Making a Wonderful Crossbow in ZBrush and Substance Painter

A Prop Artist Gianluigi Ferrantino talked about creating a leather crossbow and discussed texturing leather and metallic surfaces.


My name is Gianluigi Ferrantino. I'm 34 years old and I live in L'Aquila, a beautiful city in the center of Italy. I'm currently a freelance 3D Artist specializing in real-time props and characters. I've studied at Accademia Italiana Videogiochi (AIV) in Rome where I was able to participate in demos and internal projects from 2016 to 2019. I graduated in 3D Graphics for Video Games. After graduation, I started to build up my portfolio for the game industry. I currently collaborate as a freelance Character Artist with Inner Void Interactive, an independent software house located near Rome.

I love RPG video games, medieval history, fantasy sagas, cooking, good food, and... cats!

Starting The Project

In my free time, I always try to dedicate many hours to the creation of my personal projects trying to improve my skills and learn new workflows both in realistic and stylized style. Generally, when I start a new project it is because I want to do a specific study on a specific aspect of 3D real-time graphics. 

Being a huge fan of the medieval fantasy style I decided to add another piece to my portfolio. This time I chose to focus my studies on a weapon/hero prop and on PBR materials study (mainly leather, wood, and metal). I saw the fantastic artwork by Éva Kárpáti on ArtDtation and I decided to look for the best way to make it work in a realistic style, trying to remain fairly faithful to the original concept.

Gathering references is one of the most important parts of starting a new project in the right way, so I started to search images and info on Google and Pinterest for my mood board of Pureref.

Modeling and Sculpting

After building my reference board, I immediately started working on ZBrush trying to create a good starting point for the model. The second most important thing when you are building a 3D model is to try to create a solid blockout because it will define the shape of your asset and how the different pieces will interact with each other. A good blockout will allow you to continue high poly modeling without too much trouble.

During the blockout phase, I always try to have the main shapes while maintaining a low polycount. This process will allow me to have more control when I’ll define my final high poly and will give me the possibility to make changes very quickly. For this project, I wanted to create some primitives inside Maya and then use them in ZBrush with the help of the ZModeler brush. I spent many hours trying to fine-tune the proportions and once I got a good final result I started adding edge loops and creases until I got my final high poly ready to sculpt. This time I wanted to try to create everything within ZBrush without going through an initial blockout in Maya.

After finishing the high poly modeling phase I dedicated myself to the sculpting phase, one of my favorites. I started carving all the wooden pieces, always keeping an eye on my references, then I moved on to the processing of metal pieces (screws, bolts, buckles, and panels), and finally, I concentrated on the largest area, the leather. 

Retopology and Unwrapping

Once I finished detailing my high poly, I started exporting the various pieces for retopology. I used the Decimation Master within ZBrush to create lighter versions of the various meshes so I didn't have to work with millions of polygon pieces in Maya and Topogun3. After finishing retopology and getting my final low poly I moved on and created UVs with the help of Maya's UV editor.

I separated the UVs of the low poly into 3 different textures:

  • Crossbow (wood and metal)
  • Armguard (leather)
  • Quiver (leather and wood)

Since this was personal work, I decided to use 3 different textures for the whole model, to try to get the best possible quality.

I know that it may be too much for a real-time weapon prop, but my main focus was more on doing a really good piece and learning new stuff without worrying too much about the optimization.


I set up the bake in Marmoset Toolbag 4. Toolbag 4 is a very powerful tool that easily allows you a really nice and clean bake for your model with a lot of custom controls and settings.

For the texturing, I used Substance Painter. This time, texturing was quite challenging and fun at the same time. I wanted to push my skills as best as I could to achieve realistic results on PBR materials. The leather material has been my primary focus. I wanted to reproduce a nice worn leather. I started to build my leather material from one of my smart materials previously done inside Substance Painter. After some primary interactions and various feedback, I changed the material a few times until I reached the final result I wanted.

My leather materials groups in Substance always have the most layers, as you can see in the image above. I started to build the material with a layer with a base color followed by layers with a leather pattern and some nice color variations. The second phase was to create the base Roughness of the leather followed by other layers with Roughness variations in the Curvature and AO Maps with some generators and smart masks with hand-painted variations.

The next step was to create the damages of the leather. To do this I worked on some fill layers with generators with a custom mask followed by hand-painted details. This process was quite long because you have to check your references constantly, keeping an eye on all the small details in there. This time I wanted to add all the small and tertiary details directly in Substance Painter, avoiding sculpting them in ZBrush without having too dense high poly pieces. At the top of my leather material, I created a new folder filled with Leather Rough base material followed by a fill layer with only active "height" value.

I added a black mask with a paint option that allowed me to create all the little scratches and damages with nice and realistic wear and tear effect. The other materials, metal, and wood were created with the same workflow of the leather with some change at the end, always keeping an eye on my reference board. 

During the whole texturing process I usually take a constant look at the roughness channels of my materials. The Roughness Map is very important in realistic 3D modeling because in the Roughness channels you can add a lot of wear and tear information that can be seen in your final asset to achieve a more realistic look once the model will be rendered.

During the texturing process, I usually take my model into Marmoset Toolbag 4 and I set the scene trying to understand how the final materials will look in a render engine. My initial intention was to recreate an interior tavern-looking scene with the presence of moonlight but in the end, after some attempts, I chose to render my final asset alone. Most of the time, the image in Substance will not look exactly like what you see in your rendering engine, so it is good practice to start viewing your textures in your render engine as soon as you can.

Rendering and Lighting

For the final render I chose a classic three-point lights setup, I created multiple cameras with different angles to have much control for the lights and I used only spotlights which gave me nice shadow gradients with their falloffs and they look so much more realistic than directional lights with the Ray Tracing. With the help of Ray Tracing, I managed to do some beautiful shots without trouble. Getting good renders is one of the important parts of the process when you create a 3D asset for your portfolio. Of course, it's an in-game asset but the final render is the only thing people will see so you have to put more effort into your final images. You can have a great model, but a bad use of lights can ruin your work and you don't want this to happen. So when you render your asset, always keep an eye on the lighting setup trying to get the best as you can from your shots.


This piece took me about 40/45h of work from start to finish. I dedicated many hours to the texturing and final renders stage trying to fix all the details on the materials in order to obtain a strong piece for my portfolio.

The main challenges have been pushing my texturing skills out of my comfort zone, trying to do a good job on the various materials. Furthermore, realistic leather was very hard to do in this case. I made several mistakes along with the texturing phase and I reworked my materials a few times but this process allowed me to understand better how to texture a realistic 3D model and I learned a lot for the next projects.

Starting with props is one of the best ways to begin your 3D career because props are smaller projects to manage (instead of, for example, characters) and they allow you to better understand the full real-time asset pipeline.

I think that spending a lot of time creating your early blockout will allow you to understand better how the whole model will be in your high poly. This will prevent you from getting stuck in your high poly and you will work better in the next stages of sculpting, saving a lot of time.

Nowadays you can find many articles and breakdowns online from many artists that can give you useful insight and inspirations.

The artistic quality of your work should be your first focus: you have to nail certain artistic goals because quality comes first. Don't get stuck on the polycount of your model or other technical stuff. Take your time and don't rush the model. When you think your model is looking good, you can concentrate on all the other technical stuff like optimization of your polycount, UVs, etc. I think training the eye to detail observation is an important quality to do this job. Scrolling through ArtStation looking at good art, may very well teach you a lot of new stuff. 

Always push your skills to your limits, work with references and try to surround yourself with well-experienced artists who can give you feedback and useful tips. Take your time when you work on a personal project and do it as best as you can.

Don’t fall in love with the first results of your work on a new model and always try to get the best every time you can. Try to ask as much feedback as you can, don't be too shy or intimidated. Good feedback is the best way to grow up and strengthen your skills: they'll never be enough in your career.

Create your own personal portfolio and fill it with good works, it’s all that matters. The portfolio is your business card.

I would also like to give special thanks to my friend and talented artist Claudio Tumiati who gave me very useful feedback and tips during the texturing stage and final renders and TheScostumati, an Italian Discord channel full of great and skilled artists, created for Italian artists who want to work in the video games industry and seek some advice.

Gianluigi Ferrantino, 3D Props Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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