Sculpting 3D Characters with a Story

Sculpting 3D Characters with a Story

Alvaro Zabala, a Gnomon graduate, talked about the knowledge received at school and his expressive 3D character works.

Alvaro Zabala, a Gnomon graduate, talked about the knowledge received at school and his expressive 3D character works .


Hey there! I’m Alvaro Zabala, a CG Artist from Madrid, Spain, mainly focused on modeling and texturing characters and creatures for the movie and video game industry.

My first contact with 3D was in my old school back in Madrid, ESNE, where I started a degree in video game design and development. Even though this degree was still kind of fresh it offered me an opportunity to delve into an incredible industry, one that I knew nothing about, except the fact that I loved video games and the artistic approach to them.

Applying to Gnomon

From there, I learned about this incredible industry and, even in Madrid, far away from LA, Gnomon had a big reputation. I wasn’t sure I would be attending Gnomon but when I graduated from ESNE after 4 years I felt my skill level wasn’t enough for me, so I took the risk and applied to Gnomon. With the latest work from my degree, I got accepted and started a two-year certificate program focused in Modeling and Texturing for Production in LA. Among all well-prepared staff from Gnomon, I have to give special mention to a few instructors.

One of my degree works in Madrid:

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Gnomon teachers

Intro to Maya, taught by Max Dayan, was the first class I had at Gnomon. Back at that time, I didn’t even understand English fully. This class helped me to realize what needed to be done in order to improve my artistic and professional skills, and I will always be thankful to Max Dayan for that. Miguel Ortega was always kind and extremely resourceful in matters I had no prior knowledge of. It was a real pleasure to be his student. Leticia Reinaldo is teaching the stylized character modeling class and, as a realistic modeler, I cannot thank her enough for the eye-opening experience. Besides, she is just a great person to be around. Finally, Eric Valdes, my character modeling for games teacher, was just the perfect push for me in every way. He is knowledgeable, always gives extremely accurate and useful feedback on your work, and always pushes you to your potential. He has my deepest gratitude for his huge help in my career and I probably wouldn’t be here without his encouragement. I’m not exaggerating. 

After a really demanding two years, I landed at Blur Studio as a 3D modeler, which I’m really grateful for. As for the projects I’ve been working on I cannot say much since most of them are not out yet. But the latest Shadow of the Tomb Raider Trailer was one of the first projects, even just for a very small part. Still, I’m really proud of the small help I could give the team.

Sculpting Classes

That was actually one of my favorite classes at Gnomon. When I got into this industry I instantly fell in love with ZBrush. it’s probably my favorite thing to do. So when I heard that Gnomon had actual traditional sculpting classes I was thrilled, even though I had never done it before.

I had the chance to take two classes, Sculpture 1 and 2, with John Brown. Sculpture 1 was a fantastic and exciting experience, and the course had a pretty insane learning twist. I loved working with real clay. To be completely honest, I was lost most of the time, but finishing the piece was worth it. Sculpture 2 was less exciting since it had a very methodical approach to learn the planes of the human head and torso but I still learned quite a bit and it was also a nice break from all the digital classes. 

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Working with classical materials helped me in my 3D production. I think digital media has been improving at an incredible rate and it’s really exciting to see what new tools they come up with, but there is really nothing that can substitute physical clay. As for VR sculpting, I’m not going to comment on it since I haven’t tried it myself. But from what I’ve read and heard from people, it’s just a separate medium.

I think besides the feeling of actually making something with your hands, clay doesn’t have any tricks. You get what you see and it’s really humbling to realize how unforgiving it can be and how much you can learn from it. In my opinion, everything you learn with clay can be applied to 3D. Traditional sculpting can improve your art, especially if you are a character artist.

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Sculpting techniques & Improvement

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I’ve done a lot of sculpting because it’s probably my favorite thing to do. I used to do 30 min (or longer) sketches from memory in between the projects at Gnomon just to get my hand going and be more nimble during the next project. I still do that when I have time. As for brushes, I honestly use like 3 or 4. Dam Standard, Standard, Clay Build Up (90% of my work) and Move. And Orbs Crack! I’m one of those artists who feel that tools are tools and nothing more. My sculpting technique is nothing complicated or fancy, I just spent time on it, training my skills and more importantly, my eye. That has been all.

I feel that it is far easier for people to see the quick improvement in my art. As for me, I went deep into the work when I started Gnomon, and I didn’t see the differences in my projects when I was making them. I just made the Wolverine, was very happy for a few days and then looked at it and said: I can do it better next time. That approach hasn’t changed and probably will never change. It’s strange since you will never like your works to the fullest, just small moments of pride.


In summary, my approach hasn’t really changed, I guess my eye just got better at identifying what doesn’t work. Hopefully, it will keep improving.

Approach to making 3D characters 

To my mind, when doing a realistic human character in 3D you have to ignore the technical aspect of it to a certain degree. I feel that the technical aspects of 3D can be really harmful to a piece, the same way perfect anatomy can be harmful to a sculpt.

There is an area when you create art, that has to allow you to create an appealing character or a beautiful image even if it’s really not fully correct. I see so many sculpts that are really well sculpted but have no life. Then, you see a sketch from an artist that has so much emotion, so much raw power and soul to it that nobody cares if the eyes are too separated, or the clavicle is not placed correctly or the arm is 2 cm short. The piece works, and when that happens, usually you forget about the rest.

The same happens in 3D. When you create a character you have to convey life, emotion, who this person or creature is. If it is your main focus, without neglecting the other parts of the project you will be successful in making people believe that your character is a real person. When that happens nobody is going to say your cornea IOR is 0.01 off. Those matters become secondary, at least that’s the way I see it. 

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Nowadays I try to use each software to its fullest capacity. For my latest project, I mainly separated my organic surfaces for Mari and my clothing and props for Substance Painter. Not sure if they have changed it now, but SP didn’t allow me to paint across UDIMs so I had to plan the UV layout very carefully to avoid having separate pieces of objects in separate UDIMs which can cause a little bit of a mess in SP.

I like SP for props and clothing because it offers a lot of options and you can a get a very accurate look really quick. After you nail the shader it’s a matter of adding details to tell the story that serves your piece.

For the organic parts, I start in Polypaint. I like setting the basic color scheme there, the big areas of color first, and do test renders. Once it is don, I jump into Mari to add smaller details, such as veins, aging spots, etc.

This allows me to get a good idea of how color works for each character, where I need to push certain things to make it look more believable very early on, then it’s a matter of adding a degree of complexity that reality possesses.

Facial expressions

For me the expression is pretty much the whole goal, it’s what makes you ask: who is this man or woman? What’s his/her story? I’ve focused on that since I started taking ZBrush seriously and gearing my career towards character art.

As for facial expressions I try to look at the concept first and I rely on as many references as I can with the ultimate goal of reaching whatever is being portrayed in the concept.

Concept art by Rou Rou

I try to put conscience or soul in the piece from the moment I start sculpting until the moment I say the piece is done. I don’t believe there is a secret ingredient. To me, an expression is something very personal that I always strive for even if it means sacrificing other aspects of the project sometimes. My secret ingredient would be passion.

Lighting & Shaders

I always like to experiment with lighting very early on, even with just a rough block out of the character. I would sculpt something really basic that will have roughly the same volume and scale as the final piece to play in VRay while the modeling keeps going forward.

Lighting a scene where everything is gray-shaded allows you to have a lot of freedom and experiment much more rather than when the modeling and shading are done. For “The Gentleman” project I always tried to get the same lighting as in the concept but without having to change things if that would help the ulmate image.

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At the end of the day, you have to do what makes your piece better. Like an expression, it all serves the story and the character. Whatever lighting you end up with needs to help the viewer understand this person and the story that he or she carries.

For this project, the lighting was fairly straightforward. The key light that we see coming from the top was harder than it looks. The shadows on his face were something that I worked a lot on and eventually decided that it’ll never look exactly like the concept so  I might as well try to achieve the same feeling the concept has rather than make a 100% match. For that Key light, I also asked some friends to give me their opinion because sometimes we get so obsessed with our own view of things that we might not see the whole picture. A new viewer can show you another necessary angle to make things better for the sake of the project, not just for your own personal idea.

Besides that main light, I added a couple of lights on the back to get that sheen in the metals and marbles and some fill lights for the foreground elements as well.

As for the shaders, I start by making a shader that is physically correct and works well in a more neutral lighting. Like steel that looks and shines as steel. But when the final lighting starts to settle, there are certain things that I push in order to make the piece more balanced and more coherent. I used Nuke for some really small tweaks to add which conveyed 10% of mood that brings it all together.


I think there is always room for improvement in each and every project. When I started the Gentleman I was fairly new to the 2017 XGen so I had to learn it for the project. A similar thing happened when I tried to do those kinds of clothes in Marvelous Designer since they were more complex than my past garments made in that software. Those things drag the project for a little longer but they are absolutely necessary for an artist in order to grow during every project.

As for the pipeline, I feel having a good library of materials would be really useful for this kind of projects. If you have a certain type of wood, metal, etc. ready to go then it’s just a matter of adding those small details and the asset would be done in hours. Those small things are not critical in the big scope but will definitely save you time in the long run.

Alvaro Zabala, Character Artist & Sculptor at Blur Studio

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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