Stylized Character Workflow with Zbrush

Stylized Character Workflow with Zbrush

Elina Karimova shared her character workflow used in personal projects and tips and talked about her Dwarf project made with ZBrush, Photoshop, and Toolbag.

Elina Karimova shared her character workflow used in personal projects and tips and talked about her Dwarf project made with ZBrushPhotoshop, and Marmoset Toolbag.


Hi! My name is Elina Karimova. I started to pursue CG in 2015, in my university days. I had been studying architecture and we were taught some courses on 3D, rendered architecture and infrastructure in 3ds Max. I’ve been working at Plarium as a 3D Character Artist for 2 years. Our most famous projects are Vikings War of Clans and Throne Kingdom at War. Previously,  I had been freelancing for a Canadian artist Jon Rafman for a while when he had exhibitions in the USA and Europe.

I have never learned sculpting professionally and did everything on my own. The internet is full of useful information. Use it wisely and you won’t need additional courses. Personally, I made two attempts to get into ZBrush: the first one was in 2014 but I did not succeed much in learning. Later, in 2015 I tried again with renewed energy and the fun had begun! Mostly, I learned from YouTube watching speed sculpts and analyzing artworks of skilled artists. Artworks of James W Cane especially impressed me and I suppose that they inspired me to learn ZBrush further.

Project Dwarf

Character Workflow

My workflow starts with the creation of a base mesh of the future model in ZBrush. I prepare rough geometry starting from the general shapes to the specific details. I don’t think about the mesh at this step and prefer experimenting with proportions and positioning. After that, I make a rough version of a mesh with Dynamesh and add details. Hard-surface elements require a retopology procedure and a prepared mesh (from 3ds Max) for subDiv.

The topology of the organic parts depends on the purpose of the project. If the project is personal, I concentrate on the sculpting and do retopology automatically in ZBrush. In the case of the work projects, I do the retopology manually preparing it for future animation.

As for the references, I collect literally everything: photos of animals, parts of clothes, traditional and 3D sculptures. If I need human or animal anatomy, I look for references on Sketchfab, rotate and view proportions.


To make my sculptures more natural, I avoid straight lines. Instead, I make them smooth and S-shaped. Being inspired by the glorious artist Beth Cavener, in the Dwarf project I tried to repeat the curves she made in her artworks.

I used standard sculpting brushes: Clay Build Up, Damn Standard, Trim Dynamic; plus a few free Hairbrushes for separate fibers. The surface I created is a result of the following method: I added layers with Clay Build Up brush switching between Add and Sub. I find the final effect quite interesting.

Leaf Cape & Chain Mail: Working On the Pieces Made of Repeating Elements

For small repeating elements, I use InsertMesh Brush and NanoMesh. It is a very convenient tool for quick creation of complicated details.

The leaves were made with InsertMesh Brush. Firstly, I prepared a template of the bunch of leaves in a separate subtool.

Then, I created InsertMesh and turned the template into the brush. Now we can “hang” the leaves to the surface of the model.

The chain mail was made with NanoMesh Brush. Basically, the method is the same: I created a subtool with a metal ring, turned it into InsertMesh Brush, then created a NanoMesh, turned on Zmodeler, chose All Polygons, and stretched the ring along one polygon. There is a Nanomesh tab in the Tool panel where you can adjust the size of the ring and play with other parameters.

I polypainted the textures in ZBrush without unwrapping and lowpoly stages. In this project, my plan was to concentrate more on the sculpting than technical aspects.

There were two main stages of the texturing:

  • Filling the objects with proper gradients
  • Painting with masks (they are in the Tool panel)

Since the design of the model didn’t require photorealistic textures, I found cartoonish references and used them as a guide for filling subtools with colors. Gradients were made with a standard brush with quite small RGB intensity.

I usually select cavities and convexes with the help of masks and fill them with gradients. The main masks I use are Cavity, Smoothness and PeaksAndValleys. Each has its own parameters to adjust along the way and achieve interesting effects. These masks were used for the animal fur.

The color palette references for my scene were mostly taken from the artworks of Even Amundsen, I tried to imitate his style and mood.

Rendering & Post-Processing

I used a default ZBrush renderer and a standard shader SkinShade4. The light source was shifted to the top right corner. Additionally, I changed the settings of the shadows (in the Render panel) to make them softer.

The Clay render was done in Marmoset Toolbag, but before that, I reduced polygon number with Decimation Master keeping a proper level of detalization. As for the light sources positioning, I didn’t follow any lighting rules and played with the volumes to emphasize the volume. In the main camera, I also added sharpen and noise post effects to add some expression.

Post-processing took place in Photoshop. Mostly, it was a correction of color, brightness, and contrast. The glade was made of a plane with a hand-painted texture projected on it inside ZBrush. Then, I cut it with Lasso Tool to make it look like grass.


In this project, I did not use techniques I use in gamedev production, so the pipeline described can’t really be applied to the game model creation. But it is good enough for 3D printing, personal art projects, and mastering sculpting skills.

Elina Karimova, Character Artist at Plarium

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

Join discussion

Comments 0

    You might also like

    We need your consent

    We use cookies on this website to make your browsing experience better. By using the site you agree to our use of cookies.Learn more

    Stylized Character Workflow with Zbrush