Designing a Shaman in Maya and ZBrush

Martin Carrillo talks through the intricacies of character design and explains why rushing into a project is the opposite of being productive. 


My name is Martin Carrillo, I am a 3D Artist from Quito, Ecuador. I studied Animation at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, then I got my Master’s degree from Animum and at that same time, I did the Stylized Program at Art Heroes. I have worked as a freelance Character Artist since 2019 and currently, I am working at a mobile studio. Unfortunately, the projects I have worked on are still under NDA and I cannot talk more about them. In this interview, I will talk about my last stylized project Ti-pche. 

Concept and References 

I found Yasen Stoilov's concept on Pinterest in 2019, I started sculpting it without analyzing it first and I eventually gave up on it. In mid-2020, I wanted to try it again and the first thing I did was drawing on top of the concept to get familiar with the shapes. I tried to replicate the concept, for that reason, I focused on searching for stylized anatomy references, but my main reference was a book called Anatomy for Sculptors. I created a board in PureRef with different references of stylized projects from different awesome artists. Even for some assets like the mask, I used some photos I took on a trip in Ecuador. Though they did not have the exact shape I needed, they gave me inspiration for some details.  

High Poly Workflow

I started with simple shapes like spheres and reused some of the old pieces from my last take. My workflow always begins with simple forms, with moving them, scaling them, etc. When I am happy with them, I use ZRemesher, in that way I have some good base to work with. I tend to work with a lot of subtools, so I can jump between different assets when I need to rest from a complicated one. In the first stages, I use a few brushes, such as Move and ClayBuildup. I wanted to focus primarily on the silhouette of the concept because it was kind of a tricky one with all those leaves on the head. I focused on getting the mask right, on making the body and leaves look appealing and readable from every angle, I consider them to be the most complex elements of this concept.

For the mask, I used some references from Crash Bandicoot, along with some real photos as I said before. I wanted to focus on those curved endings, I spent most of the time just using the Move and Move Topological brushes to get it right. This was the most complicated silhouette because it is the focal point and it has multiple different details, it was the asset that changed the most before I divided it into several subelements.

For the body, I used different references, but my goal was to get those pecs and abs looking really appealing. The breakdowns from Anatomy for Sculptors helped me to simplify this area and to understand which specific zones I could stylize even more. There are many different elements on the body of the character, like clothes and wooden bracelets, and that is the reason the mid-area of the body had to be polished even more.   

When all my shapes look good enough, I start adding the details with subdivision levels, and here I used some of my favorite brushes, such as Dam Standard, HPolish, Trim Dynamic, and Move with the Accurate Curve mode on. Likewise, I use some Orb brushes to get those details down, especially the cracks, but I tend to combine them with masks to have better results. I tried to define all the sharp angles with HPolish, I like that kind of stylization with strong edges and well-defined volumes and shapes.  

I used this algorithm for all the assets, and let me give you a few examples. I started with a simplified low-poly mesh, searching for the right silhouette, which is the most important thing for me. Then I used ZRemesh again because I wanted to make sure it has a good polys distribution. After that, I added some divisions and started carving out the details, refining areas and still working that shape. It is a basic process, but it does the job for me. 


When I am finally done with my high poly, it is time to start the retopology. It is a process that some people consider boring and time-consuming, some artists even hate it, but I enjoy it and work on it with some nice soundtrack in the background. At this stage, what I do is decimate my high-poly assets from ZBrush to use them as Live Surfaces in Maya, and with Quad Draw I start doing the topology. In this character, there are a lot of curved areas, which is why I tried to spend more Tris on it to have a nice and rounded silhouette.  

Also, I asked other artists for feedback about the topology and the ways to improve some areas. If you get stuck it is always nice to ask someone with more experience if they can share some tips and tricks with you. For me, it is always good to jump between assets when I get stuck with the retopology at one point, that way I can return to that complex asset later with fresh eyes. Sometimes you see that you were just overdoing some areas, so it is nice to rest from different elements. In the end, my model has 33926 Tris. 

All the unwrapping was done in Maya, too, checking for the resolution of each piece and trying to use the most of the UV space. For this model, I used two 4K texture sheets. When everything is done and correctly labeled, I send the model to Substance Painter. 


When it comes to this stage, I think it is the one I enjoy the most, I really like to start giving life to the gray model. In Substance Painter, the first thing I do is block all the base colors, gradients, and roughness. I used a lot of black mask layers because they help me to switch between the tones fast, without destroying what I already did, like noise, patterns, details, color blending, etc.  

I like to use some smart masks, but I enjoy painting a lot, so I make a lot of things myself. One of the things I do is take advantage of all the information from my bakes, that is why I used my curvature with fill layers a lot, plus some paint on top of it to avoid having the same effect throughout the entire model. Likewise, I use the World Space Normal or even the Ambient Occlusion, but with this map, I tend to be very careful because sometimes you get shadows that you do not really want on the model.  

For example, with these leaves, I started with a base color from the concept, then I started adding some bluish gradient to them. Giving them some soft noise to break the base color is something I do on my models, so they do not look too flat. Sometimes fill layers with procedurals do the job. In the same way, I break the edges of the model with a different color, just to play with it a bit. Finally, I add some more brushes to give more variation to the colors in general. Something that works for me is checking my textures in Render Engine while doing them, sometimes things such as metals tend to change a bit. 

For the skin, I used the same approach. But I wanted to give more history to the model, like maybe he is in the middle of a magic forest, he fell on the ground and got dirty, maybe his hands and feet are damaged, etc. I always try to imagine where the character is, what he has been through, what things could have harmed him. The edges of his belt may be damaged, so they have other tones, the wood assets may have some moisture, the leather could be really old, he uses his stick to walk and that is the reason his base is darker, maybe Ti-pche is an ancient creature. I like to think about those things so I can proceed with some different effects.   


This stage is where you know the character is close to being done, it is a crucial one and for me, it is a stage that takes a lot of time since lighting is difficult for me. I try different light setups and ideas. For this case, I just loved doing my renders in Marmoset Toolbag 3, it is so fast, and you can move a lot of presets to get nice results.  

First, I set a key light to search for the principal light source for the character and to kind of tell a story, like he is waiting for someone. Then, for the sky I use the Bologna Portico preset rotating it until I like the effect it adds to the character, lighting some darker areas. Finally, I add some bluish rim lights, as I want to see more power in the character’s posture.  

I tweak some of the effects like contrast and saturation, too. I always like to give ground to the character, so it does not seem like it is floating, that is why when it comes to my Ti-pche design I added a shadow catcher along with some fog. Finally, for the tone mapping, I chose the Hejl one and added some vignette effect to give the corners some darkness. I learned a lot of cool tips from the Marmoset tutorials, especially the ones from Yulia Sokolova and Antoine Dupuis, you should check them out. For post-production, the only things I tweaked a bit were brightness, contrast, and color balance in Photoshop, nothing else.


This has been a really cool project to work on, I learned a lot from studying stylized shapes, anatomy, textures, and lighting. It is cool how Ti-pche has improved from my last take and how important it is for me to first analyze the concept and break it into simple steps. I think if you break a concept into simple shapes, it will look easier in a certain way. So do not be afraid to do it if that helps you create a more solid character.

I hope you find this interesting and my story inspires you to do some stylized characters because I just love making them!

Martin Carrillo, 3D Character Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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