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Studying Organic Character Art: Anatomy & Skin

Bjørnar Aarset shared the production details of his Troll character and gave some general advice to the character artists.


Hi, I am Bjørnar Aarset, a 24-year-old 3D Character Artist born, raised and currently residing in Oslo, Norway. I mostly do freelance work while looking for studio opportunities. My last few years have been spent studying abroad, most notably this past year when I studied 3D character art in San Francisco at Academy of Arts University and spent my summer in Florence at a workshop for traditional sculpture at the Florence Academy of Art

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an interest in visual aesthetics choosing to specialize in cinematography while attending high school. Then one day an older friend of mine introduced me to ZBrush and I was hooked immediately. As I started playing around with ZBrush on my own I developed a special interest in human anatomy and its functions. The more I learned about it, the more intriguing it became. I, therefore, feel more drawn towards producing character designs that are organic rather than hard-surface based. 

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General Advice for Creative Minds

One of my biggest takeaways from the character creation process is that quality takes more time than you think. Developing and refining your craft and its techniques takes time, there is no way around it. When planning and starting a new project you often have a vision of the end result and how you might get there. But when you actually start working, you stumble and drown in deep frustrations. Taking a step back, reaching out to others for feedback and help is a vital decision that can help relieve a lot of stress.

The second is to develop your critical thinking skills. If you go to school, it’s easy to rely heavily on your teacher to be there whenever you have a problem, but developing the skill and patience to solve the problems on your own will help you later when you don’t have the same resources available. And who knows, you might come up with a better solution. 

Lastly, don’t be disheartened by amazing art, but rather be inspired. When you see something incredible, save it and use your ability to analyze what makes it great! You will be much happier and learn a lot more in the process. 

Studying Anatomy

If there was one thing I would re-learn in a different fashion it would be my approach to anatomy. When learning anatomy as an artist, I would highly recommend starting by developing your artistic eye, meaning proportions and shape. Knowing the functions and intricate details of the musculature is great, but if you can’t sculpt the shapes of the primary forms correctly, your secondary and tertiary forms will look bad (speaking from experience). A quote I heard Marshall Vandruff mention was, work small to fix big problems and work big to fix small problems. Translating this to ZBrush would be working zoomed out in the beginning and working out the primary forms and silhouette before zooming close to get the subtle nuances right. This is pretty standard stuff: Primary>Secondary>Tertiary.

When studying anatomy the best way for me to practice is to first have a goal in mind. For example, today I want to spend my day studying how the arms raise. I would then start by finding reference photos, usually from bodiesinmotion.photo by Scott Eaton, (great for multiple views), scan data or a simple google search. To get the most out of my studies, I first do it in 2D, then translate it to 3D. Sketching out forms and shapes is simply faster in 2D, and it encourages your brain to look from one angle and memorize the shapes and silhouette. Do this from multiple views, and you’ll be ready to tackle it in 3D! In ZBrush, I dive in deeper to find out how things work together, the skeletal structure underneath and the muscle insertions. Knowing the origins and insertions is a crucial part of understanding how the muscle body will deform in various positions. Proko on YouTube is a good resource for this.

Something I recently picked up (credit to Maria Panfilova) and would recommend everyone try is to create a big reference canvas in PureRef. This is so you always have something to go back to reference when you get stuck. Here is mine, which is still in early progress:

When you know your anatomy, not only will your character look more realistic, but you will be able to realistically change the volumes and proportions of your character. 


Troll: Start of the Work

The Troll character has been a fantastic project to work on. I started sculpting it back in February 2019 but had to put it on hold because of school and work. I knew I wanted to get back to it, and I’m happy that I did. The key reference I have been using is the awesome concept art made by Sandra Duchiewicz for Warhammer: Total War. I wanted to go for a bit more realistic and toned-down look for my version of the character which made me do a few design changes, mostly on the head, making it more orc-ish. 

I created a moodboard and reference sheet in PureRef of what I thought might come in handy when I started sculpting and then added some throughout the project. I also valued getting examples of the game characters already translated to 3D in the game. 

Here are some of my key references (not all ref included):


Creating the mouth was a blast and creating the tongue and playing around with subsurface scattering in Marmoset was a thrill. First of all, I created a scatter map in Substance Painter simply by painting in white with what I wanted to be affected by scattering and black for what I wanted to leave out. Then in Marmoset, I set the diffusion to subsurface scatter and chose the scatter depth and translucency. In simple terms, scatter depth controls the waxiness of the material and translucency controls how far the light penetrates the surface. The settings of these parameters depend heavily on the scene scale (to get an understanding of your scene scale, go to the render panel and enable “show scale reference” ). Just play around with the settings until you find something you like. Keep in mind that adding subsurface scattering will soften your normal details.

For the color information on the tongue, I did all the painting in Substance Painter. For the base color, I like to start dark with a dark color, and then work up with lights and hue variation. I recommend using the dirt brushes in Substance Painter, they have a nice texture for organic materials in my opinion.

Texturing Skin

Working on the details, I wanted to do most of the high-frequency details in Substance Painter. This provides multiple benefits. First of all, it’s non-destructive, meaning you have the option to do major changes and experiment on your model without consequences. In ZBrush, you would have to re-bake your maps if you wish to make changes. For this project, I used Substance Source as a base for the pore details. They have a lot of organic materials on their website which I recommend checking out.  I painted in the different materials on different fill layers, then blended them together to create natural transitions (use reference during this phase!). I tick off the color and roughness information because I like doing those maps separately. 

When creating scars across the body, I wanted them to be subtle. When layering this in Substance Painter, I always use fill layers with masks. For me, using fill layers is a must, because being able to change your diffuse, roughness and height at any point is incredibly powerful. Building up the scars was pretty simple. I started with the redness, then just kept looking at reference and deciphering how the scars are built up. Having some negative height in addition to the color is great to increase the detail on the character. I recommend using a rough brush, like the artistic brush or artistic heavy (native in Painter). Cut with a simple basic hard brush, then add some specularity variation to the wound with the roughness set low, and at the end add dark marks to illustrate dried blood spots. Now you have some combat wounds! 

When working on the skin, I learned a lot from watching Magdalena Dadela. She has multiple videos you can find on Youtube. In practice, I did the diffuse similarly to the way I built up the tongue, just a lot more layers but still painting with a simple dirt brush. A tip is to use your baked curve map to add redness to your cavities. Use references when doing this, there is a lot of color variation, especially in the face, be sure to capture the nuances.

Building up layers of dirt is always a treat. This is your chance to tell a story with your character. Where has he been, where is he now, etc. This is what will make your character seem grounded in a real-world environment. I usually start my dirt base with a generator based on my position map, then add more layers painting in variation by hand. Be sure to paint your dirt with a different roughness value than your skin. If you leave it the same, it will look like discoloration on your skin (unless that is what you want).


For this project, I wanted to have quality rather than optimization. That being said, everything is hand-retopologized in Maya. The most important part of retopologizing is to capture the silhouette with as few polygons as possible. Other things I did for optimization was saving UV space with duplicates and mirrored geometry. When duplicating, it is important to randomize the orientation and angles to avoid repetition. When mirroring geometry, move the UV shell one unit to the right (or any direction). When you bake it in Marmoset, it will bake the mirrored geometry too. I did this with the fingernails and ropes on the shoulder.


Presentation is not my favorite part.  I love film noir lighting which often has this foggy mystique feeling to it, and I wanted to capture that in the presentation shot. Working in real-time really makes the process a lot more fun and easier to experiment with. This is the light setup for the scene: 

On my keylight, I set a lower distance, so that I’d have a light falloff. I set a narrow spot angle, so the tree trunks going out from the troll's trapezius wouldn’t catch the light. Then, I also added spot vignette and turned down the spot sharpness, so the light had a softer falloff. 

I also added a fog actor in Marmoset Toolbag and kept the falloff on exponential. You can also change the color but for this project, I kept it white/grey. 

Apart from lighting, posing your character is an important part of your presentation. It appears more lifelike and adds a lot of character even through a simple and subtle pose. My initial plan was not to pose the character, but my girlfriend encouraged me to take the extra time to do it and am grateful for it.


Finally, I'd like to thank my friend and teacher Oliver Barazza who sent me invaluable feedback during the project, as well as Donpolygon and Glaucolonghi discords. Without them, I wouldn't be able to get the same result.

Thanks for reading!

Bjørnar Aarset, Character Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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