Creating Stylized Characters with ZBrush & Marmoset Toolbag

Savannah Tschirgi shared an extensive breakdown of the workflow behind the artist's characters and shared many useful tutorials.


Hey! I’m Savannah Tschirgi and I make 3D characters for games. I studied animation at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County where I had a solid introduction to 3D modeling. I also took some courses at the Maryland Institute College of Art over a few summers to study traditional figure painting. In my free time, I began to study ZBrush and Blender on my own and seriously developed my skills between classes. I’m mostly self-taught between YouTube and Gumroad tutorials!

When I graduated from college I had a year-long internship at Firaxis Games where I was able to learn a lot about technical animation and 3D modeling from some really incredible mentors. I had the privilege to contribute a small amount to Civilization 6, XCOM 2: War of the Chosen, and Civilization 6: Rise and Fall. I came away with some amazing portfolio pieces and went on to work with some small indie teams until taking time off when my daughter was born. Since last year, I’ve been with Chance6 Studios making characters for their upcoming game: Generation Overdrive!

I’ve always had a passion for creating characters and before I got into 3D art I wanted to be a concept artist. Character creation is really fun for me, seeing all of the little pieces of a character that tells the story of who they are.

I’ve been really into stylized characters ever since I played the Overwatch beta. Blizzard and Riot both had a very profound impact on my style and inspiration when starting to learn 3D – at first, I loved making hand-painted characters and I eventually moved more into stylized PBR. I love the toy-like quality that the style possesses!

ZBrush Setup

Until recently I was just using the default interface. A few months ago I made my first custom interface and I’ve never looked back! I like to keep a few functions in several categories handy on my UI: ZRemesher tools, Modify Topology (Mirror and Weld, Delete Hidden, etc.), Deformation (Polish, Taper, etc.), Polygroup (Auto Groups, Groups By Normals, etc.), and Display Properties (Double, Flip, etc.). I have a few other random odds and ends that I use frequently but those are the bulk of the functions I use constantly.

For brushes, I mostly use Move, Move Topological, Dam Standard, Zmodeler, Pinch_3DCW by Shane Olson, Trim Dynamic, Clay, Inflate, and Trim Curve.


Recently I’ve started working really low poly with my meshes using the Move brush and ZRemesher on “Same” to adjust topology/smooth out the mesh. When I start a character, I’ll block them out with a ton of very low poly spheres in ZBrush. Once I’m happy with the forms, I like to merge them together and Remesh by Union > ZRemesher (set to Same) to make a fully combined body with separate polygroups for each of the different body parts (head, arms, fingers, etc). This makes it really easy to pose the character later if I’m only doing a sculpt and posing it in ZBrush. I like to do this for game characters as well because it makes it really easy to hide different parts of the body as I work.

The majority of my work from there is just pushing and pulling with Move, occasionally adding mass with Clay, while refining the surface using ZRemesher with Same again. Once I refine the form as much as possible with the limited geometry, I add a subdivision and repeat the process. This method really speeds it up for me since most of the work is done at a low level of geometry.

I’m very inspired by Blair Armitage, Layna Lazar, Leslie Van den Broeck, Yekaterina Bourykina, Renaud Galand, and many others. I am always trying to look at as many others’ works as I can as well as any tutorials I can find!

The result of combining the block out meshes with Remesh by Union > ZRemesher.

The process for creating the Mech for Generation Overdrive:

Poses and Facial Expressions

For posing in ZBrush, I use the classic “mask and move stuff around” method, haha. I don’t spend a lot of time refining the character in its A pose since a lot of that detail needs to be added once they’re posed – I try to do as much as I can with symmetry to the whole character, break symmetry to begin the expression, then pose the rest of the body back and forth with the face. Having multiple subdivision levels (the bottom being that extremely low poly level) makes adjusting facial expressions way easier since I can make big changes at the bottom level without losing a ton of soft detail towards the top.

My main philosophy with stylized faces is that they’re basically just caricatures; I’m trying to pick out what I believe to be the most important details on the character’s face and capitalize on them. I’ll emphasize things like eyes and mouths while completely omitting small details like pores, wrinkles, etc.

For my Oni piece, which is based on concept art by Forest, I wanted her mouth to be a really big selling point. I tried to work outside of my comfort zone by “breaking” her expression and facial anatomy more than I was used to doing in my character work with Chance6. That meant doing things like blowing up the eyes, completely shifting where I normally keep the mouth all the way to one side, flattening her Cupid’s bow, and keeping the bridge of her nose very flat. I’ve started to feel more comfortable with pushing my characters away from “Overwatch” and deeper down the stylized rabbit hole while trying to develop what makes my work unique.

A timeline of how I made Rotty:

Where her face started and eventually landed:


I like to use a combination of low poly spheres formed into long strands and Dylan Ekren’s DE HairTubes Brush. When using a curve brush, I create a proxy mesh from a sphere in the general shape that I’d like the hair to be. That way I can draw the curves on it and I don’t need to do a ton of adjusting to get it right. I approach these meshes the same way I do the rest of the body – by working with very little geometry to create the forms and sculpting details on the higher divisions later. For that stage, I use a combination of Dam Standard and Pinch_3DCW by Shane Olson. I alternate between ZAdd and ZSub to add the suggestion of hair texture with alternating grooves. I prefer to cover the head with individual meshes/strands/chunks than working from one mesh and sculpting out from that.

Low poly hair strands make big adjustments really easy

Rendering and Lighting

I love bright colors! I do my best to include a bright color palette in most things I make because it’s so eye-catching and fun to me. I put a lot of thought and work into lighting/presentation because I want to give my completed work the best opportunity to shine. It’s the culmination of all the hours I’ve spent on it! Generally, when I start a piece I try to have a color palette in mind to make my life easier when it comes time to texture and light it.

I start with a basic three-point setup and add things from there. Typically, I’ll do one or two sources of rim lighting (at least one of them with a fun color), some fill lights in different spots to make sure no part of the model is completely dark (another opportunity for color), and different omni lights where I want the eye to be drawn. For example, if the character is holding a cool sword, I’ll throw an omni light down near the blade to give it an interesting highlight. I learned a lot of what I know about lighting from Yulia Sokolova’s featured tutorial with Marmoset Toolbag, including my favorite post-processing trick: in the curve graph, increase the blue in the shadows while decreasing it in the highlights and the exact opposite for the red channel. You can see what the graph looks like in Yulia’s article which I’ve linked below!

Overall, I take the “tweak things until it looks cool” method when lighting and presenting my characters. I’ll often have multiple different folders of several lighting setups in Toolbag and switch between them to decide what looks the best.

Some lighting variations I tried out before deciding on the final setup:

Advice for Beginners

My best advice would be to work on what you love and not worry so much about doing a ton of studies to perfect a certain skill. I’ve always found my true passion for what I do comes out when I’m working on a project I absolutely love, not working on something mundane like hand studies. I look for opportunities to practice certain skills within projects I want to do if it aligns with the subject, but I mainly just want to have a good time! I love 3D art and having fun is really important to me when I’m creating it.

Some of my favorite tutorials are:

And thank you so much to all of the artists I’ve mentioned here that create these resources, as well as any other artists that create educational content. I would not be where I am today without all of you wonderful people to learn from!

I absolutely love talking shop with people so please feel free to reach out to me on Twitter, I love answering questions and learning about how other people create their work.

Savannah Tschirgi, 3D Character Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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