Creating Zeus in ZBrush


Hi there! In this breakdown, we will be going over my most recent character project Zeus. I will highlight the key workflows in character design and creation, and I will share tips and tricks that helped me get this project to the final render. After finishing this breakdown you should be able to understand the creative process and some key pipeline steps necessary to end up with a stunning piece.

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The main shot of this 4 month project: Zeus, based on concept art by Gianluca Rolli

Gathering references

When it comes to gathering references you can expect to add a lot more images and references during the production. However, building the initial foundation of references for both the assets and the mood is crucial.

One of the most important parts of creating a project is to know what feeling you want to convey to the viewer looking at the final image. If that goal is clearly defined, then the priority can be shifted towards the assets that will support that goal the most.

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My Pureref file after a lot of references have been added throughout the project. Secret weapon: scan data

A head start

Even if likeness isn’t the goal of the project, finding different angles of a famous person can be a great start. For Zeus’ likeness reference I chose photos of Jeff Bridges. Comparing the angles of these pictures and screenshots of my ZBrush file was helpful to judge different angles and check for discrepancies. Making these collages can also be a great way of tracking progress over time.

Jeff Bridges lineup with different ZBrush Screenshots, drawing lines on top of these collages can help judge the angles better

Making divine drapery

The Marvelous Designer Pinning tool (pressing W to place and remove pins) allows making clothing that would normally not be possible to create.  In my concept’s case, pins made it possible to create specific fabric folds that were caught mid-air. Making this garment took a lot of time, freezing and solidifying parts of the cloth to keep the generated folds and pinning everything in place. The cloth on his shoulder was posed with the wind tool pointed upwards. To save time with retopology, I mainly used rectangular pieces of cloth to get a good result from Marvelous’ remeshing option.

Final version in Marvelous with all clothing pieces pinned and frozen into place

Test Rendering the Blockout

Getting an early view of how the renderer is going to see the model can help correct issues with proportion and gesture more easily, as opposed to later in the project when a lot of accessories have been added. I pushed Zeus’ pose a bit more after getting these renders, making the compositional S and C curves of his body more pronounced to make him more dynamic.

This stage is also great for figuring out camera settings, light placement and a finding fitting HDRI

Refining the face

Refining the face shapes was a continuous step for me, going back and forth, making sure the shapes of the face remain round and fleshy as my mentor would say. Zeus’ face has some exaggerated features, for example, his cheekbones and temple area that were inspired by marble sculptures like The Bust of Neptune by Lambert-Sigibert Adam.

Progress on the facial sculpt, after adding some hints of an expression. I’m no longer working on a Jeff Bridges likeness at this point

Skin details from Texturing XYZ maps

I had multiple displacement and tertiary detail body maps from Texturing XYZ, each detailing a different body part. I had to project the displacement and tertiary detail at the same time to get matching details, and the way that worked best for me was with this Substance Painter Plugin

Getting almost real-time feedback on how the pores and wrinkles would look on the model was great, but working with those big file size textures was a bit taxing on my machine.

The result of the projected skin details applied in layers in ZBrush, separated into bigger and smaller levels of detail

Making the lightning spear

I created the lightning asset early on because it’s a central piece in the concept. Drawing curves over the concept and extruding cylinders along these curves gave me the base to work with. I converted the base to a dynamesh object in ZBrush, used the Snakehook and Move Topological brushes to arrange it into the shape needed. The uneven shapes were achieved using the Inflate Balloon slider under the Deformation palette. Making this mesh into a lightsource turned out well since it gave me the same light interaction on the skin, armor, and clothes that I saw in the concept.

Final V-Ray render element separating the lightning spear as a light source from the rest of the image

Bracer ornaments workflow

To make the ornaments on his armor I arranged patterns on screenshots of the UVs in Photoshop. Then by applying these textures in ZBrush and masking by the intensity of the color, I got these patterns transferred onto the asset. Now, all that’s left to do is inflate under the Deformation menu and break up the shapes in the sculpting pass.

Displacement map of the ornament applied in Maya after breaking up the shapes in ZBrush

Projecting the skin texture

To texture the skin I used a base of tileable textures, made using the Make It Tile Photo node in Substance Designer. On top I added some blemishes and undertones, golden details, and a layer of projected skin textures. For this texture projection I used a photoset from after grading the pictures in Photoshop to remove as much lighting information as possible. Grading a picture once and making it into a Photoshop Action can save a lot of time here.

Example of a graded picture from a photoset. Projecting these in Mari is a bit easier than in Substance Painter because of Mari’s paint buffer

Shading the cloth

When it came to working with the cloth, I picked out a woven fabric displacement pattern with a matching opacity map and created a V-Ray shader for it. I prefer to work with layered textures and masks to break up the cloth texture, rather than texture it outside of Maya first. Laying out the UVs of the cloth so that they all match the orientation of the 3D space is great when adding mud or dust. This way more grunge can be added to just the bottom by masking with a broken-up gradient. Adding sheen in the V-Ray shader can give the cloth a silky finish that contrasts well with dry mud or dust.

Some dark red, tan, and grey streaks and grunges break up the color of the skirt

XGen beard

A good starting point for XGen guides is sculpting the volume and shape of the hair in ZBrush. This hair blockout can then be made into a live surface in Maya which allows you to draw curves on top. These can then be converted to guides in the Utilities menu of XGen. Still, I would say it’s necessary to add more guides to interpolate between extreme strands and give the beard a pleasing, cohesive shape with no intersecting hair.

The same “making the base mesh of the hair live” works for eyebrows too, though I recommend separating off a scalp mesh for easier handling

XGen main hair

XGen is still quite finicky and can lead to some complications, so saving many versions is crucial. When it comes to the guide placement, it is a good idea to start with a few guides but add plenty later, so it’s not the modifier’s job to define the shape of the hairstyle. As a general rule, I add 3 layers of clumping to a hairstyle, each having 3 times more clump guides than the one before. Also adding a cut modifier, one general noise breakup and one big noise breakup with a stray function help with selling the realism.

The hair shader is a blend of the sandy blond and white preset of the V-Ray Next Hair material


The lighting setup was quite standard in this project: I started with a 3-point rig, with a few extra lights to guide the eyes of the viewer. The main light comes from the top right and highlights the muscle definition on his chest alongside casting a shadow from his eyebrows, making his bright eyes stand out against the darkness that surrounds them. The fill light is much bigger but less bright and mainly lights his clothing. The rim light casts a halo of light around his hair and defines the contours of his body, it also highlighted the body hair in the final render and showed off the see-through properties of the woven cloth.

Finding a pleasing light setup can take time, so test rendering a lot and keeping the intended look in mind was very important. The look I was going for was very dramatic, almost like a museum exhibition

Rendering & compositing

Rendering this project was a challenge. I wanted 4k renders to show off all the details, but one frame ended up taking 7-9 hours. In the future, splitting the scene into different layers and rendering things like atmosphere with higher noise thresholds, could help here. For compositing, adding many render elements in V-Ray and saving the renders as EXR files was a fast way for me to get everything into Nuke and do some color corrections as well as adding a background.

One of the final images after color grading the lightning and enhancing the contrast

Trying things

After spending so much time carrying the model through the complete pipeline, playing with different render scenarios was one of the most fun aspects of a project. Putting the character into different lighting situations, trying out colors and compositions, putting a surreal spin on it – anything goes. Sometimes there are happy accidents to be found here, sometimes the original vision was the best. For me, this step is important because it keeps my artistic curiosity and love for the craft alive, especially after a long project haul.

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An alternative version of Zeus’ headshot after playing with blending modes in Photoshop

Top tip - Know what you’re going for

The story of your art should be clear to the viewer, what they should feel or think about. The presentation of the final piece can make or break how people see it, so make sure you know where your focus lies.

Top tip - Breaks & feedback

It can be deceptively easy to get used to mistakes, especially after working on the same visuals for many hours a day. So, take a step back, look at it from afar, take a screenshot and mirror it, take some time off, and ask for feedback from a trusted source.

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