Learn How to Recreate Arcane's Ekko with Substance 3D & Blender

Jorge Martinez Garcia walked us through the Arcane's Ekko project and explained in detail how he recreated the character with the help of Substance 3D Painter and Blender.

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Today, one of the talented 3D Character Artists decided to join us, discuss the creation of their latest project, and share some tools and tips in the field of character art.

Jorge Martinez Garcia is a 3D Character Artist currently based in Germany. We asked Jorge to tell us more about getting into the world of 3D, and the artist shared that while he was studying Visual Communication and Graphic Design at some point in the past, he realized that he'd better work in games rather than in advertising.

"During my university studies, I came across Blender and stuck with it. I learned all the 3D skills I have on my own, with the help of online tutorials and courses. I'm mostly self-taught in that regard and did not have any game design education prior.

After graduating, I got my first job as a 3D Generalist, where I was tasked with creating VFX for High on Life by Squanch Games. During that time, I learned a lot about texturing, optimization, and other real-time techniques I didn't know about before that have shaped the way I approach projects."

Speaking of the recent Arcane Ekko project, Jorge shared that he wanted to recreate the character for a long time.

"I have been wanting to create an Arcane style-inspired piece for a while, then I found this really cool painting by Meybis Ruiz Cruz. It served as my main reference during the whole project. However, I also wanted to try out some additional effects and not just try to copy her work, so that's where I came up with the idea of adding some floating brushstrokes over the mesh, similar to what you would see in Alberto Mielgo's illustration work."

When asked about the workflow behind the character's face and head, Jorge said that he first started with making the blockout of the face and a simple torso placeholder.

"In the beginning, I wasn't sure how much heavy lifting the texturing would do so I put more focus on getting the shapes right from the get-go. I tried to exaggerate some features more, that way I could control better where they would cast shadows and which areas would be lit similar to the reference. I sculpted everything in ZBrush, since this is where I feel more comfortable working, but this style of sculpture can be easily replicated in other software like Blender."

Something that definitely deserves our attention is the character's awesome hairstyle, so we asked Jorge to delve into the process of setting up those intricate curls, explaining in detail the tools used and the overall process.

"I knew I would have to find a way to make the hairstyle easier on me, so I experimented a bit with IMM brushes and curve brushes. I ended up creating a bunch of curls of different lengths, thicknesses, and twists in Blender with the Screw Modifier. I imported those in ZBrush and created my own brush to draw a curve and place it on the head."

"This guide by Eric Hart was really helpful for understanding how to create curve brushes and goes really in-depth into what each feature does. Even though I created a bunch of different styles for the curls, I ended up using mostly two variants. Sometimes less is more."

Since Jorge knew that he wanted his artwork to be a static image with no animation and not game-ready, focusing on retopology was not the most crucial aspect of the process.

"This doesn't mean it couldn't be done for games or animation, I was just feeling lazy and wanted to put more focus into the painting aspect of the piece.

A really good technique for creating quick retopology in ZBrush is using the PolyGroupIt plugin. This tool allows you to paint loops and areas onto the mesh, which are then used to generate Polygroups. These Polygroups can be used as guides for creating clean geometry with ZRemesher. You can also UV based on the groups, saving time in the process.

Here is a great guide from Danny Mac on how to do this."

Like many other Character Artists, when it comes to texturing, Jorge chooses Substance 3D Painter. 

"I created a base material for Ekko that generates some nice gradients and lights from the get-go. These helped already to get a feel for where I should paint more highlights and shadows.

In that base material, I have the ability to decide the color of highlights and shadows and adjust the direction of the light, it serves as a base more than anything. 90% of the texture is just good old hand painting using traditional digital painting techniques one might know from Photoshop, such as lowering the flow and opacity of a brush and using a Square alpha.

The brushes I used were "Shape Square Squeeze" and "KylesRake." For painting, I created a fill layer with a black mask and started painting with an opacity of around 55%. I began with darker shadow tones and worked my way up to brighter highlight tones. I used the rake brush to create more localized highlights and areas of interest. It is important to be confident in your brushstroke when hand painting. Be bold and use big strokes initially to avoid a muddy look with this type of brush. Smaller strokes and brush sizes are more suitable for creating smooth gradients."

For rendering, Jorge used Blender's Eevee engine, explaining that while Cycles might be better to get more realistic lights and shadows for a stylized piece like this, Eevee works perfectly fine and allows him to iterate quicker.

"I used a fairly simple approach of adding a 3-point lighting system to get the main illumination and then added smaller point and area lights to enhance the lighting further.

I created these alphas to add some floating brushstrokes on top. Initially, I planned on using more of them, but ended up only sprinkling a couple around. These were drawn in Photoshop and then used as small planes over the mesh. I think they add a nice extra effect, and I will definitely explore this technique more in the future.

Another small detail I added was these small dotted highlights you see around the edges. These were inspired by the look and feel of the Spider-Verse animated movies. I created a small dotted pattern in Photoshop and overlaid it on the mesh using fresnel and layer weight. I think that all these graphic elements work well together with the hand-painted textures."

According to Jorge, the overall time for the project was around a week. The first two days were spent on sculpting and modeling Ekko, another two days on texturing, and the final days the artist was playing around with the lighting and additional elements.

"One of the biggest challenges was the hair. It was not easy to get it looking right and not resembling instant ramen noodles. I think I did a fairly decent job, but I'm sure it could be done better.

Also, hand-painting itself can be tricky. I restarted the skin texture twice before reaching a point where I felt it was turning out great. Even though it's hard, painting manually is very relaxing and rewarding in the end. So, I encourage everyone to try it at least once.

The advice I would give beginners, of any kind, is to start now. Don't wait for that perfect moment of time and don't wait to be "ready". Just start and enjoy the process. Also, work on projects you like, not what a future employer might want to see. You are doing this for you, and that's worth a lot more. Don't forget to have fun!"

Josh Martinez, 3D Character Artist

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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