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Lonely Lumberjack: Imitating a Pencil Drawing in Substance & ZBrush

Théo Albertini talks about the challenges of sculpting a 3D character based on a 2D concept art, explains how to create soft pencil-like strokes for stylized 3D artworks, and discusses the importance of proper lighting when designing an emotional piece.


Hello, my name is Théo Albertini, I am a CG Generalist with a focus on modeling, texturing, and lookdev. I studied CG for four years at ESMA Montpellier in France. At the end of the third year, I did a three-month internship as a Character Surfacing Artist in Paris and during the fourth year, six classmates and I did our graduation short movie in 2020. One month after that, I got my first job at Framestore London as a Shot Sculptor on the Tom & Jerry movie and I had been working there for two months which taught me a lot about character modeling. A few months and a couple of personal projects after, I returned to Framestore as a Modeler in feature film production where I am currently working.

Working on the Lonely Lumberjack Project

I really fell in love with Tom Booth's woodworker series but this one piece hit even harder. This subtle but powerful way of depicting loss really moves me. I also wanted to use this project as training material and as an inspiration for creating an emotional piece and giving a second take to this concept using the CG medium while sticking to the original intentions Tom conveyed so well.

The reference part was capital. The volumes and shapes of the original concept are very clear overall but the artist also used some 2D tricks to make certain shapes more appealing. As my goal was to create multiple camera views of the pose, I had to make small adjustments like those on the hands to make it work in 3D. Gladly, as this concept was part of a series of multiple illustrations, I took inspiration from other depictions of the woodworker, too. Also, Tom varied in style throughout his series so I could gather extra details from the more polished depictions of this character. I also took realistic references to work out some parts of the anatomy and materials.

Sculpting the Character

I chose to model this character in a pose which is an important decision that impacts many steps of the workflow onward. I did it to gain time and avoid extra steps like posing which often implies a subsequent corrective sculpting phase. Also, I could match the concept better this way but this process only works for one still pose.

The first step was to create a rough blocking of the shapes in Maya using mainly primitives just to have a good starting point in terms of volumes and space. Then I went to ZBrush and started connecting the shapes and refining areas with a lot of focus on the face. I didn’t spend too much time polishing the model in ZBrush as this project was also a topology practice for me so most of the modeling polishing was executed in Maya when I brought the high-poly sculpted model back to the scene. The retopology work was very interesting as I wanted all the geometry to be driven solely by the base mesh which implies no displacement on the character (except for a few folds on his pants sculpted in ZBrush). As expected, the main struggle was with the face and hands where I had to figure out how to add the sharp creases directly into the topology.

The last part was modeling the hairs and eyebrows. I had no experience doing it in polygon but thought it would better fit the style of the character so I chose this option over classic hair groom. Once I found a good strand profile for the brow and hair stands, I duplicated it and shaped it to set the overall volume. Then I extracted thin pieces of geometry to add fly away and breakups so the end result would feel more alive.

The beard was done in XGen where I based my hair guides on both the concept and real beard references. I set the hair thickness pretty high to stay consistent with the overall stylized look and with the polygon hairs. I then varied the thickness and length of the hairs and added subtle modifiers to generate variations.

Adding the Details

The axe handle has been entirely sculpted in ZBrush except for a rough base mesh in Maya. I really wanted to reproduce this rough veiny aspect the wood had in the concept but add more volume to it. I also gathered references of real wood and 3D stylizations to have more inspiration for details and volumes. This axe was actually hard to integrate because its perspective is not really coherent in the concept so I had to make tricky subtle adjustments like curving the head of the axe outward to make it fit nicely in the character’s arm without being too noticeable.

For the tree stump and wooden hand, all the modeling was done in Maya using some of the built-in sculpting tools in the process. The huge stylized wood cracks were actually painted in Substance Painter and exported as a Displacement Map. I chose this workflow as it gave me better control of my textures than if I had to bake the high-poly as I did for the axe handle.


Substance Painter was an amazing tool to work with for the entire texturing of this piece. I mainly used a pencil brush that I imported from Photoshop for all the painting including crosshatches and larger areas. Having a quality and consistent alpha pattern and brush settings is key to achieve a believable stylized look so I tweaked the brush's settings and saved preset once I was happy with the results so I could use them throughout the whole project.

At the very start, I assign basic materials with plain values to all the different parts of my model so I can have a good layer and folder structure inside Substance Painter and a global vision of my future materials. For this pencil look, there were two main work blocks within the texturing process, the cross-hatching and handling of the bigger areas like skin redness, occlusions, and so on.

For the hatching part, I really wanted the lines to follow the volumes of the character in a powerful way. ‘The Starry Night’ by Vincent Van Gogh was one of my references. So I manually traced multiple levels of lines with opacity and blending modes to shift the original base color adding variations and movement to the different parts of my model. These detail levels from sparse thick lines to fine dense strokes are key to breaking the pattern uniformity and achieving a more authentic look.

For the large areas, I worked on top of the hatches with blending modes to keep all the variations of the pattern underneath. These two stages weren't done separately, there was a lot of back and forth which allows for a more global vision and keeps the project coherent. As I planned to do a single pose for this character, I had more control over occlusions placement and highlights which may not work if the character is standing up in a different lighting setup, for example.

At the end of the project, I make a few colour corrections on my textures to have a good coherence and overall look. It’s not uncommon for me to work on an area and realize very late in the process it is undersaturated or overexposed. If you work with a good layer structure and keep effects separated, it’s never too late to make things right without spending hours on it.

The shading was really important in the process of creating this style. I used a lot of subsurface scatterings to soften the overall look and compensate for the hard hatching in texturing. Scattering generates a lot of colours and variations in shadows, so when used appropriately it can generate very interesting results. I tweaked the scattering colour directly in the shading, altering my albedo with colour corrections. It’s perfectly normal to have an oversaturated map in your scatter as colours inside the matter are generally more vivid like blood beneath the skin. I also used a Fresnel effect called Fuzz in RenderMan to add a coloured specular on the edges of the clothes giving them a softer look.


I used multiple render layers for this project. This is an important step for optimizing render time as well as having more control during post-production. The layers breakups go as follows: one for the character and the stump, one for the snow environment, one for the wooden sticks, and one extra layer only for the snowflakes which is very handy for compositing. One important step is that I made sure to set rendering attributes to preserve light bounces and shadows of objects that are not present in the layers. For example, despite not directly being rendered on the character layer, the snow will still light the character with indirect lighting bounces.

The lighting evolved during the project but the main light sources were set right after the modelling phase. The main light sources are a huge backlight to make the character’s silhouette easily readable; two key lights, one for the front and one for the back, which empower the volumes on both sides; and an environment light with a winter HDRI to give shadows a blue tint and soften this dramatic lighting to make the snow setting more believable. A lot of extra rim lights were added afterward to improve the readability of the silhouette and the volumes as well as emphasize the wooden hand and the character's face.

There are a lot of technical channels I tell my rendering engine to write with the main renders so I can have a lot of control during the post-processing. A very handy tool is Cryptomatte which, by default, automatically sets a color ID mask for every element in the scene including groomed hairs. These IDs then can be picked in Nuke and converted as alpha masks with the Cryptomatte plugin so you can tweak every element of your scene independently.

I always extract all the lights in my scenes as separate channels on my AOV/utility .exr file as well as the main shading components such as Specular, Diffuse, Subsurface, etc. The flakes extra layer from before was very convenient to have full control and not overdo the effect. With the shading and light passes, I can knock down some highlights that are overexposed and reduce overly bright speculars on specific parts with the help of Cryptomatte masking. I then add standard post-production effects like glows, color adjustments, film grain, particles, and so on. I love the post-processing part because it empowers the images and adds a lot of variations that would be impossible to achieve in the raw render. 


My first challenge was to translate a concept that has very 2D aspects to 3D space and still be able to move the camera around the model coherently. This requires a lot of observation to extrapolate some volumes which are not always in line with perspective while staying faithful to the concept. There is no better way than practice to achieve this. Also, take your time and make breaks because once you come back to your piece a lot of flaws will become clear right away that may not be so obvious if you keep working on your project nonstop. The second challenge was to create the pencil style which is not common in CG I believe. This required some testing, trial, and error but with the help of references and a good understanding of the traditional medium I came through with a result I’m pretty happy with.

For the beginners trying to master Substance Painter, there are a lot of short and easy-to-follow tutorials on their official channel. That’s how I learned Substance and told my friends and colleagues how to start on the software. Also, establish a good layer/folder structure at the beginning and stick to it, otherwise, the complex texturing parts can become really overwhelming.

Working out an estimated time range of the project's duration from start to finish is not an easy task but giving it an honest try and setting intermediate goals is key, otherwise, it’s easy to lose motivation and be overwhelmed by the amount of work. Last but definitely not least, have fun! That’s what personal projects are for. Working on interesting subjects will keep you motivated and help you improve your skill!

Théo Albertini, 3D Modeler

Interview conducted by Theodore Nikitin

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