Warhammer 40k Fan Art: Sculpting Chaos Lord in ZBrush

Warhammer 40k Fan Art: Sculpting Chaos Lord in ZBrush

Noel Cortes did a breakdown of the 3D character made with ZBrush and Substance Painter during his studies at Vertex School.

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Hi! My name is Noel Cortes. I am currently a freelance 3D sculptor. I've been into 3D since 2005.

Like most people in this industry, I've always been drawn to comic books, tv shows, video games, and movies. Growing up in the 80s was such an awesome time. Memories of my brother playing D&D with friends and watching 80s cartoons like Transformers, Thundercats, Silver Hawks, M.A.S.K., etc. was just inspiring. And I've always been interested in 3D. Whenever my dad would go overseas, he would bring home books and software for Windows 3.1 on how to make simple 3D objects.

At the time, there was never any real formal educational institution in the Philippines that specialized in 3D so I decided to take I.T. for college instead. After graduating from university, I worked as a moderator for two local game distributor companies. One of them started hiring 3D artists to customize in-game items for players to buy like university jerseys and hats. I asked the artists where they studied and once I got the info, I immediately resigned and jumped onto a month-long Maya basics training program.

I was then able to land a job at an animation studio and I worked on the first-ever 3D animated film in the Philippines, mainly as a modeler but I did some animation too. After working on the movie, I moved into the games industry and contributed to projects such as EA’s Battlefield Heroes, Tiger Woods 14, EA Madden 25, EA NBA Live 14, Naughty Dog's The Last Of Us, and Uncharted 4 as a modeler and texture artist. Since 2016, I decided to go freelance and have been working in the miniatures and toys industry.


I never really had substantial training of any kind aside from my 1-month Maya basics program. I learned mostly from office mates and from the projects I was assigned to. Back in 2005, there was not much info on 3D aside from Gnomon tutorials which were pretty expensive. ZBrush had just started and that was what I got into because it was the most natural way of getting into 3D. I would grab old copies of 3D World Magazine and follow some of the tutorials there and on the ZBrush site. I started following Ryan Kingslien and his tutorials so when I had the opportunity to take a course, I knew Vertex was the school to go to. Looking at Vertex School's curriculum, I felt it suited most of my needs. Although I could sculpt characters and knew the whole PBR process because of my previous work as an outsource artist, I never really had substantial coaching from anyone with regards to going through the whole process of making game-ready characters. Enrolling at Vertex would give me the chance to get professional advice and feedback from Ryan and Mario Stabile. I felt the Bootcamp would help me get a job as a character artist in the video games industry.

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Warhammer 40k Chaos Lord: Inspiration

I used to watch my friends play a lot of Warhammer back in the late 90s and they would allow me to paint the miniatures for them from time to time. I used to admire how people could sculpt such beautiful and horrific characters and I've always wanted to try recreating them in 3D. Before starting the Bootcamp, I already had an idea of what I wanted to do. Although I knew that the Lord of Chaos had too many details and parts to sculpt and that it contained no Marvelous Designer or hair, Ryan said to go for something I'm passionate about. I knew it was going to be quite a task given the deadlines but I just had to try.

I looked on Pinterest and got inspiration from Adrian Smith and Alex Boca's drawings. Once I had enough art, I settled on a design that was kind of a mish-mash of different pieces of armor. Parts of the character would change but I really wanted the character to exude the same amount of menace that was put into the drawings of these masters. I added small details here and there and tried to just free flow some aspects of the design but still draw inspiration from the drawings.

Sculpting Stage

Before starting on making details, the most important thing for me was to get the proportions right. Proportion and silhouette both play a huge factor in getting the character to look good. I blocked out the major forms in ZBrush really quickly to give me an idea of the height, then once that was done, I started sculpting a rough sketch and got some small amount of detail onto the character. When I was happy with the rough sketch, I used the flat color material, looked at the silhouette from all angles, and made adjustments to the character based on this. This step would go on until I felt the silhouette looked good from all angles making sure there's some interplay between positive and negative space. I then proceeded to sculpt more details on the character. Despite this major part though, I was always prepared to make adjustments to the proportions and silhouette during the course of the sculpt.

I then broke up the character into parts with the thought of UVs and textures. This gets you organized and allows you to look at the character by sections so you don't get too overwhelmed. It's always good to try and look at the similarities between each section of the character; what parts are similar, what parts can be made using insert meshes and alphas and what really needs to be sculpted from scratch. I also thought about the retopology stage. Retopologizing with symmetry will always make things easier so what parts can be sculpted symmetrically will help you to organize better.

I started my sculpt with the body armor since I felt it was the most complicated part. It had a lot of details like the skulls and spikes, especially the hump at the back that encompasses the head of the Chaos Lord. For most of the sculpt, I kept it as simple as possible. I made use mainly of the Standard, Move, and HPolish brushes. For the details, I used the DamStandard brush. For the deeper sharper cuts, I used the Orb Crack brush. I would also use a little of the Trim Dynamic brush to simulate hammer strikes on the armor and help out with the hard surface aspects of the armor. I kept in mind that I could achieve a lot of micro details utilizing Substance Painter like scratches, rust, and peeling paint. I focused more on the large to medium details in the sculpt like large chips that might affect the overall silhouette. I also kept a library of Insert Mesh brushes as I was working on the character like the spikes and skulls. I would modify them using masks or sculpt directly on top of them to make them look unique. This helped me move faster.

Once that was done and I was happy with the results, I then did a quick dynamesh, retopo, and UV of the body armor using Zremesher and UV Master. I wasn't really concerned with making clean topology and UVs at this step because this was in preparation first of all as a test bake to see how it would hold up in Substance Painter. Also to see what kind of geometry I could get away with that would look great but be easy to make while I retopologize. Primarily though, this step was to start on making the smart materials I was going to use throughout the whole character. I figured, once this material was done, applying it to all the parts would make life so much easier. I would just apply the smart material to the armor and tweak it accordingly for each part.

For the face, I used a mesh I had on hand from some other project as a base. You can do this with any base mesh, even the ones provided in ZBrush like the SuperAverageMan or Demo Head. I then sculpted the general forms based on feedback from my mentors and fellow classmates. When they approved, I then moved on to using the alphas from Texturing XYZ. I just used the pictures provided by Texturing XYZ as a guide as to which alpha to use on a particular section of the face. 

I also looked at pictures of pores on google as a reference. I added other imperfections here and there to break up the overall look. For the scars, I actually had a smart material I made from another class I took. I was lucky enough to already have skin burns, blood, cuts, and scars in my library so I didn't bother sculpting them anymore. SP can deal with relatively shallow amounts of depth or elevation that these things can be done without having to sculpt them in ZBrush. This saves a lot of time so I could place the scars and wounds and change them anytime without having to re-sculpt them in ZBrush. The rest was just all hand-painting layers upon layers to get the skin to look like the reference.

Then it's basically all rinse and repeat.

Texturing in Substance Painter

From my experience in working for art outsourcing companies, a lot of the work has to do with speed and quality. Most studios bid on the lowest amount of time it takes to make a great looking asset and this is where Substance really shines. The ability to create and share materials with other users is a big help in coming up with consistently good looking assets fast. Now, with the ability to even use scanned data and use them in making custom materials makes things so much easier.

For this project, I did not use any scanned data that I know of. Substance Painter has a pretty good default library for getting most of the texturing done. For me, there isn't much need to reinvent the wheel. I use most of the materials within SP to create my materials. For the armor, I load most of the default metal base and smart materials and look for aspects of each material I can use to make my own smart material like rust, metal scratches, paint cracks, and dirt. I tweak some settings and probably add some smart masks to tailor fit the effect for the Chaos Lord.

When I'm done making my Chaos Lord smart material, I save it to my library which can then be applied to all the major parts of the armor. For the other materials, it's basically the same idea. The only material I downloaded from Substance Share was the ground material I used for the base. I then mixed it with some other materials I had on hand like dust and blood. The base wasn't such a priority so even the retopo stage of that was just a quick Zremesher and UV master step. It was enough to set the mood but wouldn't take up too much of the time away from the main character.

When I felt that the test bake held up well in SP and the smart material was done and saved in my library, I then proceeded to sculpt the rest of the character continuing by area. I finished the helmet, arms and hands, the pauldrons, waist, legs, sword, and finally the face.


One of my biggest challenges was lighting. I'm not a very technical lighter. I went through a lot of iterations but the mentors reminded me to keep it as simple as possible. I then ended up using the 3 point lighting system as a base. 1 key light, 1 rim light, and 1 fill, and I then eventually built up from there.

I wanted to convey the feeling that the character was at a battle with everything burning around him. I imagined the Chaos Lord being in a war surrounded by the bodies of fallen Ultramarines. I also like the fact that the blue armor of the Ultramarine would add much-needed contrast to the reddish-orange theme I was hoping to achieve.

I'm a big fan of colored rim lights so I started manipulating them first. After the base 3 point lighting system, I added another rim light to the opposite side and changed the colors to represent fire. I also added another spotlight that just focused on his face. I made sure that this light had a blueish tint to it to contrast all the red and orange in the scene. It helped balance out the colors and also made the character's face look a little paler. One piece of advice I got from Mario was to keep the lit parts as the main focus and the rest would have subdued lighting. This was to direct the attention towards the more interesting parts of the character. I placed another spotlight just for the base to highlight some of its details.

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One thing to keep in mind is that you can play around with the setting of the lights. Some settings to look at that are particularly useful are the width which softens the shadows cast by the light, and the attenuation or distance. You can also turn off cast shadows or even contact refinement.

After I was happy with the lighting of the character, I brought the renders into Photoshop to superimpose sparks and some fog to add a little more flavor to the scene.


The biggest challenge I faced during the process of the project was really getting the quality I wanted within the time limit. I wanted to hit all the weekly deadlines without sacrificing quality so I could maximize the amount of feedback I'd receive from the mentors. I really pushed myself in all aspects of the project. Learning new techniques for the whole pipeline was really hard. As Ryan said, it's all about the process and making a process that you're comfortable with is the key. I think that's why most people like going to a school to learn. Working alongside people with guidance from industry professionals like Ryan and Mario really helps a lot. You never feel alone at a school and working/learning alone is really difficult. Having the opportunity to ask for professional advice, meeting new people, and sharing your progress really does speed up the learning process.

The mentors would meet with us once a week on separate days. Each mentor would look at the submission of the week and ask what you did and what challenges you faced. They would comment on the overall look of the project and the progress made over the week. They would look at all facets involved with making a good character. Proportions, silhouette, anatomy, sculpting quality, textures, lo resolution geometry, UV maps, and finally presentation.

I think the biggest lesson I've learned throughout the Bootcamp, aside from learning how to make a game-ready character,  is that the projects you make for your reel should more often than not reflect the studio you'd want to get into. You should spend a lot of time looking at how to market yourself to those companies and usually the best way to do it is to make characters that are the most useful to them. If they see that you're capable of making and hopefully matching the quality of the characters in their games, that would give you a good chance of at least getting noticed.

I'd like to land a job at a game studio as a character artist someday. For now, I will continue working on my skills and trying to improve. I know I still have a long way to go and more to learn but I will continue to populate my reel with more projects utilizing the skills I've learned throughout the Bootcamp and hopefully one of my dream studios takes notice of my work. 

Noel Cortes, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

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