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  • Writer's pictureMichael

ZBrush Workflow in 2016

ZBrush is a great program but with so many features and it’s constantly being updated and improved upon, its hard to know where to start and how to actually go about creating something. With that in mind, heres a quick guide for the main processes used in creation along with the techniques you can use to do them.

The process used will depend entirely on what kind of object you are making – an organic creature, a smooth suit of armour, a futuristic gun etc. As such for each stage below you may use one or more of the listed techniques.

Note that as a learner myself, there may be some useful methods missing, and this list may get updated frequently. If you think theres something I should add, please add a comment!


Not part of the workflow as such, but given ZBrush’ very distinct UI and workng method make sure you have these basics down first! Read the following tutorials for some fundamentals!


The first part of any sculpt is laying down a solid foundation to work on. Before adding specific details, you first want to create a basic, low detail massing model to show the main shapes, limbs and forms. You can do this just by playing with the basic clay sphere, but shown below are a few methods optimal for this first part of the process:


When you pull and stretch your ‘clay’ in zbrush the polys will often get stretched out of their uniform grid like layout, particularly at low sub-division levels. With the click of a button Dynamesh will recreate your sculpt with a uniform grid of polys.

Zsphere armature.

An older technique, Zsphere armatures are still useful if you want to create  the basic shapes of insects, animals or other creatures with lots of elements such as limbs or tentacles.  A tutorial for using zspheres can be found here:


Similar to Z-Spheres, mannequins are pre build humanoid puppets than can be placed in a scene, easily posed and then sculpted on. A tutorial in using mannequins can be found here:

Z -Modeller

To create mechanical objects, rather than start from a clay sphere use can use the zModeller tool, which works more similarly to traditional modelling packages such as Max or Sketchup. Some subtools in your sculpt may benefit from this approach rather than the more organic sculpting.


Now that you have the basic shape of your model in place, you want to start adding and refining details – pieces of armour, cloth folds, skin detailing, etc. There are hundreds of different tools available to enable the fast creation of whatever you need, but outlined below are some of the most common tools and techniques you will use when sculpting.

Brushes and alphas

The most commonly used functions when sculpting your models. Brushes push and pull your mesh in distinct ways to add forms, whilst alphas mask the shape of certain brushes to quickly add texture and fine detail. This tutorial will explain which are the most common brushes for certain purposes, and also how to create custom alphas. NB This does not include some brushes talked about in subsequent tutorials – be sure to make note of those too.

Hair and Fur

There are several methods of generating realistic hair and fur in zbrush – either sculpted low poly hair for use in games, or high poly fibermesh hair, created in strands, used for high end rendering. A tutorial on the basics of creating hair is outlined below;

Hard Surface

More often than not you will need to produce smooth meshes with hard edges – things like armour pieces, accessories, weapons etc. The default sculpting methods in ZBrush aren’t at first ideal for this, but there are several tools available to help with the process, and they are discussed below.


Retopologising is the process of recreating the geometry of your high poly zbrush sculpt with as few polygons as possible, whilst also lining those polys up to be efficient for animation and texture unwrapping purposes, eg for a game or film. If your sculpt is simply to be rendered out as an illustration then retopologising may not be necessary, but if it is to be used in software other than zbrush, the high initial polycount will be unusable. Later on you will project the details from the high poly sculpt onto the low poly mesh, but for now, we will simply look at making that low poly mesh.

Zsphere method

You can manually retopologise in ZBrush by creating a Zsphere subtool, and ‘drawing’ new polys on top of the original mesh. This is an older method, but worth knowing about.

ZRemesher method.

NB: Using the Decimation Master and ZRemesher tools are not the same as Retopologising. Although these do drastically reduce the poly count of your zbrush sculpt, they are not done so in a way fit for animating. Decimation master creates a random mish mash of triangles for example, whilst. However, ZRemesher can on occasion be used for retopologising simpler models, and a tutorial for doing so can be found here:

Topogun/3rd Party Method

Topogun is a 3rd party software solely designed for retopologising. As such it has a few tools to make the process faster and simpler. You export your zbrush sculpt to topogun and create the new mesh there. To give Topogun (and your computer hardware) an easier time you can use Decimation master or Z Remesher to reduce the poly count of your model whilst still maintaining the detail of the sculpt.


Once you have finished the retopologised version of your high poly sculpt, it is time to paint on colour and export the textures. – this can then be sent to a rendering engine such as Vray or Keyshot etc, or inserted into your animation or game engine. The steps taken to do so are as follows.


Polypaint is the process of directly painting your textures onto your 3d model. This is much faster and more intuitive than other software’s methodology of first unwrapping your 3d model then trying to paint on the distorted flattened skin.  Note that polypainting is done on a per-polygon basis – so higher poly models can be painted with ore detail. AS such, this process should be done on a high poly version of your sculpt before retopologising. A Tutorial on the basics of the process can be found here:

UV Master

UV Master is a plugin for quickly and efficiently creating the flattened UV Maps upon which you can save out the various textures your mesh may use elsewhere, such as in a game or rendering engine.

Note that this stage can be done before or after Polypainting, but MUST be done after you have done any necessary retopologising to your model.

Baking out Textures.

When your model is going to be taken into an external engine for games or rendering, you will often need to bake out the textures separately from the model. In zbrush, this can mean taking them from the hi poly version of your model first then transferinng them to the low poly, before exporting them. The tutorial for how to do this is shown here.


Rendering is the process of creating high quality illustrations, movies or images of your 3d model. This involves generating different ‘passes‘ of the final image – components such as colour, shadow, reflections etc, which can then be combined, edited and adjusted in image software such as photoshop. An overview of how to do this is available below:

BPR Renderer

Best Preview Render is the built in renderer in ZBrush, which can render out individual passes to be composited in photoshop. This can be used to get great still images, without having to export your model to 3rd party software.

Keyshot/3rd Party Method

Keyshot is a 3rd party program designed specifically for lighting and rendering 3d models. Compared to other software packages it is fairly simple to use. You can even transfer models straight from brush to Keyshot if necessary.

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