents.

Lucas Maxfield, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

In 2018, we had an interview with Johnny Malcolm who also created a stylized sword based on the same concept by Elodie Mondoloni. Follow the link below to read the article:

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