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Creating a Realistic Portrait of IceCube in 3D

Luis Yrisarry Labadía did a breakdown of his character art project talking about capturing the likeness, hair, clothes, and lighting.


I am Luis, a 3D character artist with 15 years of experience in the advertising industry as a 3D artist. I have recently finished my contract with Framestore where I have been working for a year on Tom & Jerry, Dr. Dolittle, and I have also helped in pitches for unannounced shows.

Since I was a child I wanted to be an illustrator focused on superhero characters. Like every kid, I was super passionate about movies and comics so I was all day long sketching superheroes, villains, and creatures. I started working first in the advertising industry as a 3D artist and art director but after many years I finally could not stop my dream anymore and made my move into characters. Last year I got a dream job as a modeler at Framestore where I had the honor to model a few of the characters in the upcoming Tom & Jerry movie. Now I am doing art tests and freelance projects and I am open to new opportunities.

Studying Character Art

I was really passionate about drawing characters but I started graphic design because I thought it was what I needed. But some friends encouraged me to go to a proper 3D Academy and that was Sintesys in the north of Spain. I started working in the advertising industry and after many years I felt the urge of moving to characters since it was my true passion. So I enrolled in CGMA for the full character arts program while working full time as a 3D artist. That was really intense so I ended quitting my job and just focused on characters. Thanks to that brave move I got to be a character artist!

Since then I took courses and mentorships with the most inspiring masters like Scott Eaton, Christian Bull, and Kubisi. My personal projects usually serve as challenges to improve certain techniques. For example, IceCube was my first experience with Arnold and XGen.

I also like to test myself in different styles to grow as an artist. The way I see it, realistic characters are best practice to learn anatomy but they also push you a lot on the technical side to break your boundaries because you can always go further. On the other hand, stylized characters are more about design and how to play with proportions, dynamism, and gestures to make them appealing. Every time I go from realistic to stylized or vice versa I feel I learned something new so it is very enriching and I really learn a lot from both worlds. Practicing them makes me a better artist.

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IceCube: Pre-Production

Of course, this project is a tribute, IceCube is such a powerful rap icon and I wanted to challenge myself to replicate his charisma in a CG portrait. It was also a good excuse to listen to his music while working, it boosted my energy! 

For references, I like to collect as much as I can from as many angles and expressions as possible. When you start to go deep in likeness there are many subtleties you can find from different images you don't notice at first. I also pay attention to different camera lenses, they can confuse you. And finally, I like to watch interviews of the chosen subject once I kind of have decent progress because a portrait is just a frozen moment in time and photographers choose this moment by taking a lot of photos. Understanding how everything works in motion helps me to capture his essence, so to say.

Modeling the Face

For IceCube, I had Kubisi as my mentor for starters but it is always the same approach. First, gather as many refs as possible. Then start from a basemesh and try to focus on proportions because proportions are key! For that, I like to use the lowest subdiv levels to force me to focus on only big things first. It also helps me to look at it from a distance and you can go closer when you start nailing the bigger forms.

I also recommend researching face recognition patterns. We, humans, recognize people in a certain way and now mobiles use an AI for that. Looking at every angle over and over is mandatory and when some angles do not match the ref it's because something is off. Usually, the likeness works from some angles but not the others so you need to fix that and redo those angles. When you find those mistakes, the likeness improves drastically.

The next steps are basically looking for the smaller details but honestly, there are not as many small things to nail except when there is something very specific on the model.

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I like to start drawing the main strands on top of a ref to understand the flow. Then, I move to sculpt the hair in ZBrush that I will later use as a 3D ref. I take some time to analyze the different layers of hair strands and length variations before placing my guides but in this case, the hair was so short that the process was pretty much straightforward – I placed my guides and played a lot with modifiers like various levels of clumping, noise, cut, density and thickness.

The eyebrows usually share the same kind of flow and you just need to adapt it to the specific ref. The beard needed a bit more work of carefully placing guides and defining lengths and hair flow for different areas. And finally, the final hair was generated using groomable splines instead.


Depending on the garment, I manually sculpt it or use Marvelous Designer. Many times I go to MD to test how fabrics behave in real life to apply that behavior to my clothes. For IceCube, I sculpted all the clothes manually in ZBrush. Drapery is all about tension points and gravity. I recommend this fantastic book: Dynamic Wrinkles and Drapery by Burne Hogarth.

Texturing clothes is actually not very complicated. Most of the time, you only need a wavy pattern to tile a lot, a design – for IceCube is just a plain color – and of course, imperfections, wear and tear that help a lot to achieve realistic results.


The chain is really easy, I modeled one chain link and used MASH in Maya to control how the chain links are propagated along a spline. You have great control over how to define each chain link parametrically. I added randomness in rotation in all axes and also tried to carefully define how the spline lay on the torso with gravity in mind. You could also simulate this but I did it manually.


For lighting, I always start simple, by placing lights one by one only with a clay shader applied to the whole scene. For exteriors, I rely on HDR dome lights and area lights for interiors. Big area lights produce soft shadows while smaller area lights get sharper shadows instead. Having that in mind, I analyze my references to understand how many light sources there are and what kind of lights they are. You can get some hint at this from shadow contours and directionality. Then I solo each light source at a time or even change colors so I know which light affects what. For IceCube, I wanted some dramatic shadows that emphasize his charisma but in a natural studio lighting.

Challenges and Plans

My biggest challenge was nailing the likeness, but also learning how to properly use Arnold and XGen. I am happy with the final result, but to be honest I will go back and rework things... I am never satisfied but I guess that is what makes you get better!

As for the near future, I am trying to reach new clients for freelance projects or a full-time job. I am in contact with a few studios and in the meantime, I am trying to step up in the gaming industry as a character artist.

Luis Yrisarry Labadía, 3D CHaracter Artist 

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

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