ZBrush base mesh generation for beginners

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This first project will guide you through the creation of a stylized fantasy character called Kyra. ZBrush sculpting is renowned for its resemblance to clay modeling, and that is the type of quintessential ZBrush process we will be learning here: building up the design piece by piece, with a focus on sculpting simple shapes informed by strong core principles of character design. Though the emphasis will be on creating an "organic" subject, the project will also introduce you to some "hard-surface" modeling techniques to create weapons and accessories, which will prime your skills for creating more pronounced hard-surface elements in the next chapter.

Step 01: The concept

Image 01a shows the 2D concept we will work from in this project - a brave dragon slayer named Kyra. As this is the first project in the book, we will work with a design that is simple to translate into 3D, with a focus on anatomy and readability.

Our objective will be to sculpt a female character with a distinctive and appealing design that tells a story. Sculpting is exciting, but understanding design principles and fundamentals is also valuable, because ultimately it is our mindset that will allow us to create characters no matter what software we use. With that in mind, image 01b shows the key design choices considered in the concept so you can take these forward when you move on to creating your own character at a later stage. The line of action shown in green indicates the gesture of the pose and distribution of the character's weight. Straight versus curved lines, and complex versus simple lines, are indicated in orange and red, respectively; using contrast between areas of "visual rest" versus "visual interest" creates a stronger design. Thick to thin lines are shown in blue. Tapered shapes
as opposed to parallel lines add interest and direct the viewer's gaze; parallels are boring to the human eye.

Step 02: Anatomy breakdown

To help us visualize what we will be building in ZBrush, it is useful to identify the character's anatomy in an image-editing software such as Photoshop by separating it with different colors for the different parts. We will be building everything with primitive shapes, especially the base mesh, so this stage helps us to separate the main elements and keep an eye on proportions. It is not necessary to do this every time but, especially when starting out, it helps to visualize things much more clearly before jumping into ZBrush.

01a The 2D concept for the character

01a The 2D concept for the character

01b Key visual markers to pay attention to

01b Key visual markers to pay attention to

01c Break down the anatomy into parts

01c Break down the anatomy into parts

Step 03: SubTools breakdown

Another thing that is useful to do before we start sculpting is to separate the concept into parts - different colors - to help us see what we will end up with as a final result in terms of SubTools inside ZBrush. For example the hair will be a single SubTool, the jacket will be another, and so on. Planning things ahead and separating the parts with different colors means that when we begin sculpting, we know that we will have X number of parts to take care of, and we can address them in an orderly fashion. This will help to keep us focused, as we will know exactly what we are going to build and in what order.

Plan separate SubTools ahead of time

Plan separate SubTools ahead of time

Step 04: Starting the base mesh

Now we can open ZBrush and start building our base mesh. We will start with the torso and keep things simple, so we do not have to worry about exact proportions straight away. Instead, our concern at this stage is to get something on the screen so that we can then address the character in individual parts (according to our concept and references) once we have built the entire base mesh. Drag a 3D sphere (A in image 04a) out into the workspace by going to the Tool menu, clicking the large icon, and selecting Sphere3D from the list. To make the sphere sculptable, check that you are in Edit mode and click Tool > Make PolyMesh3D.

Press the X key to turn on Symmetry, then select the Move brush from the Brush menu. Make sure the Draw Size is bigger than the sphere, and make sure you can see the two red symmetry markers on opposite sides of the sphere. Start pushing the clay inwards with the Move brush to produce the shape shown in part B of image 04a. Left-clicking will allow you to drag the geometry around; Alt + LMB will move the geometry straight up or straight down from the surface of the object; Shift + LMB will smooth over any rough edges. There will be plenty of opportunity for you to become familiar with this sequence of tools, as we will be using it to build up the whole base of the body. We can also use the hPolish brush to establish flatter planes where the other body parts will connect (C). In image 04b you can see an additional three-quarter, profile, and back views of the rib cage. I will show you as many views as possible of each part in this project, because it is only through constant rotation and evaluation of your model that you will start to memorize shapes, see irregularities on the form, and keep yourself honest about your object of study. Use Move and Rotate modes with the Transpose line to view your mesh as you shape it. You can use the W and Q keys to quickly switch between Move and Draw modes. Don't focus solely on one angle or view - by the time you rotate it, the chances are it will look nothing like what you are trying to sculpt. It helps to visualize the rib cage as more or less a bean-like shape in profile, and closer to an egg shape when viewed from the front.

Front view: Use the Move brush to shape a Sphere3D into the base form of the rib cage

Front view: Use the Move brush to shape a Sphere3D into the base form of the rib cage


Three-quarter view

Three-quarter view


Profile view

Profile view

Rear view

Rear view

Step 05: The pelvis

The rest of the base mesh will be added to this SubTool using mainly the Insert mesh brushes and Transpose tool. I use the InsertSphere brush for the pelvis, though you could also use InsertCube; I just prefer the sphere since it has a bit more topology to move around and it deforms slightly better. Reduce the Draw Size and select the InsertSphere brush from the Brush menu. Drag the sphere out from the bottom of the rib cage.

After inserting the primitive shape, the rib cage will automatically be masked off (A in image 05a), allowing you to position the pelvis easily: enter Move mode to activate the Transpose line, then use the central white ring to move the pelvis into place (B). Then use the Move and hPolish brushes to shape it into the slightly deformed box shape that the pelvis resembles in its simplest form (C).

In images 05a-05d you can see front, three-quarter, profile, and back views of the pelvis being placed and sculpted. You will notice in the profile and back views that I have created a hint of the gluteus and its placement. There are also flatter planes on the sides of the pelvis, to suggest where we will insert the thighs later. Even though we are just blocking out the really basic shapes, it is fine to give a hint of other forms here and there where you see fit. This is where a familiarity with anatomy is useful.

Front view: An overview of placing and sculpting the pelvis from a front view

Front view: An overview of placing and sculpting the pelvis from a front view


Three-quarter view: Do not forget to rotate your mesh to ensure it is placed and shaped correctly

Three-quarter view: Do not forget to rotate your mesh to ensure it is placed and shaped correctly


Profile view: Note that the rough shape of the gluteus has been blocked out

Profile view: Note that the rough shape of the gluteus has been blocked out


Rear view: A rear view of the pelvis being placed and sculpted

Rear view: A rear view of the pelvis being placed and sculpted

Step 06: Completing the torso

Now let's introduce the big mass that connects the rib cage and the pelvis, using the same techniques as before: adding new geometry with the InsertSphere brush, and then using the Move brush to attain the right shape. Again, you will find that the rest of the SubTool will be safely masked off when we place a new InsertSphere, allowing us to move and sculpt it without disturbing the other parts we have made so far. As you can see in images 06a-06d, we can start from a smaller sphere and then stretch it out to fill the space between the rib cage and pelvis.

This particular mass will include both the abdominal muscles as well as some of the back muscles, so getting it right is a big step in creating a well-designed torso for our character. You can see where I have selected the pelvis again (see how to do this in the Pro Tip below) and moved it up slightly to create a stronger form.

Front view: Use the same process as before to insert and shape the mid-section of the torso

Front view: Use the same process as before to insert and shape the mid-section of the torso


Three-quarter view: Note how this mid-section flows between the forms of the rib cage and the pelvis

Three-quarter view: Note how this mid-section flows between the forms of the rib cage and the pelvis


Profile view: Check in a profile view to ensure that this part has an organic, appealing flow

Profile view: Check in a profile view to ensure that this part has an organic, appealing flow

Rear view: From behind, you can clearly see where the pelvis has been moved upwards

Rear view: From behind, you can clearly see where the pelvis has been moved upwards

Step 07: The thighs

The thighs will sit on the side planes of the pelvis that were carved previously using the hPolish brush. Both the thigh and the lower leg are two large masses that are useful to add in as fast as possible in order to have a clear view of the size of the character. We are still using the same techniques: adding with the InsertSphere brush, moving things into place with the Transpose tool, and creating shape with the Move brush. This time, however, activate Symmetry with the X key to place two spheres at the same time (A in image 07a). In Move mode, use the red inner ring at the end of the Transpose line to stretch the spheres into two ovals (B). Then adjust their placement with the white central ring. Use the Move brush to add some hints of shape to the thighs, but not detailed anatomy (C). The major masses should be our focus at this stage.

Front view: Use Symmetry to place identical thighs

Front view: Use Symmetry to place identical thighs


Three-quarter view: A three-quarter view of the thighs being placed and sculpted. Note the subtle final shape

Three-quarter view: A three-quarter view of the thighs being placed and sculpted. Note the subtle final shape

Profile view: A profile view of the thighs being placed and sculpted

Profile view: A profile view of the thighs being placed and sculpted

Rear view: A rear view of the thighs being placed and sculpted

Rear view: A rear view of the thighs being placed and sculpted

Step 08: Lower legs

Looking at anatomy references can be intimidating because they have so much detail, but any complex shape can be broken down into simplified ones. To block out the lower legs as shown in images 08a-08d, simply use the Transpose tool to duplicate the thighs (hold Ctrl while dragging on one of the smaller inner rings), and then move them into place with the central white ring. Then use the Move brush to shape the legs accordingly.

Front view: Duplicate the thighs with Transpose to quickly block out the lower legs

Front view: Duplicate the thighs with Transpose to quickly block out the lower legs


Three-quarter view: Sculpt the lower legs into a more suitable shape with the Move brush

Three-quarter view: Sculpt the lower legs into a more suitable shape with the Move brush

Profile view: A profile view of the lower legs being placed and sculpted

Profile view: A profile view of the lower legs being placed and sculpted

Rear view: A rear view of the legs. Note the subtle sculpted shapes of the calves

Rear view: A rear view of the legs. Note the subtle sculpted shapes of the calves

Step 09: The shoulders

The form of the shoulder is basically created by the deltoid muscle, which is roughly heart- or triangle-shaped. The broad side of the shape is facing up and out (towards the neck) and its narrow edge points down (towards the arm). Its purpose is to serve as a union of the arm with the torso.

As we did for the thighs, activate Symmetry with the X key, use the InsertSphere brush, and then use the Transpose tool and Move brush to place and sculpt the triangular deltoid shape.

Front view: Add two more spheres and use the Move brush to form them into the shoulders

Front view: Add two more spheres and use the Move brush to form them into the shoulders


Three-quarter view: A three-quarter view of the shoulders being placed and sculpted

Three-quarter view: A three-quarter view of the shoulders being placed and sculpted


Profile view: In this profile view, you can easily make out the rough teardrop shape of the simplified deltoid muscle

Profile view: In this profile view, you can easily make out the rough teardrop shape of the simplified deltoid muscle

Rear view: A rear view of the shoulders being placed and sculpted

Rear view: A rear view of the shoulders being placed and sculpted

Step 10: Upper arms

Use the same process as we did for the thighs to create the upper arms. Activate Symmetry, use the InsertSphere brush to block out the upper part of the arm, and then use the Transpose tool in Move and Rotate mode to elongate them into more or less cylindrical shapes that are positioned underneath the deltoids we made in the previous step. The upper arms should taper slightly towards the forearm and have more volume in the triceps and biceps area, but again, this should only be a simple block-out. We will move on to anatomy, proper volumes, and plane breaks later.

Front view: Place spheres underneath the deltoids and stretch them with Transpose to form the base upper arms

Front view: Place spheres underneath the deltoids and stretch them with Transpose to form the base upper arms


Three-quarter view: In this three-quarter view, you can more clearly see how the deltoid and upper arm fit neatly together when moved into place

Three-quarter view: In this three-quarter view, you can more clearly see how the deltoid and upper arm fit neatly together when moved into place

Profile view: Use the Transpose tool in Rotate mode to achieve a better placement of the cylinders we stretched out

Profile view: Use the Transpose tool in Rotate mode to achieve a better placement of the cylinders we stretched out

Rear view: A back view of the upper arms and how they fit together with the deltoids

Rear view: A back view of the upper arms and how they fit together with the deltoids

Step 11: The forearms

In its most simplistic form, the forearm can be considered as two boxes. However, when connected and with all the other layers that go on top (muscle, fat, and so on) it almost resembles a cylinder. So, as we did with the thighs and lower legs, we are going to use the recently created form of the upper arm to create the lower arm. Press the X key for Symmetry. Use the Transpose tool with Move selected, and press Ctrl while dragging one of the smaller inner rings to duplicate the upper arms. Then move these into place with the white central ring.

It is not necessary to sculpt and edit the forearms very much. For now, and until we finish the base mesh, it is all about having the basic shapes in place to start working.

Front view: Use the Transpose line to duplicate the upper arms and move them into place as the forearms

Front view: Use the Transpose line to duplicate the upper arms and move them into place as the forearms


Three-quarter view: The duplicated arm meshes will need to be moved forward slightly

Three-quarter view: The duplicated arm meshes will need to be moved forward slightly


Profile view: Moving the arms into place

Profile view: Moving the arms into place

Rear view: A rear view of the arms being duplicated and moved into position

Rear view: A rear view of the arms being duplicated and moved into position

Step 12: The neck

This stage is very simple and scarcely requires any editing. The base neck mesh is made with an InsertCylinder brush, which can be accessed through the Brush menu like the InsertSphere brush we have been using so far. Place this cylinder, adjust its length with the Transpose tool in Move mode if needed, then adjust its angle slightly using Rotate mode to make it more upright.

Front view: Use the InsertCylinder brush to add a very simple placeholder neck

Front view: Use the InsertCylinder brush to add a very simple placeholder neck


Three-quarter view: Use the Transpose tools to adjust the length and angle of the neck to something more natural

Three-quarter view: Use the Transpose tools to adjust the length and angle of the neck to something more natural

Profile view: Create a more upright posture for the neck with Transpose

Profile view: Create a more upright posture for the neck with Transpose

Rear view: A rear view of the neck being placed and adjusted

Rear view: A rear view of the neck being placed and adjusted

Step 13: The head

The head is complex because it has many plane breaks and very precise proportions. We spend most of our time looking at other people's heads, so it is very easy to look at a sculpt and "feel" that something is not quite right. Look for additional references to solidify your knowledge here. Place a sphere on top of the neck using the InsertSphere brush, then turn on Symmetry and carefully use the Move brush to sculpt the rough forms of the head. Keep the back of the skull as round as possible, with only some minor adjustments, and use the Move brush to pull down the jaw and define some of the basic planes of the face. You may find it helpful to use a planar reference for this task.

Front view: Shape the base mesh of the head from a simple sphere

Front view: Shape the base mesh of the head from a simple sphere


Three-quarter view: Here you can see how some planes of the skull are suggested with the Move brush

Three-quarter view: Here you can see how some planes of the skull are suggested with the Move brush

Profile view: The Move brush is used to pull down the shape of the lower jaw

Profile view: The Move brush is used to pull down the shape of the lower jaw

Rear view: The back of the skull is not adjusted very much, apart from some subtle flattening at the sides

Rear view: The back of the skull is not adjusted very much, apart from some subtle flattening at the sides

Step 14: The feet

Our feet have the difficult function of bearing the weight of our bodies. As such, the foot has the same structure for everyone but has a great variety of subtle forms that vary from person to person, especially when it is settled on the ground. If you look up George Bridgman's illustrations of the foot, he deconstructs the complex forms into a couple of basic shapes we can recreate inside ZBrush. Again, find additional references - even take pictures of your own feet - to aid you during sculpting. Although Bridgman divides the foot into two rough shapes, we can simply turn on Symmetry and use the InsertSphere brush to add a sphere. Then use the Move brush to roughly achieve the intended shape. I also like to flatten the sole of the foot (although it is definitely not flat in reality) during the initial sculpting stages. You can use the ClipCurve brush to do this, holding Ctrl + Shift and dragging the line over the area you would like to delete. The angle of the line indicates in which direction the mesh will be clipped, and depends on whether you drag the line from the left or right.

Front view: Use the Move brush to pull out the spheres of the feet, and optionally the ClipCurve brush to flatten the sole

Front view: Use the Move brush to pull out the spheres of the feet, and optionally the ClipCurve brush to flatten the sole


Three-quarter view: A three-quarter view of the feet being sculpted into position

Three-quarter view: A three-quarter view of the feet being sculpted into position

Profile view: In this profile view, you can more clearly see how the side and heel of the foot are shaped

Profile view: In this profile view, you can more clearly see how the side and heel of the foot are shaped

Rear view: This rear view of the foot shows the heel being shaped, and the results of flattening the soles with the ClipCurve brush

Rear view: This rear view of the foot shows the heel being shaped, and the results of flattening the soles with the ClipCurve brush

Step 15: The hands

Hands are probably every artist's Achilles' heel. It is so easy to get them wrong! It helps to imagine them as simple cubes (or cubes and cylinders), but at this point we are only going to add a simple sphere using the InsertSphere brush. Do this with Symmetry turned on to create both hands, and then use the Move brush to shape the masses of the hand and add the hint of a thumb.

Front view: The hands start as simple spheres

Front view: The hands start as simple spheres


Three-quarter view: The Move brush is used to flatten the hand slightly and add the suggestion of a thumb

Three-quarter view: The Move brush is used to flatten the hand slightly and add the suggestion of a thumb

Profile view: A profile view of the hand being placed and shaped with the Move brush

Profile view: A profile view of the hand being placed and shaped with the Move brush

Rear view: Note the very simple flattened and curved shapes of the resulting base hands

Rear view: Note the very simple flattened and curved shapes of the resulting base hands

See the rest of this tutorial inside Beginner's guide to ZBrush

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