Create a cartoon vegetable with 3ds Max & ZBrush

By Nicolas Morlet


3D artist Nicolas Morlet takes us through the steps to create his 3D interpretation of Sébastien le Divenah’s characterful fennel…

They say to eat more fruits and veggies for a longer, healthier life… okay! What about sculpting some veggies? Does that count? Through this making of I will show you the process of creating “Fen” – a cute vegetable, inspired by an illustration by Sébastien le Divenah. The main goal was to learn more about headus UVlayout, the use of displacement maps, and the creating of cartoon eyes in 3ds Max. But the most important thing was to have fun sculpting a vegetable.

Concept & reference

I decided to choose this concept because I wanted to translate, as much as possible, the kindness of this character into 3D by preserving the balance between simplicity and detail without giving it a too realistic style.

While beginning any project it is important to gather as many references as you can, this will help you better visualize what you will be modeling or sculpting; colors, shapes, textures, and so on. To go further, and for a personal approach, I went in a supermarket looking for the holy grail! I spent time in front of a vegetable stand observing a fennel, it’s not a joke, I gained a lot of valuable information and a better understanding about how I should treat the sculpture.

Tip: PureRef is an awesome tool to view and organize your reference images.

Analyzing the concept and gathering reference images

Creating the overlapping layers to make the bulb

Some questions that came to my mind before I started carving the overlapping layers of the fennel: How does it work? How to make it? What do I need? That’s why it is so important to have a good understanding of your subject. This will save you a lot of time throughout the creative process and give you the keys to quickly solving problems.

So I started with simple primitives (Insert Sphere/Cylinder) to block out the upper body by creating them as separate meshes. I then used basic tools and features of ZBrush to get exactly what I wanted. At this point, it is better not to have a high density mesh, this allows you to easily adjust the overall proportions while maintaining a non-destructive workflow. This character is not going to be animated, so I don’t need to worry about optimizing topology, Zremesher does a great job and it is more than enough.

The process of creating a layer of the vegetable

Sculpting a vegetable

Step by step, I appended arms and legs (Zsphere), then eyes (Insert Sphere), and then started carving the overall shape with simple standard brushes (Move/Smooth/Standard) by paying attention to the silhouette, curves, and volume. At different stages of the sculpt, I usually take a break away from the model and come back at another time with fresh eyes, it helps correct some mistakes and make improvements.

Before finalizing the model, I like to use Spotlight to compare my proportions to the concept. Once I was satisfied, I added details using Layers by creating one for the furrows and one for the ridges, as well as for each layer of the vegetable. Working with Layers gives more flexibility and you can sculpt while maintaining a non-destructive workflow.

The process of sculpting the character

UVs, Displacement map, and Polypaint

I wanted to learn a new software to unfold UVs. I am familiar with Unwrap UVW (3ds max), UVmaster (ZBrush) and UV-map (3D-Coat). This was the first time I used headus UVLayout. When the user interface appeared I was totally lost! The UI is quite unusual but, once you understand how it works, this is incredible, unfolding UVs is so easy and fast. Definitely, headus UVlayout is one of my favorite software.

Tip: When learning a new software, if you have any question don’t forget your old friend “The User Guide”

Now we have UVs, we go back to ZBrush to generate the displacement map from the high resolution mesh. I followed this tutorial “Accurate displacement workflow” by Akin Bilgic, and I strongly recommended it. In ZBrush, the texture was created with Polypaint. I picked base colors directly from the reference images with the help of the spotlight functionality. Playing with brush opacity and pen pressure, I can easily get a nice color transition, and afterward I painted lighter and darker colors to add volume. The final touches of the texture was made in Photoshop.

Overview of the mesh

In 3ds Max, the texturing and shading of the eyes was made using the tutorial by Zeno Pelgrims. I adapted it to 3ds Max and created my own shaders. For the rest of the scene, I used a few V-Ray materials (VRayBlend, VRay Mtl, VRayFastSSS2 and VRayHDRI ). If you want to spend less time on setting lighting and rendering, the FlippedNormals Lighting Scenes is a great option. That is why I wanted to give it a try in 3ds Max, I could focus on sculpting the model, texturing, and achieving shaders.

Tip: Use any kind of tool that could allows you to be more productive, just take a minute to understand how they work

Setting up lighting scenes and shaders

Render and final image

In the V-Ray Render Element tab within in the render settings window, I added and enabled the different layers I wanted to render out (Reflection, Refraction, Specular and more…) Once the renders finished, I exported them using the EXR file format. You can learn more about OpenEXR here. For the final step in Photoshop, I composited all layers using blending-modes and masks. I made some image adjustments (Hue/Saturation, Curves, Brightness/Contrast) until I was satisfied. This was a really fun project for me to work on and a great learning experience. Don’t forget to sculpt your fruits and veggies ever day… thank you for reading!

Render passes & final composition
The Final Image


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