Dark Mother

Character Breakdown

Natalia P. Gutiérrez

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Natalia P. Gutiérrez

Senior Character Artist

Introduction

Hello! My name is Natalia, and I'm a character artist from Valencia, Spain, specializing in creatures.

I've been working in the industry for around 10 years, jumping between freelance and on-site work, contributing to projects like:
Path of Exile II, Total War: Three Kingdoms, The Ascent, Predator: Hunting Grounds, Aliens: Fireteam Elite, and mobile games.

Right now, I'm working on Yellow Brick Games and focusing on an awesome new IP. I love both realistic and stylized styles, and my favorite theme is Dark Fantasy.

Goals

I wanted to achieve the creation of a coherent character with sinister vibes. Something that was elegant, creepy, and that could make the viewer feel something.

That’s my main objective when creating a character from scratch, evoking something in the audience. I typically go for creepy, dark stuff or happy feelings, no in-betweens!

Since this was a personal project, another objective was to just have fun with it. I love developing the background of my characters as I work on them.

I find having this absolute freedom of creation to be immensely enjoyable. It also stimulates my mind and trains my creative eye.

Tools

I used ZBrush for the sculpt, TopoGun for the retopo, UVLayout for the UVs, 3DS Max for the base of some of the inorganic elements, Substance Painter for texturing, and Marmoset Toolbag for rendering.

For the editing of the videos, I used Wondershare Filmora, and Photoshop for the final image compositions.

Inspiration

Dark Fantasy is one of my favorite genres, so I started the character’s sculpt as I started most of my projects, just playing around in ZBrush until I found a direction I liked.

For this character, I thought it could be an interesting concept to mix a delicate, marble-like face with a very grotesque body underneath.

So, I started by sketching the female head and then building the body from there using low-res geometry and playing with shapes until I found a direction I liked.

In the beginning, I also placed some candles around her. I was sure I wanted this monster to have religious iconography.

One of the first ideas that crossed my mind was to make this creature half-inorganic, adding some kind of altar into it, or a baptismal font fused into her body.

I ended up discarding this idea and giving her a more ‘agile’ and organic look.

Head

So my first step was starting with the head.

When starting a new character, I tend to work on this first, as I think it’s the most important part, reflecting its soul.

During my search for references, I encountered many images portraying Virgin Mary statues, from various places and different materials, but something that caught my attention was that the statues tended to have an unnerving expression.

They would have a slight smile on their lips but they wouldn’t be smiling with their eyes, creating an eerie contrast. I thought that it would be very interesting to portray this on a monster.

Gif_Process_Sculpt

Once the direction was clearer, I started gathering plenty of references on my PureRef board and refining the creature with the details I could see on those images.

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Crown

I designed something with a more menacing appearance than the real ones by adding many sharp elements pointing upwards.

Funnily, I drew some inspiration from The Little Mermaid’s Ursula, specifically from the part where she transforms into a giant, which used to creep me out as a kid.

She had a distinctly pointy crown, and I tried a similar design on the Mother.

I mainly used ZBrush and 3DS Max to build the crown. Many parts are done using one mesh, cloned all over. This way I optimized time and UV space.

Body

Regarding the body, I mainly used clay buildup and Gio’s brush, which is awesome for organic shapes! I added detail in every subdivision, from big to small, finishing with some creature alpha brushes for the pores and wrinkles.

The legs were cloned, on the UVs as well. The skulls were part of an IMM brush I found online. It saved me a lot of work. The clothes were done using Marvelous Designer.

They have very simple patterns, almost circle-like, but the challenge was to make them look appealing and interesting, so I played around with the fabric settings and pins until I was satisfied with the shapes and wrinkles.

Then I brought them into ZBrush to modify the silhouettes a bit with the move brush, subdivide them, and add some small details.

Process_4

Retopology & Baking

Once everything was done, I retopped it on TopoGun, made the UVs in UVLayout, and baked it on Painter, exporting the high and low meshes as .FBX and using the baking ‘By mesh name’ option.

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Texturing

In the texturing phase, I typically use Painter’s smart materials as a base, organizing everything into folders with their masks, and work from there.

Organization and correct naming help a lot when texturing.

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Clothing

So for the clothing, I searched for priest clothing and tried to emulate the look, color, roughness, and texture of it, eye-balling those values, and trying to represent what I saw in the images.

Same for the church bells and keys, which I had a blast texturing. I introduced some changes on the go, like the golden pattern on her upper and lower clothing, inspired by adorned cloaks I found in my research.

Gif_Process_Painter_Bell

I experimented with their shape and size until I found something balanced. I made some quick masks on Photoshop and brought them to Painter, using them as stencils.

Stencil

I tried to maintain coherence between the metallic parts, reflecting the creature’s age through weathered textures. Same for the cloth and skin.

I used many references, trying to find a balance between realism and artistic interpretation.

I base the project on reality but I trust my artistic vision to add some changes if I think they’ll benefit the model.

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Marble

For the marble head, I started with a white fill layer with color and roughness values, and built the texture from there.

I added color variation using my thickness and AO bakes, then started bringing out the sculpt detail using edge masks, hand-painting the lighter parts I wanted the focus to be on, and then adding more detail using grunge tileables, cavity masks, and more hand-painting.

I tried emulating the polypainted look I previously did on ZBrush. Very pale, to make the head pop out, with subtle dark hand-painted touches on her eyes and lips. I mainly wanted her creepy expression to stand out.

Painter_1

Arm

There was a lot of trial and error with the metal arm as well. I bounced between making it golden-like, half-golden-like, rougher, less rough, etc.

I just tried things and values until I found something balanced and satisfying.

Painter_2

Materials

The general workflow for everything would be to establish some base values, work on the material from its very base, and then add layers into that, taking advantage of your baked maps and hand-painting touches when needed, testing every change on the go.

References are your best friend. If you study them closely, you’ll notice details you’ll want to implement into your textures, making them better.

Painter_3

Posing

I also like to have Marmoset almost always open on my other monitor so that I can test my changes in real time under different lighting.

Once I textured the whole character, I used Marmoset Toolbag for its rendering. For the posing, I used ZBrush’s Transpose master, experimenting with multiple poses until I found the ones I liked.

Note that I had to reconstruct my smoothing groups each time I exported a pose since ZBrush doesn’t store them. But it was easy since the organic parts only had one, and the rest could be reconstructed easily by angle & UV shells.

I just had to keep in mind what groups I used before the bakes.

Marmo_1

Lighting

In Marmoset, the lighting sources vary between each scene. I also created a short video animating a camera. For this one, I used a free 360 Cathedral image I found on the internet as a background and tried to build lighting fitting that background.

Normally I try to go for something dramatic. The lighting is what makes your model pop out.

I’ve created a short tutorial showing the process I followed to create this model’s lighting. Hope it’s helpful!

In general terms, you can start by adding a spotlight on top of your character with a slight angle, which will create some shadows.
I always ask myself if this light adds something to the character, if it makes it more appealing, highlighting its features.

If it works for what I’m trying to convey. I add them where I feel they work best but you can also use references, such as movie shots.

Rim lights are also very important, as they make the silhouette very readable. I love adding some warm or cold-toned lights, tweaking their values so that they don’t burn the texture. I don’t like leaving any fully dark areas.

To quickly create rim lights, I also add Skylights by clicking directly on the Sky UI on the left, and then using the Transform menu to change their rotation on every axis until I find a sweet spot.

To better preview the Skylights and the area they’re affecting, I normally set the brightness value to something very high, rotate the light until I find a position I like and then turn the brightness down.

It’s important to look at the model from your final camera angle and build the lights accordingly.

Gif_Process

Post Production

I don’t tweak the post-production settings a lot. Something I use for sure is vignettes.

In Photoshop, if I feel the image needs it I tweak the contrast a bit and normally add a blurred smoke texture with low opacity over everything to give that extra mysterious touch.

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Feedback

This character took me quite a bit of time since it’s a personal project and I never rush these.
I worked on it with many pauses in between, feeling burnout sometimes.

My advice for fellow artists who may also feel this way would be to always focus on small things. In this case, I focused on a single element many times, like the weapon, or the bells, even. Just tried to do my best with the bells.

Then with the crown, then the arm, etc.

So focusing on one element at a time, and not worrying about the rest. It’s the feeling of overwhelm that blocks us, but it can be overcome if you open the model and center your attention on one element.

You’ll get the answers to your blockers along the way if you just work on it, little by little. Also, to let your mind and eyes rest. Not rushing into finishing or uploading a project.

I assure you you’ll see the errors and things to refine way more clearly after a night’s rest. So don’t rush.

Conclusion

Lastly, enjoy what you do. You have the absolute freedom of modelling whatever you want.
Isn’t that great? Maybe you enjoy the process of creation from scratch, or maybe there’s a concept that inspires you.

Find what motivates you the most because that will show on your portfolio in the form of quality, and this is what will land you a job in the future.

That’s all, let me know if you need anything else!

All the best,
Nat.