Professional Services
Order outsourcing

Insights from a Character Artist: Navigating Challenges, Finding Inspiration & Mastering ZBrush

Obrad Atlija has told the story behind getting into character art, challenges faced on the way, and shared favorite brushes, modes, and some tips for aspiring artists.


My name is Obrad Atlija, and I live in the beautiful city of Thun, Switzerland. I am a Creature Artist and a former Environment Artist. I studied game design and 3D animation at SAE Zurich, and after that, I worked as a 3D Environment Artist and Level Designer on various freelance projects for several years. After specializing in creature design, I worked as a 3D Lead Creature Artist at Onyx Games and I'm currently a part of Devoted Studios.

The Story Behind Delving Into Character Art

I knew that I wanted to pursue a creative profession. I remembered what I enjoyed the most during my younger years. Besides art, I was a passionate gamer. In my opinion, games are one of the ultimate ways to experience a story and an adventure – almost like an epic that's impossible to experience in real life. The feeling is different from watching a film; you're not just an observer, you're the main character. You interact with the world and make decisions differently than in a film. Every form of art is present in games, from modeling to texturing, animating, music, and more – it's all there. In my view, this type of experience defines our era, combining all the foundations and directions of art in human history in one medium.

In games like Unreal Tournament and Warcraft 3, I spent more time creating my own maps in the editor than actually playing the games. Every time, I saw something in these games that made me think: "I want to contribute to this". As an example, when World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade was released, I fell in love with it. However, since I had always played as the Undead in Warcraft 3: The Frozen Throne, I was disappointed that there were no Death Knights in WoW. I spent hours drawing variations of Death Knights and thinking about which abilities would suit the class. Fortunately, the Death Knight was introduced in the Wrath of the Lich King expansion.

But the point is, the interest in creating something was always there, and from that point on, I realized that the game industry was perfect for me to express myself. The fact that you can make a living as a full-time artist in this industry, rather than just pursuing art as a hobby, is a significant factor in entering this field. There are no limits to possibilities, except for technical limitations, which fortunately improve year after year. The best part is that you don't work alone on a game – you collaborate with a team of like-minded individuals to create beautiful artwork that enriches people's imaginations and inspires some to create something of their own.

Once I realized the industry I wanted to work in, the question arose: what exactly did I want to do? I searched on the Internet and came across SAE Zurich. I started my studies in game design & 3D animation there. Due to the many beautiful landscapes, mountains, forests, ruins, and castles in my surroundings, I decided to focus on environment art. After my studies, I worked as a 3D Environment Artist, but I felt that it wasn't my ultimate dream. It's great that you create beautiful worlds and objects but something was missing for me.

In the last project I worked on, I had the privilege of also contributing to creatures and characters. For years, I hadn't felt that childlike joy until then. Since I spent most of my time in ZBrush during this project, I realized that I wanted to build my career around this software. Thanks to my background as an Environment Artist, I have good knowledge of Maya, Substance 3D Painter, Substance 3D Designer, and Unreal Engine but I wanted to learn more sculpting skills, specifically for creatures and characters. Shortly after that, I looked for a mentor to further my education and came across CGVERSE where I began my mentorship with Ankush Khare, Senior Character Artist at Remedy Entertainment.

Experience with ZBrush

There's not much to say. I had my first contact with ZBrush 8 years ago, and since then, I'm definitely a ZBrush fanboy. For some people, ZBrush is just a tool, but I don't agree with that. In my view, ZBrush is an immense extension of the ability to express oneself artistically and create art that wouldn't be possible in traditional ways. We can consider ourselves fortunate to have been born as artists in this era!

Before ZBrush, I primarily used Unreal Engine and Maya, so the UI was a bit challenging at the beginning. However, I fell in love with ZBrush immediately and delved deeply into the software and its functions. After a short time, everything in it felt very intuitive, so the initial hurdle was quickly overcome.

Over the years, I've tried several sculpting software, but none of them, in my opinion, could compare to ZBrush. It just feels great to sculpt in it, especially knowing that you don't have to worry about the technical aspects initially. Once you understand the program, you have the freedom to focus solely on the fundamentals and the artistic aspect.

Nowadays, I feel so comfortable in it that I don't like to leave ZBrush. Aside from retopology and UVs in Maya, shading in Marmoset Toolbag, or in Unreal Engine, I do everything directly in ZBrush. From low-poly, blockout to high-poly sculpt, and base texturing (which I like to refine and complete in Substance 3D Painter).

Speaking of the Challenges

I think the biggest challenge for me personally was choosing a specialization in the field. On the one hand, being a generalist can have its advantages, but on the other hand, specializing in a specific area can make it easier to find a job. Thanks to my experience in the field of environment art, I believe I can offer a wide range of flexibility. Even as a Creature Artist, I can support my team in other areas, which can greatly improve efficiency in completing a project.

Another challenge was maintaining a certain mindset consistently. Some days, you simply don't feel inspired and progress is slow. Especially with creature design, I sometimes felt the fear that something wasn't anatomically correct or that I was overthinking things in general. Since our task is to visualize the concept as accurately as possible, I tended to overthink because there are countless ways to interpret a good look. Passion is important, but overthinking can impede workflow.

A sculpture can look great from one angle, depending on the pose, and not so great from another perspective, even if you've based it directly on the concept. In such cases, you have to be ready to sculpt certain parts differently and possibly adjust proportions and shapes because the creature or character should look good from every angle. This challenge is, in a way, what I love about 3D sculpting. In a game or even in a 3D print-ready miniature figure, characters and creatures should look dynamic and appealing from every perspective.

My Favourite Brushes and Modes

My top brush is definitely Clay Buildup. To me, this is the go-to brush for starting sculpting. Also, Dam Standard and Dam Standard 02 are essential. Dam Standard 02 is not included in ZBrush and needs to be downloaded externally. It's a sharper version and incredibly useful. The Move Brush, Move Topological, and Snake Hook are indispensable and can't be ignored. During the blockout phase, I often use Snake Hook instead of the Move Brush.

The Standard Brush, in combination with alphas, is essential for adding details like pores, patterns, scales, etc. For hard surface parts, hPolish is very useful for creating a smooth surface. In the latest version of ZBrush, there's a new brush called the Anchor Brush, which is incredibly useful, especially for tentacles or posing characters. I would also recommend the legendary Orb Brushes which can be downloaded online. Most people use these brushes for stylized work, but they can be used very effectively for realistic projects as well.

Apart from the brushes, I love all the deformers. I also use the deformers in the Gizmo Gear menu regularly. When I'm not in DynaMesh mode, I use Remesh by Union to merge subtools for unification. It's an amazing tool to get rid of intersections. Transpose Master is practical for saving time when you have various subtools and you are about to pose your character because you don't have to manually re-position each subtool. It's also fun to see how all the objects are reassigned to the posed character. Morph Target and Layers in combination with the Morph Brush are by far the best for client work since you can quickly and easily remove or modify details. I could talk for days about my favorite brushes, tools, and features, but that would exceed the scope of this interview.

Finally, I would recommend creating your own IMM or VDM brushes. Sometimes, you're working on a project with a lot of repetitive parts, like spikes, for example. If you sculpt a few spikes and turn them into an IMM Brush, you can use them in future projects to save time.

Some Final Words and Pieces of Advice

My advice for beginners, especially in the case of creature design, is to learn as much about anatomy as possible. Not only human anatomy but also the anatomy of various animal species, from reptiles to insects, mammals, fish, etc. Learn as much as you can. It will improve the credibility of your creatures. No matter how fantastical a monster is, it always has some connection to things we know from our environment and reality. Overall, find interest in as many fields as possible, whether it's physics, psychology, history, or more.

It may sound counterintuitive but gather as many life experiences as possible outside of the art world. We are often so focused on improving our skills and growing as artists, but all the experiences and knowledge you gather outside of this field will ultimately help you create something great and tell unique stories.

If you ever lose motivation, lack inspiration, or find your current project boring, watch YouTube videos of sculptors, ZBrush live streams, or read articles about artists on websites like 80 Level. Keep platforms like ArtStation, ZBrushCentral, or similar websites open. Personally, this always helps me stay motivated.

Lastly, when sculpting, focus on the big shapes, especially the proportions and silhouette. In my opinion, these are the most important aspects and determine the character's recognizability. Sometimes, less is more; too many tertiary details can make the sculpture less readable and too noisy. Try to strike a balance in complexity.

Don't present your character or creature in a T-pose. Of course, if you're making game-ready characters, they are typically created in the T or A-pose, but for presentation, I would make the effort to pose them as dynamically and interestingly as possible. Also, don't forget to put effort into lighting, staging, and rendering your sculpt. The best sculpture is worthless if you don't invest a lot of work in this part of the process. Even a bad sculpture can look high-quality when presented correctly.

All in all, have fun, put in a lot of effort, and never give up. Don't beat yourself up when things don't go well and allow yourself to make mistakes. And most importantly, maintain the right mindset and be open to as much feedback as possible, even if it may be painful!

Obrad Atlija, Lead 3D Prop/Creature Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Burton

Join discussion

Comments 0

    You might also like

    We need your consent

    We use cookies on this website to make your browsing experience better. By using the site you agree to our use of cookies.Learn more