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Aspiring artist Josh Swarbrick talked about his amazing The Cursed Knight project, inspired by Dark Souls and The Witcher 3. It’s an amazing example of high-quality sculpting and exquisite material design, achieved with 3Dcoat.
I’m a character artist from the UK currently in my final year of studying Game Art Design at De Montfort University. I spent my earlier years mostly gaming and occasionally drawing. I didn’t touch any 3D software before starting the course I’m on now and I owe all that I do know to the lecturers and fellow students here.
I am currently doing my final major project for university. The FMP is basically one long project where the student gets to write their own brief to suit their speciality and the type of company/career they want to pursue. I have always had a keen interest in characters and for about a year now I have been confident that I wanted to pursue a career specifically as a character artist.
So I set myself the task of making 3 characters for my FMP, which roughly works out at about 5 or 6 weeks per character.
I wanted to explore different genres and styles with the 3 projects so I decided I would make a fantasy character, a sci-fi character and a contemporary character. The Cursed Knight is the first of these 3 characters and my goal was to create a realistic fantasy character, similar to the style of games like Dark Souls and The Witcher. It took me a while to land on the idea that I ran with for this character, and as I started sketching down more ideas, I started building up more of a story in my head of who the character was and why he looked the way he did.
My idea was essentially this: a heavy knight, who had been cursed with immortality, trapped in a forest which had began to consume his body. I wanted to subtly play around with conventions with this character. At first glance he looks like a big scary dude but that would be contrasted by the beauty of the nature consuming him and the elegance of his armor details.
Gathering reference was one of the most important aspects of this project. It really supported the design of the character and helped me achieve a greater level of realism. If you were to look at my Pinterest boards you would probably notice that my character is essentially lots of different great real life armour that has been bashed in to one design. The legs plates and knee high boots were heavily influenced by Henry VIII’s field armour, the helmet was based on a German Stechhelm and the gauntlets were actually based on a really cool costume I found on a website that sells LARPing gear.
I started the project with a very basic base sculpt of a male body in Zbrush, getting the proportions and physique of the character to a point that I was happy with. I really didn’t spend too much time on this as I knew none of his body would be visible under all the clothing and armor.
After this I masked out areas of the body and used the extract tool for the armor pieces. I sculpted into these to make a block out of the character. At this point everything looked crude and poorly sculpted, but the key here was to get the shape of the pieces and the overall silhouette of the character looking good. My number 1 suggestion here would be to get constant feedback from others. Often the biggest issues are staring me right in the face but I don’t notice them after looking at this blobby mess of a Zbrush sculpt for hours.
After getting a reasonably solid shape down and some fairly clean faces with the trim dynamic and Hpolish brushes, I went over all the armor pieces one by one with the retopolpgy tool. Creating nice clean low poly pieces that can be easily adjusted with the move brush. Keeping clean topology is important here so that they can subdivide properly, also so I can easily adjust and add/remove loops with the Zmodeler tool.
At this point the armor pieces are shaping up nicely. There is no detail but all the pieces look roughly how I want them to, so I move on to the clothing. I created pretty much all the clothing in Marvelous Designer. Starting with the Gambeson. I created the basic patterns and simulated them on my base mesh with none of the armor/additional stuff. I then created internal lines for the striped pattern of the garment, and duplicated the pieces, layering them on top of each other and increasing the pressure to get that padded effect. Choosing the right material preset is always important as you don’t want your garment to have that uncanny valley feel where it doesn’t look quite right. It’s also important to note that I work with the particle distance on 20 whilst making the garments, and then simulate it at around 5 when I’m ready to make final adjustments and export it. I used morph target to move from a base mesh with exploded armor to one where the armor sits tightly around the body. Which helped squash the clothing in where the armor sits around it. This garment had lots areas where it was clipping through the armor mesh but all those issues can be fixed later on in Zbrush.
Once I was comfortable with the clothing that sat underneath I began working on the final pass of detail, which was mostly just filigree covering a good portion of the armour. I did this by masking out alphas of filigree patterns and then extruding them out with the clay or move tool. I had to be fairly careful with this as I’m guilty of going overboard on details sometimes, and it’s important to remember that less is more. Allowing the character to have areas of rest and areas of detail is important and can be a great way of keeping certain areas of your character as focal points.
Most of the retopolpgy for the character was done in either 3Dcoat or using the step build and conform tools in 3DS Max. 3Dcoat has some really useful tools specifically for this kind of work, but Max is also great because you have all the advantages of the standard modelling tools as well as step build and conform. For a lot of the armour I was able to use the lowest subdivisions I had created much earlier in Zbrush. I then unwrapped the clothing to one texture sheet and the armour to another, and baked my normals and AO at 4K resolution in Xnormal. And then used the normal to cavity tool to bake a cavity map.
I imported these maps to substance painter along with the character mesh to begin texturing. The AO and cavity maps were really important for getting the smart materials and mask builders to to recognise the crevices so I could quickly and easily build them up with dirt and moss. Getting the fabric to look realistic was another big challenge, material definition is probably one of my weakest areas, so I spent a long time trying to get them looking accurate. All I can really suggest here is to not rush the texturing. It’s something that I’ve always been lazy with in the past and it can easily ruin an otherwise good character.
Tips and Tricks
Having a solid story behind your character to work from can be incredibly helpful when creating it. It doesn’t need to be overly detailed but when making decisions about the design, you can always refer back to the story. Would that make sense? How clean/dirty/damaged would it be? Does is support the narrative you’re trying to suggest? It also helps when getting feedback from others if you can explain the reasons behind the choices, and they can give you more useful suggestions based on that idea.