Craft alien ZBrush sculpts

Jia Hao reveals the workflow behind creating an insect-inspired ZBrush creation...

This project will take you through my workflow for creating an alien insect creature, from sketch to finished sculpt. I will go through how I use different ZBrush tools to refine the sculpt, add details, pose and Polypaint the creature, and add a simple environment using props.

With KeyShot, I will go through how to set up the lighting and materials in order to output different render passes, and finally show you how I use the render passes and various Photoshop techniques to finish the piece in post-production.

In order to follow the tutorial effectively, you will need a basic know-how of ZBrush, KeyShot, and Photoshop. At the end, you should have a basic idea of the workflow for creating your own alien insect.

Step 01: Be inspired!

In order to get inspired, I use Google Images and Pinterest to gather various images of insects. Macro photographers like Igor Siwanowicz and Nicky Bay have taken many photos of bizarre insects and offer a good place to get started.

I only use references from real-life animals because the variety of designs that nature offers is staggering and enough inspiration to last me a lifetime. When gathering references, I keep a lookout for interesting designs in nature, including shapes, surface details, and colors. I also gather a couple of insect anatomy references to keep some basic anatomy in check.

"I use the CurveTube brush to pull out one of the limbs, split it, and sketch. After one limb is done, I duplicate and transform it into other limbs"

During this process, I note down all the possible design choices for this creature. I also refer to books like Animal Life: Secrets of the Animal World Revealed and The Natural History Book to explore different creature design possibilities.

I believe that nowadays, with the ease of access to so much knowledge and so many reference materials, it's easier to be over-inspired than under-inspired. That's why I come up with a simple design document for the creature, including its anatomy, behavior and habitat. I might not follow the design doc exactly, but it helps limit my choices and allows me to become more focused.

Inspiration is literally everywhere, start paying attention to it and source them out!

Step 02: DynaMesh sketching

In ZBrush, I start with a DynaMesh sphere at a Resolution of 16, with Blur set to 0, and Polish Off. Using the combination of different brushes, I manipulate the mesh to explore designs.

I stay in a low resolution as long as possible to get the basic form of the creature. When in need of more resolution, I divide the mesh with Smt off, so that I can control the smoothing myself and retain the lower subdivision level. I love manipulating meshes in the lowest subdivision level possible, because it's so much easier to influence the form.

I use the CurveTube brush to pull out one of the limbs, split it, and sketch. After one limb is done, I duplicate and transform it into other limbs. When I am satisfied with the general form of the main body, I use masking to polygroup the head, neck, thorax, and abdomen. I use Group Split to separate them, re-DynaMesh to close the hole, and continue sculpting to finish the sketch. For the limbs I use DynaMesh with Group ON to separate different segments of a limb into individual DynaMesh pieces.

Step 03: Design with reason

With the help of my initial design thoughts and sketching out ideas in ZBrush, I decide to make the alien insect the equivalent of a stegosaurus or an elephant in nature. It is a herbivore and a gentle giant in the insect world that most other insects will not mess with.

I also visualize the final image to feature the creature feeding in a surreal alien environment. When designing, I keep different design principles in mind, including form, proportion, silhouette, rhythm, and flow, to come up with a pleasing design. I strongly encourage you to learn the various principles of design and practice them. One of the great things about learning design principles is that they are applicable across different art mediums.

I am still a beginner in designing creatures, but trying to incorporate these design principles into my designs helps me grow as a designer.

Step 04: ZRemesh and UV

I duplicate the mesh and use ZRemesher to generate a low subdivision mesh with decent topology. I play around with both Target Polygons Count and AdaptiveSize to get meshes with the lowest subdivision of 5k to 7k polycount. This results in the highest subdivision polycount of 5 to 7 million which is a sweet spot for my machine to handle. You can use Polypaint to paint areas that require a denser polycount, if needed. Knowing the comfortable level of polycount your machine can handle will help you maximize your mesh density and workflow efficiency.

With the new mesh, I subdivide and project the form of the original mesh back to it. UV Master is great for generating quick UVs. I use Work On Clone, enable AttractFromAmbientOcc, and Unwrap each mesh.

Step 05: Refine the sculpt

At this stage, I will refine the sketch and take it to a polished sculpt. Using the previous brushes and few more, I sculpt to enhance the overall form and structure of the mesh.

I sculpt the scale border to get a better overlaying effect and cut into the crevices to get darker shadows. I can still introduce new forms, like the additional thorns, to alter the design. With the new low subdivision from ZRemesher, I can make big changes to the overall form easily. If I find the polygons stretch out too much, I can just ZRemesh it again.

You should spend some time in this stage to refine the primary and secondary forms before getting into the detailing stage, since those forms speak louder than details.

Step 06: Detailing

Before I begin detailing, I refer to the insect references I've gathered to find interesting surface details.

I use the Standard brush with different stroke types, settings and Alphas to create different detailing brushes. If you have created your own brush, remember to save it out for future use. I like to create layers to store different details and play with positive and negative values of the layer to get the desired effect. When detailing, adjust the brush size and intensity to create variation in the surface details and make it look more natural.

Details can convey what the surface is made of. In this case, I give the scales bumps and belly wrinkles and veins to help identify them as hard and soft surfaces. When detailing, don't obsess and spend too much time on it to make the imperfection perfect.

To finish up I use the Standard, Inflate, and DamStandard brushes to enhance the details. During detailing I like to switch between MatCap Gray and BasicMaterial2, and adjust the lighting to check on the effect the details have on the Surface Specularity.

Step 07: It's alive!

An appealing pose will make the design come alive and help sell your creature. I visualize my creature in a scenario I decided earlier to help pose it.

I use Transpose Master to pose my creature. Before I start posing, I like to store a Morph Target and create layers to store different posed parts of the creature. That way I can play with the variation of poses to find the ideal one.

I like to use the Timeline to store different camera views, including composition views, so that I can get back to those views easily.

To pose the creature, I use polygroups for ease of selection, the Lasso Masking brush to decide the influence area, the Transpose tools to pose the mesh, and the Move brush to fine-tune the posed mesh. I constantly use the creature's silhouette to check the readability and clarity of the pose.

When transferring the posed mesh back to the original meshes, I turn on Layer in Transpose Master to get back to the symmetry pose any time I want.

Step 08: Polypainting

Now it's time to give the creature some color. I create a new layer for each SubTool to store the Polypaint. Using the standard Color Spray brush with Alpha 07, I spray different color tones on the creature. Again, I look to nature for color inspirations.

When painting, I use the Color Picker (shortcut C) to quickly sample color already painted on the mesh. I use SkinShade4 when painting, but I will often switch to Flat Color to see the diffuse color more clearly.

To paint darker tone in crevices, I use Mask By Cavity. You can play with the Cavity Profile to get different coverage of cavity masking. You can use Mask by Smoothness or PeaksAndValleys to paint in different color variations as well.

I use Surface Noise > NoisePlug > Voronoi > MaskByNoise to create the masking to paint in the web pattern on the scales. You can play with other noise patterns or load in an Alpha to create various interesting masking effects.

Step 09: Environment

Since I decided to put the creature in an alien environment earlier, I want to create some sort of alien mushroom plant for the creature to feed on. Using Radial Symmetry and the same sculpting and Polypainting techniques, I create three variations of the plant to simulate its behavior.

With SubTool Master, I import the plants and place them in the scene, matching the creature's pose by using the Transpose tools and the useful Move brush.

"Sometimes I like to explore different tones of the composition to find the one that conveys the mood I am looking for. To do that, I adjust the background hue and throw in a Photo Filter to produce different variations of tones"

Step 10: KeyShot rendering

KeyShot is great for rendering because it streamlines the process of assigning materials and adjusting lighting. In order to export the mesh to KeyShot with textures, I create a texture map from the Polypaint and export the meshes using the SubTool Master.

I choose the Industrial HDRI map in KeyShot, and rotate the HDRI in real-time to find the lighting I want by using Ctrl+Alt+LMB. I edit the HDRI to give it a saturation boost as well. With the default material in KeyShot, I switch all of them to translucent material, and render two passes with the texture maps, one with medium spec and one without spec.

To render other passes for post-work, I link the material of the meshes and assign them to different materials.

Step 11: Photoshop post-production

I import all the render passes into Photoshop layers and organize them into different folders to make my life easier for making changes later on.

I like to keep the workflow as flexible as I can by using groupings, layers, adjustment layers, masking, and Smart Objects.

I am not afraid of deviating from the original color of my creature to create the final result that I want. Sometimes I like to explore different tones of the composition to find the one that conveys the mood I am looking for. To do that, I adjust the background hue and throw in a Photo Filter to produce different variations of tones.

Spend as much time as you need at this stage because it will make a significant impact in the quality of your final image.

Final words

Well, I hope you enjoyed this tutorial and it gives you an idea on how to create your own unique alien insect. Even through I've shown you a workflow here, please don't be afraid to explore and discover new ways of doing things to find a workflow that you are most comfortable with.

I would like to thank 3dcreatvie for giving me the chance to do my first tutorial. I learned a lot from this experience, and hopefully it takes me one step closer to becoming a professional artist.

Related links

Grab a copy of ZBrush Characters & Creatures
Also available is ZBrush Character Sculpting: v1

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