Völva: Stylized Character Workflow in ZBrush and Substance Painter

Diana Clitan did a breakdown of her Seer character Völva sculpted and retopologized in ZBrush/Maya, textured in Substance Painter, and presented in Marmoset Toolbag.

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My name is Diana Clitan and I am a 3D character artist from Romania. I freshly graduated with Game Art BA (Hons) from De Montfort University in Leicester, United Kingdom, and am currently seeking opportunities to get into the game industry.

My art journey started back when I was 14 years old, and prior to signing up for the Game Art course, I was doing portraits in both the traditional and digital mediums and always liked to experiment with multiple techniques. I was later on introduced to 3D art at uni and I became simply fascinated with the whole concept of creating a piece of art in a 3D dimension that the viewer could not only admire but also interact with and further explore. I was also intrigued by the complexity of the process while working on each project: from sculpting or modeling to retopologizing, unwrapping, and later texturing. Working on my projects for my course, I had to go through each of these phases all over again, and doing this helped with strengthening my skills. At the same time, each individual project brought up a different challenge that pushed me to learn something new every time.

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Völva: Idea of the Project

For this project's theme, I was greatly inspired by the Seer character in the TV show "Vikings" and his magical and mysterious energy - I thought it would be fun to further explore this concept and adapt it to my own ideas. I gathered some references on Pinterest of what looked interesting to me or close to what I had in my mind and made some rough sketches. I chose the design that looked the most interesting to me and started sculpting in ZBrush.

Generic moodboard:

Concept sketches:

References used during production:

Sculpt and Retopology

I proceeded to sculpt the basemesh in ZBrush and gradually dress up the character as I went. For the body, I used references gathered from Pinterest and ArtStation that looked close to the style and proportions I wanted to achieve. Starting from the base that I sketched, I enhanced my character's design during the sculpting process by adding/changing some elements here and there. I have included some additional pieces of fabric on the sides, on top of her dress as I thought I could use them to enhance the silhouette of the final pose.

The feedback from the tutors at uni helped a lot. I have been suggested to try and break the symmetry a bit and also make the hair more dynamic to enhance the silhouette. 

Therefore, I firstly added a fur capelet on the left shoulder to bring some asymmetry to the upper part of the body and a tiny pouch on her right hip. I later changed the fur and made the fur strands chunkier to look more stylized. Then, resculpted the hair from scratch using the Curve Tube and Move brush. After that, I dynameshed the hair strands together and used the Trim Dynamic brush to polish it.  

The face was quite tricky to handle. I looked at some references that I really liked and tried to get inspiration from but I wanted it to look as natural as possible so I went back and forth with adjustments here and there until I was happy with the final result.

I was rather undecided in regards to what element I should add on her chest, as I did not want to leave that space all empty so I have done some experiments in this regard until I got to a result that fit my liking. 

When adding the prop, I think about the prop, how it should look like, and how to proceed with it. Initially, I envisioned an incense burner shaped more like a lamp, as I saw in one of the references that I used for the sketches. I wanted the design to have spirally metal-sculpted faces with holes where the smoke should come out through but was not sure what was the best way to proceed working on that. I talked to one of my tutors about it, explained what I wanted to do, and asked for a bit of advice on how I should approach it. I have been suggested to try and add a skull tied with ropes instead of a lamp-shaped burner and I was very intrigued with that idea so I gave it a go.

So, I gathered some references, sculpted a human skull in ZBrush, and added the ropes with a rope brush I created in ZBrush.

Skull references:

It was a bit challenging to try and find a nice way to work with those ropes but after a few tries, I was happy with how it turned out.

When retopologizing I went back and forth between Maya and ZBrush for both the character and the prop. During this project, I always make sure I make use of polygons efficiently and that the low poly matches the silhouette of the high poly as much as possible. I also try my best to keep a clean topology and be mindful of the areas that would normally bend when animating the character (ex. the knees and elbows).  In order to retopologize the prop's rope, I used Zspheres to follow its shape.

After unwrapping, I imported the low-polys and high polys in Marmoset Toolbag for baking. I prefer to use this software for this process as it makes it easy to fix minor baking issues in no time.


The next step was importing the low poly in Substance Painter for texturing. I filled a layer with a base color for each element. For the skin, I applied a skin material from the Substance Painter library that I adjusted to my liking and manually hand-painted skin details and red spots on top. Then, I painted her blind eyes and hairstreaks on her hair and fur. I overall used the baked maps and grunge alphas in order to create the edge edgewear/worn-out material details and enhance the cavities. I overlayed the AO map on top of the base colors to intensify the baked shadows here and there and bring a more "stylized" look. I found out about the existence of the light filter in Substance Painter, which can generate some hand-painted-looking highlights and shadows - I used it to add light-reflections on the metal parts and slightly on the leather.

When it came to her dress, I imagined it to be made of different-colored cloth rags sewn together that have a ripped and dirty appearance, and I tried to showcase that within the textures. The clothing style indicates the social status of the character. Typically seers would have a lot of accessories self-made or given by people as payment in exchange for personal predictions. However, their lifestyle is far from a luxuriant one, as they live isolated, practice mystical activities, and are not affiliated with peasantry nor with rulers, maintaining devotion only towards the Gods. 

For the skull, I repeated the process I've done for the character's clothing: I used the curve-mask for the cavities, the painted light filter, and added a lot of dirt over the base. I envisioned it having a nice emissive green glow coming from the inside, to fit the idea that there is a magical fire burning in there. I also wanted to add some emissive alpha planes, to create an interesting stylized smoke spiraling in the air from the skull holes. Finally, I wanted to add a Viking symbol or rune on the forehead, related to the character's theme so I did some research on Norse symbols and found the symbol of Wyrd - the Wyrd symbol is representative of the interconnectedness of past, present, and future.

The last step before setting up the final scene in Marmoset was to pose the character and I have done that process in ZBrush.


In terms of lighting, I wanted to obtain this dark and gloomy swamp-like atmosphere to contrast with my character's earthy color palette and I experimented with different light intensities and positions until I reached something interesting and close to what I had in mind for this. The challenge was to maintain the details and colors on the character as visible and accurate as possible while also having a dark and overall low-lit atmosphere. In order to create the glowy smoke coming out of the skull, I used some alpha planes that I have added an emissive map to.

To create the final renders, I first took a render of the background on its own and then rendered the character with the "transparency" option on to render it without the background. I then took all the renders in Photoshop to assemble and overlayed a dust particle alpha PNG I got online over the background layer to bring some life to the atmosphere.

Final Thoughts

This project helped me learn a great deal about sculpting and texturing stylized materials as well as the importance of being expressive in terms of silhouette and color palette in order to make a stylized piece work.

Diana Clitan, 3D Character Artist

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

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