Creating a World of Warcraft-Inspired Character in ZBrush & Marmoset

Bernardo Cristovao told us about the workflow behind Duncan, the Fallen Paladin, talked about sculpting hair, and shared the texturing pipeline.


Hey! I’m Bernardo Cristovao, and I’m a Senior Character Artist working in the games industry! Currently, I’m working at Rovio’s Battle Studio. My role here has been mostly about helping the studio develop a new IP and all things associated with that – I’m involved in developing the 3D character style and pipeline for our game, as well as helping with prototyping and visual development.

I’m originally from Portugal, where I started my career as a freelancer working for collectibles, animated TV spots, and game art outsourcing companies. After that, I moved to the UK, where I lived for nearly 4 years – there I worked on Jagex’s Runescape, a canceled MMO at Automaton Games, and also had the chance to work remotely for Fortnite with DragonFly Studio. After one year of working on Fortnite skins, I decided to join Rovio to work on a new project!

The Character Artist Path

I started getting into 3D art in my last year of university. I studied at the University of Fine Arts of Lisbon, and during our last year, we had this very generalist Digital Arts class where I was introduced to ZBrush. My teacher was super inspiring and he made such a big effort to show us the previous students' portfolios and just good art overall. From there, I remember just spending countless hours over at CGSociety and ZBrushCentral, completely baffled at the quality of the artworks there and wondering how I could reach such a level myself.

I always loved creating and imagining stories for characters, so with 3D character models being the final “medium” in a game or animated feature that you get to experience and interact with, following the path of Character Art just felt like the right thing to me.

My 3D learning route was quite bumpy I would say. Most people these days would probably go to the Game Art program to study 3D, but there wasn’t such a thing back in Portugal, so I just pushed very hard to land small freelance gigs, and with that, I just kept investing in online classes and industry events such as THU. So pretty much as I was stepping into the industry working as a freelance 3D artist, I was also learning. I did this for about 3 years until I landed my first in-house job working for Jagex’s Runescape as a Character Artist.

I definitely got most of my Character Art knowledge from all the workshops and mentorships I took, I was really lucky to have taken classes with Blizzard artists at Brushforge, which really pushed me to be more creative, made me look beyond the 3D world, and study things such as character design, color, and light.

What also really made me grow as a Character Artist was having the chance to work for Runescape. This was my first experience working in a huge and fast-paced production environment where you have to meet deadlines and go through feedback cycles very often – having this sort of routine really improved my efficiency, productivity, and discipline.

The one other thing that keeps helping me improve is studying my favorite artists' work and countless hours of scrolling through Artstation. I truly believe that visual culture and a good sense of aesthetics are the most powerful tools for artists in this industry.


I can’t really tell or put into words what my “art style” is, nor do I know if I actually have one. What I can say is that I always try to channel all my favorite things and influences into the art I create, if that makes any sense. 

My core inspiration definitely lies in the fantasy realm, especially from IPs like World of Warcraft, League of Legends, Darksiders, Battle Chasers, and Lord of the Rings. Being born in the 90s, I had the privilege of seeing these titles develop and in a way “growing up” with them, and that had a huge impact on me and my own artwork for sure.

That said, I definitely lean towards the stylized handpainted area more, obviously influenced by the amazing art style of World of Warcraft and League of Legends. As much as I love clean stylized PBR textures, for me personally, the handpainted style is the best middle term between 3D art and painting – you get to sculpt in 3D, but you also get to be very creative when it comes to painting your textures – and I just love that.

Duncan, the Fallen Paladin

I started this project with the intent of creating a unique character that could fit inside the World of Warcraft universe. My goal was to create something that was in line with their art style, but in a way that you could still tell that it was made by me – through simple things such as the facial anatomy, sculpting style, and overall design.

My first step was to establish a very short story to help me develop my design. I love character arcs that revolve around some sort of “comeback” and revenge narrative. So I decided to go with a Paladin Dwarf who has witnessed all his dearest peers perish at the hands of evil, lost faith in the way of the Light, and now seeks revenge. Just really basic keywords that help me set the tone and mood of my future design explorations and decisions.

With my narrative set in place, I started gathering references and working on my concept. 

This was my reference board, which I kept open on my second monitor all the way through the concepting phase:

My initial focus was to create a unique face alongside a hair and beard style that didn’t exist in the game.

As for the plate armor design, my objective was to come up with a concept that didn’t feel too cliched and didn’t rely too much on existing in-game Paladin patterns, such as all the eagle, hammer, and fist symbols. I want to somewhat represent the Paladin theme through simple shapes of the armor and the overall silhouette of the character. I used a lot of angular and V-shapes to convey this sort of wing shape and silhouette.

Below, you can see my rough initial concept. Since I’m working on my own design and have plans to keep interacting with it during the 3D stage, I don’t really need a super polished concept, just something that can give me a good direction for when I start sculpting in ZBrush. 


My step-by-step workflow in ZBrush is very straightforward, and I usually follow these steps:

  • Establish basic anatomy, just good enough for me to dress my character up;
  • Blockout facial proportions and hair – I always like to focus a bit more on the face when I start a new character, this really helps me guide the direction of the rest of the sculpt;
  • Blockout all the remaining elements with the help of ZBrush primitives and ZModeler. Since discovering ZModeler, I never leave ZBrush to do hard surface work in any other software, it’s such a powerful tool;
  • Once all the blockout meshes are done, I just go one by one, subdivide them and detail them.

You can check a progress GIF of my sculpt below:

Hair, Cloth, and Metal

Sculpting hair is definitely one of my favorite things to do. I think it’s really challenging but also very rewarding (when it comes out right!)

I always start sculpting hair using a mix of IMM brushes and ZBrush primitives. I think a lot of artists (myself included) crave nice stylized hair IMM brushes that can save them time. But over time, I realized that IMM brushes often get you really stuck to their original shapes and flow, it can get really messy too because you’ll easily go a bit wild and insert way more hair strands than you actually need. So, these days, I just chill and use whatever. I don’t care if it’s a sphere or a cube, the key is to have visual clarity on what you’re doing, keep things clean and take baby steps. Often, tools like a sphere, Snake Hook, and Dam Standard will do the job perfectly.

This is a short breakdown of how I approached some of the facial hair elements on my character:

And this is an example of one of my other recent projects with more complex hair, where I used the exact same pipeline:

I believe that sculpting stylized hair is actually not that technically demanding, what I find demanding is achieving the right flow, the right silhouette, and the perfect amount of details. This comes from experience and your own personal taste.

When it comes to all the hard surface pieces, I always kick them off with ZBrush primitives, which I then manipulate with ZModeler. The goal here was to keep everything very low-res and easy to keep editing on the go. For this purpose, I work on these pieces using Dynamic SubDiv until very late stages of the project. Once I was happy with the overall shape of the armor set, I subdivided everything and detailed it using a mix of Orb Clay, Orb Cracks, TrimDynamic, and Polish – I kept my surface detail level very simple because I still wanted people to focus on the overall shape of my design, rather than on micro details.

For the cloth pieces, I always go for a more organic approach. I still start with a very low-res mesh, in which I aim to have a very clean topology so I can have a better sculpting base:

One of the most important aspects, when you start sculpting and detailing your cloth pieces, is identifying tension points. Tension points set the whole flow and direction of the folds. I knew I wanted to have a big diagonal piece of fabric that could help me break the whole symmetry of the character, but to make it natural, I came up with that small “wing” metal piece where I could hide the tension point, this way I could naturally tuck the fabric in and expand it from that point, from tighter to wider folds, which is really simple but looks really cool if sculpted properly.

When it comes to my fold sculpting brushes, I really recommend checking Shane Olson’s Cloth and Detail brush. Using the Cloth brush to define volumes and the Detail brush to crease the folds around the tension areas is such a powerful combination. 
This is a clay render of my high poly sculpt:


I used Maya for both retopology and unwrapping. I remember retopology being such a daunting task back when I started doing 3D, but I think Maya’s Quad Draw tool just makes it so easy (and less painful).

Since this is just a bust and not really a production asset, I just focused on getting a decent tri-count and overall topology flow in areas like the face. I also welded and optimized as much of the armor topology as I could to make it easier to unwrap, bake and paint. This sort of optimization is also what you would normally do when working for a game, it saves you UV space and it’s also so much easier for the rigger to work with later on.

This is what the low poly model looks like. I ended up with roughly 7,600 triangles and one 2048*2048 UV map:


Although handpainted textures are something you can often do without bakes, I really like sculpting all my characters, so I always aim to make the best out of it!

My texturing pipeline is usually split into the following stages:

  • prepare my high poly and low poly models for baking in Marmoset;
  • bake masks, AO, normals, and complete lighting;
  • import all maps to 3DCoat;
  • set base colors or gradient maps between 3DCoat and Photoshop;
  • polish/render textures.

This is a short breakdown of my baking process inside Marmoset Toolbag:

I really like the Diffuse Lighting bake option because later on I can bring it into Photoshop and create Gradient maps from this for each of my materials. It also provides really good light information that will help you texture your model better.

This is a step by step GIF on how I approached my textures inside 3DCoat:

I really try to keep my workflow as simple as possible. I just use the basic brush inside 3DCoat and keep adjusting my values using the Contrast and Brightness tool in either 3DCoat or Photoshop. 

To give a bit more context behind the way I render my materials, specifically non-organic materials like metals, these are definitely the 3 core principles I try to always keep in mind:

One thing I found out over time, after texturing many assets and after looking at the textures of League of Legends and WoW, was just how much work planar lighting does for you, specifically when you’re working on assets that will be small on the screen. I would say this stage alone makes like 70% of your texture work, which is pretty crazy if you consider that it’s so easy to get lost in your model trying to render everything on the go.

Once you set all your planes, it’s so easy to mask them individually and paint both light and shadow, without having it “bleeding” over to other colors or planes.


To showcase my character, I used Marmoset Toolbag. I honestly just love this software, I think it’s super flexible and so easy to use.

Since this was a handpainted character, I decided not to use any light on my scene and keep everything unlit. This is what my Marmoset scene looks like:

One thing I really like to do when presenting my characters is to use very low Field of View angles. Very often I see artworks being presented with really big distortion due to a very exaggerated perspective, so I think finding the right balance there makes a huge difference when it comes to presenting your artwork.

In regards to the character showcase itself, I always like to start with the “main” render of my character where you can see the whole thing, followed by close-ups of my favorite areas or specific parts that I want people to see. One thing I also like to share (when possible) is a Marmoset Viewer or Sketchfab link, I think it’s great to show how your character looks in a real-time renderer, besides it’s also great for when you’re applying for a job – it’s very easy to look at things like topology, texture maps, and so on.


And that's it! I hope you enjoyed this small breakdown of my character, Duncan! It wasn’t incredibly detailed, but all the main aspects behind my decisions are here! I hope you find them useful. 

If you’re just getting into stylized 3D art, all I can say is things take time! Don’t get demoralized for not being able to achieve clean folds or hair sculpts, just keep practicing, studying, and pushing for quality, one character at a time!

Bernardo Cristovao, Senior Character Artist

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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