Wardrones: 3D illustration techniques (part 2) – detailing & color masks


Moving on from the early conceptualization and modeling stages, this part of the series will focus on bringing the model to a more polished and final stage, defining details and segments, as well as adding patterns and additional mechanical parts. It will also include coloring the mesh, pre-defining custom materials that will be attributed to select areas, while also detailing my approach on deciding how to design these specific details for more visual engagement.

The main tools we will be using in this segment of the tutorial are the Dam Standard brush for defining separate panels, as well as mechanical insert brushes such as IMM Model Kit and IMM Spaceship for additional machine parts like nuts, bolts, and other proprietary meshes. Also, further clipping via the Curve Clip tool will be used to add further complexities to the shape. For more details on how to use the Curve Clip tool for hard surface modeling, read part one.

Furthermore, perhaps an introduction to some noise patterns on some areas if there is good opportunity to improve the design with patterns. Of course, being a bit of a fluid process I usually assess these decisions as I go.

3d model wardrone
Wardrones: Part 2

Let’s start sculpting…

The way I will approach this segment is by showcasing most of the techniques via the first body part, in order to provide good details on the steps I take, with them having less detail in the following areas that contain repetitive content. Most parts on the model will be addressed using the same techniques, therefore I will complement each step with additional thoughts on the process.

In a similar order and fashion to how I approached the model in part one, I started off by detailing none other than the main center body. Feel free to hide the remainder of the model, and focus on the isolated part of the mesh, as well as with the other parts as you move along, unless they are in close interaction.

Remember, for all hard surface work, precision is key – that is if you want consistent and clean results therefore, for most brushes you may use, you should enable Lazy Mouse settings for clean strokes. (Stroke > Lazy Mouse.)

Obviously, you should modify the Dam Standard brush to suit the look of the panel separations, mainly reducing the radius and increasing the strength. It might be a good idea to Dynamesh your model at a huge resolution to evenly distribute the points so that your cuts would stay consistent. A subdivide or two will also help afterwards.

When laying out the panels, try and think of where they might logically intersect to serve a function, as well as making indentations for the proper merger of parts and bolt placement, while also to visually serve an appealing narrative, not just be all over the place.

These details also tell us a lot about how big the object is, so the more parts and details within details etc, the bigger the illusion of object scale will be perceived. Our drone is neither a Walmart drone, nor is it a transport helicopter, but somewhere about 25% of the size of the latter, so it does host some larger parts, and larger parts mean more attention to detail and sense of scale.

The same disclaimer from part one of the series also applies here; details are always better when studied in depth and applied realistically. Knowing your design from the inside out is really what will push your design to complete realism (well, if it’s real, it’s real). Due to resource limitation in this tutorial, I am doing a lot of guesswork, while still trying to apply some logic.

You should always think a few steps ahead when it comes to your production workflow. Some areas are designed to incorporate future inserts and additional mechanical parts.

Mostly, the results will be a direct output from the amount of willingness and dedication you put into your craft. If you want to achieve great work, it’s the effort and sacrifice alone that will make it possible. This is why resource is the ultimate fall of any endeavor that wills to be perfect.

technical vehicle 3d model
body detailing 3d mechanical structure
Main body details

Morph tricks

A neat trick when modeling advanced complex shapes is using a mixture of Curve Clipping, Dam slicing, and Morph tools. What you do first is, you go to Morph Target > Store MT. Then you harshly mask off an area in which you then proceed curve clipping from an angle to create an indentation. Then moving on you use the Morph Brush with Lazy Mouse on (Stroke > Lazy Mouse) to create sort of a curved transition to the indentation. Lastly, you can use the Dam Standard brush to separate the indentation into its own entity.

morphing 3d structure
Morph tricks

Insert Meshes

ZBrush has a very good set of insert brushes that particularly address machinery and hard surface elements. Bolts, Hinges, Pipes, Vents, and any other generic machine part you need –you can mostly locate it in one of the IMM brushes.

The types of details we want to add to this mesh are small elements that serve to enrich the blank surfaces and give us a sense of scale. Detail is usually visually interpreted as the contrast between the biggest shapes, and the smallest alterations. We can’t determine how detailed something is if there is no sense of contrast to the scale of elements. The mutual interaction of each element generates the bigger picture.

That’s why this whole project is approached with a layering method, starting from the simplest forms and working additively down to the tiniest details, such as:

  1. Nuts and Bolts, Hinges, Handles, and so on
  2. Vents, Bridges, Panels and Modular Shapes
  3. Larger Mechanical Parts of served function

The first category is the most common and most distributed on the model, while also being the smallest in relative scale. Then onwards, there is a gradation of scale and decrease in density of elements as the numbers progress. The larger the element, the less you want to have of it, in order for the illusion to remain believable. Having too many copy paste insert meshes will be a dead giveaway that you have absolutely no idea why you’re adding some of these objects, other than to serve a more compelling visual story, however I disrespect this approach as truth is always better than visual malice.

I simply don’t recommend lying in your designs unless the project will benefit from your cunning due to an insufficient budget. Still, I have disdain for how cost often becomes a primary goal in production, paralyzing us from pursuing a form of perfection. However, this tutorial is a limited setting so let’s move on with this select approach.

insert meshes mechanical 3d model
Practice of Insert Meshes

Color Masking

The last step in production for this particular pipeline is assessing the different materials that will be included in this model and masking them off, then creating Polygroups and assigning a rough representation of what their colors/materials will look like in the final render. These are some of the following areas we need to define:

  1. Painted Areas
  2. Exposed Metal Areas
  3. Lights / LED
  4. Alternative Paint
  5. Plastic / Rubber
  6. Other

I start off by masking areas that don’t belong to the first category, as they are mostly separated by the paint, so once I Polygroup them, it will become much easier to define the difference. Then, I proceed to hide everything else, and Mask and Polygroup each unique area, as well as assigning a material / color that best represents the look I’m going for.

Being accurate or specific with the color / material does not matter at all, as I will do the materials in rendering software (KeyShot).This only serves the purpose to define the polygroups and to create a rough representation of the colors. These should translate to KeyShot later, so that it’s easier to assign the proper materials.

Fun fact: As our design progresses, the drone evolved into a many-faced creature, now the viewer being able to perceive either the smaller faces on the front, or the bigger face formed by the sum of its parts. An interesting concept that I think I want to go along with. A bit more complex, although I will note that alternatively nothing spells perfection like simplicity with directed and precise function.

wardrone machinery 3d
colour masking 3d model
Applying the Color Masks

Wings of Glory 1

Furthermore, we move on to the wings and engine with the same principles described in the previous steps. Something worth paying attention to is that due to some areas being left unclean in the last tutorial part, I had to model additional parts like the front cushion behind the “head,” and additional cable streams that connect to the rotor engines. Otherwise, pretty much the same Curve Clip, Dam Standard process is used to detail the wings. It’s pretty straightforward but it’s a lot of work.

The same principles of design, logic, and thinking “real,” while also working from all angles and making sure the design and quality is consistent. Why? For no reason whatsoever - you’re a perfectionist, a maniac, and even though most wouldn’t be visible in the final shot, your OCD just won’t allow you to let that go.

On the plus side you can make tons of HQ renders with this model afterwards. If you’re working on a graphic novel or just want to make tons of key art, this model can be of good use. If you weren’t psycho, you’d be stuck to only one shot.

Also, when all angles are covered, the one angle that you need will have that extra depth. Like I said, I don’t like to lie, because lies are shallow, and there’s no story behind them. Story has lots of power.

3d modelling machinery
Wings of Glory

Wings of Glory 2

Like previously shown, I am going to mask the areas that are going to be assigned different material properties, and polygroup them. Then start dividing the group and assigning materials of great resemblance to the look I’m trying to achieve. This process is already explained when you observed the modeling of the head in steps 1-5. A lot of work here is making the right artistic choices, and that comes with trial and error, but it also comes with the knowledge of how to bring out the most. For instance, one thing to focus on is contrast. The biggest purpose of varying the materials in our model is readability and creating contrasts between surfaces of different reflection levels and brightness. This is why utilizing low reflective materials like rubber and soft plastic is great to break the highly reflective areas like paint and metal. This is exactly the purpose of this stage – to bring life to what’s inside the contours of the character.

To push the upper limit of the contrast, we add some LEDs (which also serve a function, so they’re not just for flash), because contrast is ultimately defined by its lightest and darkest points, or by the roughest surface versus the most reflective surface. Pushing these limits to the max gives depth to the perception of your character, and the more layers you can define to it, the larger your character will be in terms of visual impact.

Always look for more layers, like having a bleak character like the run-of-the-mill sci-fi robot and then adding human fashion or consumer elements to it – a colorful scarf, leather bag, an animal companion, or a bandage to tie a broken part. This tells us that there’s more story to the once bleak robot, that the robot has been through a lot and that it has a past in connection to other humans. This opens up our mind and imagination. That’s just a single layer that we can explore. There is always another dimension that you can add to your character. Even mixing organic material with robotic components. Then being subtle about this, you will achieve an instant relatability with your creation. While working on the wing section I changed the color scheme / distribution several times before I got it right. Keep trying until you get to that place of satisfaction. This step also covers the addition of mesh inserts described in step 3. It doesn’t matter in what order you do these two, as new mesh inserts are already assigned a unique polygroup so you can just swap out the materials.

Note that the inner parts of the wings are quite low detail. These areas will NOT be visible for the most part due to the rotor engines, but we still give them just some detail so that certain angles will tell the story. Also some lighting that will tell us, “hey there’s something going on here,” even though we cannot see it.

rotor engines 3d render
wings on robotic wardrone
Finalizing the wings

Gun extensions

It is the same procedure as above with the gun extensions. Note here that one of the important factors to think about when modeling defensive panels and other two-sided elements; always think of how the backside is going to be perceived and what material would be a good design choice. In this case I add padding on the back of the metal sheet.

In order to mask the rear area I use a technique called Backface Masking. If you go to brush settings, then masking, there is an option called Backface Masking that will disable two-sided masking. This way you can select the rear end of the plate easily and assign a specific polygroup / material. I also decide to add some paint on the shields. Two reasons:

  • Blank metal sheets are really boring and would be weak against the rest of the model. We need continuity in design and complexity.
  • The paint acts as a point of contrast that draws attention to the viewer. Humans aren’t bulls, but that harsh red would certainly affect aim in the heat of battle due to our natural tendencies to focus to contrasted areas. Meaning fewer bullets actually hit the weapon. Now do I have substantial research behind this idea? No. But it sure sounds like good reasoning and I’m sure it would actually affect aim.

On the contrary, I must admit that the way the paint radiates from the center almost like a target dummy there could possibly have the opposite effect, but I’ll leave that to the experts. If this was a longer project, I would most certainly Google this and study this phenomenon, and now that I’ve come to the topic and I might do it anyway. A good way to learn is to Google things whenever they cross your mind. This way it never feels like a hassle.

gun extensions wardrone 3d
Gun extensions

Gun mount

Not going to lie, I went back and did a bit of remodeling on the gun mount as I did not like how it was looking. I went ahead and deleted everything but the case and started layering the details via the Dam Standard and Curve clip and then masking out the materials, this time doing everything as a single motion.

Everything else is simple manipulation of IMM Model Kit and Spaceship inserts and the bullets are from the Army Curve brush set. I made the gun as functional as possible in the limited time environment. Now it’s looking like a proper auto-gun.

You can see how all the little contrasts, all the little gimmicks, are now wonderfully adding up to make this model vibrant and interesting instead of dull. It looks more like something that could be assembled by human technicians instead of a movie prop. All these little LEDs, components, cables, different colors, and unique components contribute to this.

gun mount components 3d model
gun mount pespectives 3d
Assembling the gun mount

The Final Boss

Your palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy. You have vomit on your sweater from eating Mom’s spaghetti – and from being a nerd and eating in front of your computer. The bread crumbs are stuck in your keyboard, but you need more. Your arms are sore; pray to the lord, you can’t take it anymore.

Masking, painting, clipping – you’re fainting. This work is sometimes too much but you’re still faithful. One day you will become Hokage. You WILL turn Super-saiyan, well at least that’s what you’re sayin’ – to yourself in the mirror. Well I can’t hear ya, show me the work, stop Googling pictures of CG Robert De Niro.

You want to be a hero? Like CG Big Hero… the movie about the fat blob? Well, stop being a fat slob. Put in the work, make that wrist do the motion. Once you start, then it’s all locomotion, but don’t get lost in the zone – you might still break a bone. Carpel tunnel is no fun, no more fun than modeling a colt gun. So don’t clown, but let’s get back to Eminem. Yet, you keep on forgetting what I wrote down, this whole tutorial goes so loud, you open ZBrush, but the work won’t come out, you’re choking now, You’re done poking now, throw away the tablet, time’s up, it’s over now.


We’re still working on finishing the model. Sigh…

zbrush finishing model 3d
No words are necessary – you got the basics down

In anticipation of greatness

This is what it has come to. Your beast model is finished but what is a model without a story? Nobody cares about your ZBrush doodle, except your art friends. You want to make a difference? Make something that matters to everyone. So let’s move on to making this model into something tangible, something that anyone can understand, let’s make it into art.

Part 3 will be all about taking the model from this stage and using all of the foundational layers we set up and turning it into a final piece of art. You will learn techniques that give you complete control over how this model will look, and you can hold that power to decide just how you want to present it.

We won’t be looking for a super clean result – this isn’t a Rolex ad – we will make it dirty, and gritty and, simply put – real. Stay tuned here at 3dtotal.com.

zbrush war drone 3d model
zbrush war drone 3d model
Final image

Top tip - Patience and coffee

Repetitive detailing work can sometimes be a real drag as you keep on going through the same exact motions but on different parts of the model. Try drinking a cup of coffee or a bottle of coke – time flies on caffeine! Just don’t get too excited – remember, you still have to make good decisions.

Make sure to read chapter one of this tutorial "Wardrones: 3D illustration techniques (part 1) – conceptualization & basic modeling". Part three coming soon...

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