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Breakdown: Realistic Girl Knight Portrait Recreated With ZBrush & Mari

3D Character Artist Mikhail Pak provided a step-by-step Young Knight breakdown, explaining how a stylized 2D concept was recreated in realism in 3D with ZBrush, Maya, Mari, Substance 3D Painter, and Arnold, sharing valuable tips and resources for other character artists.


Hi everyone, my name is Mikhail Pak, I am a 3D Character Artist who is very passionate about look development and realism. I have always been curious about how CGI videos are created, especially game cinematics, and after a little research, I decided to try my first 3D software – ZBrush.

Most of my knowledge comes from watching a lot of tutorials and practicing after. I also completed a Diploma program at the Think Tank Training Centre in Vancouver. I've done a few personal works in the past, but this is the one I put the most time and attention into, trying to use all the knowledge I have.

This is the project I did for my mentorship at TTTC, based on the concept by the incredible Toraji. I want to say thank you to my mentor Adam O'Donnell, who helped me through the whole process, as well as Alfred Mathiue for the final feedback, and Mohamed Banni for the help and support.

Young Knight Project

I really liked the elegance of the concept and that it can show off everything starting from modeling to shading skills.

Before starting, I made a big PureRef file with all the references I needed for the props, face, hair, etc. Here is an example of a small part of the file:


I started with the face since I think it is the most important aspect of a great-looking character. If you are going for a realistic look, I would suggest finding someone from real life who resembles the concept and using them as a reference. For this project, I used actress Kristine Froseth as my main face reference and made a basic likeness of her to capture the natural feel of the face and anatomy.

To do that, I used ZBrush Spotlight and tried matching my sculpt to the images. You can find a great tutorial from Adam here:

After achieving a basic likeness, I adjusted the sculpt to look like the concept and polished it. I will still make changes in the shading stage, but I want a solid base for now before wrapping.

Body & Props Blockout

I did my blockouts in ZBrush. The goal was to have everything that is in the concept in the scene with the right proportions. This stage is very important since I model most of the final props based on the blockout. Here is a picture of an early study of a blockout:

After the blockout, I started simulating clothes. For this project, most of the garments are very simple so I don't think it needs explanation.

When I was happy with the simulation I did retopology inside Marvelous Designer with their topology tool and finalized it in Maya. You can check a basic tutorial for retopology in Marvelous Designer here:

When I had my clothes with the correct topology, I subdivided them in ZBrush and sculpted them until I was satisfied with the result. As a final touch, I added wrinkles tileable map using Surface Noise in ZBrush.

Here is an example of using Surface Noise on a cylinder:


Firstly, I modeled the main shapes of the helmet in Maya. I wanted it to have great proportions before I started adding details. When I was happy with the proportions I used Quad Draw to model bases for the ornaments, and then finished them using the usual Maya modeling tools.

As for the ornaments like flowers, I modeled petals in Maya and made custom ZBrush insert mesh brushes, using them, I built a flower that I attached to the helmet after.

For tileable ornaments, I used the ZBrush Surface function.

When I was happy with how the pattern was placed on the mesh, I used MaskByNoise and Inflate in the deformation tab.

Chest Piece

On top of the blockout, I used Quad Draw to make a base for the armor piece. In this stage, I only care about proportions. After I had the base, I just modeled it in Maya.

When I had the mesh with the correct topo, I subdivided it in Zbrush and painted a mask for all the ornaments by hand. I know this is not the most efficient way to do it, but for this project, I wanted the best result. After I finished painting my mask, I used Inflate in the deformation tab. A cool trick is that you can play with blurring and shrinking the mask or reverse to see what kind of extrusion you want (more soft or sharp).

For the repetitive ornament, I created a custom brush. To make it I sculpted the pattern I needed on the plane and then extracted an alpha from it using MRGBZGrabber in 2.5D brushes. After that, I used this alpha on a Standard brush and enabled Roll in the stroke modifiers.

I don't think other props need explanation since I used the same methods for modeling and detailing. Usually, it is either starting from scratch in Maya or Quad Drawing on top of my blockout, depending on the mesh, and after that finalizing it in ZBrush.


First, I set up a neutral environment scene in Aces, using the Macbeth chart to adjust the lighting to the neutral values. This way your textures won't be affected by the intensity of the light or for example color from the HDRI.

I wrapped Vface textures to my sculpt with R3DS Wrap and set up displacement and roughness with the maps from Vface, you can see tutorials on the TexturingXYZ YouTube channel here:

In this stage, I started to change my Albedo map in Mari, fixing imperfections, grading, and painting on top of the map to match it more to the concept. I still keep changing my sculpt going back and forward from ZBush to rendering to changing maps in Mari and tweaking the shader.

I think rendering and looking for ways to improve your work is the best approach to achieving a good result.

My shader is pretty simple when it comes to maps. For this project, I tried making the shading process more procedural using as few maps as I could, so in the end I only had two – Albedo and Displacement.

I adjusted the roughness with the Vface setup that converts Disp to Roughness. This way you have a lot of control: I can just change how glossy the skin is on multiple areas like cheeks, lips, forehead, etc., and the same applies to the intensity of the displacement. Here is a screenshot of my shader settings.:

My eyeball is also simple. I used 2 meshes: the first is the sclera, the second is the iris. In the shader, I used Transmission ramp in the middle of the sclera to reveal the iris. I think the most important setting is enabling Caustic in the Advanced tab, that way your eyeball is going to catch the light inside.

Next is texturing metals. I used mainly Substance 3D Painter to texture my props and Mari to project some imperfections.

I think the most important part here is to gather a realistic reference of the metal you want to replicate. A lot of museum websites have nice armor references. I look at the reference and try to copy it starting from big details to small.

In my opinion, when it comes to raw metals, roughness and proper shader are the most important things. Albedo doesn't play the first role in this type of material. I always go back and forth between rendering and texturing software to check the result.

As for the satin, here is a screenshot of my shader. I think Anisotropy is the main setting that gives it effect of the satin. I also used an Ailayer shader and painted a mask to add the dirt on top of the satin.

Next is velvet. For this shader, I also used Ailayer shader, but this time mixing light and dark velvet and using a tileable map that I created in Substance 3D Painter as a mask. Sheen is the main setting that gives it the effect of the velvet.

I don't think other shaders and textures need explanation since I use the same methods – just trying to replicate realistic references as much as I can, starting from big details to small ones. Hair was done in XGen, I only use basic techniques – just placing guides and playing
with the modifiers until the desired result.


For the rendering, I just tried multiple lighting setups, changing the background, color, and the intensity of the light, I think it is a process of trying and seeing what works the best. Here are two setups I tried before I found the final one:


That was a very fun project to make. What I learned the most is to keep pushing it until you can't think of anything to fix or improve. This way your artistic eye will progress with each project.

Thanks 80 Level, it was a pleasure.

Mikhail Pak, 3D Character Artist

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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