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Goblin Prophet: Working on Stylized Details in ZBrush

Character Artist Pietro Trizzullo talked about his stylized project Goblin Prophet discussing his workflow in ZBrush and sharing useful brushes and alphas.


Hello everyone and thanks for having me! My name is Pietro and I am (trying to become) a 3D character artist for games. The main thing I do is creating believable stylized characters and creatures from a given concept, a process I fell in love with. 

The first time I tried to make something in 3D was in December 2018. I worked as a video editor, d.o.p. and camera operator at NoElevator Studio when one of my colleagues and best friends introduced me to Udemy where he discovered a cheap 3D beginners course. I took the course to have fun and try out the possibilities of this field which I was new to. After a couple of months and some ugly 3D works I was able to pull off, I started to understand how much I liked working with 3D and learning the multitude of secrets behind a good workflow. By January 2019 I was sure this was something I could do for a living and something I loved very much. 

Since then, I worked on many personal projects and some commission work (that I can’t release yet). I focus on stylized art because that’s where I come from. Every game I played since childhood was heavily stylized and brightly colored and that plays a great influence on what I like creating now. 

Right now I’m working on a project with Ben Fox, Houdini FX mentor at CG Spectrum, and a personal project based on my childhood drawings and dreams about a videogame script I drew and designed when I was 9 years old. One day my mother came to me with a bunch of papers with characters drawings and descriptions on them, telling me I made those when I was a child. It felt like my past was telling me I was doing the right thing, I don’t want to sound presumptuous, but that was the best encouragement I could give myself at that moment.


I went to art school from 2007 to 2012 and then I took a three-year Bachelor Degree in Fine Arts. After this period, my studies stopped for a while as I started moving towards my first real occupation in video making.

As I told you before, during late 2018 I approached a Udemy Course in 3D foundations. It was during February 2019 that I applied to CG Spectrum VFX and Game Design Foundation course where I was mentored by Simon Warwick and spent 10 months learning 3D Modelling, Animation, Rigging, and Game Design. 

By the time I finished my first year with CG Spectrum, I knew that despite all the odds that say "Character Art is the hardest and competitive of all disciplines", all I wanted to do was characters. I enrolled in the Advanced Modelling course mentored by Hong Chan Lim to refine and structure my method in sculpting and preparing characters for videogames.

Apart from school, the main resources regarding techniques and workflows lie in tutorials and Gumroad courses. I can’t thank enough all of the artists that put themselves out there, helping others, and sharing precious information. They are the best.


When it comes to reference I always use PureRef, which is basically the standard for dealing with multiple images while you’re working on a project. I often start with an idea of what I’d like to create and then move on to gathering some good images. There’s always going to be one main reference image and some side ones just to give you enough information about the subject you’re going to sculpt. Shout out to my main reference concept artist Qichao Wang, your work is amazing!

I approach every character by splitting it up into different sections. I narrow my view towards each different element. I usually start with the anatomical structure and then move on to the different features like scars and key elements.

I then focus on accessories and extra pieces to add later on in the process. The main things I pay attention to during this phase are character proportions and story. I feel like I need to have a background narrative behind the character and a clear vibe. I always try to respect the style of a concept artist in a way. I usually don’t search for concepts that are too far from what I want the 3D model to look like. Concepts that are slightly loose and open to interpretations also work perfectly with 3D adaptations. They leave you some space and range of activities for your personal taste to come into play. I’d say I always try to be in the grey area in between the concept style and mine.

Sculpting in ZBrush

This project was done after almost 2 months of hard work for a commission. I spent several hours working on many characters and props with tight deadlines and I was in need of creating something without worrying about technical aspects like retopology and UVs. ZBrush is just the perfect software for that. It allows you to be creative and focus just on the sculpting. It is flexible and solid, granting you access to many features while dealing with a high polycount.

The things I value the most are Dynamesh and Zremesher. Moving from a Dynameshed blockout to a clean topology with the help of the projection tool just feels amazing. Being able to go back to a low subdivision level enables you to fix the model proportions as well as add asymmetrical features with ease.

I haven’t created custom tools yet, unfortunately, but I do use some custom brushes and IMM  brushes other artists created (Orb Brushes, IMM Rope Brushes by Johny Banana, Rock Brushes by Jonas Ronnegard, Shane Olson’s Brushes, and more).

Overall I always use a simple set of default brushes: Clay, Clay Build-Up, Clay Tubes, Snake Hook, Dam Standard, Polish, Hpolish, Flatten, Inflate, and Crease.

I usually play a lot with alphas. Changing the alpha of a brush can drastically modify the effect it has on the mesh. There are loads of alphas you can download from the ZBrush website. I didn’t use any maps for this project.

I always tend to start with the head blockout. It has to be rough and it’s going to be ugly at first, but it lets me understand the main proportions and work on bigger volumes. This stage takes the most time. As you progress through defining every big shape you also add more definition to the geometry. After I merged the dynameshed blockout with the neck, shoulders, and chest I started to establish the features like facial bones, muscle groups, and eye sockets.

I usually progress through this stage with just the Move Brush, Clay Brush, and Clay Build-Up Brush. As soon as I place the eyeballs into the sockets I start to visualize if the character is going in the right direction. As soon as the mesh starts to get more definition I proceed with adding some more details with the help of the Dam Standard Brush and soft strokes of the Clay Build-Up with the soft Alpha or No Alpha activated. This stage is all about medium level details like muscle fibers, nasal-labial folds, ears forms, eyelids, and so on.

At this point, I am still working with symmetry, and I’m not worried about breaking it up yet. When I reach a good level of detail, I usually duplicate the model, ZRemesh it, and subdivide it multiple times. I then project the dynameshed model details onto the zremeshed one. By doing so I can always go back to the lower subdivision to adjust proportions and big volumes without deforming or stretching any detail.

During this stage of this project, I broke symmetry and started posing the bust in a more natural way. Tilted the shoulders, turned the head, moved the ears, crooked the nose, and moved the eyebrows a bit. I still didn’t know if I had the time to dedicate to the accessories, otherwise, I probably would have posed it once I had them done. 

I spent some time adding asymmetry in the facial expression and the muscles fibers, taking some time to break up the forms. With soft passes of Clay Brush, you can break up the surface, variate where muscles attach to the bones, add skinfolds and small wrinkles to the face and nose as well as create a difference in the ears thickness.

The same process of Big Shapes>Medium Shapes>Small Shapes was applied for the bones. I created a separate ZBrush file where I imported the Low Poly bust as a reference to work with and started dividing the bones into different groups.

Areas like the lips or the eyelids were detailed with Standard Brush and Dam Standard. The bumps on the forehead as well as on the face were done with Inflate and contoured with Dam Standard.

Some of the shapes like those you find in the ears were emphasized with a Soft Pinch brush. I broke up the bone surfaces with a basic rock alpha brush with a low-intensity value at first, then added some cracks with Dam Standard and carved the details with Polish/Hpolish to make them look a bit splintered and broken. I then went on the surface again with a different rock alpha on some specific areas I wanted to look more damaged.

For the skin details I used skin alphas I found on the ZBrush website (SW_Pores_02, 04, 05, SW_Skin_01,02,03,04,05,06). I first tried to give the skin a general noise by using a low-intensity skin brush and then focused on rougher skin areas like the nose and the jaw/mouth area with some more distinct pores. I wanted to keep it really basic and simple. Just a hint of what real pores look like without falling into realistic rendering and to break up the smooth surface.


Using the same method I used for the body, I tried to split up the accessories into main groups and tackled every model individually. The beard was done by using an amazing curve brush called Makkon_Haircurves combined with FB_Squaretubes by Chris Whitaker. I used a sphere and gave it the main shapes I wanted the beard to have, then I drew onto it with these curve brushes, placing each strand individually and creating the beard in the way I wanted. 

It was time-consuming but fun and I’m happy I was able to try something different without losing too much of the stylized look. The feathers base was prepared in Maya and it built out of a cylinder and 2 planes. With the Multi-Cut tool, I drew some edges along the planes and moved every other slightly up. I then extruded the planes to give thickness and subdivided the model in ZBrush. I was able to model just one feather and duplicate it to fill out the crown and the shoulder cover.

By scaling and moving every feather in a different way I could get a believable breakup of the forms. The main bone of the crown is composed of multiple pieces and I tried to sell the idea that it was built off the same type of bones with some slight variations to avoid repetition. That’s actually how I treated every bone except the jaws. If there were 2 similar bones, I’d start with the same base low-poly mesh and build it up twice. In that way, I was able to get some variations. Features like scratches or damage can help differentiate two similar components. The jaws had to be unique and I spent more time on them trying to place the teeth and adding damage in a believable way. The ropes were all done by using IMM Rope Brushes by Johny Banana.


Coloring the model is the most relaxing part for me. For this sculpture, I used Polypaint only, working my way with the Standard Brush with only the RGB function activated. I usually use the Free Hand mode or the Color Spray mode.

At first, I focus on the overall palette and start filling each SubTool with a medium color value. I break up the tones with the Color Spray mode to achieve color variations that scatter on the overall mesh (usually, I stay with the same color range: if the base is green I pick a secondary color close to green to avoid too marked spots of color). Following the idea of gradients to emphasize the most important part of the model I then pick brighter value colors and paint the volumes imagining a light source (Top-Down like most hand-painted stuff). In a face, there are always good rules to follow when it comes to warm and cool colors. I usually follow this example and adapt based on the overall skin tone.

Areas where hair grows or blood flow is less consistent tend to have a bluish hue, whereas areas like the nose, the ears, and the cheeks tend to have a more red value (In this case yellowish). I often take screenshots during this phase, where I try to analyze the overall value of the image by turning it into a black and white image. In this case, I followed the colors of the original concept art.

For the color transitions, I try to go from medium values to dark values and then brighten up the areas of interest. My best advice is to keep the brush strokes soft and to not be afraid of trying different variations. Trust your eye and in any case, there’s always CTRL+Z. 

Most of the lights and the shadows were rendered within ZBrush, but I always try to fake the AO with some painted darker color values in occluded areas, as well as brighter ones on more exposed or important ones. Giving the shadows and highlights a different hue could also improve the look of your model.

Composition and Lighting

Composition and lighting are basically photography so my first suggestion is to have a good bunch of references to look at when you’re setting the mood of the final shot. The work of compositing the image in Photoshop is based on what I learned from Raf Grassetti's course on Gumroad about designing and presenting your work.

After you have a good placement of the camera in ZBrush you can save it using the ZappLink functions in order to have it ready. The Basic Material MatCap is going to react to lights and it’s pretty good. Always think of how many lights you need and what’s the mood of the image you’re making. The main rule I follow is always to place a key light which is the main one, a fill light that is going to help in showing most of the details in the dark areas, and two rim lights for a nice and bright outline. You could also add a top-down light as well as a bottom-up light because these might come in handy once you composite everything in Photoshop. Be sure to set up the shadows strength as you prefer and remember to use Ambient Occlusion, Depth, and Subsurface Scattering if you feel in need of it (you just need to render them once because they are not affected by light). 

Once you’ve exported everything from ZBrush, it is all just a matter of layering in Photoshop. Starting from the Key Light I go through every other render and modify the layer blending options. For additional lights, you can adjust the layer opacity as well as set them on Screen Mode or tweak the levels to make it pop more. A good trick is to use the Colorize option in the Hue/Saturation filter to make the rim lights more interesting and add some color to them (you can do that with any layer you want). 

Use the SSS pass you exported with care and always consider areas that are actually affected by SSS like ears and nose. I usually cut it, feather it and combine it with a Colorize and a Screen.

You can add some blur by adding the Depth Export and pasting it into an Alpha Channel. Then, go to Filter>Blur>Lens Blur and tweak the settings the way you like them.

With this character, I painted some top-down gradient darker values on the body to make the face stand out more, added a soft vignette, and some hand-painted brighter colors behind the character.

A good trick could be to add simple textures kept at a super low opacity value. Pick some textures you like and cut them using the Mask Export you saved from ZBrush. Play with some stacking and layering to variate the colors and the details of the surfaces. 

Photoshop allows you to play with your ZBrush exports while keeping the workflow not destructive. You always have the possibility to go back and change any layer you want, so be playful and try whatever comes up to your mind!

Lessons Learned

The most important lesson I learned from this project was to pace myself. I always tend to rush through the most boring parts and I do always fight my urge to feel pleased with my sculpt. 

I started studying this discipline less than two years ago and I always wanted to improve. This thing may be speaking to those of you like me that took this path after some previous experiences in other fields.

Everything falls into place if you dedicate the right amount of patience and time to it. Nothing is immediate and nothing will be easy. Persistence is the most important skill you need to have if you want to move forward. I think projects like this one help me evaluate how much I've improved and how many things I still need to work on.  It’s a never-ending process and I’m ready to embrace it!

Anatomy is a thing I keep studying to improve my knowledge. I feel like I do really need to work a lot more on some muscle areas as well as some female anatomy too. I would also like to explore more creature designs and try out some techniques regarding detailing and tertiary details. Lastly, I’d say Hard Surface is definitely my demon I need to fight at all costs! 

At this point in my life, I know what drives me so I wouldn’t say there’s something specific I’d like to work more on. I just want to keep creating stylized stuff and get better while having fun! Whatever challenges and attracts me is a worthwhile subject to work on!

I will keep practicing and working on my weak points and hopefully become good enough to find a job in the videogame industry. That’s the ultimate goal and my next steps (touch wood) are going to bring me closer to achieving it. Right now I can’t wait to work on my personal project based on my childhood drawings. It means a lot to me and hopefully, it is going to speak to people about my background and my story in a creative way.

Pietro Trizzullo, 3D Character Artist

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

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