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Making an Ultra-Realistic Portrait of H.P. Lovecraft

Khoi Nguyen has told us about the working process behind the realistic portrait of H.P. Lovecraft and shared some thoughts on achieving the likeness.


Hello, my name is Khoi Nguyen, I have been working in the game/VFX industry as a 3D Character Artist for ten years. I started as a 3D modeler at Virtuos-Sparx – an outsourcing studio for the game and film industry in Saigon and had a chance to work on various games and VFX projects.

After seven years at Sparx, I moved to some local studios working on inhouse-projects. For the last two years, I decided to work from home as a freelancer and also take time to learn something new. Then I joined Kris Costa's LIVE class. From that, I started going deep into portrait art.

H.P. Lovecraft Project

Lovecraft's one of my favorite authors and I'm a big fan of the Cthulhu cosmic world. I find a lot of 2D artworks of him and his creations but not in 3D. So I thought why not make a portrait of him or even a full character. I worked on this project in my free time for two months. To accomplish the task, I used ZBrush, Substance Painter, Maya, Arnold, and XGen.

For this project, I decided to start from scratch and begin with sculpting the head from a sphere. I gathered a lot of references like his pictures and people's sculptures. Like every single portrait out there, likeness's always the most difficult part because there are not many photos of him on the internet and they vary in age and lighting. It's very much of a conflict so I had to find one that would fit my concept.

When the overall form's relatively good, I used a Retopology Base Mesh and fit it into my sculpted head by projection in ZBrush. I've created a collection of brushes for the details like pores, wrinkles, and pimples following the Kris Costa method. Displacement Maps were baked using MultiMap Exporter in ZBrush. You could use my settings below as a reference. I exported the head with SubDivision 2 for more volume. Adaptive should be turned off because it will make the baking process longer but make no difference in the end.

The eyeball and iris were sculpted in ZBrush. I used the same settings as for the head and Displacement Maps. UV of the eyeball should stay in the center for the shader setup.

The Ramp node is connected to Transmission Weight to control the visibility and size of the iris as you can see in the image. The ramp type should be Circular Ramp.

Textures of the head, hand, Necronomicon, and tentacles were painted with Substance Painter. I tried to focus on the portrait, so the head has 3 Udim and 8k maps.

I was inspired by the Necronomicon in The Evil Dead movie, so I tried to mix the idea of it and the Cthulhu icon.

The cloths were sculpted in ZBrush then Retopo'ed in Maya. I created some procedural shaders for them. All were tiling fabric textures and some Maya nodes connected to the aiStandardSurface.

The hair was created with XGen. I divided the descriptions into parts like eyelashes, eyebrows, hair, beard, etc. The modifiers would be a little different for every part, but usually, they would have 2-3 clumpings, 1 cut, 1 noise for overall, and 1 noise for stray control.

For this project, I used a Three-Point lighting system with an extra spotlight and a skydome light with low intensity for the final render. The spotlight is there because we have an aiAtmosphereVolume in the scene so it will create the street light effect from above Lovecraft. The fog is created by a random volume that was quickly sculpted and assigned by an aiStandardVolume in Volume Material. Renders were made with Arnold Renderer, you could see my settings below. Also, turn on Clamping and adjust AA Clamp Value if you get fireflies in the render.

After that, you could use Photoshop to tweak the renders, like adjusting the Level or Curve, to get more interesting results. And here we go – the final result!


The biggest challenge in this project was the lack of references since this man lived in the 1900s and there's few pictures of him out there. The quality is not so good, and all of them are black and white. The hardest part was to make the lighting in ZBrush, sometimes this process is very deceitful. You can look at your sculpt and say “oh it looks fine”, but when you bring the model to Maya for rendering, it will be different. So you have to repeat the process many times – make some tweaks in ZBrush, then render it in Maya, and so on.

Khoi Nguyen, 3D Character Artist

Interview conducted by Theodore Nikitin

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Comments 2

  • . bottledcrush



    . bottledcrush

    ·2 years ago·
  • Anonymous user

    I can't see his blatant racism in these renderings.


    Anonymous user

    ·2 years ago·

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