My name is Pierre Benjamin. I currently live in Cardiff in the U.K., work freelance as a character artist, and teach online and at university. A little bit about the journey that took me where I’m today: I started doing 3D in 2010 after relocating from Montpellier (in the sunny south of France) to the UK, although I see that transition as not into the 3D world, but as a continuation of my previous practice with traditional art mediums.
I started to draw at around the age of 10. Later, I was overwhelmed and truly fascinated with the hip hop and graffiti culture from NYC taking off in the early '90s in Paris. Montpellier had a thriving graffiti scene. I was also influenced by my grandfather who's been a successful artist internationally as a painter for decades. Also not having a TV at my mum's home (which is where I lived most of the time) was the best thing that happened to me as it meant there was nothing to distract me, and I always had plenty of time to doodle and look at artists' work to analyze them in museum and books.
I then moved to sculpting and stone carving when I was 15 under the supervision of a great sculptor. Then I did a year in the school of the Musée du Louvre in Paris in 1999, studying antiquities, which was great for understanding the origins of European Antiquities, and the foundations of artistic trends that followed up until the 1900s.
I studied the history of art in the famous school of the Museum of the Louvre, Paris, then enrolled in the University of South Wales in Cardiff, UK, and did a BA and MA over there in games and animation. That degree is very popular and a lot of international students graduate every year from it. Some of them work at Ubisoft, CD Projekt Red, Rockstar North, etc.
Inspiration for Character Art
Character art has always been something that I enjoy doing, from a very early age. I always loved comedy and to me, characters are at the base of the whole storytelling. My dad is a photographer and had a VHS rental tape store back in the '90s, so I watched tons of films at his place, mostly during the summer holidays. No internet back then obviously, just a different era. I somehow miss those times.
My inspirational material was very diverse. I went to local museums lots and lots of times (Musee Fabre - Montpellier), I was able to grab inspiration from the antique sculptures from Egypt and Greece. Egyptian art reproduced a lot of animals and I always loved that timeless charismatic look.
I have been doing 3D characters for 10 years now and I still see lots of faces I want to have fun recreating and experiment with. Look around you every day - there is infinite variety.
Barn Owl: Start of the Project
The Barn Owl project was an interesting one. I previously modeled two 3D owls, recorded the timelapse process, and published them on Instagram and they were quite popular amongst my followers. I thought I had to come up with a final textured version for my third attempt instead of doing just a non-textured digital sculpture and experiment with different materials such as wood. I have done some wood textures in the past but never got them right so that they felt natural in terms of scale and general polish.
In terms of references, I found a lot of them in several books as well as places like Pinterest where you can find some really interesting photographs with distinctive features. I gathered tons of reference first to have a broad feel and mood, then made sure to narrow it down to a few photographs in order not to be distracted by too many directions.
In ZBrush, I started from a sphere using dynamic to block the main primary forms, then gradually refined it. The full body still needs finishing, like the legs which you can’t see in the final render. I’m working on it currently and I would like to get that piece done with a CNC Wood cutter machine for an upcoming exhibition.
The brushes I use the most are Dam Standard, Clay Build Up, and Move - that's it, really nothing fancy.
All wood details were added in Substance Painter later. The ZBrush model is very simple.
UVs were done in ZBrush with UVmaster. I usually use the polygroups option to make sure I have more control over my seams. I also made sure that the face was separated from the rest of the head to have more control in Substance Painter later.
The model was entirely textured in Substance Painter.
When working on the wood textures, it's important to get the wood veins right. I used a flat white color layer with a black mask and a dirt generator on top of the wood texture. Speaking of the eys, you'll be surprised that their texture is a simple flat black albedo color, - the most important thing is to make sure the reflections are glass-like using the roughness slider.
The secret to texturing realistic models is all about having solid neutral lighting which works as a start, and then a lot of going back and forth to correct the textures and adjust the shader roughness values while looking at the photo references.
With lighting, like with a lot of things in life (music, food, or else), less is always more.
Final renders were done in Iray within Substance Painter. It's only an HDR image in the background rotated to the right point. No additional lights, quick and easy setup. I made sure the eyes reflected my environment to fake the pupils and kept it subtle in order not to overlight the model. Half of the model also has nice soft shadows outlining the main primary shapes so that it doesn't look flat.
If you are interested in a detailed step-by-step tutorial for this Owl, you can find it on my Gumroad with the wood smart material included.
I also run an online course for character artists this summer, check it out here.