Modeling a Folklore-Inspired Character in ZBrush and Blender

Julia Tikhonova talks about the challenges of designing an original character and finding a way to overcome artistic struggles.

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My name is Julia, I have been working as a 3D Artist for 7 years. I had no art education, except for the children's art school. My career as an artist began with the Dota Workshop, where we worked in teams of 3-5 people. Someone did the concept, someone else did the textures. My part of the job was to create high-poly and low-poly cosmetic sets for heroes. The workshop is based on competition. So my works had been rejected for quite a long time, their quality simply did not meet Dota's requirements. 2 years later, in 2015 was the first time my work was accepted. The set, which included the golem pet, was completely made by me from concept to textures. Before Valve's feedback it looked a little worse, but my friend, who is now my husband, helped me fix the golem. It was my first experience in concept art, and it was a great honor for me that the set got accepted by Dota. Unfortunately, later on, I stopped doing the concept and concentrated on modeling. I liked modeling more and I wanted to spend all the time developing this skill.

After some time, I found a permanent job at Dreamside Interactive, where I worked for the next 5 years. Our company has developed several projects, but the largest and longest one is Frozen Flame. The Steam release is scheduled for fall 2021. We did not have art direction, so a lot of things were redone, and it happened several times. For example, this dragon was changed 3 times, the first iteration was created by me in 2016, the second one was created in 2018, and the third one was made by my husband in 2019. Of course, it was a very expensive rework for the game, but it also helped us grow as artists in the process of development.

The development of Frozen Flame lasted more than 4 years. With the Dota Workshop and permanent work, I did not have enough time to do something for competitions or personal work. In addition, in 2019, we began to work full-time, as we had a contract with Valve, which provided a constant income. My husband and I left Dreamside Interactive last fall, and in December I decided to participate in my first contest. At first, it scared me a lot, since I had not drawn my own designs for a long time, but I really wanted to do something completely of my own, just like back in 2015.

Starting Work and Finding Inspiration

ArtWar's theme was the confrontation of countries, and, of course, I chose my country, Russia, as I am fascinated by our cultural heritage. According to the rules of the competition, I had to paint the colors of the flag (in my case those are white, blue, and red) in my own style so that they would also reflect my cultural identity. I did not want to take popular images like Baba Yaga or Snow Maiden, so the Alkonost bird of paradise was the perfect prototype. I have always liked winged characters, especially since I had already had experience creating wings on a pet in Frozen Flame. For blue color, I immediately took wings, and for white, I took a long sundress. The details on the suit were supposed to be red. Initially, there were not many references, I relied on a few images. I select references on Pinterest because it is convenient to simply 'float' there, browsing an endless amount of similar images. Since the character had to either attack an enemy or protect someone, I decided to add the symbol of Kologod, an ancient sign that protected people from unholy forces. I also wanted to add a little bit of a dark style to the design.

I chose this pose from the very beginning since I was thinking about how the clothes would hug every curve of her body. The reference for the pose was the stunning Harpy Queen by Bayard Wu. The Kologod symbol immediately blended into the design as the center of the composition. To keep it from hanging in the air, I made ghostly arms. Initially, I had doubts about whether to attach her wings to her back or give her wing-arms. In that case, she would be casting magic with her normal arms. However, I already had a clear idea of ​​the kind of silhouette the cape on the shoulders should form. Also, ghostly arms would support the sign and look more unique. I made the dress using a fabric simulation in Blender, adding a wind modifier. Then, some folds of her clothing were finalized in ZBrush.

Working on the Anatomy

For the face, I took the Ciri reference from The Witcher 3, since I am a big fan of this game. It seemed to me that her face had Slavic, strong-willed, yet graceful features. In my references, there were also tutorials from Anatomy For Sculptors. I always use them, because there is a wonderful analysis of the human body. It helped me solve my eye-shaping difficulties. At this stage, I made a decision about the level of stylization of the character and decide not to go overboard, as opposed to character design in Overwatch, for instance.

The hand gestures were not chosen by chance, the first one is a goat symbol and the second one is another protective gesture of ancient Russia. I could not find a suitable reference for those gestures, so I looked at my own hands.

Designing the Clothes

Since I did not have an initial concept, as I am not very good at conveying my ideas on canvas, I try to sculpt from my head instead, at the next stage of work, I had some problems with designing clothes. I picked up references that were too different from the authentic Russian culture. Anyone using Pinterest will probably understand how easy it is to dive into the wrong pool of images by clicking on similar images. The character ceased to be similar to a native Russian. In addition, I also did not like the excessive detail and color in the chest area, where there already was a prominent detail, a sign. The fabric was also too tight and did not support the silhouette as I had planned. There were about 2 months left until the end of the deadline, and I dropped my work in absolute frustration. It seemed to me that I could not finish it.


After 2 weeks, I decided to go back to the character and make a quick sketch. I did not expect to be able to correct the past result. However, I really liked what I did, and I had an inspiration to keep going. I realized that the image of a witch goes well with the bird of paradise Alkonost, so I brought in some elements, such as feathers on her clothes and pendants made of crystals and bones. I also changed the skirt, made it more flowy to maintain the silhouette. I saved even more references and tried not to get away from Slavic mythology.

The previously created feathers looked a little odd when combined with the wings and were replaced with blue fringes. Along the contour of the fabric on the belt, I made a branch with leaves to support the design of the kokoshnik. 


Kokoshnik on the head was one of the most difficult problems for a long time that had to be solved. It was crucial for the image of a Russian character to preserve the cultural accuracy of this piece, but at the same time, it had to look different, it had to stand out. The idea came from the Ukrainian culture, where girls wear flower crowns on their heads. However, lots of colorful flowers seemed too cute for my character, so I stylized them so they would look more like tree branches with leaves. On the rim, I added only a few daisy-like flowers, which many people associate with Russia.

I also changed her facial features a bit and made her eyes black with orange irises, which made her look more like a bird.


I started working on the hair with a Multi-Fiber brush which I applied directly over my meshes. After that, I sunk the resulting shape down to the reference model. Then I made each curl separately and tousled it with a Move Topologic brush to make the hair more even. I brought back the reference meshes for the density and gradually worked on the model trying to style her hair the way I wanted it to be. Toward the end of the work, I decided to create a DynaMesh to make everything even more cohesive and then added extra curls with a second layer for volume. The pigtails were created using the same principle. At the end of the work, I braided ribbons with the colors of the Russian flag into the hair.


In order to make the wings, I made several different feathers for the Insert Mesh. For convenience, I created planes and placed feathers on them. Layer by layer, I gradually applied the planes until I filled all the space. In the end, I just moved the feathers with a Move Brush.


I removed the crystals in favor of gold jewelry and accessories, as gold gives a beautiful glare from the blue glow, and the contrast of materials makes the design juicier. I chose the Slavic sun symbol for the design. The model was made in Blender, and the creases were set up in ZModeler. I applied gold material to the subtools in order to see the difference in materials better.

I drew the patterns on the skirt and the belt in Photoshop. I made the topology and UV of the skirt so that the bottom edge had a rectangular wireframe. It simplified the texturing process later on. For a visual assessment of the detail of the pattern, I applied a texture to the skirt in ZBrush.

Low Poly

Since the contest did not require a game-ready model, and I had too little time left until the end of the deadline, I decided to make a high-poly decimate instead of the usual retopology in order to texture the model into Substance Painter. I made some parts with Decimate and some with ZReshemer. I also made the skirt by hand to create a rectangular UV for the pattern. The general low-poly model has about 450,000 polygons. Most of the UVs were also created using UVMaster in ZBrush. I divided the model into several parts and stuffed them into the Marmoset.


Since I made some polypaint on the model and solved the color issue on high-poly, I did not have to start texturing from scratch, which greatly simplified the process. I started with gradients and tint adjustments. A handy tool for creating shadows and highlights is the Light Generator. To create the wrinkles on the fabric, I used the "height creased", and for the texture of the fabric, the "fabric suit vintage" settings. I also added some extra pattern layers with height applied to the kokoshnik, shoulders, knees, and belt.

To make the symbol, I drew its base color and alpha in Photoshop and loaded it into Substance Painter. In SP, I slightly tweaked the alpha transparency and the glow. In the end, I decided to add some extra glowing particles to the sign using Photoshop, as it did not look accentuated enough.


Initially, I tried to render in Marmoset, but I did not quite like what I got. I was unable to convey the correct balance of highlights and shadows there. So I started making it in Blender 2.8 Cycles. I used the following scheme for arranging light sources: 2 Rim lights of 2 different colors, main light on top, and blue light in the center of the composition. For the longest time, I could not find a balance between dark and light, and the rim lights did not lay down onto the image as I planned. Each light source, such as an orange rim light, has several lamps of different intensities and widths, manually adjusted so that the light correctly covers the model where necessary. Even with the main light source, some areas were still in shadow, and to make them brighter, I added small low-intensity spotlights next to these parts. Setting up the symbol in the scene was the easiest task, I just placed it on several planes, applied the base color, emissive (I copied the base color for it), and the alpha. For the ghost arms, I also made an additional ghost effect.

The Importance of Proper Planning

In conclusion, I would like to say a few words about some problems in my work. It was very difficult for me since it was my first character designed entirely by me (besides the set for Warlock), but I understood a lot of things. Firstly, the concept is important, even a very simple one, the main thing is that you understand what you need to do on the model.

The selection of references is very important too, if you deviate too far from the given direction in the reference list, you can do a lot of unnecessary work. It happened to me when I completely deleted almost all the design and had to start over. I know a lot of people who can do cool things in a couple of weeks without rework. However, if you are entering a competition for the first time and you are not sure if you can get everything clear and complete by the deadline, it is better to start as early as possible, from the first week after the announcement of the competition. If I had not started the day after the announcement, I simply would not have had time to finish the work (I sent it 2 days before the deadline). Do not be afraid to participate in contests, take on difficult tasks that you have not worked on before, it gives an incredible amount of experience and a sense of belonging to something big.

P.S. My husband and I made a bet. If I win the prize, I will have to do squats for a week. If not, then he will have to squat. In any case, no matter what the judges decide, we will definitely be healthier! 

Julia Tikhonova, 3D Character Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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