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Guide: Sculpting Stylized Hair in ZBrush

Dan Eder talked in detail about his approach to stylized hair and shared a handful of tips for character artists.


Hi there! My name is Dan Eder, I currently reside in California, but I’m originally from Israel. 3D art is something I’ve been deeply passionate about since my childhood –  I remember constantly rotating around 3D character models in video games and trying to figure out how they were created. I’ve been drawing from a very early age, but 3D modeling was something that seemed so technical and foreign to me, that I really didn’t know where or how to get started.

7 years ago, I was working as a banker and had all but given up hope of being an artist, when I read an article in the newspaper about an Israeli who moved to the US and was now working for Dreamworks as an animator. I reached out to him, and after a lengthy conversation I decided to quit my job and devote myself entirely to 3D art. I took a short “Introduction to Maya” course and 8 months later, I got my first job as a 3D artist.

Since then, I’ve worked on dozens of projects – before moving to the US I worked at “Jelly Button Games” on the mobile games “Pirate Kings” and “Board Kings”, but since becoming a freelancer in November 2018 I’ve had the pleasure of working on several high-profile franchises, which unfortunately I can’t share as they have not yet been announced! 

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Learning ZBrush

I discovered ZBrush the very first week I started learning the basics of 3D. I was so fired up about improving my skills and making actual characters, that I would spend hours watching timelapses and tutorials on YouTube, and was immediately drawn to sculpting. It seemed so much less technical and more enjoyable than pushing vertices around in Maya, but I knew that one complemented the other, so I made sure not to neglect the more technical side of 3D. I would spend most of my day practicing modeling, rendering, and animation for school, but always made time for ZBrush, and would usually practice my sculpting skills well into the night. Normally, I would spend a couple of days a week watching tutorials, and the rest of the week would go toward practicing and applying what I had learned.

Luckily, thanks to my background in 2D I was already quite proficient with a drawing tablet, so it didn’t take long for me to start getting decent results in ZBrush. I’ve talked to many aspiring 3D artists over the years and one of the main barriers I keep hearing repeatedly is the difficulty of learning to use a tablet. I can completely relate to this – it took me a long time to properly control it. I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to achieve good results in ZBrush without one – especially as there are a lot of other features available other than sculpting that don’t require as much manual precision (like ZModeler) -  but for character sculpting, you would probably be at a disadvantage by using a mouse.

General Workflow for Stylized Hair

When creating stylized hair in ZBrush, I usually follow a pretty specific workflow:

1. Review reference and break up the hair into corresponding chunks

2. Create the chunks by manipulating spheres + Dynamesh

3. Check the shapes and silhouette and make sure it matches the concept

For the blockout stage, I use ZBrush’s most essential brushes: Move, Smooth, Inflate, and Pinch. Later on, I use DE_HairTubes (custom brush made by Dylan Ekren) to create the actual hair strands on top of the temporary blocked out hair.

Because this method of hair creation requires little to no actual sculpting, some of the most commonly used sculpting brushes – ClayBuildup, DamStandard, TrimDynamic, etc. – should not be utilized here. This is to make sure the geometry of the strands is retained and that they remain as clean as possible.

Hair Blockout: Is it better to extract the base first or work with hair clumps right away?

Honestly, there probably isn’t a right or wrong answer - it comes down to personal preference. I always prefer to create a rough “blockout” of the hair and then place the hair strands on top of it. This allows me to experiment with the shape and silhouette before committing to high-level detail.

As for how I go about creating that blockout, I normally start with an IMM sphere and shape it by using basic brushes while constantly adjusting the Dynamesh resolution until I get a decent result. For certain types of hairstyles, it can be easier to just mask a portion of the head and extract.

Learning How to Style Hair Will Take Time

I’d say you can’t have one without the other – you need both technical skills and a certain level of experience to make something that works well. When I started doing hair, it always felt repetitive, almost mechanical, like the strands were simply being duplicated and positioned next to each other (which, coincidentally, is exactly what I was doing). Eventually, the more you practice the more you start to understand what makes a character appealing, so you start to develop a certain sense of what works and what doesn’t.

Here are a few common tips to keep in mind when planning out your hairstyle:

  1. Try to find a good balance in the number of strands you’re creating – having too many could make the hair look messy and unpleasant, but having too few could make it look simple and clay-like.
  2. Don’t start detailing right away – take the time to get the basic shapes right! 
  3. Don’t get fixated on just one angle, constantly spin the model around and try to find areas that feel jagged or uneven.

Brushes for Detailing

While ZBrush is known primarily as a sculpting application, I actually don’t do any real sculpting when making stylized hair – I guess “shaping” would be a more accurate word.  Generally speaking, I like to keep things simple and clean, so the basic ZBrush brushes should do the job – it’s all about how you control them.

 Here are the main brushes I use:

Stylized vs. Realistic Hair

The differences between stylized and realistic hairstyles are vast, but it honestly depends on what kind of result you’re trying to achieve. Xgen and Ornatrix, for example, are fantastic for creating photo-realistic and highly detailed hairstyles, and the workflow behind them is entirely different from the geometry-based system that I’m using. There are many benefits to using the latter – they are a lot more procedural, automated, and require much less manual labor (creating and shaping each strand individually). However, they aren’t suitable for every need – if you’re planning to 3D print your characters, for example, stylized hair would be the way to go. If you’ve never created hair before, I would suggest experimenting with both Xgen and stylized hair, so you’re able to determine which approach works better for you.

Adding Physics

One thing I like to think about when creating hair is “how do I give it context within the world I’m depicting”? Basically, to add some degree of believability to the hair, I try to have it be affected by gravity, wind, or collision with other objects.

The workflow also naturally depends on the type of model you’re creating – for a t-posed model, you would normally want to make your hair mesh as neutral as possible, to make it easy for the riggers to add the necessary bones without any interference. If you’re creating a posed, high-poly model, you can go crazy with the hair by adding loose strands and dramatic hair movements.

One thing I did with my Wonder Woman model to give the hair some believability was to make other objects in the scene be affected by the same influences as the hair – notice how the cape is moving in the same direction, and how the debris floating in the air gives it a “frozen in time” sort of appeal. 

Anatomy Knowledge is a Must

Over the years, one of the things that helped me learn from other artists is 3D-related message boards and Facebook groups, and one common misconception I see is that “stylized models have unrealistic proportions so the anatomy doesn’t need to be correct”. This is a mistake I used to make myself very frequently when I was younger, and over the years I realized that, as harsh as this may sound, it is just an excuse to avoid dealing with constructive criticism. Stylized body proportions are undeniably rooted in the principles of real-life anatomy, and although the proportions are often exaggerated (particularly head/eye size, waist circumference, etc.), you would probably have a difficult time creating appealing stylized characters without having a decent understanding of human anatomy. Don’t take this the wrong way – I don’t think anyone who wants to model a PowerPuff Girl has to read through The Atlas of Human Anatomy first, but having a general understanding of bone structure, face ratio, and body proportions is essential to creating believable characters, stylized or otherwise.

This also applies to hair, although to a lesser extent. Stylized hair is undeniably exaggerated, but like everything else, it needs to be grounded in reality and feel natural and believable. Examining real-life references is something I do very frequently, mostly to try and understand what kind of additions and alterations I can make to bring the hair to life. 

Cel-Shading in ZBrush

Back when I started playing around with ZBrush’s cel-shading options while I was working on my Avatar: TLA characters in 2016, I had no idea it would be possible to reach such nice results in an application that is most commonly known for sculpting. I’ve always been a huge fan of cel-shaded video games – an affinity that started with the old PS2 Naruto games – and I thought it would be appropriate for a similar technique to be utilized on cartoon characters like Aang and Katara.

While Chun-Li used a more traditional rendering workflow (Arnold for Maya), I still get a lot of questions about my cel-shaded rendering techniques. Here is a brief walkthrough of my process:

After I set up these basic parameters, I create some render passes and begin the compositing process in Photoshop:

If you’d like a more in-depth explanation of how I create this type of rendering, let me know and I’ll try and find some time for a dedicated tutorial!

General Mistakes

Every 3D artist’s experiences are individual and unique, but here are a few mistakes I made when I first started creating this type of hair and how to avoid them:

Clipping – When many strands are placed next to each other, it can be easy to cause some unintentional mesh clipping/penetration.

Repetitiveness – It can be easy to try and save time by simply duplicating strands and placing them next to each other. Sometimes you can get away with it, but more often than not, it ends up looking fake and unconvincing. 

Wobbliness – Try to keep your lines nicely curved and clean. Having wobbly or uneven shapes can affect the appeal of your model.

Excessive Symmetry – You want to try and make the hair as believable as possible. Working with symmetry is fine, but you should make sure to add some variation and asymmetry at some point to avoid making the hair look too mechanical. 

I hope this tutorial helped you on your journey to creating appealing stylized hair! If you’re interested in an in-depth walkthrough, feel free to check out my 5-part video tutorial on YouTube.

Good luck!

Dan Eder, Senior 3D Character Artist

Interview conducted by Daria Loginova

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Comments 2

  • Anonymous user

    Great work overall. Thanks for sharing


    Anonymous user

    ·3 years ago·
  • Anonymous user

    Absolutely fantastic tutorial! Thanks so much for the knowledge and inspiration. Loved the intro.


    Anonymous user

    ·2 years ago·

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