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Imagining an Eerie Dark Fantasy Deity With ZBrush and Marmoset Toolbag

Character Artist Natalia P. Gutiérrez walked us through The Dark Mother project, explaining the step-by-step process of making this magnificent 3D model of a grim creature inspired by Spanish Catholic art, and sharing valuable advice on rendering spooky characters and approaching an ambitious project.

Natalia P. Gutiérrez is a Valencia-based Character Artist specializing in creatures with 10 years of experience in the industry. Originally, she did 2D art but switched to 3D at the age of 18 and has been focusing on it ever since. She's been switching between freelance and on-site work, contributing to projects like Path of Exile 2, Total War: Three Kingdoms, The Ascent, Predator: Hunting Grounds, Aliens: Fireteam Elite, and even some mobile games. Right now, Natalia is working at Yellow Brick Games and focusing on some incredible new IP.

Regarding her skills, Natalia describes herself as self-taught, which is one of the things she loves about being an artist: you don't need a degree or official studies to show your skills and get hired.

To learn more about Natalia's latest project called The Dark Mother, an elegant religious-themed original character, we recently spoke to the artist herself, who gladly shared a detailed breakdown of the "forgotten creature from ancient times who believes herself to be a deity" 3D model, guiding us through the modeling, texturing, and rendering pipelines, including a lightning tutorial, and giving some valuable tips for beginners.

When asked about the inspiration and reference-gathering stage, Natalia confessed she didn't use any concepts. She explained, that having the absolute freedom to do whatever you want and craft a character from zero is what she loves about personal projects. Natalia enjoys developing their story as she works on them, imagining what their background and behaviors are like. These ideas are born naturally during the process of creating and Natalia takes pleasure in seeing the character's evolution:

"I normally start by randomly sketching some shapes and exploring different figures in ZBrush. You'll see this is something common in my characters. I don't start with a predefined idea. I just start sculpting and see where that takes me.

Sometimes, I do have a concept in my mind, but it's vague. Maybe, I want to go for something "elegant" and "creepy". Maybe, I feel like doing a monster based on the Roman Empire because I saw a really cool gladiator helmet photo and want to implement that into a monster. I love dark fantasy, elegance, mystery, things that games like Dark Souls and Elden Ring convey very well, so my creatures tend to gravitate towards this style."

"For the Dark Mother, one of the things that inspired me was the unnerving face some religious statues have. I was searching for plenty of references, mainly Spanish religious ones. And I came across the face of the "Virgen del Pilar", which is one of the local representations of the Virgin Mary. It's a small effigy but I remember thinking that the face was so creepy, and I really wanted to depict that in a creature.

Then I noticed it was a common denominator among my references. Some statues have this haunting subtle smile on their faces, but they are not smiling with their eyes. The contrast is quite eerie and I thought that it'd be super cool to create a monster based on that.

I wanted it to have religious iconography, so you got elements such as priest clothing for the neck area, props like a rosary, church bells hanging from her weapon, clothing that resembles the cloaks they put on statues, lilies, her golden crown, etc. For extra creepiness, I thought about creating a contrast between her upper part, which includes her marble face and covered shoulders, and the exposed lower part, showing a slender, creepy, and grotesque body, manifesting her true nature underneath."

"The rest of the details kind of popped up in my head during the development. For example, I thought about adding swords piercing her back, as if many people had tried killing this creature before, unsuccessfully.

Then I got this idea regarding her lore. Maybe, she inhabited a cathedral, deluding herself into believing she was a deity. Maybe, she demanded worship from humans, expecting them to kneel and avert their gaze in reverence when crossing her path, which could temporarily spare their lives because this creature is capricious and unpredictable and does as she pleases.

I think letting your imagination fly is immensely enjoyable. Personally, I find the process of crafting a character very stimulating. Trying to make a creature that's both coherent and artistically appealing is a challenge, which exercises both your mind and your artistic eye."

Obviously, the Mother's head is the most peculiar and eye-catching part of the character, and when asked about her approach to working on it, Natalia explained she started with a marble head in ZBrush, trying to convert that unnerving expression since she considers head, face, and eyes the most important body parts and usually starts working on them in the first place.

Then, she added the crown, a very common element in this kind of statue, trying to represent it realistically after studying a lot of references.

"I did design something that would appear more aggressive than the real ones, by adding many sharps elements pointing upwards. For this part, I also thought, even if it sounds funny, of Ursula from The Little Mermaid, in the part where she transforms into a giant version of herself. I remember vividly she had a pointy crown, so that was an important element in her design, contributing to making her look very scary. I tried representing something similar to the Mother.
I mainly used ZBrush and 3ds Max to build the crown. Many parts are done using one mesh, cloned all over. This way I optimized time and UV space."

As for the body, Natalia mainly used Clay Build Up and Gio's brush. She added detail in every Subdivision, from big to small, finishing with some Alpha brushes for creatures for the pores and wrinkles.

"Same process as for the head, I started with sketching my idea and then developing it from there. The legs were cloned, on the UVs as well. The skulls were part of an IMM brush I found online and saved me a lot of work.

The clothes were done using Marvelous Designer. They have very simple patterns, almost circle-like, but the challenge was to make them look appealing and interesting, so I played around with the fabric settings and pins until I was satisfied with the shapes and wrinkles. Then I brought them into ZBrush to modify the silhouettes a bit with the Move brush, subdivide them, and add some small details."

Natalia mentioned, that she used TopoGun and UVLayout to retopologize the project:

"To save time I made some parts symmetrical, such as the legs, and the arms, since the right arm wouldn't be that visible. For the organic body, I started with a symmetrical retopology which I then broke to retopogize the skulls on the front.

The upper and lower clothing were retopologized and UVed by hand with a lesser poly density, adding a TurboSmooth Modifier later on 3ds Max."

In her texturing workflow, Natalia normally uses Substance 3D Painter's smart materials as a base, organizing everything into folders with their masks, and working from there. She emphasizes that organization and correct naming help a lot when texturing.

According to her, the general workflow for texturing normally includes establishing some base values, working on the material from its very base, and then adding layers to that, taking advantage of your baked maps and hand-painting touches when needed, and testing every change on the go. "References are your best friend. If you study them closely you'll notice details you'll want to implement into your textures, making them better", she added.

Natalia also pointed out she likes to have Marmoset Toolbag always open on her other monitor to test the changes in real-time under different lightning.

"For the metallic parts, I tried maintaining a certain coherence between them, to show that this creature had been around for a long time, the metals being old and weathered.

Same for the clothes and skin. I used many references. It's very important to find the right balance between representing something realistically but also adding your artistic touch. I base the project on reality but I trust my artistic vision to add some changes if I think they'll benefit the model.
So for the clothing, I searched for priest clothing and tried to emulate the look, color, roughness, and texture of it, eye-balling those values, trying to represent what I saw in the images. The same for the church bells and keys, which I had a blast texturing. I introduced some changes on the go, like the golden pattern on her upper and low clothing, as I saw some cloaks adorned that way. I had to play with the shape and size of the patterns though, until I found something I thought was balanced. I made some quick masks in Photoshop and brought them to Substance 3D Painter, using them as stencils."

"For the marble head, I started with a white fill layer with color and roughness values and built the texture from there. I added color variation using my thickness and Ambient Occlusion bakes, then started bringing out the sculpt detail using Edge Masks, hand-painting the lighter parts I wanted the focus to be on, and then adding more detail using grunge Tileables, Cavity Masks, and more hand-painting. I tried emulating the polypainted look I previously did on ZBrush. Very pale, to make the head pop out, with subtle dark hand-painted touches on her eyes and lips. I mainly wanted her creepy expression to stand out.

There was a lot of trial and error with the metal arm as well. I bounced between making it golden-like, half-golden-like, rougher, less rough, etc. I just tried things and values until I found something balanced and satisfying."

Moving on to the rendering, Natalia revealed that she used Marmoset Toolbag, which she loves. Normally, she tries to go for something dramatic, as the lighting is what makes your model stand out. In this project, the lighting sources vary between each scene. As for the background, Natalia used a free 360-degree cathedral image found on the internet and tried to build a fitting lighting.

Turns out, she doesn't tweak the post-production settings a lot but uses vignettes if she feels the image needs it by adjusting the contrast a bit in Photoshop and adding a blurred smoke texture with low opacity over everything to give that extra mysterious touch.

Check out the tutorial Natalia made for this interview showcasing the process of creating this model's lighting:

We also asked her to share some tips and tricks for rendering creepy characters:

"In general terms, you can start by adding a Spot Light on top of your character with a slight angle, which will create some shadows. I always ask myself if this light adds something to the character, if it makes it more appealing, highlighting its features. If it works for what I'm trying to convey. I add them where I feel they work best but you can also use references, such as movie shots.

Rim lights are also very important, as they make the silhouette readable. I love adding some warm or cold-toned lights, and tweaking their values so that they don't burn the texture. I don't like leaving any fully dark areas.

To quickly create Rim Lights, I also add Sky Lights, by clicking directly on the Sky UI on the left, and then using the Transform menu to change their rotation on every axis until I find a sweet spot. To better preview the Sky Lights and the area they're affecting, I normally set the brightness value to something very high, rotate the light until I find a position I like and then turn the brightness down. It's important to look at the model from your final camera angle and build the lights accordingly."

Natalia disclosed that she tends to work on her projects at her own pace and the Dark Mother one has been around for quite some time until last month when she set herself the objective to finish it under a month.

In conclusion, Natalia talked about dealing with burnout, the best way to approach a project without getting overwhelmed, and shared some advice for beginner Character Artists, highlighting the importance of doing what you enjoy the most, as it'd reflect on the quality of your work:

"The main challenge was burnout, I think. Thinking about everything that was left, and getting overwhelmed, stopping the work on it for periods of time. My advice would be to always focus on small things. In this case, I focused on a single element multiple times, like the weapon or even the bells. Just tried to do my best with the bells. Then with the crown, then the arm, etc. By breaking down the project into manageable chunks that I could finish, I found it easier to maintain my focus and advance.

So, the advice is to focus on one element at a time and not worry about the rest. It's the feeling of overwhelm that blocks us, but it can be overcome if you open the model and center your attention on one element. You'll get the answers to your blockers along the way if you just work on it, little by little.

Also, it's important to let your mind and eyes rest, not rush into finishing or uploading a project. I assure you you'll see the errors and things to refine way more clearly after a night's rest. So don't rush.

Lastly, enjoy what you do. You have the absolute freedom to model whatever you want. Isn't that great? Maybe you enjoy the process of creation from zero, or maybe there's a concept that inspires you. Find what motivates you the most, because that will show on your portfolio in the form of quality, and this is what will land you a job in the future."

Natalia P. Gutiérrez, Character Artist

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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