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Lizard Witch Doctor: Recreating a Character in ZBrush & Substance

Liz Nedashkovskaya shared an extensive breakdown of her project Lizard Witch Doctor, talked about the workflow and setting up the lighting.

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Hello! My name is Liz and I would like to talk a bit about my work on the “Lizard Witch Doctor” character.

Before I started, I was looking for a good stylized concept. Something a bit different from what I usually do and a bit simpler, lower stress fun project, because I just finished my submission for the Rookies which was realistic and had a lot of elements.

The Project

I accidentally stumbled upon a concept of Lizard Witch Doctor by Maxence Brugel and just immediately fell in love! I can really write an ode to how much I adore this concept. The shapes are really fun, the variety of different objects and materials is very exciting for sculpting and texturing. And there are a lot of small details that I like, for example, the bells on his staff remind me of the bells that people afflicted with Leprosy would have in medieval times, the mystery jags possibly filled with weird concoctions, the skulls, and those crazy beady eyes, intense, up to no-good expression that really reminds me of Beavis and Butthead for no reason. And with all the negative and dark elements, he also has a lot of gold jewelry and fine cloth, business is going good I guess. This is just a small summary of why I like this character concept. In the end, my goal was to practice stylized character creation and make something fun.


Most of the time I start my characters in ZBrush, and this little friend got started from a sphere. Usually, I simply stretch and pull the sphere to fit the most prevalent view, in this case, it's a profile view, I also use the see-through feature which helps me to overlap whatever I am sculpting directly on a concept, which saves me a ton of time. I build up the rest of the body using spheres and clay tubes, always checking in with the concept.

At the start, I mostly use Move Topological brush a lot, pretty much until I get the base shapes I am happy with. I also use subdivision levels, ZRemesher for better topology, and Polish by Features, to make sure my base is more manageable and clean. After I managed to get body parts down, I started sculpting and working a lot with the Polygroups so it is easy to hide, select and manage.

Now, I have to say, I do all my personal art on a laptop, so I delete a lot of ZBrush history, I also work fairly fast at the beginning stages, so a lot of my first steps are not preserved. I will try to do my best to make sure my workflow is clear!

Here is a little process gif of the body and the head. For the hands and fingers, I simply used a ZBrush body part mesh, and changed it around, no need to make everything from scratch if you can save some time.

You can see that I am masking and extracting the other parts like backpack straps, hood, and loincloth. I prefer to lay those elements and have them on my character sooner rather than later because it helps me to compare it to the concept and have more visual landmarks.

Piece by piece I build up a character before I feel comfortable adding detail, but I am generally not afraid of just moving forward because the Subdivision workflow always allows me to work less destructively and if I need to I can make big changes easily.

When I work with a concept which only has one side, I just tend to think how things would most logically fit together, look good and believable, and most importantly repeat the same design elements and language. This all came in handy making a backpack on the character, which is mostly obscured, so let's take it as an example.

Here it is in a final version surrounded by all the other elements. A big challenge for me was to make sure it fits. I thought that two-part design made sense, and would look more interesting, also as a backpacker and camper myself – compartments! It just makes sense to have a way to separate your things. I wanted it to be a bit crude and that's why I added teeth-like, polished closures, it would fit in with the bones and other sharp edges on this concept. I also added a rim where the stitches should go, because all the cloth elements feature a golden trim. The folds, wear, and tear on the backpack were made because I was thinking how the imaginary stuff inside the backpack would affect it.

Sometimes my workflow consists of ZBrush→ Maya → ZBrush. I sculpt a really rough element, usually quick and symmetrical, retopo and UV it in Maya, import back in ZBrush, and refine the details. I used this while making all of the sculls because I needed them to be placed correctly to make the cloth belts around them, but I didn't want to deal with retopology which isn't symmetrical or trying to match it up to the correct position later. With this workflow, I can have a nice close-to-reference base, which I can tweak as much as I want but also can be baked very quickly.

I think retopology might be one of the least favorite things for all character artists out there, but I kinda like it. As an artist I like just switching gears once in a while, realistic to stylized, sculpting to retopology, UV and texture to rigging and rendering, it's nice. I would say my retopo process is very simple – I go with the flow but try to think two steps forward. Also learning more rigging made me better at retopology because the two are very connected.

I start with the base loops like eyes, mouth, nose and after that fill up the rest. The same is used to retopo the body, and I really think it helps to just visually plan and finish this puzzle. I also “trace” the important outlines and creases and build up the rest of the topology around it, or just cut details in and fix the topology after. Personally, I revisit and change some of the retopology as I go, sometimes a correct decision just clicks. I try not to pressure myself to finish it all perfectly on the first try because I always can come back and rethink things, especially because it is a personal project and I don't have strict time constraints (although if I do, I always like to plan with a day of at least few hours when I can just go and double-check some stuff).

Now, I know I make it sound like it's all an easy-breezy zen experience but trust me, it's still quite a process for me and I stress a lot if I am putting a good thing on my portfolio. Best advice – when in doubt just ask for feedback and give yourself even a few minutes of rest to refresh the mind and eyes, it makes a ton of difference.

In the end, I had something like this for the body and all the props. It definitely can be quite a lot lower on the polycount, but that is how it is at the moment.

After that, I just do the UVs and jump right into baking and painting the textures. I work with a lot of masks in Substance Painter and the first step is usually to get the base color and roughness and go from there. Building up colors and textures, I tend to experiment a lot with different smart masks and hand masking to get the painterly effect. What I noticed worked very well in my opinion – Blur Slope. I really like the non-uniform “painterly” blur that it gives. It blends the colors, but also adds a really nice ragged texture (depending on the value on the “quality” slider”), playing with Source Parameters can also give nice results. Mostly I used it in the shadows and darker colors in wrinkles and cavities.

You can see it in full action here:

It is very simple but I think it helps a lot. Other basic tools like Levels, Wrap, and Blur are also very useful and help to make big and quick adjustments to the masks. I also try to paint in the light a bit, even though this model will be rendered with lights, it's just a very natural thing to do when I think about stylized texture painting and overall just helps with achieving a more interesting look in the end.

The addition of yellow to green gradient, on a lower opacity, over all of the body helps to ground and unite all the colors, add extra depth, and desaturate the colors closer to the bottom of the model. I have used the same technique on the backpack too, but I ended up also painting a quick little patch on it, to give it more character, especially because while rendering it, I thought that it looks way too barren and boring and a patch will add a pop of color and a visual comedic relief.

I try to pay a lot of attention to how my edges are highlighted because I think it helps a lot with how stylized 3D looks. I think it is definitely the most noticeable on the sculls, makes the edges pop, and also helps with visible, over-exaggerated wear and tear.

The same thinking applied to the metal pieces.

The edges on this bell catch light quite nicely due to all the wear and tear on the edges and the difference in metalness/roughness across its surface. While texturing it, I also used a Sharpen filter on the masks to add extra grain.

Most of my small Normal Map information comes from texturing, mainly because it is fast and can be easily tweaked in the process, rather than sculpting everything in. Even though he is a lizard, having small skin-like break-ups in Roughness and Normal helps a lot.

Here is a Roughness example for the body:

Most of the time when I think about good texture work, I think of looking at something and immediately being able to imagine how it would feel if I would touch it.

I also used Photoshop at the end of texturing just to touch up some things and use my more painterly brushes to add small details in wrinkles and such, where I needed a bit more precision, especially around the eyes and mouth of this character.

After I am done with texturing, I added a quick rig, funny enough I really wanted to rig this character fully, but unfortunately just moved on to the next big project.

I am sorry friend, I will come back to you one day. I will just make you squat because I had to. But it was more than enough to pose him, I went with something closer to the concept and at the end, after several tweaks, I ended up with the pose he is right now in. I think the turn of the head makes him appear more lizard-like, just because it is a movement a lot of dinosaurs and lizards seem to do in animation and movies when they look at something. Combined with the sentence eyes, it definitely gives him a very unique mood.

I also took a quick break and using a human skull and bones I already sculpted for this character I made a little Substance Designer material.

And ended up using it as a floor base for him to stand on because I think it matches his dubious menacing nature and actually skulls are only noticeable from a certain angle, and I like that this could be a detail that gets noticed last but adds to an overall story of this character.


Lighting! Rendering! Terrifying and exciting moments in every project. The finish line is so close and the pressure is high. Especially if you are like me and not that great with lighting. Essentially, I just try to highlight certain parts of the model using my light setup. I always start with picking a correct HDRI, just because it helps to quickly get through different lighting setups and find something that already works well.

Here is an example of HDRI + the lights I have set up. (I used DOTA specular on a body and that where the extra highlight is coming from when all lights are off).

And here is a gif of the light by a light setup.

As I said, I just try to highlight important parts and make sure not too much is lost, I also try to keep the brightest lights closer to the top/face area, because it will be the part I want the most attention concentrating on.

And of course some colored, cold rim-lights.

Most of the time I go with contrast colored lights, cold and warm, and try to get the extra colors from the HDRI that I use, this time it was Mountain Sunset which gives a nice cold violet tint to everything.


During this project I faced a few challenges, the biggest one was jumping from realistic to stylized and managing the amount of detail and definition I put into my sculpt and texturing. Having only one view of the character on the concept isn't something I tend to struggle with a lot, but it is definitely always an interesting task, which takes some thinking. As I said before, the best thing to do is to ask yourself some questions about the character and try your best to answer them in the visual form.

I think revisiting an older project is also somewhat of a challenge. When I look at it, I always try to make mental notes on the things which could be better. Maybe I could have done some areas or colors differently, maybe a material set up in Marmoset Toolbag could be different, obviously, the topology could use some reconsidering. I think such art self-reflection can definitely help with future projects and it just shows that you know something better now. There are definitely a lot of avenues for growth and finding more determination to continue working on new art pieces.

Currently, I am again switching my gears from a big realistic project – Paul Atreides to something stylized! I am trying to bring more interesting pieces into my portfolio and showcase my skills.

Thank you very much for reading! I am very grateful for the opportunity to talk about this project. I definitely had a lot of fun making this and now I hope this article can help somebody in their artistic endeavors!

Liz Nedashkovskaya, 3D Character Artist

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

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