For a little while now every so often I’ll take an afternoon or (if I really get into the zone) a weekend to spend some time working on small projects I’ve set for myself to practice and improve my skills in particular areas of my CGI work. Often when I’m working on reconstruction projects I can’t afford the luxury of spending hours refining every tiny detail or experimenting with settings and techniques, so these wee side projects are a way for me to refine my creative practice and learn new skills. I thought I’d share one of the projects I’ve been working on for a while now, I was keen to get to grips with character modelling and texturing from scratch so I began work on a portrait. At the time I started the portrait I’d been reading a bit about the Mesolithic site of Star Carr so I decided to base the project around a Mesolithic theme. I should say, the portrait itself isn’t necessarily supposed to reflect any specific site or any particular body of evidence for dress, it was just a training exercise really and took inspiration from a lot of different sources, not all of them archaeological…
I began as always by compiling a collection of images from a range of sources, some archaeological, some ethnographical, some for the sake of art and others for CGI technique. Aside from the aesthetic appearance of the portrait I wanted to create a model which would be technically challenging and allow me to use the sculpting and texturing tools in Autodesk Mudbox to their full potential. I decided to make my character male purely because I had a really good free texture already that I could use.
I started off with the basic head shape in Mudbox and gradually modelled more and more detail, paying close attention to my Anatomy for the Artist book which I’ve had for years and years but rarely have time to make proper use of. It’s a beautiful book though, it has fantastic photographs with great tracing paper overlays for muscles and bone structures. Refreshing my artist’s anatomy knowledge was incredibly useful, particularly when using 3D software to sculpt a bust as an understanding of the underlying muscles and so on really helps with accuracy and realism. The book has definitely found a new lease of life since my pencil sketching days!
Once I was happy with the underlying model I used the projection tools in Mudbox to paint on some texture. As I mentioned earlier I already had a set of free textures I’d downloaded which I had planned to use, I liked this guy in particular because he looked a bit scrappy! The colours and textures of his face were really interesting as he’s got dark lines under his eyes, facial hair and for some slightly disturbing reason appears to have been punched in the nose recently.
After modelling and basic texturing in Mudbox I transferred the model into Autodesk 3ds Max to add a skin shader and wrestle with the sub-surface scattering effect, which creates a realistic glow to the material and really brings the portrait to life. This however is no easy task! Setting up skin materials in 3D software isn’t as simple as clicking a few buttons and checking a couple of boxes, the effect varies in each individual case dependent on the underlying diffuse texture, the lighting set up in the 3D scene and the settings for rendering the image. As you can see from the test examples above it took a while to get the skin just right and in between there were a few flat and waxy attempts. Eventually I managed to give the skin the slightly sweaty and grubby “I’ve been scrambling around the undergrowth hunting for days” look. Nailed it.
The eyes were the next task to get right, and they were even trickier than the skin – I followed a brilliant ‘making of’ tutorial by Jose Alves da Silva which gave me some great pointers for making the eves look realistic. I think if anything the eyes are the element which could do with a little more work in the final portrait, but they’re almost there.
I finished off the model by adding in a few artefacts and items of clothing. I already had a cow skull model from the Skara Brae project, so I just modified that into a head-dress in the style of the Star Carr red deer skull and added some extra feather details around where it ties onto the head. I wanted to have a mixture of textures for the fabric elements so modelled a deer-hide cloak and a leathery looking top. The deer-fur, beard, eyebrows and eyelashes were all done using Hair Farm which is a plug-in I’ve had for a while and used on a couple of reconstruction projects but this was the first time I’ve been able to take time to properly get to grips with the it and experiment with the different techniques for each type of hair within the portrait. I nearly pulled my own hair out wrestling with the eyebrows, but I got them to do what I wanted eventually!
So here’s the final image rendered in Vray and after a bit of colour tweaking in Photoshop CS6 – if you click on the image you can see a larger version and zoom in on details to get a closer look. For a first ever attempt at character modelling from scratch I’m pretty happy with him, but there’s always room for improvement and after staring at him on and off for weeks I can always pick out little details I would change, but I think it’s time to let him go and start on a new side-project. I’m keen to learn how to incorporate matte painting into 3D animations and renders to save on creating enormous modelled landscapes which slow down the pc so I think that will be my next weekend task!