Vinca: Designing Stylized Character from Scratch

Vinca: Designing Stylized Character from Scratch

Brendan McCaffrey shared the experience of taking Marlon Nunez's course during which he designed and created a stylized character Vinca in ZBrush.


Hi, I'm Brendan McCaffrey, I'm a digital artist currently based in Las Palmas, Spain. I'm originally from Ireland and I'm a graduate from NCAD, Dublin, where I studied Industrial Design. I produce key art and illustrations for video games, toys and products, notably, the Need for Speed & Moto GP series, GI Joe and Star Wars Battlefront. I’m very passionate about the product and vehicle design. Sci-fi artists like Syd Mead, Chris Foss, and Tim White influenced me early on and have been an important driving force in my work.

I was first introduced to 3D at the university when I did an internship at a 3D production company (after graduation, I went on to work there). I initially did a lot of arch-viz and product viz. I went on to work in Singapore where I focused exclusively on product visualization and animation. When I returned to Europe I started working freelance as an illustrator on a much broader range of projects in the video game and toy industries.

Stylized Character Program at Art Heros

I met Marlon Nunez a few years ago and when he mentioned he was launching a school called Art Heros I grabbed the chance to take the first course. Marlon is really great at what he does and it comes across in the course. I took the Stylized Character Program which included, along with the video course, a weekly session where we got together as a group in a video conference and broke down our work. Marlon led these sessions giving each artist an allotted time, helped us push the character, and resolved any technical or creative issues we were having. The input from other members of the group was invaluable and everyone had something to contribute. The sessions generally ended with a skill share session where we’d all share our little tips and tricks.

The course is broken into weeks and each week has a series of videos to follow and tasks to complete. I approached it as I would approach a professional project and that actually pushed me to get the work done.  My course goals were to gain an understanding of the character workflow from sketch to finished product, deepen my ZBrush knowledge, and get some guidance in anatomy and organic work exploration. My expectations were exceeded both in terms of what I learned and what I was able to produce during the course.


Vinca: Choosing Character Design

When the course started and we were asked to pick a design to work from I had no hesitation in grabbing my daughter Clara's sketchbooks and trawling through them. She is a font of ideas and well on her way to becoming a professional character designer. Later this year, all going well, she’ll be starting university studying art.

Once I had chosen a character that both attracted my eye and fulfilled the requirements of the course I set about defining the design. Initially, the character was not fully formed and existed in a dozen variations so the first step was to establish a definitive design. Next, I tried to establish a general 2D style by gathering a collection of Clara’s other more resolved characters to get a feel for the world the characters lived in. Lastly, I gathered a whole pile of references. I use Pureref a lot so I set up my initial board there as a starting point.

I knew that I would be doing a lot of exploration in 3D so my initial concern was to get the right feeling for the character to inform what I was going to do later with the sculpt. I saw the sketch as a jumping-off point rather than a definitive design in itself. I think this made the process of finding the character in 3D more engaging for me.

Sculpting Forms & Painting in ZBrush

Marlon’s approach is to start by defining the major volumes and refine from there - and that really works for me. Back in the day, I was a product designer and I learned how to model in Alias. I had a great teacher Juha Kosonen (who is the Chief Designer at Huawei right now) who taught me a method of defining primary surfaces and volumes, then establishing secondary or transition surfaces and then working on details. I think this works for anatomical models as well as for hard surfaces.

For example, each major body part started as a primitive shape and the main proportions were then established. Gradually, each part is joined together and the transitions between each are established. Lastly, the smaller parts like fingers and toes are added in. The detail sculpting only begins after the overall form is working. The advantage of this approach is that you don’t get bogged down in detail early on. There is a resistance to changing something if it requires a lot of work so by keeping it simple in the early stages you feel better about making those badly needed changes.

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The painting for this character was a two-step process that started in ZBrush and was finished in Substance Painter. I defined the colors in blocks very early in the development as they play a big role in how you feel about a character. I polypainted the face and skin inside ZBrush as it’s more fluid than Painter. All these colors were then baked out and used as a base layer in Painter to which I added texture.

When it comes to stylization, my approach is to simplify and exaggerate (either or both). This project was an exploration for me and I let my hand and eye guide me without putting too many limits on myself. I would have to do 10 or 20 more characters to really find where my sweet spot is.


All the clothing is sculpted as was demonstrated in the course but I am experimenting with Marvelous Designer right now and hope to add that into the mix very soon. Marlon did a great job of identifying key features of clothing and I applied that when blocking out the clothes. After that, all the details were added based on the reference or observation. Here is where my Pureref board started to grow exponentially.

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I did most of the unwrapping in ZBrush and then exported everything to Maya to set up all the UDIMs and correct any issues. For example, the pants unwrap was pretty useless so I redid that using Rizom and it worked amazingly well. I had not used RizomUV before Marlon introduced me to it. Initially, I thought it was ok but I didn’t see the benefit of it over the built-in Maya editor... until I threw some CAD at it. Then, the performance difference just blew me away. Maya UV editor on complex models just crawls. RizomUV is so much faster and the seam cutting is just amazing. Now, I use it for everything. It’s a little daunting at first as the interface is a little busy but once you get the basics it’s easy to use. I’m still in the exploration and learning phase but it has already saved me days of work.  


I use Substance Painter to do all my texturing. I have a subscription so I get access to all the Substance Source materials and additionally, I use Quixel Megascans. This combination forms the base of almost everything. The key to making Painter work is to have a good bake and understand what each map can do for you. After that, it’s about using them in a coherent way and with intentionality. For example, if you look at the front of the sole of a shoe there is a diamond pattern and the tips of the diamonds are dirty. The crevices are clean. This is not random. If you look at how the shoes get dirty you can observe this pattern. Knowing this, you can then use the curvature baked map to isolate the edges and the AO to mask the crevices so that the dirt goes where you want. Knowing the history of the object is Coherence and understanding how to use the tools to do something deliberately is Intentionality. The third element in this approach is Vision which means adding a unique voice or style. This is my general approach to everything I do.

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Patch & Necklace

The patch detail at the back of the jacket was really a fun distraction and came from a little drawing done by Clara. It was unrelated to the character but I saw it and it clicked with me so I started building it. If you look very closely you’ll see she is wearing a necklace with this same design. I would say there is nothing very complex about it, just a build-up of simple elements. I built the basic forms in 3D in ZBrush, then scaled it, and then used IMM brushes to add stitches. I then baked it to a flat plane in Substance and applied it to the jacket in Painter as a decal.

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My main rendering package is V-Ray for Maya but in this case, I used Marmoset Toolbag for almost the entire project. Marmoset is great and its process for look dev is fast which allows you to do more experimentation. Where it falls down is in the fine detail and accuracy you get with something like V-Ray or Arnold.

My approach to lighting and presentation is very classical: I use a 3-point lighting method using Key, Fill and Edge lights. Key defines form and mood, Fill or Ambient light works with Key to further define form, fill in shadows and outline the mood, Edge helps define the silhouette and can help lift the subject from the background. I often use IBL as fill light but in my general work, I use HDR Light Studio to control it as it’s rare to find a basic HDR that just works. Again, I use the same philosophy as I mentioned above.


I do intend to bring this character further by completing the hair (I wanted to do more realistic hair but ran out of time) and doing some lighting and rendering using V-Ray. The few tests I managed to do look quite nice.

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For me, the biggest thing about this project and course was to craft something that looks well-executed and somewhat original from scratch and also to learn the workflow and techniques that could help me along the way. In 25 years as a 3D artist, I have never built a character from zero and I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. I always knew I could but knowing is only half the battle. 

Brendan McCaffrey, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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