Katie Humes shared the production details of her Azula fan art project: modeling in ZBrush with ZModeler and polygroups, retopology, SSS setup and tattoo painting in Substance Painter, and more.
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My name is Katie. I graduated from Southampton Solent University after studying Game Art and immediately started working as an environment artist in the industry. I have worked at TTGames for a number of years now and have had the honour of working on many of their recent titles. I have a real love for character art and I’m working hard to transition into being a character artist!
Azula Fan Art: Concept
The concept I used of Azula is by the talented artist Oviya Vendan (@Bluemist72 on Twitter). I’m a fan of The Last Airbender and was inspired by this reimagining of Azula. She had a strong silhouette and a powerful attitude and I felt like all of the layers of cloth and high levels of detail would be a good technical challenge and an opportunity for me to improve. I approached Oviya via message and they kindly gave me permission to use their art. I always try to do this if I can, it’s polite and it’s always possible the original artist would rather you not recreate their work.
Modeling in ZBrush
The big concern I had about working on this piece was getting the proportions right. There is a lot going on and I knew that it would require a lot of moving things around and finessing to get it right. With this in mind I jumped right into ZBrush, this would allow me to make large changes quickly and easily.
I decided I wanted to take the opportunity to get some practice sculpting anatomy, so I made her body mesh from scratch out of spheres. If you struggle with anatomy or finding reference for really specific parts of the body, I highly recommend Michael Hampton’s book “Figure Drawing: Design and Invention”. Once you’re familiar with regular anatomy, it becomes easier to make it stylized. My character has long legs for that wide, powerful stance. I also tried to give her muscular arms and torso to show her combat experience. Since proportion was the main issue here, blocking in the clothes and armour early was important. When it comes to blocking in cloth and armour, I try to keep the poly count as low as possible. This makes it so much easier to move things around and avoid getting confused. This involves getting familiar with Zmodeler and polygroups within ZBrush. I will use the belt mesh as an example here of the kind of methods I use.
There are also a few helpful things to know when modeling in ZBrush in general:
When it comes to sculpting something organic like stylized hair, I try to break the forms down to basic clumps. At first, just the main mass of hair, the bun, and the front pieces. Then as the project advanced I added more detail, breaking the clumps down further and thinking about the direction of hair. Keeping the “Big, Medium, Small” Design theory in mind helps when creating elements like this that could become too messy and busy very quickly. I made sure to work in subdivisions for ease of retopology, especially on the thin strands.
I try to keep retopology in mind throughout the process. Creating a low poly mesh in ZBrush using Zmodeler or 3D modeling program of your choice (I use Maya) and then building on that to create your high poly means that both your high and low poly models are advancing at the same rate. This greatly cuts down on the amount of retopology you will have to do at the end of the process. Any manual retopology I have to do (such as reducing poly count where possible/necessary or combining elements into one mesh) is done using Maya’s quad draw tool.
Mindful of the fact Azula has highly detailed illustrative tattoos on her body, as well as on some of the skirt layers, I decided it was necessary to maximise the amount of texture resolution I had. I did this by splitting up her unwrap into similar materials.
This way I could have high resolution on each of the textures. It also meant I could give each of the materials different treatments without the need for a bunch of masks (Subsurface scattering on the skin, anisotropic reflections on the hair, and if the character didn’t need her weapon for some theoretical gameplay, that texture sheet could be omitted entirely).
This is a lot of texture memory and something I could get away with because I was just making the character for myself. If this character was in a game with a lot of memory constraints, it’s possible the sheets would have to be consolidated or reduced from their native 2k at the cost of resolution.
I use Marmoset Toolbag to bake my characters. It allows for a great deal of control over the bake, and you can see updates to the result as you make changes. I was mindful of the fact that since I wanted to use PBR and have a dynamically lit character, I did not want to bake in any AO from between meshes (such as shadow between skirt layers; this wouldn’t make sense once the character moved, the skirts shifted and revealed baked in dark AO splotches).
By applying different texture sets to my model corresponding to the UV sheets I had unwrapped, I was able to work on each one individually in Substance Painter. I began by laying down basic flat colours to identify each element of the design and then adding metallic and rough properties to define each material.
I painted the entirety of the tattoo in Substance Painter. The design in the concept is very organic and formed to the contours of the body, and this would be awkward to do if I were to draw it in 2D first and try to apply it to the model. I tried to employ similar techniques as a tattoo artist would when freehanding a sketch onto a body. As far as the design is concerned, I made use of important landmarks in the concept’s design, such as the feathers on the shoulder and the shapes on the hand and around the knee. I had to create the rest myself that wasn’t clear in the concept and tried to continue with similar motifs, the feathers, wings, and filigree elements.
It’s best to work in fill layers, with a painted mask on top to draw the design in. This means you can freely edit the colour, opacity, and roughness of the fill layers as much as you want to get the desired effect.
Stylized skin can be hard to get right. I find that using Subsurface scattering is key to getting that soft “touchable” look to the skin that can help separate it from other materials and avoid struggling with it looking too plastic-y or shiny. I followed Magdalena Dadela's tutorials on Youtube to understand how to create SSS in Substance Painter and a tutorial from Marmoset on how to set up the SSS you made in Marmoset:
I rendered the final scene in Marmoset Toolbag. I have experienced issues in the past of including a lot of lights and post effects in my scene to get a really polished final image of my character but not looking as good in the exported 3D viewer. I usually do add the 3D Viewer to my portfolio, it’s a good way for people to get a proper look at all your hard work, and the viewer can’t support too many shadow casting lights. With that in mind, I wanted to achieve the end look with only a few added lights.
I contrasted the cold blue of the fire with a warm red in the rim light. Usually, a warm colour conveys a comforting and safe feeling, but I pumped the saturation and pushed it more towards a true red to make it more sinister-looking since this character is a villain even if a sympathetic one.
Practicing Stylized Character Art
Creating stylized characters can be really rewarding because you can bend and break the rules of realism to create a character absolutely bursting with life and personality. This can also tip over into making a character so completely unrealistic that they are unrelatable or confusing to the viewer. To avoid this I always try to base my stylized pieces on a foundation of realism, a solid understanding of anatomy, clothing, and materials. You’re never too good to practice the basics!