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Sculpting Stylized Characters: Tips from Julia Pishtar

Julia Pishtar shared her approach to sculpting stylized characters in ZBrush: general workflow, details, hair, and more.


Hi! I’m a Character Artist from Lviv, Ukraine. At the moment, I’m a freelancer, and prior to that, I worked as a Lead 3D Artist at Gameloft and N-ix, a Ukrainian software development company. During the last 8 years, I have been working on a lot of projects both stylized and realistic.

I graduated from the Lviv Academy of Arts, Clothing Design department. Shortly after graduation, I realized that fashion design was not exactly what I wanted to do in my life. I’ve always been a fan of computer games but I couldn’t imagine that the creation of fantasy worlds, characters and creatures could be something people do for a living.

I went a long way from Interior 3D Artist to Character Artist and Sculptor and I still have a lot of things to learn and improve. Most of my current skills - sculpting, modeling, texturing, and others - come from self-educating. 

Personal Artworks

General Workflow

I’ve always had a problem choosing which style and direction I want to work in. I love a lot of games with different styles and there are a lot of things I would like to try. Eventually, I decided to concentrate on two directions: creature concept art and stylized characters (old school hand-painted and PBR).

Usually, the work begins with an idea and reference search. I need to imagine clearly what I want to see as a result before I start to work. Then, I use ZBrush for sketching, working out big shapes, and defining the silhouette. It’s very important to find clear and bold shapes at the beginning. Make sure that the model has an interesting and noticeable silhouette. After finishing the big forms, I start to work on a middle level of details - groups of muscles, clothing, etc. I can paint some details in Photoshop over the 3D blockout - switching between ZBrush and 2D software for refining some elements usually works faster for me.

I use different approaches for different kinds of surfaces - dynamesh when sculpting organic forms, Zmodeler and Dynamic Subdiv for hard-surface. For the current level of detail, I try to keep my model as low poly as possible. It helps to operate with forms easily. 

Finally, I work on the smallest details: wrinkles, surface details, some small accents - all these things can be done when all the previous stages are finished. For this phase, I increase the polycount to the highest level.

Speed Sculpting

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Speed sculpting is a very useful exercise for improving a range of skills - understanding of forms, attention to details, different sculpting techniques. Since time is limited, it's quite important to concentrate on basic proportions and shapes. Also, this approach helps to optimize the sculpting process - you will try to find faster and more effective ways to achieve better results.

Usually, for speed sculpting, I use artworks of 2D artists as reference (of course, I mention them in the credits whenever I post my work anywhere). I try to catch the likeness - it’s not easy, especially when you have only a few hours for the entire work. The main goals for me are to improve the skill of catching forms and practice anatomy and sculpting, so I always start from scratch - no previously prepared base meshes, only sphere or another primitive.

Sculpting Stylized Forms

For stylized characters, I use a similar approach as for speed sculpting focusing on the main forms and designing some nice shapes. The composition and visual language are very important here. Plus, don't forget about the correct anatomy, too. You must know the anatomy and collect a lot of references before you can look for some ways to simplify and stylize the basic shapes.

For studying, I analyze the works of artists who create stylized characters and have their own recognizable style trying to understand what makes their works prominent and memorable.

To create the eyes, lips and other such elements, I use typical techniques for stylized art. You can see below (music by https://www.bensound.com):


For stylized hair, I use several methods. First of all, I highly recommend the tutorial by Danny Mac where he explains in detail how to create nice and dynamic shapes, work with IMM brushes and polish your work for a perfect result:

For sculpting, I use his hair IMM brushes and my own brushes similar to Danny's ones.

For curls, I start with Helix 3D tool with custom settings.

Then, I transform it into Polymesh 3D and make Polygroups by normals.

Then, I add creases and use Dynamic Subdiv with crease level 2 or 3 for nice smooth edges.

After finishing all the modifications, I transform Dynamic Subdiv to ordinary Subdiv levels.

Scales in Sea Dragon

For the smallest scales, I used ScaleFish brush. Also, for this kind of detail, the NoiseMaker with some Alphas could be really useful. Don’t forget to store Morph target before applying it (in this case, you can easily remove redundant details with Morph brush). And your model should be unwrapped, of course.

For middle-sized scales, I used my own Chisel brushes. 

The largest scales were created by combining ClayBuildup, Move, Polish, Slash2, and several other brushes. For microdetails, I used some organic alphas.


For personal works, I usually use polypaint in ZBrush or make quick retopo, auto UVs, and then texturing in Substance Painter. 3D Coat is awesome, too, especially for retopology and hand-painted texturing. 

Also, I bake normal maps and ambient occlusion in Marmoset and the rest of the maps in Substance Painter. I like this approach because the baking process in Marmoset can be easily controlled.

For texturing stylized characters, I generally use two workflows: 

  • Old school hand-painting with baking lights in Substance Painter which is a perfect base for texture painting. I also use SoMuchMaterials generator by So Much Monsters. It’s awesome and helps a lot with the process of creating a hand-painted style.
  • Stylized PBR. This pipeline is used in Overwatch, Fortnite, and a bunch of other amazing games. You can learn more about it from Marc Brunet here.


I usually render my models in Marmoset or Keyshot as they are extremely simple and quick. If I choose Marmoset, I use Vertex Color option in Albedo parameters for applying my polypaint from ZBrush.

To light my models, I follow the standard three-point lighting scheme:

Sometimes, I add extra omni lights to get better volume or reveal more details. While working on the model, I often switch between the rendering software and ZBrush to get a better understanding of how the final result would look like.

Julia Pishtar, 3D Character Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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