CGMA Student Project: Serval Anatomy

Jess O’Neill did a breakdown of her beautiful sculpt made in ZBrush & Maya within CGMA course Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature with Gael Kerchenbaum.

Jess O’Neill did a breakdown of her beautiful serval sculpt made in ZBrush & Maya within CGMA course Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature with Gael Kerchenbaum.


Hiya! My name is Jess O’Neill, I am a modeler and texture artist from Australia, and I recently won an internship at Method Studios through The Rookies while completing the CGMA course Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature taught excellently by Gael Kerchenbaum.

I graduated from a three-year Bachelor of Animation program at Queensland College of Art, where my education on art and film-making began.

After my degree, it took me some time to work out what I wanted to specialize in, something my peers seemed to figure out with ease. However, I’ve always had a keen interest in learning how things work, so after studying Anatomy for Production at CGMA, I thought that Gael’s course would be a step in the right direction for figuring out my specialty.

The Course

By signing up to this course I expected to improve and expand my knowledge of anatomy, as well as have some guidance and feedback on how to improve my sculpts, however, it far exceeded my expectations. I learned the similarities of anatomy between species, meaning every time I learn something new about anatomy for one animal I can apply that to future sculpts of entirely different species. Valuable lessons on design, composition, and workflow tips. The Live Q&A’s also provided a lot of extras I didn’t expect, so I was sure to watch the recordings every week

I anticipated learning only the tools to create an anatomical study, but Gael’s excellent teaching and guidance helped make it my most successful piece yet. Most importantly, his course helped me find my passion for animal and creature design, the field which I now endeavor to specialize in throughout my career.


Over the first six weeks of the course, we were to sculpt an animal of our choosing. I chose the serval because I thought its slim form would be a challenge for me, but also because cats have so much character and I thought it would be fun to make one.


Each week we would collect references for the stage we were up to. For example, we started by sculpting the skull, so our reference board would have images of the skull and head of our animal from various angles like the image below.

When looking for the reference of a specific animal, particularly for photos of its skeleton, I found it helpful to use the animal’s scientific name in the search as it gave me more relevant search results. Wilhelm Ellenberger’s An Atlas of Animal Anatomy for Artists and Eliot Goldfinger’s Animal Anatomy for Artists are also invaluable resources when studying animal anatomy, so I included some images from their books on my reference board to save time.


To make the skull we started with a cube in ZBrush, keeping it at a low density and blocking out the silhouette using the Move brush with Symmetry turned on. Then we used DynaMesh to cut out any necessary holes. The ClayTubes brush with a low ZIntensity was used to sculpt the different plane changes of the object, starting with the primary shapes and moving onto the secondary shapes. ZRemesher was then used before moving on to more refinements.

The skull and the mandible were made as separate pieces, as well as the teeth which were mirrored, duplicated, resized and repositioned to match the reference.

After sculpting the skull in ZBrush I imported it into Maya. In Maya, I created a new camera and attached my reference image to it as an image plane (orthographic views of the skull for example). I then changed the focal length of the camera to match what the original photo was taken with – the focal length can often be found in the image properties. By looking through the new camera and lining it up to my model, I was able to check that the model correctly matched the reference and use Soft Selection to adjust the areas which were not quite right. I repeated this with two other cameras to check different angles, then reimported the model to ZBrush to continue.


The skeleton was first blocked out using ZSpheres, starting from the base of the skull and using symmetry to save time. For this sculpture the skeleton is buried under the muscle, so is then broken into three pieces – spine/ribcage, forelegs, hind legs – rather than individual bones. It’s important to get the silhouette correct and then refine the bones. The process was the same as the skull: using Dynamesh, the Move tool, and the ClayTubes brush, and starting with primary shapes before moving onto secondary shapes.


I spent the most time on the face, as I hadn’t studied facial anatomy before and felt it was really important to establish character blocking in and reshaping the muscles to match references. The sculpture went through stages of looking really horrible, but it was just a matter of refinement and always checking the silhouette. I used lion anatomy as a reference but kept in mind that the serval is a much more lean creature.

Even when the sculpt was in its neutral pose it didn’t look quite right, as the serval has different proportions compared to other cats. I had to continually check against references by overlaying photos and using the ‘Look Through’ slider through all stages of the project.

Fat, Skin, and Fur

Photos of sphinx cats were used as a reference for this stage to aid in the identification of wrinkles. I had trouble with the fur, so I started by drawing over photo reference to understand where the clumps of fur were before sculpting.

After the serval was posed, I increased the mesh density and used a spray mask where the fur was displaced the most in references. I then used the Snake Hook brush to pull out these areas, giving the impression of finer furs. This allowed me to make an interesting composition as I was more concerned with having the sculpture feel believable rather than being completely physically accurate.


The sculpt was posed in ZBrush using Transpose Master. The serval’s long legs and body are its distinguishing features, so the leaping pose was chosen as I felt it best captured the nature of the serval and was best able to display these attributes. The pose also offered an opportunity to further study the compression and extension of the muscles and skin. To have the model look correct in such an exaggerated pose, I had to continually line-up the sculpt against my references to check and maintain correct proportions.


I chose the colors for the render based on the references found of servals. Quite often they would be a yellow cat on a green background. The grass was included to add context and story to the pose (just planes reshaped, resized, and duplicated).


This project helped me find a workflow that suits how I operate by understanding how a design is to physically work before sculpting. It was very interesting to see the similarities between mammalian species, including humans, which has helped in gaining references for new and current projects. The course has also taught me how quickly I can create something beautiful and interesting and has helped me realize my passion for creature design. I really enjoyed Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature and I am very grateful to Gael and CGMA for providing such a wonderful course which has been a very important step in my career!

Jess O’Neill, 3D Modeler/Texture Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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