Review: Pixologic’s ZBrush
By: George Maestri
Issue: Volume: 33 Issue: 3 (Mar. 2010)

Review: Pixologic’s ZBrush


Pixologic’s ZBrush has always been a little ahead of its time. The software pioneered the area of interactive 3D sculpting many years ago, and over the subsequent years, the software has been used to create highly detailed and realistic models in games, film, and illustration. In addition to the offering’s 3D sculpting power, ZBrush also can create 2D illustrations as well as “2.5D” images, which are made by painting with depth. The new version of ZBrush adds a number of tools that make modeling and painting much easier.

ZBrush works on both Windows and Apple’s OS X. Upon launching the software, you’re given an option to load one of several stock models, import your own model, or proceed to a blank canvas. Once you are past this menu, the interface appears. The interface is attractive and has a large workspace in the center, with tools arrayed on either side. Pixologic tends to march to its own drummer when it comes to interface design. The menu structure is different from most applications, and the company tends to use its own terminology. This, however, is not a huge hindrance, but it does take a little while to get used to ZBrush’s unique workflow.

The basic workflow is brush-based: You either brush onto a blank canvas or an existing model to add or subtract detail. You can paint in 2D, much like in any paint package, but the real power comes when you paint with geometry. Brushes can contain any geometric shape and be used to stamp or pull the surface of a model to add detail. Brushes, however, can go a lot deeper than simple pushing and pulling; they can actually invoke macros and other high-level functions to create very specific effects. A cloth brush could easily transform the surface of an object to canvas, for example. Another brush paints stitches for seams in clothing or for stitching up scars on the skin of a character. The possibilities with Pixologic’s technology are very broad and allow for a high degree of creative freedom.

The most common use of ZBrush is for sculpting in 3D. Typically, ZBrush has been used as a finishing tool, with the basic geometry modeled elsewhere and the final touches added in ZBrush. The software’s ability to handle very large models allows for a high degree of detail to be added. This workflow, however has been slowly changing with the addition of tools that allow you to create geometry from scratch within ZBrush.

One of the most interesting of these tools is called ZSketch, which provides a digital equivalent of clay modeling techniques. Typically, sculpting in clay involves creating a wire armature to which clay strips are added, building up the model from scratch. ZSketch allows you to paint “strips” of geometry that can be attached to a ZBrush skeleton, much like an armature. ZSketch also can be used without an armature to model free-form. This process is driven by ZBrush’s ZSpheres technology, which uses the brush strokes to create the underlying geometric mesh. Spheres II, the new version, allows for branching structures—such as hands, fingers, and limbs—to be created.  

ZBrush uses a brush interface that allows for highly detailed sculpting on models.

Another nice modeling improvement is called Unified Skin, which gives you the power to control how ZBrush creates a mesh. The updated version of Unified Skin greatly improves the ability to create edge loops around specific areas of the mesh, as well as create smoothing groups. Simply put, these new features allow you to sketch in 3D to your heart’s content, and then be able distill those creations down to models that can be used in other 3D applications, such as assets for film, games, and so on.

In addition to creating and sculpting geometry, ZBrush can be used as a paint package, either painting on a canvas or a 3D model. Not only can you paint color and texture, but you can also paint materials on a model. Of course, when painting on a 3D model, you need to be able to map the brush strokes to the model effectively. The new version of ZBrush helps out in this area by revamping the UV editors, which control how textures are placed on a model. You can also add texture management to any tool in ZBrush to paint textures as you model.

ZBrush can handle levels of geometry much higher than most other 3D software, making it easy to create models so rich that they’re hard to import elsewhere. To facilitate this, Pixologic has developed GoZ, another important feature that allows for tighter integration with other 3D software, such as Autodesk’s Maya, Pixologic’s Modo, and Maxon’s Cinema 4D. GoZ not only exports 3D geometry, but it also exports such information as bump, normal, and displacement maps. This allows for a model to be geometrically lit, with the detail added through simple image maps. Upon import into a third-party package, GoZ uses these image maps to set up all the shading networks for you. GoZ will take care of simple operations—such as correcting point and polygon order—as well as more advanced operations that require complete remapping. The updated mesh is immediately ready for further detailing, map extractions, and transferring to any other GoZ-enabled application.

For those who are using ZBrush as a paint package, the 3D nature of the software can add a lot of power. Pixologic calls this “2.5D,” and it allows you to paint in relief. Images painted in 2.5D can be further modified by changing the lighting, for instance. Additionally, Pixologic now adds a 2D sketching feature called QuickSketch. This is basically a sketching tool that allows you to quickly record your ideas in 2D and then move the roughs into a 3D space.

Overall, I really enjoyed ZBrush. The software definitely has a learning curve, but once you get the hang of it, sculpting in 3D is a natural and intuitive process. Anyone who wants to create highly detailed and realistic models should give the software a look.