Recreating Sylvanas with ZBrush

Recreating Sylvanas with ZBrush

Charlotte Johnson did a breakdown of her Sylvanas bust made with ZBrush, Maya, Substance Painter, and Toolbag. Dedicated to all WoW fans!

Charlotte Johnson did a breakdown of her Sylvanas bust made with ZBrushMayaSubstance Painter, and Toolbag. Dedicated to all WoW fans!


Hey, my name is Charlotte Johnson and I am a character artist in the game industry. I have been working in the games industry for 8 years on both console and mobile. I started out my career as a lighting artist, moving into environments and for the last year working as a character artist.

In this article, I will talk about the latest project Sylvanas Bust, my process, workflow and the artistic decisions I made and why. This is the current process I use to create all my stylized character artwork.


Before I decide on a personal project I like to think about what I want to learn at the end of it. For this project, I wanted to improve my PBR knowledge, become more familiar with the pipeline and practice some hard surface modeling.

Creating a character can take a lengthy amount of time and since I just wanted to practice PBR pipeline and techniques a bust was sufficient for what I wanted to achieve

As a fan of World of Warcraft and Blizzard’s artwork, I chose to recreate Sylvanas. Sylvanas’s look has changed over time and I wanted to recreate my version of her. I still have fond memories of playing World of Warcraft for the first time years ago, especially when my undead warlock met her for the first time in Undercity. I wanted to capture her older design using current industry standards. I think it is important to pick a character that excites you. You don’t want to get bored midway through a project, otherwise, it would run the risk of you not finishing it at all.


I first start off by gathering reference. This includes concept art, 3D art, and real-life reference images. I collect images that show clothing/items I need to create, how I want to execute the piece and the overall atmosphere I want to achieve. Artistically I wanted to aim for a model which was readable with clean textures and good material definition.

Since her design can vary over time and from different games, I picked elements that I thought stuck to her original design and would create a strong silhouette with big readable shapes. Heroes of the Storm does a great job of chunkifying elements for readability, so I leaned towards the version of her outfit from that game.

Here are some images I used as a reference:

The Sculpt

I like to start out straight in ZBrush by blocking out the character using  DynaMesh. At this stage I keep the sculpt loose, blocking out the overall shape of the body. I use this phase as the sketching stage. I usually spend some time on the face just trying to capture the essence of the character. You want to achieve an instant read on the character at this stage. This means giving the viewer an idea of what this character is like as a person. When I feel like I have something close I move onto blocking out all the elements such as clothing, armor, and hair.
Having everything blocked in makes it easier to measure the size of shapes against each other. Once the blockout has the correct proportions and placement I slowly begin to refine each shape until it is more finalized.

Block in, Adjust, Refine, Adjust, Refine and then add small details!

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Breakdown of Armor Creation

For the armor and its trims, I first created a rough shape of the different pieces with DynaMesh. I then took it into Maya to retopo. I created a basic retopo without any bevels. I then took the retopo’ed mesh back into ZBrush where I used the “Group By Normal” button. The “Group By Normal” function creates PolyGroups based on the model’s surface curvature. This can be modulated by the Maximum Angle Tolerance slider. I made sure that each planar change had its own polygroup and then used the “Crease PG” button. The “Crease PG” button will crease the edges of all polygroups. This makes the edges stay sharp between the polygroups when I increase subdivisions. You can then smooth the edges to determine how tight you want your bevels. I finished off by adding small chips and scratches on the surface.

Breakdown of Hair Creation

For the hair, I blocked out large sections using DynaMesh. I then recreated these sections with some mid-size strands using Dylan Ekren’s hair brush. Once I was happy with the placement of all the strands I DynaMesh the strands of each section together and finished it off with some smaller detailed strands using the Dam Standard and Orbs Cracks brush.

The process of hair from blockout to final

The Lowpoly

The lowpoly model is pretty straightforward. I looked at Blizzard’s character work from Heroes of the Storm and Overwatch to get an estimate of the polycount. The model of Sylvanas is fairly symmetrical so most of the UVs are mirrored.


I used Substance Painter to do all my texture work as it has a nice library of materials for me to use during the texturing process. I begin by picking materials that I need for each element. Once I have the first pass of all the materials on the model, I set up a basic 3 point lighting scene in Marmoset Toolbag and create my materials. For Sylvanas I had: skin, hair, cloth, metal, and eyes. I start adjusting the materials in Substance Painter while continually exporting regularly to check how they are reacting in Marmoset. I decided I would add some lighting information in my Albedo map, I think it gives a nice stylised look to characters and helps add depth. I also spend time trying to make the most out of my spec/gloss map, making sure I am thinking about the correct values for each material. For example, Sylvanas is wearing makeup so I make sure her eyeshadow is more matte than her skin and her lipgloss is shiner.

Scene structure in Substance Painter

Marmoset and Presentation

Now that I have a good pass on materials I start setting up my final scene in Marmoset Toolbag. My final lighting had 4 main lights: a warm key light for the main directional light, 2 warm fill lights to brighten some shadows and a blue rim light to help the character stand out from the background. I used Omni lights for the eyes and the blue gems to give a soft glow.

Lastly, I used Marmoset Toolbag’s great post-processing tools. I added depth of field to help focus the viewer’s eyes to Sylvanas face and a soft glow. Global Illumination really helps ground the character and create some nice bounce lighting.

Once I was getting closer to how I wanted my final image to look I started gathering feedback from my colleagues at work. I really recommend this as it can bring a fresh perspective to a project you have been looking at for a while. Paul Tinker, a visual development artist I work with was kind enough to do a paintover to help me push my image even further, which really helped a lot!


The most important things to think about when creating a character are:

  • Think big: When you begin modeling make a strong foundation. Think about silhouette, overall shapes, and proportion.
  • Instant read: Capture who that character is and what they are about.
  • Presentation: Spend time on final presentation. Checking final images in black and white as a small thumbnail will make sure your image values read clearly.

Thank you to 80.LV for giving me the opportunity to share my process. I hope that it gives some insight into the way I work and some useful processes that you can use for your future projects.

Dark Lady watch over you!

Charlotte Johnson, Character Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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Comments 1

  • Anonymous user

    Lovely execution. Thanks;)


    Anonymous user

    ·2 years ago·

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