Annina Weber talks about the story behind the mysterious man with an intense stare, explains how every piece of the portrait was sculpted, and discusses the importance of spending a good amount of time on perfecting facial anatomy when it comes to character art.
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My name is Annina Weber and I’m from Stuttgart, Germany. I grew up loving Pixar and Marvel movies, art and spending time exploring stuff on my computer. Finding out that these things could be combined in a career, was the best day of my life. I fell into the rabbit hole of studying CG & VFX in 2018 and it’s still going. The more I learn the more I want to know.
In 2020, I got my Bachelor’s degree in Visual Effects & 3D Animation at SAE Institute Stuttgart, which was a great start, especially having been taught some Houdini (great software). However, I really wanted to get into character art. This is why I started my training at Think Tank Online where I am currently studying the Character Path of Asset Creation for Film in the Advanced term.
Working on the Remembrance Project
I knew I had 5 weeks to create a piece of character art. This limited me in my search for concepts because scope-wise a full character was out of the question. Scrolling through ArtStation I found a piece called "A Dark Glance" by Sam Hogg, and it drew me in because it told an emotional story without using words. That’s what I wanted to recreate, the feeling of familiarity, a contrast between warm tones and a dark expression.
To find references, I looked for actors who had similar facial features to what I was looking for in my project. It can be really helpful to stick to just one person as a reference but I wasn’t going for a likeness so I allowed myself more freedom.
I was looking for references to cover every part of the concept, to have at least a rough idea of what I was going for before starting. For example, to get a good feeling for clothing details I used this great website to look up costume references. Then, when I started working on a particular piece, I looked for one key reference image that was exactly what I wanted to build.
My concept wasn’t very clear on things like what kind of fabric the character is wearing, what the colors and patterns are, what his jewelry is made out of, etc. This required some research about what culture, country, and customs he could be coming from because I wanted it to feel rooted in reality.
Sculpting a face takes time. And for me, it often wasn’t a linear path until I was happy with the result. Humans know faces really well, so it has to look right. At the same time, knowing something looks wrong with the sculpt and knowing what exactly to fix are two different things.
The first and most important step is to get the proportions of the face in order. Eyes should roughly be in the middle of the head, an eye should fit between the eyes. Of course, every face is different but using those rules is a good starting point.
Sculpting the secondary facial shapes shouldn’t be skipped. Along with the bony landmarks of the face, muscles, fat, and skin folds, they are what really makes the face look human. Pore details, scars, and tiny wrinkles are fun to add but they’re just the icing on the cake.
A challenge that came up while setting up the expression was that I wanted him to look sad and contemplative, rather than angry. I kept his mouth and nose area neutral so it wouldn’t turn into a sneer and just changed the expression around his eyes to give him a frown. A lot of the expression also comes from the pose that he’s in, in combination with the lighting from the top to hollow out his eyes and having him look up and to the side.
Designing the Outfit
Turbans have a deceptively simple pattern to them as they’re basically just fabric straps. I was lucky to find some pattern reference thanks to a Marvelous Designer contest where a project with a turban was the winner.
The workflow for this involved a lot of pinning fabric straps in place, dealing with intersecting fabric, and hiding the ends. I still had to move them around in ZBrush but that was easy, thanks to the Polygroups by UV option and the Move Topological Brush.
The pattern of the shawl was quite uncomplicated as well, as it’s just a hemmed rectangle that was pinned into the shape I wanted.
Adding the Jewelry
I’m a big fan of the ZBrush Dynamics tab ever since it was added, there are just so many ways to use it. In this project, I used it to create the chains around the turban and those hanging from the cloth. For that, I masked the ends of a cylinder, then made them hang with expansion and just a bit of gravity. From those cylinders, I extracted a polygroup and framed that with a curve chain brush. The curve brush I used is from BadKing.
For the gemstones, I cut some dynamesh cylinders into shape with the trim curve and then remeshed them. They should have had a pretty high resolution for the next step, which was the solid shatter from Maya’s FX tab. I used a high edge jagginess so that the light would have many pieces to refract on. This tool has a tendency to crash, especially with many pieces, so make sure to save before using it.
Creating the Hair
The character’s hair is split into 5 descriptions: eyebrows, eyelashes, upper beard, lower beard, and long hair. Most of the descriptions have 2 or 3 layers of clumping, and specifically in the beard and long hair descriptions, I added noise and curl effects in the clumping modifier itself.
On top of those modifiers, I added more general noise and a random cut modifier to break up the form and blend the clumps with the following expression:
The beard was split into two parts so that each part could have different strength modifiers. This way I also didn’t need to paint any region maps, which saved some time.
For the shading I used a mix of the V-Ray hair shader presets, such as sandy blond, ginger, and auburn for the darker shades in the beard. His eyelashes are quite long but not dark enough to stand out, they’re just there to catch some light.
I had a lot of fun here, trying different shaders, seeing what works and what doesn’t. I had spent so much time with this character already, I wanted to see all the possibilities.
I found XGen a bit difficult to work with, since I experienced a few too many Maya crashes, so finding out about the .vrscene cache was amazing. It saves not only the hairstyle but also the shader, and on top of that renders much faster than the XGen descriptions themselves. This way I could save different versions and have backups of all parts of the groom.
In one instance the beard just turned completely black as if it wasn’t receiving any shading or lighting information. In those moments I was really glad to have had a cached file that worked without issues. XGen is a great tool but still, every safety net is appreciated.
For the peach fuzz of the face, I used the same workflow as Vadim Sorici did in this article. It worked quite well, I loved being able to delete single hairs or patches without having to change any guides or maps. It is important to remember since it is actual geometry, the scene can get a bit heavy.
I used the same workflow on some stray hairs around the eyebrows and added more stubble on the cheeks and around his mouth.
Texturing and Lookdev
The fastest and most convenient way to get a good start of the face texture was to use ZWrap with a Multichannel face from Texturing.xyz. There’s a great tutorial on their website that shows the workflow. This way the sculpted skin detail matches the projected texture and it just feels great to have a base for Substance Painter.
I made several skin tileables from the same Texturing.xyz albedo texture, extracted from the cheek, forehead, neck, and stubble. Then it took a lot of layering of the skin features in Substance Painter. It’s quite fascinating how detailed and versatile real skin is, so I wasn’t too held back going overboard, especially because the SSS shader in V-Ray tends to blur the textures a bit.
Here’s the breakdown of the base color:
1. Blended skin tileables
2. ZWrap projection
3. Color Variation from baked maps (AO, curvature, cavity, thickness)
4. Face undertones
5. Color correction & handpaint
6. Redness, veins, arteries
7. Freckles & sun spots
8. Tattoos (tinted & blurred)
9. Bruised eye makeup
10. Scars, eyeliner, blackheads, more details from baked maps
Here are all the channels from Substance Painter:
1. Base Color
3. Normal + Height + Mesh
5. Cavity Map (important for the skin shader in Maya)
6. Mask for detail Normal Map
I used a V-Ray AI Surface to create the skin shader in Maya. It has three slots for the different levels of subsurface scattering but creating only one oversaturated map in Substance Painter and grading it for each slot in Maya worked well.
For the very fine skin unevenness I added a normal detail map with the grayscale mask, it’s a very subtle change but it’s worth it, especially for close-up renders.
The cavity map was used to make the insides of the pores less shiny than the regular skin because the light just scatters inside the pore.
Working on the Eyes
This is the shader of the eyeball, opaque on the outside, with a see-through radial ramp in the middle to show the iris behind it.
For the iris itself, I used an iris pack from Texturing.xyz, which comes with textures, geo, and displacement maps. They’re easy to set up and add so much detail.
There are ways to customize almost every crevice of the iris with the different masks but I was already happy with a blend of the green and brown texture that I made in Photoshop. Here are a few different blends (on the right) compared to the green one (on the left). I chose the top one.
Creating the Clothes
The clothing is a lot more lookdev-heavy than the actual texturing work, especially the shawl around his neck, for which I only made maps for the height, opacity, normal detail, and a mask for dirt.
I started with a red velvet preset as a base and changed the sheen to an orange color. The red velvet preset is one of the shaders that looks pretty on its own, but it needed more layers for the scarf to become a run-down pirate garment.
The texture I made in Substance Painter was for a lacy green material that matched the displacement on the shawl, so layering it with the orange velvet gave me some good variety in color and shimmer.
The turban actually has a green sheen to it even though it’s made out of orange fabric. It worked better in combination with the shawl. Here the sheen is visible in the specular render element.
To make the cloth even more cloth-like I added fuzz with short XGen guides all over, which had some noise and cut modifiers to them. The shirt has fuzz too but it’s only visible on the edges because the normal direction matches the cloth. This was done by transferring the vertex normal attribute.
I was lucky enough to find a fitting HDRI of a museum, that had a comfortable warm atmosphere to it, that I could use as a soft fill light and also as a background image after grading and blurring it in Nuke.
One light is placed directly in front of the character's eyes to reflect not only in his eyes but also the shiny extra geo that makes the eyes seem wet (blue arrow in the picture below). I parented the lights to the turning geo so the reflections wouldn’t move in the turntable.
The rest of the lighting is pretty straightforward. There’s a warm key light coming mostly from the top, that accentuates the dark colors around his face. This, combined with his high cheekbones gives a reference to a skull shape. There’s a very warm fill light coming from the direction he’s looking in and a neutral rim light behind his shoulder.
There’s no magic involved when it comes to making an image come together but LUTs are as close as it gets. In my case I used the "Drop Blues" color lookup in Photoshop, here’s a comparison between the rendered image and the LUT applied to it:
The most challenging part of this project was going from a model that had all aspects done to a final image that I was happy with. I try to schedule extra time for this part. There’s a lot of trial and error, looking at the screen from afar, taking a break, getting a new perspective, and listening to feedback involved.
My advice is to spend more time on the face than you think you need, facial anatomy is tricky to get right. Find a few people who you trust to give good feedback. I’d like to thank my supervisor Magnus Skagerlund here for never leaving a question I had unanswered.
Take enough time to present your art well.
There is no one right way to create a project. There is a set of rules to make sure your project fits into a production pipeline, make sure you stick to those. But don’t be afraid to experiment, that wild idea might just look awesome.