Iurie Barbaneagra and Leander Pokorny shared how the characters of Essence of Eternity, a "very uncooperative card game", were sculpted and showed the process of bringing intricate details to life.
Leo: Hi, my name is Leander Pokorny but my friends call me Leo. I work as a freelance miniature sculptor. I have most recently worked on a couple of board games based on Brandon Sanderson's “The Stormlight Archive” book series which were produced by the wonderful Johnny and Chris O'Neal from Brotherwise Games. Other noteworthy projects include “Darksiders: The Forbidden Land”, “The Dragon Prince: Battlecharged” as well as work for various miniatures studios such as Ronin Arts Workshop and Archvillain. Most recently I have also started to pick up freelance work for game studios though I am not yet ready to share that work.
Looking through old hard drives, my first ZBrush sculpt dates back to 2016. It's a DynaMesh blob vaguely resembling a human face but I'm quite fond of it since it was my first experience with 3D software. My first sculpt was the result of never really being satisfied with my ability to correctly shade and light scenes in traditional media and so I felt like letting 3D do its work for me felt like a reasonable solution to this problem.
Iurie: Hi, I'm Iurie Barbaneagra, a freelance 3D character artist based in Austria. Ever since I was a young boy, I enjoyed working with clay, creating masks and figurines in an afterschool art class. I then realized that modeling rather than painting was my preferred method of artistic expression. Even when I enrolled in the Vienna School of Art, which focused heavily on painting, I would still spend much of my time working with clay. Studying game art seemed like a logical evolution in my creative journey, and when I graduated from the SAE Institute Vienna, I immediately founded my own gaming company with a handful of friends, which still operates under the name "NONEX Games GmbH." To this day, it is one of my proudest achievements, along with the commission of my first-ever miniatures by Geektopia Games and most recently, multiple board game projects related to Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive novels. "Essence of Eternity," the project this interview is centered around, certainly counts as one of my most memorable projects as well.
3D Sculpting Journey
Iurie: I first went down the ZBrush rabbit hole during my studies at SAE Institute. I vividly remember the first time I saw one of my ZBrush sculpts awkwardly shuffling through the forest of a horror game prototype we built as an exercise in game development; as amateurish as the end result may have been, I knew instantly that this was my lifelong passion. Years after graduating and having worked on quite a few projects with my Nonex Games colleagues, my path crossed again with Leo. He had been an SAE student during my time there, and he reached out to me and asked for help with a personal project of his. Soon after, I became the third member of the Essence of Eternity team. He worked longer in the industry than I did, so we exchanged tutoring for art contributions, which eventually resulted in a friendship and genuine interest in the project. Despite my proficiency in ZBrush, I remain committed to continuous learning. There's always a new, more efficient approach or technique to discover. The journey of learning is ongoing, and I believe that will always be the case.
Leo: When I first started messing around in ZBrush and Blender, I quickly noticed the former is closest to traditional drawing, and so it became my primary software to create art. The day my first digital models turned into real-life physical prints that I could hold in my hands, I definitely knew that this was something I could see myself doing for years to come. This enthusiasm was shared by a former teacher of mine, Hector Moran, who offered me the chance to work on a board game named “Darksiders: The Forbidden Land,” which was featured in your publication a couple of years ago. He taught me a ton of useful skills and workflows which became the foundation for the work I produce today. While I do know my way around ZBrush quite well by now and have passed on my knowledge to others, I still feel like there are new keyboard shortcuts, hidden functions, and new features to discover. You never stop learning, after all.
Essence of Eternity
Leo: I originally came up with the idea for Essence of Eternity a couple of years ago. I was looking for a way to motivate myself to do something productive in between projects and rainy weekends, and doing a small game felt like a good opportunity to do just that. I was afraid of tackling a project with too big a scope and having it die in production hell, so I settled for the smallest type of game I could think of, which was a card game. Essence of Eternity was primarily designed as an exercise in game design, concepting, sculpting, rendering, and layouting without any financial goals in mind. Still, I couldn't have done it without my friends and coworkers Iurie Barbaneagra and Florian Aigner. While the former helped me out with a large portion of the artworks in the game, the latter is an avid Magic: the Gathering player who organized multiple playtesting sessions among his equally nerdy friends. Knowing each other for years, the work was relatively clearly separated by the strengths and weaknesses of the individual team members. Florian is good at making people in test groups feel comfortable while I was trying to collect data in the background. Iurie is stronger than I when sculpting monsters and certain types of soft tissue, so we would assign him creatures that fit this description, etc.
Iurie: When I joined the Essence of Eternity project, I was only thinking about doing one or two pieces to get some exercise and experience. However, I genuinely enjoyed playing the card game and didn't mind contributing more and more artworks until I eventually became a regular member of our Discord channel and test groups. Today, I am a core member of "Microcosmic Horror Games" alongside Leo, which is already working on the early development of new projects and prototypes.
Team: The initial stage of our creative process centered around conceptualizing characters and monsters to synergize well with their intended role as part of the gameplay. This meant that design ideas always needed to convey a fantasy through both gameplay and visuals, with the former drastically influencing the latter. New cards were introduced into playtesting sessions with placeholder art. Only when they felt right in terms of gameplay did we initiate the design phase, which would usually start with a simple concept sketch or 3D kitbash.
Given the layout constraints that come with creating a card game, we strategically consider how we would frame out creatures and characters in the limited space available to us as early as possible in the design process. The difficulty in designing characters, creatures, and other artwork stemmed from the desire to achieve legible silhouettes in a small space while making sure to communicate a card's narrative identity along the way.
Preliminary blockouts were crafted in ZBrush, a dynamic process involving constant adjustments. Various iterations were explored, with promising versions undergoing rudimentary lighting tests in Marmoset Toolbag to gauge their visual impact as soon as possible. Work at this stage was intentionally coarse, often utilizing DynaMesh or the lowest subdivision level, until the characters took shape with the desired form and features. We also made sure to do basic paint jobs on our artworks in the first few hours of work since color zones interact in unpredictable ways depending on the light setup they are placed in.
When adding further detail to our blockouts, we didn't approach them like regular game characters or miniatures which need to look good from as many angles as possible, but rather like you would plan a shot in a movie. This meant we would intentionally limit the areas of a card design that needed to be detailed beyond a basic blockout. Heroes would only be shown from the hips onward, which simplified posing significantly. As far as creatures are concerned, we needed to be even more restrictive in order to avoid having to build entire scenes for them, which would have been a lot of work.
Pretty early on, we decided it would be best to limit their artworks to a circular space on the cards, which not only had the advantage of being able to hide much of their bodies but also helped us make the cards feel more in line with essence cards that fill a similar amount of space on the card as most creatures do. At some point, we even decided to turn this initial limitation into a feature, having creatures interact with the borders of their circular portraits. This includes simple things like the legs of a giant spider sticking “out of the card,” but personally, I think we've been the most successful with this approach when designing the hundred-eyed horror. If we had to start all over again, we would probably lean even more heavily into this idea. Unlike in other projects where you need to match concept art done by other artists as closely as possible, since we did our own designs, the likeness wasn't much of a concern.
Team: Of course, we followed general rules of detailing, making sure every element added to a character contributed to the overall silhouette and introduced color strategically, guiding the viewer's focus to a character's focal points. For this project, however, adding detail came with a number of factors one would usually not have to consider when creating characters or creatures. We would, for example, always ask ourselves, "What will this artwork be used for, and how detailed does it have to be as a result of its intended use?" Knowing most characters would be present on the box and play a role in marketing, they were detailed enough to prominently fill space on a PC screen or tablet. At the same time, we frequently studied our artworks shrunk down to the size of a credit card, which is almost identical to the format the cards will be printed in. Card mockups of designs entering the detailing stage would also include placeholder text and other layout components, which often add detail and color in their own right.
In places where it paid off to add fine details, we frequently experimented with various self-made alphas, applied UVs to certain parts of the model we thought might benefit from more detailed normal maps, and added further detail by blending various materials in KeyShot and Marmoset Toolbag via opacity masks. These opacity masks were created in ZBrush by exporting black and white polypaint as textures. Some of this polypaint was hand-painted, but we mostly worked with grunge maps and various ZBrush mask generators.
The lighting setup for each character follows a three-light approach: the key light is the most intense and establishes the main source of light; the fill light, less intense, is positioned on the opposite side of the key light to soften shadows; and the rim light is placed behind the object to outline its form. Depending on the desired mood, such as a campfire next to the character, we strategically place colored lights to evoke the intended atmosphere.
Team: We used both Marmoset Toolbag and KeyShot in this project, depending mostly on the type of object or character we wanted to render. KeyShot allows for the effortless creation of more complex materials, as seen in the artwork “Frantic Cinderhusk,” which uses a fire material created by blending an emissive material with a translucent plastic material. Marmoset excels with subsurface and volumetric scattering, so we used it for characters that show a lot of skin and other organics. It is also quicker in terms of render duration and setting up lights, making it ideal for exploring the general feel we wanted to convey in our artwork.
We always started with an HDRI sky to set the general mood of the scene, then enhanced it with a number of complementary lights. Special care was taken with rim lights, especially since our card backgrounds were often dark. Without them, a render like “Azmodeus” would barely be visible in the final compositions, so we made sure to crank up their intensity. Post-production settings included bloom, ACES tone mapping for a more cinematic feel, and extensive manual tweaking of render layers in Photoshop. Due to the stylized nature of the project, we often chose to increase saturation and contrast or to intensify brightly colored rim lights. This wasn't just because of our colorful design approach but also because much color and contrast are lost when printed on the paper used for standard playing cards.
Team: The time spent on our artworks varied greatly, depending on the complexity of the sculpt and the artist's prior experience with similar designs. The Deeprock Lichling was sculpted in a few hours but proved to be rather complex in rendering. Others, like "Azmodeus," were completed over a rainy Saturday. We also often approached characters with the mindset of "I have no idea how to do this yet, but I will find a way," which meant that some time was spent researching and figuring out new workflows you don't really come across as a miniature artist.
Iurie: Starting on Essence of Eternity, I was uncertain about its outcome and whether anyone would witness the final product. Nevertheless, I recognized it as a substantial learning opportunity, propelling me in artistic, technical, and organizational dimensions. Even if the game didn't gain widespread recognition, it would still contribute valuable pieces to my portfolio. The essential lesson: Embrace unfamiliar territories, be bold in your pursuits, and don't wait for the perfect project. Small endeavors frequently pave the way to more significant opportunities.
Leo: The sculpt that definitely took the longest was "Abbatissa Elyisa," a Necromancer-type character. She was the first model I started working on and the last to be finished. She represents my struggle with learning to sculpt reasonably appealing female characters, exploring light setups and material creation, and coming up with an original design instead of letting a concept artist do the heavy lifting for me. You can see my first attempt at rendering her versus how she ended up looking in the final product. There are almost three years of working as an artist, countless tutorials, and trial and error between these two images. While a certain part of me dislikes the artwork for how many times I went back to it, I am also somewhat fond of her as she represents the things I was able to learn throughout the project. She is also the best advice I can give to aspiring artists.
Be persistent. You're not going to be satisfied with your art for a very long time, probably never. But its
a marathon and not a sprint. Every face you sculpt will be better than the one before. Every trick that
you learn will be another solution to a problem that might seem insurmountable at first. Aspiring
artists often say things like, “I wish I was as talented as X,” but in my view talent is only a multiplier. If
you don't feed talent with exercise, knowledge, and experience your growth as an artist won't be
satisfying no matter how gifted you are. However, if you remain curious and never stop wanting to
learn, you will inevitably become a proficient artist.