Create a 3D stylized “Killer Queen” in ZBrush & Maya

This tutorial contains NSFW imagery


In this tutorial I'll be covering the process of turning your stylized 2D character into 3D, starting from gathering references to sculpting in ZBrush, Retopologizing in Maya and ZBrush, adding colors to the 3D model, and finally setting up the lighting in Maya in order to render!

female stylised character design 3d model render knife

How to turn your 2D stylized character into 3D!

Gathering references

The first step I always do when I want to pick a concept to work on is to make sure that I love it and it will challenge me, otherwise in the middle of the project it would be too boring to continue.

When it comes to having references, one of the most useful apps to work with is PureRef, it's a very handy simple app that gives you freedom to arrange your references easily.

First thing to do is to analyze the concept to see what we are dealing with, in this case I knew I would need anatomical references, some similar 3D artworks that I like, and I liked to follow them in some ways, and a few lingerie references for the character clothing. Usually, references can be found easily on Google and Pinterest.

Sometimes while we search for the references, we can find so many pictures and get new ideas on what type of details we want to have or whether we want to change some parts of the project.

gathering references imagery photography research modeling

Reference collage

Character blockout

Blocking out the main shapes is one the most important part of the process in character creation, I usually start with the simple shapes such as spheres and cylinders.

In this case I started with placing three main spheres for the torso, head, and the hip. Once I was happy with them, I started adding cylinders to place the neck, arms, abs, and the legs.

After that I used move tool to tweak the shapes and try to follow the concept. It's very easy to change the proportions and pose the character in this step.

After I think I have the right shapes, silhouette, proportions, I usually start with a low resolution of Dynamesh to merge all of the parts and start adding more details to the shape, and to refine the silhouette from all angles.

The key is to keep the topology as low as possible in the beginning, this way it's easier to manipulate the shapes, also using Polygroups and masks can ease the process. After that we keep adding more resolution to the Dynamesh and refine the shape. At some point it's easier to use Zremesher on the mesh and continue working on the low-poly, this way the high-poly will be cleaner and in some cases easier to manipulate because you can have multiple divisions.

Adding some placeholders for the character assets also helps, for example I added a simple shape for the knife and the plate so I can work on the hands and pose them more accurately.

character model shape female form placeholder dynamesh polygroups

In this step we blockout the character with basic shapes

Modeling the character assets

I always try to switch between Maya and ZBrush for modeling, for me personally for the character accessories like the knife, Maya is more efficient. In order to start I always attach the concept to viewport so I can compare the models that I'm making with the concept – to do that you have to go to View > Image Plan > Import Image. Usually for the clothing, you can either mask the body mesh and Subtool > Extract > Extract > Accept in ZBrush, or you can make the body mesh live and use Modeling Toolkit > Quad Draw in Maya to create polygons on top of the body. In this case I did that in Maya so I could have clean topology from the first instance. Once the character assets are done, I import them back into ZBrush to finalize the high-poly and match the assets with the character’s pose.

character assets 3d modeling render design knife zbrush maya

Modeling the character assets

Head blockout

After analyzing the concept I realized that the best way to simplify the head is to use a cylinder as the main shapes and then add a couple more to add the details. I also scaled and rotated 2 cylinders and placed them for the ears, and then I put a cube for the nose and manipulated the shape with Move tool.

After that I used Dynamesh to merge all the meshes and started to polish and add details to match it with the concept. In this step, at first, I sculpted the head symmetry and, in the end, I transformed it into the position on top of the plate.

head blockout shape form render model 3d character design

In this step we blockout the head with basic shapes


In order to Retopologize, first we should export the mesh in ZBrush and import them to Maya. After importing the meshes, we should select the high-poly meshes one by one and make them live, then after selecting Modeling Toolkit > Quad Draw, we can draw polygons on top of the mesh and start Retopologizing.

If there is any problem with connecting the blue dots you can change the Value of Modeling Toolkit  > Quad Draw > Live Constraint Options > Surface Offset from 0.05 to 0.1 or 0.2 in extreme cases.

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In this step we Retopologize the mesh using Maya

Unwrapping the UVs

Right after the Retopologizing is complete, we should unwrap the UVs, so they're ready for Polypainting and adding Normal map details. In order to unwrap the UVs, we need to select each mesh and apply UV > Planer from a good side that we choose. Once it's done, we need to select some edges to make the UV cuts UV Editor > Shift+right-click > Cut so later on we can unfold the UVs to avoid stretches in the future.

After we have made sure that the UVs are cut into pieces properly, we should select them and Shift+right-click > Unfold > Unfold. After they're all unfolded, we can manually arrange them in the UVset and we need to make sure to use the UV space as good as possible and also avoid any overlaps.

unwrapping uv character model cuts polypainting stretches designs

In this step we unwrap the UVs


After the UVs are perfectly unwrapped and we import them back into ZBrush, our meshes are ready for Polypainting. In order to start we should select the desired subtool and turn on Polypaint > Colorize. After that we can select the Standard brush, turn on the RGB so we can and turn off Zadd or Zsub, then we can choose a color and simply start painting on the meshes!

Sometimes using Auto masks like BackfaceMask (Brush > Auto Masking > BackfaceMask) can help a lot specially with the complicated areas like the mouth and fingers.

polypainting unwrapping importing zbrush design meshes colorizes 2d

In this step we Polypaint

Shader setup

Right after we export the maps and meshes from ZBrush, we need to set up the scene in our desired 3D software, it could be Unreal engine, Marmoset Toolbag,  3ds Max, and so on.

I personally use Maya as my main 3D package and my favorite rendering engine is Redshift because of its efficiency and speed. I used Redshift Material basically for every asset in the scene and Skin Shader for the body and the face.

I normally don't play much with the shader parameters when it comes to SSS, I try my best to control them with Maps, especially for the Specular and Deep Scatter. Having good naming on the shaders and in Outliner helps a lot when things get complicated.

shader setup 3d model 2d flat bases unwrapping models

In this step we set up the shaders

Lighting setup

Before setting up the lighting for the scene we need to analyze the concept for the lights, their direction, colors, and intensity so we can recreate them. So, I started with placing the main spotlights and slowly added some area lights with different shapes like rectangular or disc to enhance the reflections on the assets.

One thing I always like to have is the specular disc for the eyes to have a strong circular highlight on them and in this case, I also had to add a few to show the shininess of the metal knife, plate, and the blood splatters.

lighting setup model rendering 3d character design female model

In this step we setup the lighting

Finalizing the renders

After the lighting and Shaders are final and we have our final render, I usually use Nuke or Photoshop to add background color, a bit of color correction, some noise, Chromatic Aberration, and a bit of glow for metal parts or highlights.

murder knife horror imagery blood female character design

Finalizing the project!

Top tip - Using SeeThrough Technique in Zbrush

I always try to open my concept in PureRef and place it underneath the ZBrush so I can use the ZBrush SeeThrough slider to make the canvas transparent. This is to make sure you're going on the right path to have the right silhouette and forms.

see through transparency modeling 3d character design sculpture

Using SeeThrough in ZBrush

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