Secrets of Digital Portraits

Amazing 3d artist Ian Spriggs shared some advice and showed how he builds the amazing 3d humans with modern modeling and rendering tools.


My name is Ian Spriggs, I am a character artist and have been working in the industry for 12 years. Currently I am working for Neill Blomkamp at OatsStudios, we worked on Rakka, Firebase, and Zygote which are all available online free.  Before this I worked on movies such at Warcraft, Mama, Robocop, Batman vs Superman, Crimson Peak. I went to art school at ACAD back in 1998 then animation school at Seneca in 2006.  

3d Portraits

My interest in 3d portraits began when I started my Self Portrait, it was the first one of the portrait series.  I had done hundreds of characters before doing this portrait but for this one I really wanted to try to push the limits to create a connection with the viewer.  I am really inspired by the masters in art history, it amazes me how much emotion can be expressed through a single image.  I wanted to be able to express what they did, and by moving forward with technology sometimes we get caught up in the tools and programs, I don’t want us to lose track of the human side.  We have done amazing job of recreating skin shaders, eye shader set ups, details, but I usually don’t focus too much on this, I try to focus my work on who the subject is, what do they have to say, what is their story is.  To me understanding someone and trying to express that in a portrait is one of the most difficult things I have attempted, but I love the challenge. My portraits are all done in Maya, Mudbox, Photoshop and VRay.

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The Look

I think they way we overcome the uncanny valley is empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of the characters we create.   All my portraits I have tried in different ways to connect with the viewer.  The Portrait of Sean I focused my attention to his eyes, I didn’t want you to look at this portrait and just see Sean, I wanted you to feel as though Sean is looking at you, to make the viewer feel as though they are in his world.  In some of my other portraits I have tried to make you see the story of them, by the clothes they wear, by their body language, hand gestures, I want you to feel as if you are having a conversation with them.  I will always pose my characters and have a slight expression, you just won’t connect with them if you see them as a mannequin. 

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When I start off I do a photoshoot of my subjects.  I will usually get around 100-150 images to work from.  I will get my subject to stand in a tpose then take photos straight on, 3/4 view, profile views, everything I need to start sculpting from, these images are to help with getting the likeness.  Then I will pose the subject in different poses, trying out what best suits their personality.  While doing this I will also try different lighting ideas, having the spot lights from different angles and different intensity, this stage is what helps with me with connecting that emotional side to the artwork.  I do not think there is ever enough reference, sometimes even though I might have hundreds of images I will ask the subject to meet up again so I can take more.  If I want to express this person I really can’t be making it up, I need the references so I can be true to the subject.


I use Mudbox to texture my sculpt then I touch up those textures in Photoshop, my whole workflow is a little chaotic, there is so much back and forth and it is never a linear progression. It is usually when I get to the lighting stage when I try to make my work more like a painting.  I will have an artwork in mind such as a Rembrandt or a Vermmer to inspire my work, I will try to use that same lighting in my portraits, some portraits it has been pretty close to the original painting where as others it branches off quite far.  The way the masters use light and draw focus to details can completely change how you perceive the image, hard light vs soft light will change the shadows and will show the subject quite differently, I guess that’s why my work can feel like a painting because I copy those techniques.


The hair is done in Maya with nHair and add a VRay hair shader to it.  When I create it I duplicate every single hair curve around the head, beard and eyebrows included, it ends up being a few hundred nurb curves.  I like to have complete control of each hair so I can match my reference, if I wan’t trying to represent a certain person I might work quite differently.  I break the hair into sections and work on each section separately, usually I will have 8-10 different sections for the entire head.  Sometimes I will add different shaders to different sections to create a break up of colour through out the head.  And each shader will have colour break up between strands.  The whole process for the hair takes roughly 2 agonizing weeks.


The eyes setup is pretty straightforward.  For me it is understanding how to correctly show the eye for different expressions.  If you have an eye with the sclera more red the character will look more intense/upset/stressed, if you have a larger pupil your character will look more tired/sleepy/set back.  Sean’s eye I have a smaller pupil with a high contrast with the lens, it makes him look more focused, there is even a dark ring around the lens creating more contrast to help support this idea.  Sean’s portrait the whole focus is in the eye, everything I did is to make it feel as though it is a bullseye pulling your focus to meet his eyes.


It takes a while for me to get the right lighting, after a few portrait though I have found that simple usually works the best for a portrait, Sean’s portrait there is just 1 rect light in VRay, there is no HDR, no fill light or no rim light.  Even though I only have one light, I really had to make sure it worked, the placement of the shadows and the hard edges of them was important for the final image.  I did a few variations before realizing I only needed 1 light.  I didn’t want any distraction caused by the lighting, its sole purpose was to make focus on his eyes.  I had to tone up and tone down some of the diffuse colours in my texture maps so that the hotspots are on his face, I wouldn’t want his jacket to be brighter than his face because you focus would go there.   Personally I kinda like the soft warm type of lighting, I think I will try to keep this in future portraits.

Ian Spriggs, 3D Character Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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