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Modeling Tutorial: Skull

Just wanted to share my workflow for modeling a skull using 3ds Max and ZBrush. The first part of the tutorial is pretty universal and the technique could be used in most 3D programs. I won’t get into specific modeling tools and or which buttons to press, but rather focus on the steps I take to get a good base model to work from. I will talk a bit about UV mapping, but I will not get in to texturing in this tutorial.

Step 1: Setup.

Setup some image planes with a good reference to get started. It’s not 100% necessary but I find that I get the work done in half the time if I have a good starting point. For this example I used this picture. (source)

Step 2: Model away.

When modeling for ZBrush it’s very important to model with only four sided polygons. You can get away with a few triangles if positioned in a flat area of the model or out of sight. But try and avoid it.

I prefer to get started by modeling a spline around the eye and around nose and then extrude to polygons like this picture shows:

You can use the same technique when modeling a human face, and just create the extrusion from around nostrils and mouth.

Keep adjusting the polygons so that they are positions correct from all angles. And when you’re happy, you just extrude the edge of your polygons one more step.

And notice how I already have welded the point where the polygons meet around the nose.

Keep extruding one row at the time, adjust and keep in mind that you don’t want any triangles. That will make life a lot easier in ZBrush later.

Now the reason I don’t just model it all in ZBrush is because I like the control I have in Max, and with the odd shape of a skull, particular around the Zygomatic bone, inside the nose and the fact that it’s hollow makes it easier to do in Max (for me at least).

A few more picture to show the flow of polygons. Try to make sure that your polygons are pretty evenly spaced, in the end this actually helps keep the overall poly-count low in ZBrush because this can keep the amount of subdivisions needed lower. I’d usually of course only model half the skull and then use symmetry(mirror).

The Bottom of the skull (left) and from the back.

The top part of the skull is done, and I created the teeth by just manipulating a box. Note that I like to unwrap everything in Max, so it’s of course wise to create one tooth, unwrap that, and use it as a base for the remaining teeth.

A quick unwrap of the top part of the skull. I like to have it done in 3ds Max,.. even if you can use UV master in ZBrush later, it’s good to have the UV seams mapped out and reuse those with UV master, makes for a better and more optimized layout. (kept room for the jaw and teeth on the same map)

Here the finished model in Max after modeling the jaw:

Step 3: ZBrush.

Import into ZBrush and work with the general shape of the skull in symmetry mode before going crazy with subdivisions and detail. Again, good reference is key. I imported the model so that skull, upper teeth, lower teeth and jaw was different subtools so I can quickly hide part of the mesh I don’t work on.

Keep adding detail and increase subdivision level as you go, I like to use the clay tool for general sculpting and Dam_Standard tool with various alphas for detail. Stop using symmetry and start giving the skull some character.

And here the final sculpt, I used the noise tool to add some more ageing to the skull. Next step will be texturing, but that will have to wait for another tutorial.

Thanks for reading.

  1. Jens SchriverJens Schriver10-15-2010

    Awesome result! Final render looks fantastic.

    How long did this take you?

    • Tom IsaksenTom Isaksen10-16-2010

      Thanks!, modeling in Max took the longest, about 4-5 hours including unwrap. About 1-2 hours in ZBrush after that.

  2. RobertoRoberto10-24-2010

    GREAT !… keep posting more of this tutorials xD really helpful…
    Awesome work ! Congratz!.

  3. LuisLuis11-05-2010

    Hey!! Good Work amazing Result1!…

    Please one Videotutorial for the zbrush part… Thanks Man.

  4. csabicsabi02-16-2011

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  5. renjithrenjith02-20-2011

    hai i am renjith kumar. i am a modeler.this tutorials its too good…

  6. shetushetu03-29-2011

    This is good tutorial. I try it in 3ds Max 7

  7. jitenderjitender05-08-2011

    veryyyy difficult man……but nice work
    GOD BLESS U….!!!

  8. frankfrank06-24-2011
    • Tom IsaksenTom Isaksen07-06-2011

      Thanks man 🙂

  9. Jason HoltJason Holt01-17-2012

    Thank you so so much for this tutorial! Fantastic work, love the photo reference- it’s been a bit frustrating for me to find a properly photographed skull to start working off of, and this is perfect! I really appreciate it!

  10. JordanJordan05-06-2012

    Liked the references, made a nice skull for a low poly armor mod, props

  11. nelnel06-28-2013

    I like it but I cant do something like this its very difficult 🙁

  12. DarqDarq09-03-2013

    It’s a great tutorial. However you go a bit too fast over the parts that are the most difficult. the bottom and especially the sides. Thing is I have no clue what the skull is supposed to look like from the bottom and the hollow part near the cheeks is very difficult to make. Would have been nice to have more exolanation. thanks anyway.

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