Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature | CG Master Academy

Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature

A 10-week course using anatomy foundations and design principles to model animals and create creatures

Course overview Course overview

Course Overview

Understand creature anatomy

In this course, students will create their own animal anatomy study in ZBrush. They will learn how to construct a model from the inside out, starting by building the skeletal system and adding muscles and skin later on. This course will also focus on portfolio by covering how to light and render a beautiful study in Maya and Photoshop. In the second part of the course, students will jump from the study to the creation process by learning how to build up their own creatures. They will create the anatomy of their own dragon and discover the workflows to sculpt details and paint accurate skin colors in ZBrush.


Course Format:   Standard
Lecture Type:   Pre-recorded
Feedback:   Individual recordings
Duration:   10 weeks
Assignment:   Deadlines each week
Q&A:   Once a week
Materials:   Zbrush, Maya, & Photoshop (or equivalent software)
Skills level:   Intermediate
Prerequisites:   Knowledge of ZBrush and digital sculpting strongly recommended; basic knowledge of Maya and ZBrush is required; basic knowledge of Photoshop strongly recommended; course pre-reqs include Anatomy for Production

Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature WHAT YOU’LL LEARN

What you'll learn

The more you know, the better.

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Hierarchy of animal anatomy | Motion: skeleton, muscles, articulation, direction | Basic understanding of design: carnivore vs. herbivore | From design to study | Anatomy study and paint-over in Photoshop
Introduction to animal face anatomy | Description of the face | Skull sculpting
Basic understanding of the body structure and connection | Deeper understanding of the anatomy of the spine | From the scapula to the fingers | Standing on the legs | Creating the base of our animal in ZBrush
Understanding the role of a muscle | Description of the head anatomy | The spinal column muscles | ZBrush sculpting
Fat presence on the body | The skin's appearance | The écorché in ZBrush | Understanding the anatomy of fur
Put motion into practice | The photographic look of an animal anatomy study | The clay material | Create a pose in ZBrush | Setting up our studio in 3D
Interpreting anatomy | Introduction to the dragon project | Creating the base in ZBrush
Dragon skeleton draw-over | Study from Avatar's creatures | Building our dragon's écorché in ZBrush | Adding the wings
Creating details in ZBrush | Using Photoshop to create details | Posing our dragons
Understanding production needs | Colorize your creature | From 3D to illustration

Taking your skills to the next level

Tan Bi is a digital sculptor / 3D artist passionate about traditional art. Currently, he is working with the TIPPETT studio, Anatomytools, and teaching at the Academy of Art University. He has a deep understanding of both human and animal anatomy. In the past few years, he has focused on sculpting realistic characters and creatures for feature films and physical output.

Student interviews


April 20th!

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Feb 8, 2021 - Apr 26, 2021




April 20th!

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  • Google
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  • Blizzard Entertainment

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Enjoy over 365 days of full course access. This includes all lectures, feedback, and Live Q&A recordings.

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Earn a Certificate of Completion when you complete and turn in 80% of course assignments.

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Serval Anatomy Sculpt

Interview with Jess O'Neill

Jess O’Neill did a breakdown of her beautiful serval sculpt made in ZBrush & Maya

Serval Anatomy Sculpt


Hiya! My name is Jess O’Neill, I am a modeler and texture artist from Australia, and I recently won an internship at Method Studios through The Rookies while completing the CGMA course Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature taught excellently by Gael Kerchenbaum.

I graduated from a three-year Bachelor of Animation program at Queensland College of Art, where my education on art and film-making began.

After my degree, it took me some time to work out what I wanted to specialize in, something my peers seemed to figure out with ease. However, I’ve always had a keen interest in learning how things work, so after studying Anatomy for Production at CGMA, I thought that Gael’s course would be a step in the right direction for figuring out my specialty.

The Course

By signing up to this course I expected to improve and expand my knowledge of anatomy, as well as have some guidance and feedback on how to improve my sculpts, however, it far exceeded my expectations. I learned the similarities of anatomy between species, meaning every time I learn something new about anatomy for one animal I can apply that to future sculpts of entirely different species. Valuable lessons on design, composition, and workflow tips. The Live Q&A’s also provided a lot of extras I didn’t expect, so I was sure to watch the recordings every week

I anticipated learning only the tools to create an anatomical study, but Gael’s excellent teaching and guidance helped make it my most successful piece yet. Most importantly, his course helped me find my passion for animal and creature design, the field which I now endeavor to specialize in throughout my career.



Over the first six weeks of the course, we were to sculpt an animal of our choosing. I chose the serval because I thought its slim form would be a challenge for me, but also because cats have so much character and I thought it would be fun to make one.


Each week we would collect references for the stage we were up to. For example, we started by sculpting the skull, so our reference board would have images of the skull and head of our animal from various angles like the image below.

When looking for the reference of a specific animal, particularly for photos of its skeleton, I found it helpful to use the animal’s scientific name in the search as it gave me more relevant search results. Wilhelm Ellenberger’s An Atlas of Animal Anatomy for Artists and Eliot Goldfinger’s Animal Anatomy for Artists are also invaluable resources when studying animal anatomy, so I included some images from their books on my reference board to save time.




To make the skull we started with a cube in ZBrush, keeping it at a low density and blocking out the silhouette using the Move brush with Symmetry turned on. Then we used DynaMesh to cut out any necessary holes. The ClayTubes brush with a low ZIntensity was used to sculpt the different plane changes of the object, starting with the primary shapes and moving onto the secondary shapes. ZRemesher was then used before moving on to more refinements.

The skull and the mandible were made as separate pieces, as well as the teeth which were mirrored, duplicated, resized and repositioned to match the reference.



After sculpting the skull in ZBrush I imported it into Maya. In Maya, I created a new camera and attached my reference image to it as an image plane (orthographic views of the skull for example). I then changed the focal length of the camera to match what the original photo was taken with – the focal length can often be found in the image properties. By looking through the new camera and lining it up to my model, I was able to check that the model correctly matched the reference and use Soft Selection to adjust the areas which were not quite right. I repeated this with two other cameras to check different angles, then reimported the model to ZBrush to continue.



The skeleton was first blocked out using ZSpheres, starting from the base of the skull and using symmetry to save time. For this sculpture the skeleton is buried under the muscle, so is then broken into three pieces – spine/ribcage, forelegs, hind legs – rather than individual bones. It’s important to get the silhouette correct and then refine the bones. The process was the same as the skull: using Dynamesh, the Move tool, and the ClayTubes brush, and starting with primary shapes before moving onto secondary shapes.




I spent the most time on the face, as I hadn’t studied facial anatomy before and felt it was really important to establish character blocking in and reshaping the muscles to match references. The sculpture went through stages of looking really horrible, but it was just a matter of refinement and always checking the silhouette. I used lion anatomy as a reference but kept in mind that the serval is a much more lean creature.

Even when the sculpt was in its neutral pose it didn’t look quite right, as the serval has different proportions compared to other cats. I had to continually check against references by overlaying photos and using the ‘Look Through’ slider through all stages of the project.



Fat, Skin, and Fur

Photos of sphinx cats were used as a reference for this stage to aid in the identification of wrinkles. I had trouble with the fur, so I started by drawing over photo reference to understand where the clumps of fur were before sculpting.

After the serval was posed, I increased the mesh density and used a spray mask where the fur was displaced the most in references. I then used the Snake Hook brush to pull out these areas, giving the impression of finer furs. This allowed me to make an interesting composition as I was more concerned with having the sculpture feel believable rather than being completely physically accurate.




The sculpt was posed in ZBrush using Transpose Master. The serval’s long legs and body are its distinguishing features, so the leaping pose was chosen as I felt it best captured the nature of the serval and was best able to display these attributes. The pose also offered an opportunity to further study the compression and extension of the muscles and skin. To have the model look correct in such an exaggerated pose, I had to continually line-up the sculpt against my references to check and maintain correct proportions.


I chose the colors for the render based on the references found of servals. Quite often they would be a yellow cat on a green background. The grass was included to add context and story to the pose (just planes reshaped, resized, and duplicated).




This project helped me find a workflow that suits how I operate by understanding how a design is to physically work before sculpting. It was very interesting to see the similarities between mammalian species, including humans, which has helped in gaining references for new and current projects. The course has also taught me how quickly I can create something beautiful and interesting and has helped me realize my passion for creature design. I really enjoyed Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature and I am very grateful to Gael and CGMA for providing such a wonderful course which has been a very important step in my career!

Jess O’Neill, 3D Modeler/Texture Artist


Antelope & Dragon Studies

Interview with Nicole Jackson

Nicole Jackson shared her experience of taking CGMA‘s course Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature led by Gael Kerchenbaum and did a breakdown of a sculpted Nyala and Dragon. Software used: ZBrushMayaArnold.

Antelope & Dragon Studies



My name is Nicole Jackson and I am a 3D character artist from California. I graduated from CSU Chico with a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Animation and Game Design. I started taking CGMA classes in order to improve my understanding of anatomy since CSU Chico did not offer an equivalent course. Without a formal understanding anatomy, it was harder to produce realistic creatures. In order to learn these skills, I enrolled in CGMA’s Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature by Gael Kerchenbaum.

The class was set up into two sections with each part focused on a different project. For the first project, we could choose to work on a carnivore or a herbivore. My first instinct was to do a carnivore, specifically a big cat, because those are some of my favorite animals and I have almost exclusively worked on carnivores in the past. I decided, however, to choose a herbivore in order to push myself out of my comfort zone. To challenge myself, I decided to work on a more exotic animal rather than one where the anatomy reference of the exact species was readily available. In the end, I chose to do an anatomical study of a Lowland Nyala (an antelope native to southern Africa) because of their long limbs and elegant proportions.



The Nyala Project: Reference

Before sculpting our projects, we needed to gather reference material and organize it in reference boards using a program called PureRef. Throughout the project, I collected hundreds of relevant reference images including photographs and anatomical studies of Nyalas and similar species (mainly horses, deer, oxen and other antelope species). I also referenced several anatomy books including Animal Anatomy for Artists by Eliot Goldfinger and Animal Anatomy by W. Ellenberger.

This was how my PureRef reference board looked towards the end of the Nyala project:



We started by finding a profile view of the animal we were studying in a neutral pose. On top of the photograph, we drew a diagram of the skeleton and muscle groups’ location within the body. Each week we created a reference board of the relevant images for whichever part of the body we were sculpting.

Here I drew the skeleton over the top of the reference photo of a Nyala and color coded the bones to compare the bones to a human, a Plantigrade animal (chimp), and a Digitigrade animal (Tiger):



Here the muscles were drawn over the top of the reference image:



Kerchenbaum also taught us about the differences and similarities between carnivores and herbivores and how their anatomy varies based on their needs as a species. For example, herbivores, such as horses, need to be able to run in order to avoid predators and, because of this, they have straight spines that aren’t as flexible to provide stability while running; whereas a carnivore such as a cat has a curved and more flexible spine that allows it to jump and pounce on its prey. Keeping characteristics like these in mind is helpful for creating a realistic and believable creature.


We began working on our project by creating the skeleton, specifically the skull. Starting with a cube in ZBrush, we slowly adjusted the shape to match the references we were working from. I frequently used the move tool and the clay tubes brush to adjust the shape of the skull and Dynamesh to quickly retopologize the mesh as I made large changes. ZBrush is a creative and organic process; instead of worrying about topology, you can focus on sculpting in a way that feels like working with real clay. Because of my background in traditional art and clay, many of the methods of working with clay translate to digital sculpting in ZBrush.

Gael showed us a useful technique for creating holes and carving out sections of the mesh by using the Insert Primitives Brush. Using this method, we were able to quickly make cavities for the eyes and nose and hollow out the interior of the skull. During the process of sculpting the skull, I referenced 3D scans of similar skulls on sketchfab and other 3D model viewing websites. Having the ability to rotate around the reference and view it from any angle is beneficial, because it fills in information gaps that the reference material alone does not provide.



Once the skull was complete, we began blocking out the rest of the skeleton. We used ZSpheres, starting from the base of the skull, to block in the skeleton. Getting the correct proportions of each bone was important because we would be layering the muscles, fat, skin, and fur on top of the skeleton; if the skeleton wasn’t correct then it would cause problems down the line. Each bone was sculpted into the ZSphere base mesh that we created earlier using the same tools used to refine the skull; this caused the bones to be fused together but this was fine for our purposes. We were also careful to include the bony features of the skeleton, such as the bumps and ridges on the bones, because each of these features has a purpose; often indicating the attachment point of a muscle or tendon.




Using the skeleton as the framework, the muscles were added one by one on top of the bones; while always checking my references. We used the insert mesh brush to insert a sphere onto the mesh to start a muscle group and then used the move tool to shape each muscle and shift it into place. Once the placement and general shape of the muscle was correct, we would use Dynamesh to connect it to the rest of the model. Once all the muscles were attached, we used the move tool and clay tubes tool to refine the shape of the muscles. As I refined the muscles, there were times when I could tell that there was something not quite right with the skeleton of the creature. When this happened, I would go back and adjust the skeleton in order to fix the problem.

During this process, it was important that the bones of the creature were not lost. There are areas of the creature that have little, if any, muscle covering the skeleton (such as a portion of the ribcage, the hips, etc), so it is important to keep these areas looking like bone rather than allowing them to fade away into the surrounding muscles.



Skin & Fur

The next step in the process was to add the fat, skin, wrinkles, and fur. I duplicated the current model and filled in the holes between the muscles and carefully softened and blurred the divisions between the muscle groups and removed brush strokes. This gives the illusion of fat on the animal; however, it is important not to completely lose the definition of the muscles beneath the skin. Once the general smoothing and refining of the model was complete, we began adding the wrinkles and skin folds. Wrinkles occur in areas that need additional skin to allow for movement such as joints (elbows, around the neck, etc). While looking at my reference, I carefully added the wrinkles; making sure they were not too even or symmetrical so that they would look natural.




Next, I blocked out where I wanted to place the fur by duplicating my model and pulling the geometry through the original model using the move brush and the snake hook brush. Checking the silhouette often, I continued to refine the fur volumes until I was happy with the general shape. Working in smaller clumps, I made several strokes with the clay tubes brush to show the direction of the fur. The trick was to create the illusion of fur without actually sculpting out each individual strand.

The fur is roughly blocked out:



Model with completed fur:




The project was rendered in Maya using the Arnold renderer. I used ZBrush’s Transpose Master to create a simple pose for my Nyala and added it to a Maya scene with a backdrop. I lit the scene using 3-point lighting and added a few additional lights to illuminate the background and key points of the model. The material I used was meant to look like clay and is an AI Standard Surface material with subsurface scattering enabled to give it a nice glow, especially in thinner areas of the model such as the ears.



The Dragon Project: Using Anatomy of Real Animals to Create Believable Creatures

The next half of the course was focused on a second project: a dragon. What was interesting about this project was that, since they don’t actually exist, we had to use the anatomy of real animals and adapt it to work for the dragon. Not only did we learn how to combine and adapt the anatomy of many different species, but we also learned about the anatomy of birds and bats: specifically the muscles that allow for flight.

While looking for reference material, I came across an interesting dragon concept image from an unknown artist. The dragon itself was stylized but I loved its proportions; it had a long neck and tail, but what really caught my attention was its feet which looked similar to those of a lemur. These became the cornerstone of my dragon concept. The story I created for my dragon was an agile, small to medium sized dragon (around the size of a small cougar) that lived in trees. It would have a semi-prehensile tail and feet meant for climbing trees and gripping branches.

Proceeding with this concept story, I decided to use reference of clouded leopards, leopard, several monitor species (especially Spiny Tailed Monitors), birds, and bats as my main reference material. The actual sculpting process was almost identical to that of the Nyala.

My PureRef reference board with all my reference and inspiration images organized:



Dragon skeleton (without wings):



Dragon before final texturing:



I created a layer in ZBrush with the mouth shut to make sure that the jaw and teeth were shaped correctly to allow the mouth to close:




With the dragon project, we took the sculpting a step further and created high detail scales and skin textures. We used alpha maps created from high detail scans of real animal skins such as a crocodile, a frog, an iguana, and even an ostrich. I also hand sculpted many of the larger scales such as those on the head, belly, the legs, and along the spine. I also added spikes along the dragon’s head and neck.



Once the scales were sculpted, we moved on to Polypainting the model in ZBrush. I added many layers of color and used ZBrush’s automasking features to bring out detail in the model. Kerchenbaum also showed us how putting a lighter, sandy color between the scales can give the illusion of dirt and dust stuck amid the scales. Previously, my instinct was to paint a darker color to add shadow but, by painting a light color instead, the resulting texture was much more realistic.

I pictured my dragon living in a rainforest so I decided to have some fun with the texturing and make it rather colorful. I used many shades of blue for the body with some variations of hue into the greens and purples to give the color more depth. Then, I used a soft ivory color for the dragon’s spikes, belly and the inside of his limbs. I added a streak of black across the dragon’s face and tiger stripes along his back. The first iteration of the legs had tiger stripes as well, but I decided that this was too much pattern so I faded the legs into black instead.

Polypaint in ZBrush:




Once I was finished with the texturing, I created a base mesh with a lower polygon count and baked out all the textures so they could be used to render the dragon in Maya. The base model wasn’t perfect (some of the spikes became too low poly and lost some of their shape) so the final Maya render lost some of the detail in the original ZBrush sculpt. I plan to manually retopologize the dragon in my free time so that I can bake the textures again and hopefully get a cleaner result but I am still happy with the final result for the course.




My experience with Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature was phenomenal and Gael Kerchenbaum is an amazing teacher. The techniques that he taught us helped me improve my skills as an artist and gave me the tools to create any animal or creature I can imagine. I loved that he not only taught us about animal anatomy but also gave us a few tips about being a professional artist and showed us how to texture and render the model to create a portfolio quality image. I would highly recommend CGMA‘s courses to anyone who wants to improve their skills as a 3D artist.

Nicole Jackson, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

Canine Anatomy Study

Interview with Tsvetelina Zdraveva

Tsvetelina Zdraveva did a breakdown of her Ibizan Hound Anatomy Study and talked about the way classes with Gael Kerchenbaum are organized.

Canine Anatomy Study




My name is Tsvetelina Zdraveva, and I am one half of a Brooklyn-based production studio, Afterman, where I storyboard, illustrate, model and animate the visual stories we tell.

I was born and raised in Bulgaria but moved to the States to pursue a degree in architecture at Rice University in Houston, TX. Throughout my studies, I found myself most drawn to creating 3D visualizations for my architectural environments, and shortly after graduating, I decided to focus entirely on 3D and animation. Since then, I have enjoyed directing and creating a diverse set of video projects, among which were a whimsical short for National Geographic and a PSA for NASA.


As a transplant into the film industry, I am always on the lookout for resources that can help my work. I found Gael’s CGMA course Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature while looking for a foundation in animal anatomy and a comprehensive creature sculpting walk-through. I was impressed by the roster of their experienced instructors, and I hoped to gain the secret workflow tips of a talented VFX-industry insider like Gael himself.

How the Class Began

The course kicks off with an incredibly fun discussion on phylogenesis that provides everyone with the skills to sustain their own independent anatomical research. Through the comparative principles that Gael teaches, my peers and I learned to inform our understanding of virtually any creature existing or imagined.

I chose to work on a sculpt of an Ibizan Hound as I was drawn to their unusual capacity for movement and the beautiful pronouncement of their musculature. Each week, before I began sculpting, I would make image reference boards to better understand the forms I’d be working on that specific week. I would markup landmarks to look out for, note any relationships between what I’d already learned and the structures I was studying, and continue to expand my visual library of the Ibizan Hound in movement.

The vibrant Discord classroom where Gael was tirelessly present was extremely helpful in this preparatory stage. It was a dedicated space for us to share our research material, and even months after our term has ended is still a place I visit often and benefit from.

Building the Skeleton in ZBrush

I started with the Hound’s skull, but as I was unable to find the exact photographic reference, I sculpted a general canine skull and then adjusted my mesh to match the proportions of an Ibizan Hound’s head in profile.


The workflow in ZBrush began with a basic sphere that I pushed and pulled with a large Move brush, and subsequently dynameshed to create all the skull cavities. The ClayBuildup and ClayTubes brushes were my favorites for refining the volumes afterward. I feel like with just these two brushes – by adjusting their Imbed value, and sometimes altering their alpha Radial Fade – mostly, I can achieve any shape I am after.

I approached working on the animal’s skeleton in a similar way to the skull. Starting with a typical dog skeleton, I proceeded to adjust its proportions to match the Ibizan Hound reference photographs I had compiled. At this first stage, my most helpful resources were Ellenberger’s and Goldfinger’s anatomies, as well as a number of free online bone scan libraries. Two of my favorite online archives were the Digital Morphology library at the University of Texas at Austin and the collection at the California Academy of Sciences.

Even though I did my best to proportion the bones as closely as possible to the silhouette of the Ibizan Hound, my primary focus at this stage was not to create impeccable proportions. Those kept being adjusted all the way through to the end of the écorché phase. What was most important to me at this point was to make sure each bone had all the necessary surface planes to provide for origin and insertion of superficial muscles. In this exercise, I approached the sculpt of the skeleton as a necessary structure for accurate placement of musculature and not a finished piece on its own.

Building Up the Body

As soon as I built up the skeleton, I began layering superficial muscles starting from the head and making my way inside-out toward the tail. My goal for this class was to gather as much anatomical knowledge as possible, so in many ways, this stage of the sculpt was the most important for me. At this point, I worked primarily from the third volume of the Color Atlas of Veterinary Anatomy and used Ellenberger as a guiding tool along with a selection of greyhound anatomy diagrams by Ernest Thompson Seton from Art Anatomy of Animals.

I modeled each muscle individually, keeping a consistent naming system to help with subtool selection while working. Nick’s Tools is a plugin that has saved my life many times when having to batch rename subtools, and I would gladly recommend it to everyone. I also grouped my subtools to easily include or exclude muscle groups from my viewport. Because muscles are more like sheets of tension than balloons of mass, each layer showcases what lies underneath it. To control the way muscles wrap around what lies under them, I used the ZProject brush.

Each time I created a new subtool, I would Dynamesh it, refine it, and adjust its topology with ZRemesher.

To sculpt the areas around the eyes, nose, and ears, I gathered a lot of close-up photography of Ibizans, dogs, wolves, and even cats. This way, I was able to resolve at the écorché stage both the proportions of the whole figure and the features of the head that would make my sculpt distinguishable as an Ibizan.


Ibizan Hounds have very little fat or fur, so to wrap up my sculpt, my focus was on adding skin, veins, and wrinkles. Exploring the various Smooth brushes inside the ZBrush default folders was a lot of fun here. My favorite were Peaks, Valleys and Directional. As I had gained a mountain of reference material by this point, I found PureRef to be the easiest way to organize and view all photos while working on this layer.


I really enjoyed Gael’s additive method of sculpting from the skeleton out. It not only facilitates more accurate sculptural likeness but allows for a logical transition into posing movement, the next and last stage of this sculpt.

Postures & Presentation

What I love about Ibizans is that they can be both regal and playful. I experimented with a few different poses before settling on the two used for final renders. Both poses were created with Transpose Master and a varying degree of further manual adjustments and resculpting.

To position the final mesh for render, whether to align it with another mesh or to just create a good mesh-to-floor contact, I highly recommend a small script called Positioner. I use it all the time for an accurate and fast arrangement of the things I sculpt in ZBrush.

The renders were created in Octane, which is incredibly fast when paired with a few GeForce 1080Ti’s. A simple waxy texture was applied to the mesh and was lit with three light sources against a simple paper-textured backdrop. The image was then color-corrected in Photoshop and further sweetened by following Gael’s color-correction workflow. I created contrast by stretching the image histogram with a levels adjustment. Then I duplicated the image, isolated and blurred the highlights, and screened this back on top of the composite to create a subtle bloom effect. Lastly, I duplicated the image again, blurred just the red channel, and screened with partial opacity. This last step adds a warm hue to the bloom.


Taking part in Gael’s course has been an honor. The lectures alone would have been enough to sustain two courses on their own. Our live Q&A’s additionally covered a wide range of relevant topics a character artist needs to master alongside sculpting: texturing, retopology, rendering, and even grooming.

The class Discord channel really fused the group together and made it easy to share our progress and questions. With Gael’s constant encouragement, we shared resources and kept each other going through each stage of the workflow. Some of the students even live-streamed their progress as they worked (you guys have to check out Denis Udalov’s magnificent gaur and the rigor captured in those process videos).

I have been fueled with a lot of new creative ideas to work on, and I cannot wait to share my next creature with all of you. Thank you so much to Gael for your generosity, commitment, and knowledge, and to everyone at 80 Level for the thoughtful questions and the opportunity to talk about my work with you.

Tsvetelina Zdraveva, 3D Modeler & Texture Artist at Afterman

Building a Bovine Skeleton & Muscle System

Interview with Denis Udalov

Denis Udalov breaks down his approach to constructing the wild Indian bull Gaur for Sculpting Anatomy: from Animal to Creature led by Gael Kerchenbaum.

Building a Bovine Skeleton & Muscle System


Hi, my name is Denis Udalov and I live in Saint-Petersburg, Russia. I’ve been working in the games industry for 5-6 years. From a young age, I was fascinated by computers, games, and any electronic device I could get my hands on. As you can guess, I wasn’t an artist at all.  At the age of 26 when working as a network administrator at a local ISP, I was asked by a friend to participate in making a game with them as a C++ programmer. At some point, I had to get my hands on 3D, and it was like a charm. I spent two years learning it on my own, then got my first paid job as a freelancer for small outsourcing company H2Games (Sergey, Alla, thank you very much). And at the age of 29, my dreams came true: I joined Saber Interactive right in the middle of Halo 2: Remaster production as a Texture Artist.


Saber was a great place to work at, but I wanted to make Character/Creature art, so I spent a lot of time learning anatomy, traditional, and digital skills and after 4 years at Saber I moved to Sperasoft Studio as a 3D Artist. There I’ve worked for 4 months as a Prop Artist for OVERKILL’s Walking Dead and meanwhile took internal training on Animal Anatomy by Maria Panfilova. I knew a lot about human anatomy at that moment and made a decision to study animals deeper. That’s how I ended up at CGMA, taking the course Sculpting Anatomy: from Animal to Creature by Gael Kerchenbaum. In the end, it granted me a Character Artist position for an MMO project.






My goal for this course was to get a better understanding of how animals are constructed, how they differ from humans, and how we can play with anatomy to create something completely new. I’ve learned a lot out of the materials Gael has provided in the course, and a lot more from my own research on a specific animal I decided to create.


Start of the Course

The course has a strict curriculum and, if I remember it right, the first week was spent on analyzing the anatomy of different creatures and painting over their bone structures and muscle systems:



Next step was to choose a creature each student would study for the next 5 weeks, gather references, and sculpt a skull of the animal of choice. It was a bit tricky moment for me because there are so many great creatures on our planet, and I had to choose only one. At first, I made a hippo skull because it was just too hard to resist creating one. But after that, I changed my mind and moved to a wild Indian bull, Gaur, one of the biggest and strongest ones.



Each week we received some prerecorded feedback on our work from Gael which was very helpful and pushed me to make everything better.



The video is pretty self-explanatory: usually, I start from very basic shapes and refine them while developing all the forms. Primary, Secondary and Tertiary forms are the key to get everything right. I don’t move away from the current stage while I’m not sure that I have a proper silhouette from all the angles. Or at least I think so.

You can see an example of my workflow from start to finish in the Hippo skull timelapse:



Lately, I started making the initial stage with SculptrisPro. It has its limitations but is great for sketching and getting basic shapes.


Skeleton & Muscles

For the entire skeleton, the process is pretty much the same. There are some repeating parts such as vertebrae and ribs, so some of them were duplicated. I tried to do everything as anatomically correct as I could, so I made every bone and every muscle separately. To achieve the best result, I gathered a lot of references for different bones and bovine muscle system. There was a lot of checks and double checks for every bone, muscle and overall silhouette (and a bit more checking after Gael’s feedback) to get everything right. As you can see in the video, there are a lot of tweaks for muscles that I already made but found incorrect after some research. At this point, you have to understand that this is not a teacher who teaches a course, but you who either work hard and research or slacking. No teacher can help one who can’t put his effort into the project.

I didn’t record the skeleton production, but the muscle system can be seen in this playlist:



My approach to the muscle system has its downside, by the way. In the video, you can see how I tried to dynamesh everything in one piece and failed. There were a lot of holes and other glitches, so I decided to make a proxy mesh to reproject everything on it.

This pipeline wasn’t that new for me but I didn’t use it much before. The way Gael does it feels quite natural: first of all, you make a base skeleton to define the core landmarks of the body (it doesn’t need to be super detailed), then the muscle system, fat/skin and after that low frequency details such as wrinkles, small fur clumps, cracks, etc.

Actually, it was quite challenging for me to create a defined muscle system on the ecorche sculpture without going to subtlety (fat/skin) right away. But it feels right when you do it because you can understand how muscles are placed. There is no problem in making defined muscles more subtle after all.




Other than that, working on an organic creature, human, animal or something mixed is always about working on its silhouette from every angle. It really helps to make creature thin or massive: just look at its silhouette from time to time. Take a look from far away, go 2-4 meters away from the monitor and take a look. This way you can see some mistakes.

Most of the detailing was made with default DamStandard and Standard brushes using Layers system to control the level of details. This way I could overdo some details at first and reduce the layer opacity after that. Also, there’s a really neat trick with Rake brush shared by Dmytro Teslenko. He used it with Intensity 1 to 10 and Focal Shift near 99, with Alpha from DamStandard – this way you can achieve really subtle carvings.




It was near impossible to find an interesting pose for Gaur in the natural habitat, so I took a lot of references from videos of corrida and Spanish festivals (there is a popular event called Running of the bulls), I wanted to create a really dynamic pose and there were a lot of interesting references, but this one caught my eye:



I tried to make it even more dynamic using S-curves and reviewing it from different angles. It was quite challenging to make it somewhat believable, so there were a lot of iterations for legs and overall posing. But the course has its time restrictions for homework submissions, otherwise, I’d probably continue changing things. This is what I ended up with:




To strengthen dynamism a bit more, I decided to add some sand and splashes going from the hoofs. I used basic shapes formed as floor surface and clouds of sand coming from the hoofs. After that, I used Micromesh and placed simple cubes all around these meshes, then deleted unnecessary geometry and formed a bit more interesting shapes using Move and Snake Hook brushes.





Render was done in Modo using FlippedNormals render presets. If you need some quick and gorgeous renders they are really a way to go. Available for MayaBlender and Modo.



Gael has explained how to set up a render scene on our own, but I lacked time and used this little “cheat”.  It is always great, however, to know how to set the lighting in your scene to create great renders. If you want to improve your lighting skills, it will be a good idea to watch Lighting setup for Photo/Video tutorials like this one:



If You Want to Make Creatures

Knowledge of anatomy can help you a lot while working on creatures, especially ones that are fictional. At first glance, you can think: if they are not real, I can do anything you want. But everything we do is expected to be seen by someone, and we, people, are used to comparing everything we see to something we know. Good knowledge of human and animal anatomy will help you to create believable creatures. Lycans from Order 1886 are a great example.

When doing something completely fictional, it is always good to ask yourself a few questions. Where does it live, what does it eat, how does it move? After that, plan your creature and think what anatomical parts can be for it: is it humanoid, reptile, insect, or some kind of a mix? When I was working on the previous project and got game-changing advice to look at some animal anatomy, it really helped to push the character.




While making creatures, get a lot of references, observe nature to get an understanding of proportions and shapes. If you want to create something realistic but with fictional parts, look closely at the animals that resemble your creature. Study their proportions, dynamics, etc. and then apply everything to your own creature. Great examples would be characters by Antoine Verney-Carron and Javier Blanco.


If you plan to create something completely fictional you have to really understand what you are doing. Design is an iterative process. Make different versions and choose one that fits your needs. Anatomy itself is no more than an instrument in your hands. When you know it, you can break the rules to create something completely new, and the more you know, the better you can do that. Move/remove/add limbs, exaggerate proportions, mix everything the way you want it but remember to apply the fundamental knowlege of anatomy. Without it, the result can be weird. Also, find friends and show them your work in progress, so that they can point our questionable places right away.



Overall, learning creature production is a long way and it is always nice to let someone who knows more than you teach you. I believe that Gael Kerchenbaum put a lot of effort into the course to make it great. He is a great teacher and a great person. During the course, I learned a lot about animal anatomy, basic creature design principles, posing, rendering and even texturing, plus there is quite a lot of additional information you can get from live Q&A sessions if you actively participate in them.

This is the end of this wall. Thanks for reading to the patient ones!

Animal Anatomy Production Guide

Interview with Phu Nguyen

Phu Nguyen talked about his recent work made at CGMA and shared the process of creating a leopard.

Animal Anatomy Production Guide



Hi, My name is Phu Nguyen, and I’m a Lookdev Artist working for Vinata Animation Studio in Saigon. I was interested in Painting and Drawing when I was a kid. Later, I went on self-taught on those things and slowly made a transition into 3D.

I started as a 3D Model and Texture Artist at outsourcing studios for the gaming industry, then I move to BlueR studio working on Film and TVC. Working on that team helped me improve so much and I can have an overall look about how each department (concept, model, animation, lookdev, comp, etc.) can connect/work together to fully create a product from start to end.

Now, besides working for my current studio, I also do some personal project at free time. Learning and experiencing new things, new knowledge and improving my self as an artist, and those are something I always looking for. So that’s why I decided to take the CGMA course “Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature”.

Gathering the Reference and Inspiration

For the first half of the course, our goal is to study a random animal and create a sculpture of him/her from the inside out (bone, muscle system, skin). So I started gathering reference images about Panthera, not any pacific type, just a bunch of images of tiger, leopard, jaguar, lion… as well as the skeleton, and anatomy references from the book. Two main books I like the most is:

  • Animal Anatomy for Artists, The Elements of Form by Eliot Goldfinger
  • An Atlas Of Animal Anatomy For Artists by W. Ellenberger, H. Baum, and H. Dittrich

I also take a look at some artwork from other artists, especially my lecturer, Gael Kerchenbaum, and Jun Huang from Jun Anatomy.

After that, I begin to analyze that information, compare proportion, shapes between each type and try to imagine how the study could turn out. Finally, I decide to pick the Leopard (Panthera Pardus) because of how elegant the shape and the movement of that creature are! Then after that, the reference board was born!



Hand drawing anatomy references on the board are from the Lion, it’s a little bit hard to find the Leopard’s one, but It’s fine. Basically, Leopard and Lion are the same, they’re just different on the proportion, I can adjust it while sculpting.

Studying  References and Creating the Skeleton Structure

First thing I was going to do is to study and understand the references. The ASM for me was to draw a bone structure and muscle system on top of the photo of my creature. It seemed easy on the surface but kinda tricky, because that was my first time to dig in, and studied every part of that creature. Besides that, I had to compare the leopard anatomy with human and other creature’s anatomy. And this helped me a lot for overlooking the whole project.




I started modeling by sculpting the Skull first.  This is the most important part of the creature. Everythings about the skull must be right. It had to look right, feel right and have the right proportion.  The reason for that is with that right skull, you can use it to measure and build up other bones to make sure the whole skeleton system has the right proportion.



Besides proportions, when I was sculpting in Zbrush, I mainly focus on how to blend primary shapes and secondary shapes together. To me, the sweet spot is when primary shapes are mainly visible, while secondary shapes help to breakdown and make the primary one look less boring. But the secondary shade cannot override all the information of the primary shapes. Then, when got that, I added some surface detail to make the model look more realistic and interesting.



After finished the skull, I moved to work on the skeleton systems. I intend to split every skeleton into individual substool, so I could easily adjust and posting later on. I used Insert Mesh Brush and Dynamesh for creating and blocking the primary shapes of every bone. When it was done, I used Zremesher to nail the topology, then Subdivide the mesh to add secondary shapes and details.



Building Muscles and Detailing Echorche

I used the same method to build up muscles from the skeleton system. At this point, everyone had their own workflow, others wanted to merge everything, but I rather kept every muscle separated. In my opinion, working this way makes the creature look more realistic because everything overlaps each other in the right way, casting shadows inside creases and corners rather than just a simple brush stroke.



When adding muscles, the proportions may look a little bit off but I wasn’t too concerned about that. I was focusing on the anatomy of the animal because every muscle is separated, I could easily move/rotate/ re-sculpt every wrong one without affecting the others.

After adjusting the proportion and overall shapes, it’s time to start detailing the ecorche. This step can be totally skipped, but I already had plans to render this ecorche later. So I just go for it!
Keeping everything separated is fine. But It will raise up a lot of polygons and slow my computer down. And when I’m detailing, I cannot work seamlessly between every substool. So for the purpose of detailing the ecorche and adding skin later, I decided to merge down everything into a new file. Then I retopology the model by Zremesher, subdivide it and project with the old model to bring the details into the new one then start sculpting. The main brushes I usually use are dam standard, clay buildup, h-polish, and move. These’re just basic brushes in Zbrush.



While detailing, I kept fixing the proportion for the animal, building up volume and shapes for the muscles, creasing conner to make it more appealing and adding muscle fiber, a bone landmark on the surface to make the ecorche feel much more believable. One more important things, I kept everything in a separate layer. So I could easily turn down the intensity or adjust each layer independently without affecting other parts.

Adding Skin on the Creature

Things get much easier, when bone, muscles, and proportions are well established. I used the ecorche as a base mesh to add skin on top. First, I created a Morph Target of the current mesh. Then I made a Skin layer and started sculpting on it. Whenever I want an area to get back to the original mesh, I used Morph brush and start painting that area.



At this point, I collected more references about the real-life leopard, studied them about how does the skin fold? how is bone landmark appear? which muscle is visible? which muscle is covered by the skin? etc….

The more I understand, the more realistic this animal could become. Because some areas ( paws, face, ear…) has a very complex shape and detail which you can’t simply sculpt by imagination.



Posting and Create Maquette

My first attempt when start posting was to create a complex aggressive pose to express how dangerous this creature is. But when I was doing that, I ran into lots of trouble like mesh was bending/broken, losing detail which I had to resculpt some area and It was too much time-consuming. The reason for all those issues was because this creature was still in ZBrush, it didn’t have proper topology and rigging. So when I tried posting it with only transform and move tool, It was way too easy for me to mess up the whole mesh. That first attempt was really a disaster for me so I quickly dropped it.



My second attempt was much more simple. I found some references when leopard goes hunting. they slowly walk to their prey, by doing that, they look so dangerous and terrifying and that walking post is really big cat’s signature. On the other hand, the walking pose is much easier to pull out with less effort and risk. So I decided to go for it.



Same as the skin, I created a new layer for posing and sculpted on that. When posting, I still needed to resculpt some areas to keep the details fitting with a new pose, but not much work as the first attempt. I’m quite happy with the result.

For final rendering, I need two versions. A skin version (version A) looks like a miniature, another version (version B)  has skeleton, ercoche and skin line up.

Version A:

I creature the Base in ZBrush sculpted some rocks and placed them around to add a little more complex to the scene. I used Zbrush Fiber mesh for the glass. I also reuse the skull in some bones of this animal to decoration and add story for this.



Version B:

I only use a simple base which had been modeled in Maya and ZBrush. The idea of this version to create an illusion of a photograph of three figures standing next to each other.



Lighting and Final Render

I like to use quite numbers of light to lit my scene, especially the spotlight. By doing that, I could be able to control where the light hit lit things up and where I didn’t want to. So I could show want I want to show, and hide what I don’t like from viewer. Area and spotlight was my main light source. The backdrop is needed for the bouncing light to help the scene feel more believable and realistic.



I also used a different light set for every scene to make the mood and look every one of them feels right, not be over burned or darkened in some areas. The key thing is every light set need to have the same intensity and feeling to keep consistency between different camera. By doing that, I can trick the viewer to believe that this creature is always in the same environment with the same lighting setup.

I used Arnold for rendering. It’s a little slower than other render engines, but the result is quite good and works well for me. Because these models are decimated mesh in ZBrush and have no UV, So I only use aiShader to handle pretty much all the lookdev. Only the backdrop uses texture. And the shader is very simple, just some base color variations sit on top of SSS (subsurface scattering).




So this is the end of this project. I have learned so much during this CGMA course. It’s quite difficult for me to work on this animal anatomy’s things because I have never get in so deep into it.

The biggest challenge is building up the muscle from the skeleton because every one of them has quite a unique shape. There’s a ton of muscle stacking up onto each other, layer to layer. And every one of them has to connect to several bones in the skeleton system. So for first-timer like me, got lost in all of those things is unavoidable.

So, thanks to Gael Kerchenbaum with his feedback and guidance, I was able to punch through it as well as complete the project and get a pretty good result (good for me, not so sure for others). Besides, learning about animal sculpting, I also my lighting, rendering and compositing skills during this project.

Thanks for your time! See ya!

Phu Nguyen, Lookdev Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev via 80.Lvl


Sculpting a Dragon in ZBrush from Skeleton to Skin

Interview with Chara Taliadorou

Chara Taliadorou did a breakdown of the dragon created during the CGMA course Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature.

Sculpting a Dragon in ZBrush from Skeleton to Skin


My name is Chara Taliadorou, I am a 3D Character Artist currently building my portfolio. I’ve graduated from the Athens School of Fine Arts with a bachelor’s degree in traditional painting and have been working as a freelance artist ever since. A year ago, I took an interest in 3D modeling and started learning it during my free time.

Taking Courses at CGMA

Recently, I’ve taken the course Sculpting Anatomy: From Animal to Creature at CGMA with Tan Bi as an instructor and lectures by Gael Kerchenbaum. This is my second CGMA course, the first one was ZBrush for Concept and Iteration with Michael Pavlovich.

In this article, I am going to break down the process of creating the dragon I made for the Sculpting Anatomy course. I chose this course because I think that in order to create believable characters and creatures you need to have an understanding of the physical world and since I studied anatomy in the university, I wanted to interpret that knowledge in a 3D environment. For this course, I had to do two assignments:

  • Create a realistic animal by breaking down the anatomy of the skeletal system, muscle system, and then skin and detail, over the course of 6 weeks
  • Create a dragon using the knowledge we obtained by studying the anatomy of a realistic animal and interpret it in the imaginary creature, over the course of 4 weeks


Reference and inspiration

For the dragon assignment, I first started gathering my reference. I’d given some thought first on what kind of dragon I wanted. I definitely didn’t want my dragon to be heavily built and I also wanted to give him large wings that could lift his body from the ground. For the main body, I thought it would be interesting to use the anatomy of a dog - a slim but masculine body like one of a Doberman was the best choice. For the legs, I used the anatomy of a Theropod dinosaur, a combination of a Velociraptor and a T-rex. The tail is a combination of a lizard and a Velociraptor. The skull is a combination of a T-rex and a Velociraptor with some tweaking to give it a dragon look by adding some horns. The large bat wings completed the image I had in mind for my dragon.

I used three different reference boards, one for the skeleton, one for the muscles, and one for color and skin details. It was much easier for me to work that way. Gathering reference is the most important step in the creative process, it helps you visualize what you have in mind.


Then I started modeling my dragon in ZBrush. During the first week, I worked on the dragon’s skeleton. First, I started working on the skull, trying to combine the two dinosaur skulls (Velociraptor, T-rex) into a unique one and also making sure it had the necessary space for horns. In order to do that, I started with a sphere and with the move brush, I adjusted the shape in order to match my reference. Then, I proceeded to dynamesh and continued adjusting and adding volume with the clay tubes brush. For the cavities, I used the insert IMM primitives brush to quickly create the holes in the skull. 

After Zremeshing the skull and adding more details, I moved on to the rest of the body. The skeleton was done in the same fashion, working out each bone separately trying to give it the right proportions.

The tricky part was the wings. How do you attach them? During the lectures, we were shown two different ways to attach the wings. The first one resembles the way they are attached in a bird’s skeleton and the second replicates the way they are attached in a bat’s skeleton (which is pretty to human anatomy) - I chose the second way. I first added a scapula for the front legs so that I knew where I was going to position them and then I added a second scapula where the bones of the wings were attached. It was easy from there. I also made sure to keep the bones of the entire body separated in order to be able to go back and change the shape if I wanted to. What this course made me realize was that animals and humans have the same anatomy, just in different proportions, positions and sometimes amount like the number of fingers or tail bones. Once you realize that, it gets easier to create anatomically correct creatures if you know the anatomy.



After finishing the skeletal system, I moved on to the muscle system. The skeleton was my guide to add the muscles on top correctly. I used the same method as for the skeleton by adding spheres, adjusting the shape for each individual muscle and then adding them to the right place. I tried keeping the muscles separated as long as possible before merging them together with dynamesh and adding the extra details. For the wings, I used the manual retopology tools in ZBrush. I first inserted a zsphere and then used edit topology to activate the manual topology features. After that, I just drew new topology and created the shape of the wings. In the end, I used the panel loops feature to give the wings some thickness. 

Skin & Details

Next, it was time for skin and details. Adding the skin was an easy part since the muscles beneath it helped me keep the shape. I duplicated my model so that I could have the muscles as a different model and worked on the copy. For the skin volume, I just merged the borders of the muscles together using the clay tube brush, adding the necessary skin volume and trying not to lose the shape of the muscle underneath.

After applying the skin, it was time to create folds, like on the neck, armpits, and general areas where the skin folds mostly during movement. Then, I added the finer details for the leathery lizard look that brings life into the character. For me, this was the most fun and the most difficult part altogether. Firstly, I used some ready alpha maps. I applied smaller scales in areas where the skin folds, like the knees, where it would be impossible for the skin to fold if it had large scales. I also hand-sculpted larger scales in different areas like the face, feet, tail. That was the most difficult part for me since I tended to repeat the patterns and lines of the scales and that didn’t make the skin look realistic. The instructor helped me a lot here showing how to differentiate those recurrent patterns and make the skin more accurate.



For the skin color, I chose some amazing references of Blue Iguana (see the Reference boards above). After laying down some UVs using the UV Master plugin in ZBrush, I painted my dragon. I used different color layers beginning with the primary color of the dragon and adding some lighter and darker main colors. Then, I moved to secondary and tertiary colors. Very helpful tools that I learned were the Mask by cavity and Mask by smoothness features in ZBrush, which allowed me to paint the cavities of the scales by inverting the mask. I could also paint the scales without losing the detail in the cavities and the scales themselves.


For the render, I used a plain black background since I wanted to create a more dramatic look and make the color stand out. I used ZBrush to render my dragon. During the lectures, we were taught how to render our model in Maya but since it took a while for the color texture to complete, I chose a quicker way and was pretty happy with the result.  


My experience with CGMA classes was amazing. I improved a lot and I believe the main reason for that is feedback. Tan Bi is a great instructor and through his feedback, I pushed my limits more than once and improved as an artist. The lectures from Gael Kerchenbaum were very detailed and presented his process clearly. Overall, what I learned was: 

  1. Reference. Always use a reference board. In order to create something believable, always rely on something that already exists. 
  2. Blocking. Start with a simple shape (sphere, cube) and then add more geometry as you go.
  3. Anatomy. By studying the anatomy of existing animals you can create believable imaginary creatures by combining and tweaking existing anatomy.
  4. Feedback. This is what moves our work forward and helps us become better artists.

Chara Taliadorou, Character Artist

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

The Youngest Dragon: Sculpting Creature Anatomy and Details

Interview with Tjeu Pubben

Tjeu Pubben shared the production details of a 3D creature made in ZBrush and Maya during his studies at CGMA.

The Youngest Dragon: Sculpting Creature Anatomy and Details


Hello all, my name is Tjeu Pubben and I am a self-taught creature artist. Currently, I am working at Ubisoft as a Player Support Agent.

When I was younger and watching Jurassic Park with my brother, my parents were doubting whether the two of us really needed to see all the on-screen carnage. We were all too happy with this carnage on display, though. These moments made me realize that there are people in this world who make such movie creatures as a job. This realization transformed from movies into game art, and overtime back to creature art.


The course started at the perfect moment for me. I just finished school which gave me an abundance of free time. Next to that, looking at Gael’s work is an inspiration in and of itself. To get lessons from this beast of an artist, such an amazing combination of available time and opportunity!

When I was attending schools, I realized that they would never teach me the things I wanted to learn and the skills I wanted to pursue. School is a whole other discussion topic in itself. Do know that getting the basics and getting them right requires a lot of time and effort. School is this small capsule of time where you can do this work. It taught me valuable lessons in discipline, managing egos and friendship.

Before, I organized a workshop on animal drawing together with Joe Weatherly. This showed me how to look at animals, how to feel their pose, and how to capture their essence. Being able to look through the animals’ exterior and recognize their anatomy helped me in the course immensely. It was one of the first lessons, too! What I wanted to learn was to be able to create écorchés correctly with a high level of focus on proportions and design. And, of course, to create one of the cool dragons!



The Youngest Dragon: Reference


Who doesn’t want to create a super cool dragon? This has always been an artistic dream of mine, to create dinosaurs and dragons! The initial plan was to create a dinosaur-like dragon based on the Spinosaurus. More akin to a water- or swamp-dwelling dragon. Something that was a clear goal for me was to achieve the quality akin to the T-Rex in Jurassic Park. To have an interesting yet primal creature that can instill fear in hearts and minds.

There were many boards of references and mood boards. These encompassed bones, skeletons of dinosaurs and lizards. Images of 3D scans, references from academic studies, and wildlife photographs. Keep an open mind when collecting references, don’t be afraid of anatomical breakdowns. Though don’t look at them when eating! And keep the time spent on this in check, else you might end up spending more time collecting references than actually sculpting.


Sculpting the Body

After you make an animal, you have a full setup of bones, muscles, and skin. In my case, the animal whose muscles I was working on was a cow. This enables you to create skeletons faster. I always use ZBrush for this purpose. Restart the skull sculpt as this is usually different from the mammal skull structure. Or use the skull if the face shapes correspond. Always work in a lower sDiv to keep the model pliable and adjustable. This way you can always check the proportions and make adjustments.

There are moments to consider when using Dynamesh and when to stop using it. My take on this is that you make 99% of the primary forms using Dynamesh, you zRemesh the mesh, and continue to sculpt. It is a temporary mesh to make the sculpting go correct. After all the sculpting is done, you want to retopologize the mesh in whatever software you use. This is to make it either game- or animation-ready. There is always a way to project your details back on top of the mesh in ZBrush. Our intention is to make a concept sculpt to use for presenting ideas that progress in the pipeline. The model itself is as such not complicated. In the early stages, this is very fluid since you use Dynamesh and ZRemesher a lot. First, you get the shapes and proportions right and then move on to secondary shapes. When all the muscles and bones line up you have 70% of the model done. When you know where the bones are, you will know where the muscles go. When you know where the muscles go, you know where the skin goes. When you know where the skin goes, you will know where to put the details.



The texture I created is not a complex one, it combines two very strong programs. First, the bulk of all the work. I created the albedo using ZBrush PolyPaint and the masks available in ZBrush. The main masks used are Mask by cavity and Mask by smoothness. These masks will ensure that you can fill in the cavities. Creatures aren’t cleaned every day so dirt and grime build up between scales and in skin folds. Layers of dirt will influence the colour. Use the opposite colour of what is present and the cavity mask to build up this grime. Next in line is the smoothness mask. It is gentler than the cavity mask and will allow you to create this grime build-up on the bigger parts of the body. Scales, nails, teeth, though also think of the feet. Always work from reference. Use animals that are closest to whatever creature you are creating. Lizards were the biggest source of reference in my case. This way you can make your creation look real.

Add to that the other part in Maya – adding the SSS shader – and you make a skin texture that is realistic. The sub-surface scattering is the icing on the cake for creatures. This adds a layer of plasticity and simulates the skin with subdermal layers. This will also give you the opportunity to create an SSS mask to make parts see-through. This happens in the real world when you look at thin layers of skin in a backlight and the light shining through them. Think ears, sometimes fingers, teeth, or nails.



Detailing the Creature

First of all, to get the gritty details right, you need a very high polycount. The full model ended up having about 75 million polygons. 

Be aware of the different types of materials at play. This will influence how you sculpt the shapes and carve in details. This goes beyond the final stage. You need to keep balance, weight, gravity, and movement in mind. The anatomy of your creature can change at any moment and this influences the muscles, and therefore skin and details. Teeth, nails, and scales are harder surfaces than the skin. These show signs of wear on them, scratches, and in extreme cases, cracks. All of these are tools to create a story.

I was initially very scared of turning the symmetry off. This resulted in heavy use of alphas, blending alphas, and some manual enhancing at parts. I have used a lovely alpha from They can be recommended for all parts of my dragon and playing with the intensity will give you many uses. Next in line is the Dam_Standard_02 brush. When used at low intensity and large size, it will push geometry away while carving a path. I used this to emphasize the alphas and create very interesting patterns of skin, folds, or scales. I applied this to the small scales to blend alphas together or to enhance large scales. Make space for bigger scales. I used this on the chest of the dragon.




I used the classic colour combo of blue and orange, in a milder manner. Nothing fancy – start from the basic 3-point light setup: key, fill, and rim. As this is a large animal, you will need supporting lights. The creature would be roughly 4 meters in size in reality. Arnold uses real-world dimensions to calculate the lighting. In total, I have 6 lights, 4 of which function as supportive to get the nice rim light and edge highlights in, to break any tangents or muddying of the shapes.

Of course, with the SSS this will increase the warmth of the scene. This also affects the impact and mood of the image. I did light tests with inspiration I found in a flier with a cow silhouetted against an orange sunset. My thinking was those wings would be an amazing thing as the SSS would be another extra layer in the image. It was a lot of fun and frustration at the same time to get the lighting correct. The most fun I had was while I was playing with the spread of the area lights. I did this to make a narrow beam of light that can kiss the silhouette of the model.

As such you will need many lights to ensure the whole model is properly lit – when I achieved this, it was bliss!



One of the biggest challenges was time. While I had plenty of time, life still managed to get in my way. You want to create the most awesome model out there which I have tried many times. I learned to tone this urge down during the course, it is alright if you don’t have all the work done. Your intention is there. Seeing how people create awesome anatomical breakdowns makes me want to make them too. Hold up, though, take your time.

One issue that I ran into later in the process was that I cut my model wrongly. This resulted in a visible cut line in the model when rendering. I kept projecting the main shapes on top of each other so it remained cut while I should have merged the model and project the details up to a lower sDiv. Still struggling with this, but I will figure it out!

Gael and the Discord group have been a genuine godsend in this. The number of times I asked for help, feedback, or motivation has been endless. Getting personalized feedback from your instructor is great. I still listen to those lessons today from time to time, as the amount of information you receive in those 10 weeks is insane. The lessons learned during the course have been invaluable in my development as an artist and as a person, a true basis for life. My approach to creature design is unrelenting and passionate as I firmly believe this is the way to becoming a true master of the craft.

At the moment I am working on a stylized bat that I intend to 3D print. After that, I want to switch it up and look at vegetation – Houdini and a game-ready environment with a focus on organics. Creating animals and creatures will be in my DNA. Creating environments around them will be the icing on the cake. In attending a few art events I have been lucky enough to meet my art heroes. This only fuelled me further and I will be attending art events the next year to meet more heroes!


A final note is a special thank you to 80.LVL for reaching out to me. Another special thanks to CGMA for allowing me to follow the course. A big thank you for our Discord group, for all the feedback and shared references. You are on the top of my Discord list. Another very big thank you to Gael for sharing his wealthy knowledge about sculpting animals.

Tjeu Pubben, Creature Artist

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova