Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 12 (December 2000)


By George Maestri

Pixologic's ZBrush is the first new painting application I've seen in a long time. In practice it lies somewhere between a 2D painting package and a 3D modeling program in that you use a traditional 2D brush to paint with fully rendered 3D objects. This makes ZBrush innovative and fun to use. In fact, ZBrush brings a whole new way of thinking to the digital painting process.

At the core of ZBrush is a technology called Pixol, which interprets each pixel in an image three dimensionally. This means that each pixel also carries depth information, which makes it easy to place objects in front of or behind other objects. By keeping objects in three dimensions, ZBrush also allows for the creation of lighting and material effects.

The software runs under Windows, but a Macintosh version is currently in beta. The product's interface is not standard to either platform. Unlike most Windows applications, for instance, ZBrush has no standard toolbar or drop-down menus. Instead, Pixologic has developed its own look and feel for the application that reminds me a bit of high-end Unix systems such as Discreet's Flame. Upon launching, the software presents the user with a mostly black screen, with white and gray icons and floating palettes. Keeping the images against black is a good idea, as it gives users a clearer view of what their final art will look like. I found it fairly easy to learn the interface and become productive with the software.
ZBrush's interface doesn't use familiar Windows or Macintosh menus and toolbars, but it nonetheless makes painting in 3D fairly easy.

Digging into the application, I found myself able to immediately use the paint tools. The software provides a number of floating palettes for picking brushes and color, which should seem familiar to anyone who has ever used a paint application. After you begin painting, however, you start to notice the difference between regular 2D painting programs and ZBrush. Instead of a normal glop of paint, ZBrush lays down sphere-like objects that have shading, texture, and depth. By opening up the Brushes palette, you soon realize that you can paint with a number of 3D objects in addition to spheres, including basic primitives such as cylinders, cones, and toruses.

Delving deeper, you'll discover that even features such as the Smudge tool work in 3D, actually distorting and blending the 3D surfaces of objects. The software also features several brushes geared specifically for 3D, such as a brush that makes a surface bumpy, and an alpha channel brush for painting transparency. All these tools make ZBrush rather addictive.

Because the images created in ZBrush have a 3D component, you also can affect their lighting. ZBrush has a basic lighting palette that enables you to change parameters such as color, intensity, and direction of light sources. This gives you a great deal of freedom in determining how your final image will look. Materials also are supported, and you can modify them after you apply your brush strokes to radically change the look of your image. The software also includes stock materials that you can modify by changing parameters such as ambient, diffuse, specularity, transparency, and reflectivity. It would be nice if ZBrush also supported different mapping types as well as the ability to use texture maps, however.

In addition to painting, you can use ZBrush as a basic modeling application. For instance, you can place primitive objects, such as spheres and cylinders, in your image one by one. You can then isolate any object and further modify it using the painting tools by pulling and stretching the object's surface. The Hook and Snake tools, for instance, enable you to pull, stretch, and literally "snake" any part of your image in any direction and depth. Although this "push and pull" modeling paradigm is a lot like working with virtual clay, the result is not nearly as precise as what you would get using the modeling tools available in more traditional 3D packages. The immediacy of the results you get in ZBrush makes up for some of this difference in precision, however.

After you finish your model, you can load, save, and clone it. ZBrush currently supports the import and export of 2D image file formats (such as Photoshop and Microsoft BMP). I wish it had a few more export options, such as JPG and TIF. Also, currently there is no way to transfer ZBrush's 3D objects to other software. Pixologic promises future support for both import and export of 3D images and objects for use in other applications.

My verdict on ZBrush is that it's a pretty cool tool. I found it a joy to use, and the new way of thinking imposed by the package sparked my creativity. I'm not sure that ZBrush is a package you would use every day, but it does a number of nifty things that no other software can.

George Maestri is a writer and animator living in Los Angeles.

Price: $585
Minimum system requirements:Windows 98/NT/2000; 64MB of RAM; 25MB of disk space; pressure-sensitive tablet recommended

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