Making an Armored Demon in ZBrush, Substance & KeyShot

Gregg Hartley explained the process of turning an old sketch into a 3D character and talked about the workflow in ZBrush and Substance Painter.


Hi, my name is Gregg Hartley. I studied Graphic Design at Scarborough Westwood Campus in the North East of England. After graduating I continued playing guitar in a band that looked as though we were going places. I had put my art on the back burner but still contributed to our promotional material.

When I decided to draw my attention to Art and Design again I had fallen behind. Wacom? Tablet? I had a lot to learn. I was aiming for a job within the entertainment industry as a Concept Artist but as fate would have it, I had ventured into the world of 3D modelling by mistake. I worked for North East England Design Studio as a Graphic Designer but moved to 3D, my main task was within the Arch Viz sector. I learned 3D modelling, texturing and compositing from the Art Director.

I left the studio to travel. I caught the bug and travelled again the following year and again a few years after that. On my return, I ventured into a more traditional art field – portraits and landscapes, that would keep a roof over my head and a full belly in the countryside.

Due to what seemed like unfortunate events at the time I ended up moving to the South of the UK. Fortunately, a friend opened a door and I began to teach ZBrush at the Arts University Bournemouth. As of now, I have taken a sabbatical so I can concentrate on building a portfolio to follow my childhood dream of working as a Concept Artist in the film and videogame industry.

The Demon Project

While looking through my old HD I found an old sketch from years ago and seen as though I was a Digital Sculptor now I wanted to give it life in 3D. I gathered reference online of Oriental Armor and having the sketch as reference I used that as a basis for the character, pose, and overall color scheme/design. I use Pureref to gather all my reference.

I usually, and did so in this case, start a figure with ZSpheres. I keep X-symmetry on as long as I can to save time. I then split up body parts so I can focus detail on what subtool I know will be visible in the final render. I now switch to DynaMesh. I spend more time on the face of a character as this is what we as humans tend to look for first, I also paid attention to the horns and their silhouette so there is a natural flow of detail from face to horns. I'm always trying to save memory as I use a laptop and heavy geometry can slow me down and distract me. When I have a camera angle in mind with ZBrush I can then begin to use a ZSphere rig to pose. ZBrush has a great feature of instancing geometry so this is what I wanted to test out next as I start the armor.
I used Blender to block out some simple geometry for the armor and the staff and knife. I used Goz to bring it back to ZBrush where I turned to Pureref and sculpt until I was satisfied with the overall form. I have a few laces and MicroPoly brushes I purchased from the artstation marketplace and used these to add extra detail to stitches throughout and plates of the lower abs area of the armor. The ornamental style parts were freehand, looking at jewelry from the orient/nordic and mixing styles.
I used Zbrush instancing to mirror a subtool but with the added feature of being able to edit the original with live updates on the model in real-time.

Now the step we all love and hate – UV's. First I use ZRemesher on each subtool and try the various unwrapping algorithms until I find the best retopo. As all the subtools are organic I was able to use ZBrush's built-in UV master to unwrap, check, unwrap check, etc. I projected my high poly mesh onto my low poly with incremental steps using the projection History feature in ZBrush. Decimation master now comes in handy to cut down the overall polycount making life easier for Substance Painter and KeyShot.


I exported the file as an FBX into Substance Painter and used a variation of smart material/mask presets and hand-painting. I prefer to use the fbx method as I can keep the harmony of colors throughout the whole design and it all be in one place. I can use NVIDIA Iray to check my progress. There is nothing complex about what I am doing. It's just layers, adjustment layers, folders, and masks. Coming from a Photoshop background, Substance Painter is easy to pick up. I didn't use it much but for this project, I wanted to push myself to learn more while working with Substance Painter. When I'm satisfied with the result I export the textures using the KeyShot export option to Substance Painter.

I used the KeyShot Bridge plugin in ZBrush and using the standard startup HDRI, I put a black material on the whole model. No reflections etc, I only want to see the silhouette so I can establish a good camera angle/composition. I then exchange the black material for a clay material with 0.5 roughness. This is where I create my lighting setup using 3 point lighting. Just area lights at different strengths and positions. Basically a simple setup but keeping in mind an overall compositional balance with the light hue and strength. I use general photography/art fundamental knowledge for this step. I import my Substance Painter textures and using the built-in KeyShot texture importer and I tweak them in the material node editor so the overall image is balanced. I had a few cloud Vdb's that I purchased from Gumroad and used the transform gizmo to create some fog. This was a new feature of KeyShot so I was eager to check it out.


I do post work in Photoshop and only tend to render out a beauty pass, clown pass, depth, and Ambient Occlusion pass. I like to turn the beauty pass to a smart layer so I can work none destructively using the camera raw filter. I feel I can let loose now as I'm in Photoshop tweaking away and painting over anything I find doesn't look great. When I'm done I add grain and chromatic abrasion to give the image a more film-ish feel/look.


The main challenge I found within this piece was the number of subtools I had within ZBrush, but life was made easier with the addition of folders. The only real advice I would give beginners and I use to say this to my students too – don't rush. It's easy to get carried away in ZBrush with the amount of detail you can get with little effort. Focus on the larger forms, use SubDivision levels. I, like many, don't use half the features in ZBrush, so my advice is to try to look up artists other than creature/character ZBrush artists who use this magnificent software for architecture, vehicle design, jewelry, etc. In that way, you will do what I do a lot, go "oh wow, I never knew you could do that in ZBrush". You won't unsee that and you can experiment. 

Gregg Hartley, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Theodore Nikitin

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Comments 1

  • Anonymous user

    just 3 screenshot..


    Anonymous user

    ·a year ago·

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