Stylized Character Art: Sculpting Tips for Beginners

Lance Lai briefly talked about his stylized character art workflow: sculpting in ZBrush and texturing in Substance Painter and Photoshop.


Hello, my name is Lance Lai, I'm a 3D artist currently based in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. Right now, I'm a freelancer doing game art primarily focusing on stylized projects. Previously, I worked on small independent projects. Currently, I'm looking forward to taking an art test for Virtuos Sparx. I studied at Van Lang University, Ho Chi Minh, learning Architecture, but when I found out about 3D modeling for games, I knew I wanted to do it for the rest of my life. In the past, I have taken several courses on 3D art from Marc Brunet, Gilberto Magno, and others, they helped me develop my skills, especially in stylized art.

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High Elves Mage: Reference

First, I gathered some references and tried to create my own concept. I would recommend using PureRef for references, it is beyond words useful and customizable. My main reference was Elise Starseeker from Hearthstone - I think she is an iconic representation of Blizzard's art.

I think the most difficult part of stylized character art is to get the concept right, and the best way to do that is to know the story of the character. 

Sculpting & Modeling

My approach to stylized characters begins with making simple shapes and blocking out objects that define the silhouette with Shane Olson’s IMM_3DCW brush by combining simple shapes together. Shane's stylized brush is one of my favorite ones.

After that, I use Dynamesh and ZRemesher and refine the basic body shapes. The armor plates and clothes came from painting masks and extracting them from the body. I made a quick draft sculpt with ClayBuildup, Hpolish, and Move brushes to get a 3D sketch. Since it’s still sketching, I can refine the design, see how the character looks from various angles, and decide if the idea works well. Then, I work on the high poly sculpt and add tiny detail.

Here are a few tips on how to get clean surfaces and smooth edges:


I usually do most of my texture painting in Substance Painter and Photoshop. To start, I bake out a high poly from my low poly model to get several maps like Normal, AO, World Space Normal (Green channel to generate directional AO), Position, Curvature, etc. All of these maps will help me with my texture creation.

Then we can start the texturing process in Photoshop. It's very similar to shading in Dota - with base gray, I can multiply AO, World Space Normal (Green channel), Position (Green channel), Curvature. Basically, I want a top-down gradient that creates a focus on the face of the character. Also, I can apply color gradients on top of grayscale to achieve different colors in shadow areas, mid-tones, and highlights. Then, I move to Substance Painter to finish my texturing process.


I’m glad that I had the chance to learn from Marc Brunet. I recommend his Art School to anyone who wants to improve their stylized character art skills. I learned a lot and I’m excited to start the next project.

Lance Lai, 3D Artist 

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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