Creating a Skeleton Pirate in Blender and Marvelous Designer

Nikolay Kvartnikov talked about making the Smoking Pirate project, discussed sculpting and modeling in Blender, and gave a piece of advice on time management.


My name is Nikolay Kvartnikov and I work as an Art Director and CG artist at Fiero Animals studio. I studied to be a linguist, but after 2005 I started working as an illustrator. I am self-taught and continue to study constantly to this day. In 2008 I created the studio Fiero Animals, where I still work today. 

We are specializing in the production of commercial CG and photo-based imagery for the advertising and entertainment industries. Our main client is network advertising agencies and for 15 years we have managed to work with a very large number of different brands.

Our projects are very diverse and in a short period of time, we managed to work on a car, a yogurt, a character, a shampoo, an environment, a poster for a movie. In fact, working as an Art Director and a Generalist is when you need to connect new tools or gain the necessary experience for a project. The software used is also completely different.

For me, it was mainly 3ds Max + Corona Render, Blender, Marvelous Designer, and now we are starting to use the Unreal Engine.

The Smoking Pirate Project

The main idea came up on the first anniversary of quitting smoking, and I thought that this should be celebrated with some project in which there will be a lot of new things for me. To make a sculpture of a character, to sew all his clothes from scratch, to model all the jewelry – it was a great and crazy idea because I did not make any clothes before.

And the image of the smoking skeleton pirate arose from a number of fairly simple associations. Together with the selection of references, I made a rough sketch of the ideas. The skull in the wig, the parrot, and the collar were supposed to be the brightest areas in the image.

The image was presented to me as a classic portrait of the 17th century, where characters in bright clothes sit on a dark or contrasting background with one main light source. No flabby skeletons in cobwebs and torn clothes. Therefore, portraits were selected mainly of admirals and governors. A dashing and stately character in full dress – beads, hedgehogs, pistols. A static pose, but the rhythm is made up of additional elements. In the course of more and more immersion in the project, about 20 different folders with references appeared, for each type of detail, for atmosphere, color, light, and so on.

Below is the general moodboard. And the skull is a rather impersonal image, but from the way I held myself, I somehow immediately came up with the image of Gary Oldman from the Prada ad. Self-satisfaction, straight back, calm, direct gaze.

Movies, photos from various pirate festivals, and, most importantly, museum websites served as a huge resource for references. I would also like to mention The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I found a huge number of references on clothing and other items.

Creating the Skeleton

I began to alternate between sculpting something in Blender and working on clothes in MD. Sometimes I would sculpt some simple things – cups, jugs, and sometimes more complicated things like African masks and jewelry while collecting references and patterns for clothes.

At the beginning of working on the skull and skeletons, I had a base from DAZ and some bones with CGTrader. But all this was not at all what I needed and sculpting became the main task for me on this project

The Outfit

In the process, I constantly collected clothing patterns and references.

A coat, a vest, a shirt, a sash, three belts, a bag, trousers, boots, a bandana, and a hat were sewn, and strings for beads were made at once in Marvelous Designer. All the clothes were sewn a little larger so that they sagged more heavily on the skeleton and there were deeper pronounced folds. Everyone has seen what are the upgraded screenshots from the viewport with Matcap and how it then looks faded on the render – it's not just about the light and ambient occlusion, but in general, small hypertrophy looks more realistic.

Everything went with varying success, some details were given quickly and from the first time, but the boots and the tricorn hat were changed 3-4 times. It was constantly necessary to look for new patterns and refs. And in the end, I found a video from the Lost Wax guy, who sewed a real tricorn hat for himself, and in one of the frames his pattern got caught and it was perfect for me.

Probably the most useful tool in Marvelous Designer for me is Pins, which allows you to quickly fix the result you like.

Everything was done on a standard DAZ guy and a simple animation was made for him, as well as guns and a barrel with a chair were loaded as avatars. After the simulation was done with the guy, his avatar was replaced with a skeleton and made an additional simulation to make the clothes sag.

Here below are screenshots from Marvelous and renderings, where on one we see clothes stretched on the muscles-trapezoids, thighs and a simulation on the skeleton, where everything is sagging. A large number of wrinkles and creases appeared on the clothes. And later I added a Normal Map to enhance it.

It is important to say that all the weapons were taken from Quixel Megascans (blades), and I bought the pistols on CGTrader. All this was modified, re-modeled somewhere, repainted, I also looked at my references and reworked a lot on the models, but for all weapons, there was originally a base.

Belts are my special pride on this project. They were made in MD with some small additional sculpting in Blender.


Jewelry is generally a separate story that developed in parallel with the costume. It also started with some general references. And then it was clarified according to the situation, in the process of work I made rough renderings and estimated sketches, how the story with the decorations could develop. And here it is important to say that this whole story is about "overkill” and about how these guys decided to hang everything on themselves.

All this was created from scratch. In fact, the pirate, parrot, and barrel are not so much jewelry, but thanks to the beads and colorful fabrics around and cloned details, everything looks much brighter and larger. And I'll write more below about the still life on the barrel and treasures in the background. 

Beads – lots of beads! They were made with the array and curve modifiers in Blender. Various chains were made the same way.

The sculpture was also made in Blender and this part of the work was the main test for me on this project. I tried to sculpt all the main points. The main thing here is perseverance and understanding that everything will happen, but not immediately. If on the first day some object came out very damp and crooked, then on day 4 or 5... or the 10th all necessarily worked out. Any creativity and work is an iterative process and the number of approaches greatly affects the result.

Here is an example of a bull pendant – yes, no one will see these details in the final picture, but for me, it was all training in sculpting. Of course, I tried not to spend a lot of time on something that would be small in size. But sometimes I got carried away, as with this mask (it can also be seen as a small pendant around the pirate's neck)


UV's of the sewn goods in Marvelous Designer were meticulously saved and later the Maps were created in Photoshop and Blender. All textures were drawn in 8 or 6 thousand pixels because different sizes were planned in the angles. Drawing Maps and creating materials is one of my favorite activities. I always like to work with contrasts and to have different surfaces side by side.

All shaders are made of multi-layer materials, where there are usually 2-3 layers. Here are examples with the outfits, but metal and bone shaders are built the same way:

  1. Clean material, where the item is as good as new.
  2. Material with dirt, scuffs + mask to it.
  3. Layer with Ambient occlusion or Dirty Vertex Colors, which were used for darkening in recesses or sometimes for dust and scuffing increases.
  4. Sometimes an additional layer was used for the drawn masks. For example, the boot becomes more dusty lower to the sole. Or boot marks on the pillow. There is also an example with belts, where in addition to the layers with cracks and AO, more severe scuffs were drawn in places where the belts more often come into contact with other objects. 

I started working in Blender, because in addition to sculpting, it was convenient to manually paint the model, draw some masks for dirt and scuffs. And the big plus was Eevee, because all the scratches on the belts and metal, working with textures are displayed immediately, and you don't wait for the render noise to dissipate. Both the sculpting itself and the models could be immediately evaluated with materials and light.

And it's amazing! Look at the screenshots below – yes, Eevee sometimes creates worse shadows for small objects and the light sources work differently, but this is a real-time job

Well, the final touch of the work on the character was a wig with curls, which immediately added charm. I also made it in a standard hair Blender. On the sides, the curls were twisted with the help of guide curves. And the back of the skull was simply combed. And then she wore a bandana and a hat on top of everything.

Setting Up the Treasure Cave

The barrel and bottle appeared on the first sketch, but the rest was drawn, added, and removed in the process. When I approached this still life, I wanted to point something more at the barrel, be sure to have beads and jewelry. First, I made some sketches of the content. I have carefully reviewed the works of the old masters and their still lifes.

It was important for me not to divert attention from the main characters, and so the whole still life remained a little in the shadows, and the characters were caught in the light. The main large objects were: a chest, a crown, a statue, a cup, a bottle, as well as various jewelry, chains, beads, and coins. The statuette model was taken from Sketchfab with a CC0 license. But the rest was also modeled according to various references.

The chest became a mix of various references. And I was already guided by its visibility in the frame when modeling. The crown took less time than I thought. Apparently, I had already had experience with jewelry and it was necessary to create one segment and then clone it. I found a ref of the cup from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and practically repeated it, and the same thing happened to the bottle.

I have already described the making of jewelry. And the coins were first piled up in a separate scene and then used for the foreground geometry, and the textures were baked in the background

I made some rough and very different sketches with chairs. And in the end, I picked a less bulky version + added seahorses on the sides.

At various references, I came across a voluminous royal foot pillow, and I made one in Blender with a simulation of fabric + a small sculpture, and the brushes are curves (splines) with volume and texture.

And when the characters were ready, they had a barrel with still life, a chair, and a pillow under their feet, I realized that I was not ready to stop there and that I needed a normal background that is not inferior in detail. And then I go back to the artists, this time the 19th century – that's when people knew a lot about the details. In many ways, these are the Austrians Hermann Kern and Johann Hamza

The cave was created using Quixel Megascans – several models of rocks and stones. And the haze was made on the plains with a texture with transparency.

Treasures in the background come from Sketchfab. Special thanks to the Minneapolis Institute of Art and Malopolska's Virtual Museums, I used their CC0 licensed models to fill the cave with treasures. Also, coins, beads, and some objects were created in Blender – by modeling or sculpting.

When you use ready-made kits and models, it just saves a huge amount of time. There were one or two rocks used and cloned throughout the image. I transformed them to create the desired composition. I modeled the sand and made an uneven plain, but I also used a Megascan for Maps.

For draperies, I made a separate set with fabrics in Marvelous Designer. 


The light source was immediately determined – from the top left as if a ray from the sun from the opening in the cave "snatches" the characters and without strong contours and reflexes-everything is like in a classic portrait. And if the character had a nose, we would probably see the Rembrandt triangle. The difficulty with lighting the skull in the hat-make the light lower and the eye sockets are highlighted... the impression is lost. And if you raise it too high, you get a strong shadow from the cocked hat.

I initially set myself the task of achieving artistic lighting, and logic, and realism were in second place. But I think I managed to maintain a certain balance.

There are many cameras in the scene and they all have different focal lengths, but most of them are 100 mm or 75 mm.

Rendering in 4k took from 2 to 5 hours, depending on the number and size of details in the frame. Everything was saved in 16 bits because the images are relatively dark and you needed a margin to work with brightness.


Fabrics, clothing, sculpting, characters, jewelry were my weak points before. And now I have a passion for this direction, there is a common understanding and I really liked the workflow. All this work was very useful for me on commercial projects.

Smoking Pirate, which took me quite a long time and allowed me to try new tools and in general became quite a serious test. The whole thing took about a year. Yes, it sounds scary, but this is not pure time and working colleagues understand what a personal project for a portfolio is in full employment. I did it gradually, with breaks for vacation, training, and other personal and commercial work.

I took it as an intensive course of study lasting a year. And in parallel with the pirate, I did additional work and tutorials, sewed a lot of other things, and sculpted objects that did not appear in this scene

The №1 difficulty of such a project is not to abandon it by digging into the details. And the release during my work (as if on purpose) of the new Last of Us II and Assassin's Creed very much slowed down the process.

But seriously, having already had a lot of experience in abandoned personal "long-term construction" and in advertising "Avral", I can say that in long-term construction, which does not motivate you financially, it is important to be able to diversify your activities. Try to break down 5 days of work per week into different stages, e.g:

  • Day 1 – working in Marvelous Designer.
  • Day 2 – sculpting/modeling in Blender.
  • Day 3 – sketches, references, experiments with materials or light.
  • Day 4 – work at Marvelous.
  • Day 5 – sculpting/modeling in Blender.

This approach can change depending on the stage of the project. There were already alternating between creating textures/materials with filling the background and with adjusting the light and experimenting with other angles. And you need to take 1-2 days of time-out and somehow switch. After all, in addition to this project for portfolio and pumping, there are commercial projects that most often go at a fairly brisk pace.

And there are no tricks! Give yourself more time for challenging work and training. This long-accumulated experience will then be useful to you when working at speed.

Huge thanks to my friend and partner in the studio, Eugene Sidelnikov. We have been working together at Fiero Animals for a long time, and some discussions and feedback during our work are very important.

I can say that by the time the work was published, I had found full zen, and I felt like a genie who was released from a lamp. It has been a great journey and I am now happy to plan new projects. Thanks to 80 Level for the opportunity to talk about my work! You can check out the full project here and here. And remember, don't smoke!

Nikolay Kvartnikov, CG Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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