Nailing Likeness in Maya & ZBrush

Razeem Rafeek talks about figuring out his artistic path and shifting from 2D to 3D art and shares his favorite resources on the basics of sculpting human faces for aspiring 3D Character Artists. 


My name is Razeem Rafeek. I am from India, currently residing in Abu Dhabi, UAE. I am currently working as a 2D Animator in Lamsa, a company that produces mobile educational content for kids under the age of 6. I work on my personal and freelance projects after my working hours. After completing my Bachelor’s degree in Engineering I enrolled in a 2D animation studio Vismayas Max Animation Studio in Kerala, India for animation classes. After completing my course and my student project in 2D animation I started taking 3D modeling and animation classes from the same animation academy. Currently, I am taking Marlon Nunez’s Likeness sculpting classes from Art Heroes. My early projects, when I was working in India, involved title animation for movies and production houses and animated trailers for fantasy novels. Under my current employment, I am animating characters for educational games and making storyboards for educational music videos.

From Comic Book Characters to CG Portraits

I have been into drawing humanoid characters ever since I can remember. I remember drawing very flat drawings of Batman and Ninja Turtles at that time. Those were the only characters I knew how to draw from memory. There was a long break from drawing during my high school years, grades and studies took over. I went back to drawing characters while I was waiting for my college admissions after high school. I was trying to copy the works of Jim Lee and David Finch, trying to learn their style and anatomy. 

My fascination with CG portraits started after getting introduced to ArtStation. I never thought realism could be achieved using CG until I saw the works of Ian Spriggs, Hossein Diba, Vimal Kerketta, Dan Roarty, and Marlon Nunez. I got excited and already had a celebrity in mind to sculpt. I started sculpting with the help of some tutorials and timelapse videos on YouTube. I failed miserably and continued failing in plenty of other sculpts I attempted after that.


I have a pretty common workflow for my portraits, I start with the primary forms, then come the secondary and tertiary. I start working on the primary forms keeping in mind all the facial landmarks like the zygomatic, nasal bone, orbitals, temporal, frontal, and some major muscle forms. Here I try to eyeball the proportions of the face I am going for. For secondary forms, I start sculpting all the fat pads and minor muscles. I start working on wrinkles for tertiary forms.

I mostly use the default brushes that come with ZBrush. My frequently used brushes include the Standard brush, Move brush, Clay Build Up, Dam Standard. To optimize my workflow, I use a base mesh that I modeled earlier for one of my projects as a starting point. This will save me from doing the retopology and UV mapping. I also have a set of eyes and teeth I had modeled earlier which I use as a base for other projects.

The Art of Sculpting the Face

Apart from the anatomy and basic volumes, I try my best to capture the most recognizable feature of a person I am trying to sculpt, much like caricature artists exaggerate certain facial features in their works. For expressions, I refer to FACs to understand which facial muscle is triggering the expression I am going for and understand the volumes formed by the expression and try to recreate it on my sculpt. Melinda Özel posts on this subject on Instagram. Unfortunately, I do not have any tricks for sculpting likenesses so far.

As for my fellow artists, understanding facial anatomy will help a lot to understand the shapes and volumes you are looking at on the person you are trying to sculpt and help you recreate it in your model. The most important thing is to keep sculpting different likeness sculpts as it is the only way you can train your eyes to see and evaluate the shapes and be your own critic. I recommend books from Anatomy for Sculptors website. These books had been and still are a huge help for my sculpts. 


I use XGen for hair in my portraits. I am still getting used to ZBrush FiberMesh. I usually block out the general shape of the hair on mesh in ZBrush. This also helps in evaluating your likeness in ZBrush. When I am happy with the hair sculpt in ZBrush I export the decimated version of the mesh to Maya so that I can prepare guides using the mesh I exported as a reference. Here once again I try to capture the primary form first, followed by the secondary and tertiary. I use minimal guides for the hair to capture the main forms and silhouette. I use Region Maps for hair partition. When I am happy with the forms I move on to the secondary forms by adding more guides between the guides I had placed earlier. This saves us time from shaping the new guides as it follows the shape of the other two earlier guides. These guides with a clump modifier are then used to create the major break-up forms. Tertiary forms constitute minor breakups and fly-away hairs obtained using more clump modifiers and noise modifiers. This part is usually easier and more fun if the first two forms are on point.

I would recommend Hadi Karimi’s amazing tutorials on XGen available on YouTube where he goes in-depth and step by step on creating realistic and believable hair in XGen Maya.

Adding the Details and Texturing

I have 2 Maps from Texturing XYZ that I purchased for my previous portraits. I use them for skin porosity details. I use ZWrap by R3DS or Mari to project these details from the map onto my model. This will serve as a very good foundation for sculpting additional details like wrinkles, blemishes, scars which are unique to the person I am trying to sculpt, onto my model in ZBrush.

I use Texturing XYZ maps for texturing as well. I use them to create a base layer on which I add additional colors and marks which are unique to the person I am sculpting, in Mari or ZBrush. I have a shader setup for the skin I follow for every portrait. I chose to build it up from scratch every time I do the shader for the skin. I am planning to limit this process only to personal projects in the future and eventually all projects to save time. I use ZBrush or Mari to prepare the roughness, specular, and SSS maps using cavity, occlusion, and curvature maps as a base.


I use Arnold for rendering my portraits. I use the basic 3-point lighting to light up my scene. Keylight, Fill light, and Rim light. It is easy to set up and gives a very strong starting point for my lighting. I also used image-based lighting using HDRIs. It helps me achieve a basic ambient look in my render. For lighting realistic portrait scenes, it always helps to recreate the tips and tricks used by portrait photographers in the real world. I would recommend the book "The Dramatic Portrait" by Chris Knight for this. This book gives a detailed step-by-step process to set up different styles of lighting for portrait photography. These steps can be directly applied to a CG scene to achieve realistic results.

Razeem Rafeek, CG Generalist & Concept Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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