It’s not often that a program comes along that’s both innovative, offers impressive results, and is easy and fun to use, but ZBrush from Pixologic is just such a program. Unlike traditional 2D painting programs such as Photoshop, ZBrush lets you work in the third dimension – not simply a lighting effect or a bumpy, lumpy oil paint but real, 3D-like depth.
ZBrush’s painting canvas – painting ‘volume’ might be a better description – is surrounded by a plethora of tool panels and pop-out icon bars. To help you learn both the interface and the toolset, there’s a panel that features a semi-interactive movie which prompts you when you’re required to click on a tool in the interface. This is a good way to learn ZBrush, although after a few minutes of working with it its methodology becomes clear.
Unlike other 2D painting programs, ZBrush uses a technology called pixols. These store more information (such as material, direction, and depth) than mere pixels can. Pixols are what you paint with, though you can also add simple 3D objects too. If you think of the canvas as ground zero, pixols can be painted onto it at successively greater altitude or negatively in height.
Most of the time, you’ll be building up pixols to create a positive volume of paint. What’s important to remember is that you aren’t really working in 3D so if you want perspective you’ll have to paint it in.
ZBrush gives you a number of tools that you can use to apply pixols with. There’s a Simple Brush, Sphere Brush, Smudge tool, and a Hook brush to name a few, and numerous 3D objects that you can add and embed into pixols. You can also choose to limit the channels you want to modify with each stroke: for example, you can paint into the colour channels without affecting the height, or paint only the material channel. Brushes also have an ‘alpha’ option that changes their softness or shape.
The 3D primitives move the program into a different area that’s much more like traditional 3D. You can create cubes, tori, spheres, and other shapes to use in your image. They can be rotated and moved into position, and, if positioned over pixols, can follow the contours of the paint surface. You could add a spiky dog collar to a painted head and neck by creating a series of cones. As you move the cones they will each point away from the surface of the neck exactly as you would want them to.
ZBrush also lets you mould 3D objects into new shapes by pushing or pulling on their surface to create new shapes. Only one object can be edited at a time, and once you move on to a new task, the once truly 3D object becomes plain old pixols and is no longer editable. There’s also a handy Symmetry feature, which is great for creating faces.
What ZBrush does is allow painters to create
3D-like images using tools and methods that they understand, rather than the complex language of 3D. It does have limitations, most notably in the quality of the materials, which tend to look very metallic and glitzy by default. A maximum image resolution of 2,048 pixels also means that it’s just shy of the high resolutions needed for print.
Despite its price, ZBrush doesn’t feel fully geared towards professionals, but it’s an engaging and fun product that’s capable of great results.