Review: ZBrush 2019 – A Layman’s Look

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Sample head sculpt rendered in ZBrush 2019
My very first sculpt in ZBrush that I’m not ashamed of.

This is a review for the recently released ZBrush 2019. But before I get too deep into this review, allow me to drop a few background details on myself.

Now For Some House Cleaning…

I’ve been dabbing (“dabbling” is being generous) with ZBrush ever since it made its debut on the Mac platform. That’s pretty close to two decades! And for that long, I hadn’t been able to wrap my mind around 3D let alone create anything useful in ZBrush.

For some reason, in 2018, 3D has started to click for me. Now I’m able to sculpt stuff within ZBrush. (So I think.) My big goal for ZBrush is to use it as an additional tool in my illustration arsenal.

I will be writing this review from the point of view of an illustrator who’s just getting his feet wet with 3D. Because in reality, I’m literally scratching the surface when it comes to 3D.

What Exactly is ZBrush?

If I could try to describe ZBrush without becoming too wordy, I would say that it’s an illustration program with really awesome 3D modeling tools.

Back when I dropped around $500 USD for version 3.5, ZBrush was touted as a painting program with a unique twist. Pixologic touted their 2.5D brushes and the magic pixol, which can be described as a pixel with packed with informations such as material, color, texture, etc. But even back then, the sleeper features that everyone flocked to were ZBrush’s 3D modeling capabilities.

ZBrush was really the first program to allow people to actually “sculpt” a 3D model with a graphics tablet. Then later on, you could paint color and texture upon that same model. That was truly amazing at that time.

Pixologic has continued to capitalize upon the 3D space with more and more tools that make modeling and sculpting easier, faster, with more amazing results.

Day to Day Use of ZBrush 2019

I’ve been getting more serious with ZBrush since version 4, and commiting to more heavy usage when 2018 was released. If you have any experience with versions 4.x and/or 2018, you won’t be clobbered with many changes straight out the box. You’ll notice a few different brushes or new stuff in the Lightbox, etc.

If you’re a complete newbie, the UI (a.k.a. ~ user interface) will be completely overwhelming. There’s so much stuff backed in there. If that’s the case, I recogmend you working through the video tutorials over at ZBrush Classroom.

As far as day-to-day usage goes, ZBrush seems pretty stable. (This maybe due to my computer. Your milage may vary.) It does have the bad habit of quitting on me. Also when I’m getting pretty deep into modeling a mesh, ZBrush will have the tendency of making it vanish, even though it’s actually still there. Last but not least, the more complicated the model, the slower we roll. That’s right kids, learn to manage your polygons.

The big saving graces for me in ZBrush is the QuickSave feature. It’s basically an autosave that saves your work (temporarily) within the LightBox. ZBrush is a little more complicate than your average bear, so saving your work isn’t as straight forward as it should be. But I wouldn’t solely rely upon QuickSave. ZBrush eventually cleans house and you loose your dart frog model like I did.

The Joys of Dynameshing!

I’m also a big fan of ZBrush’s DynaMesh system. DynaMesh is pretty cool because it allows you to stretch the mesh evenly across your model while you sculpt. It gives you a great deal of flexibility because you don’t have to worry about using too many or too few polygons. (You can adjust on the fly.)

This makes modeling more efficient so that your system doesn’t get bogged down, struggling to manipulate and render 8 to 10 million polygons. The only downside is that the use of DynaMesh isn’t so obvious to newbies. Or it wasn’t for me when first using ZBrush.

I’m not completely well versed with ZBrush, but there are a few tweaks and changes that I stumbled across comparing 2018 and 2019 versions. (I can’t seem to find the pinch brush in 2019. It might had been replaced with something else.)

Some Ramblings About PaintStop

For 2D illustrators, the PaintStop plugin is a nice bonus. (You can find the plugin by clicking on the Document menu.) I know you have about five different painting programs on either your computer and/or iPad, but I’m a fan of PaintStop. It really takes advantage of the 2.5D pixol technology that I mentioned earlier.

The brushes are a combinations of alphas, textures, and materials with a tad of depth thrown in. It has most of your standard tools that you’ll find within any painting program, minus a selection tool.

In my less than humble opinion this could either use some more love or be spun off into its own program with the ability to directly connect with ZBrush. I honestly believe that PaintStop has lots of room of potential.

The keystrokes that it uses do slow me down due to the fact that they don’t conform to industry standards. (For example “B” for brushes, “E” for eraser, spacebar to pan, etc.)

PaintStop sports 12 tab, which function like pages in a sketchbook. But it only has two layers, which is a killer for me because I use lots of layers in whatever program that I use. In place of a selection tool are its masking tools and stencils.

New Features in ZBrush 2019

What we all care about the most! All of the new features that are currently being touted in ZBrush 2019!

Non-Photorealistic Rendering (NPR)

Non-Photorealistic Rendering or NPR is a new internal renderer/system that allows you to simulate 2D textures and line art when rendering within ZBrush 2019. This is great for 2D artists like myself who desire to take advantage of 3D to quickly generate 2D illustrations. Ideally this would allow for adjustments on the fly without having to redraw the whole damn thing.

A strawberry dart frog modeled and colored in ZBrush. Finished in Photoshop and Corel Painter.
A strawberry dart frog modeled, colored, and rendered using NRP in ZBrush. Finished in Photoshop and Corel Painter.

Imagine the time that it’d take drawing something as complicated as a store aisle. Perspective drawing is more than a pain for most of us. The thought of the amount of stuff to draw in a scene like that is just mind-numbing. I could easily crank the scene out within in Blender 3D or ZBrush, set the view, and then use the render as a template to trace over within Painter or Photoshop. Now imagine creating the whole background in one program and have it render that final line art for you. Pretty awesome.

That said customizing NPR is quite complicated and requires digging through the UI to get the look that you want. Thank God Pixologic took the time to create Render Presets within the LightBox. Click on the LightBox button in the upper left-hand corner of your screen, then click Render Set, and then you can double-click on whatever style your interested in.

From left to right: B&W Anime, Blue Print, and Chromatic Aberration

Snapshot 3D

What exactly is Snapshot 3D? It’s a tool that works in conjunction with Spotlight to create shapes using alphas. I’ve just barely gain an understanding for what all it’s capable. I’ll try my best to explain how it works. Or you can view this YouTube video.

How SnapShot Works

Start with any polymesh 3D object. (Yes, it has to be a polymesh 3D object. If it’s not, click the Make Polymesh 3D button within the Tool pallet.) Why? Because Snapshot 3D needs something to base the depth of the new geometry upon. For example if you need a pretty lengthy object, make a cube that’s pretty long going front to back.

Open up the LightBox and select Spotlight. Then double-click on the set of alphas that you wish to use. Press the Z key and your tools will appear. To the side will be your collection of alphas and next to it will be your Snapshot tool — a.k.a. — the whacky wheel of excitement (not the official name), where all the magic happens.

Along the wheel are a bunch of modifiers that allow you to tweak your alpha before creating the final shape. Clicking the Snapshot or camera icon will generate a new subtool.

My honest opinion of SnapShot 3D is that it tends to be a hot mess. After some use, I find alphas all over my screen. (If there’s a way to make the alphas disappear after use, I can’t figure out how.) But I believe that it’ll be useful in building objects with Live Boolean turned on.

ZRemesher v3.0

ZRemesher will be of use to anyone who wishes to export their models to other 3D programs such as Blender, Maya, etc. ZRemesher automates retopology for cleaner meshes. It’s capable of detecting edges, creases, and angles in the surface of your model.

Folders For My Subtools

This may had been a long time coming, but the Subtool pallet finally gets folders! This will be a boon for organizing collections of subtools. Plus the new folder feature allows users to apply actions to all contained meshes at once such as Move, Scale, Rotate, Duplicate, Delete, Hide/Show PolyPaint, Live Boolean and more.

The Universal Camera

In spite of the fact that ZBrush does 3D modeling and allows users to layout scenes within a 3D/2.5D space, it never had a traditional “camera” like in Blender or Maya. It technical still doesn’t.

But ZBrush 2019 now has a camera system that’s behaves a little more like a camera with your traditional 3D modeling program. You can now adjust the focal length of the camera system. Camera Settings can now be imported and exported between ZBrush 2019 and other 3D programs. you can also adjust the crop and save its settings.

Intersection Masker

The Intersection Masker is an intriguing new plugin that allows you to create masks with other subtools. But I believe that this plugin will be better suited towards more seasoned users. I’ll try to explain the process.

An example of using Intersection Masker in ZBrush 2019.

1.) Start with your target geometry that’s in polymesh form. Within the Subtools pallet, click the Append button and select the mesh that you wish to as a template to create your new mask with. The template mesh must intersect with your target mesh. (To create a smooth mask, make sure you increase the resolution of both of your meshes.) Within the Subtools pallet, select both subtools and click the MergeDown button, within the Merge section of the pallet. Both meshes are now in the same subtool. (They’re still two separate geometries)

2.) With the new subtool selected, go into the Zplugin menu >> select Intersection Masker, then click the Create Intersection Mask button. Let the plugin do its thing.

3.) Control-Shift-Click on your target mesh. This hides the mesh you used as your template. If you want, you can separate the meshes back into two separate subtools by click within the Split section of the Subtools pallet, and click the Split Hidden button. If you wish to invert your mask, Control-Click on the canvas, just outside of the target mesh. Then you can paint over it with your intended color and/or material.

Here’s my take on the Intersection Masker. This comes off as a convoluted means of creating a mask. Newbies will likely become fustigated by this process. If I could make a suggestion for the next iteration of this plugin, I would simplify things by selecting two intersecting subtools, then clicking the Intersection Masker button. That way, you cut down on the time it takes to work through the process. Plus you’re less likely to screw things up.

ZColor — WHHEEEEEEE!!!

I’m sorry, ZColor isn’t that much fun. This is something pulled right out of Adobe Illustrator. ZColor can be found with in the Zplugin menu. The window created will contain a list of swatched, along with each colors hex value. The window also contains multiple ways to adjust your color.

1.) Swatch list 2.) Current ZBrush color 3.) Selected color in ZColor 4.) Direct Mode 5.) Set Color 6.) Fill Object 7.) Where you enter your hex values. 8.) The many ways to adjust your colors and color sets. 9.) The affected mesh. 10.) The ZColor plugin is found within the Zplugin menu.

Across from your list are a pair of colors. The top color is the color ZBrush is currently using. The bottom color is the color currently select or created within the ZColor window. The + button beneath the pair of colors activates Direct Mode. This automatically changes the color ZBrush uses after click from the list of swatches. The Set Color is basically the manual way to set the main color in ZBrush. The button with the paint bucket icon is the Fill Object button. This fills your mesh with whatever color that gets set to the Main Color. Whatever was drawn with polypaint will be destroyed. Don’t worry, you can always undo.

In the bottom right-hand corner are collections of color harmonies auto generated by your current color. Right-clicking on any swatch allows you to add to your list.

In the upper left-hand corner of your window, there ia a File menu. That allows you to save, import, etc. That way you can create custom color sets that can be reused and shared with others.

For more information, which isn’t much, you can check out Pixologic’s documention on ZColor.

My Overall Opinion on ZBrush 2019

If you’re a seasoned user, ZBrush 2019 is a no-brainer. But if you’re still waiting for that next massive upgrade, this isn’t it. Plus Pixologic is moving on to a subscription-base licensing. This means you’ll receive updates and new features every year instead or every few years.

How the subscription model breaks down for the end user is that Pixologic has created a three tier system: Monthly for $39.95, every six months for $179.95, and Perpetual, a one time fee of $895.00. This will cause lots of people to grumble, but if you want software that’s consistently maintained and supported, the subscription model isn’t that bad. As a bonus, it provides a door way to entry for anyone that wants in.

Regardless, ZBrush has some of the best sculpting tools in the business right now. It’s also one of the most flexible 3D modeling programs as well. Thanks to it’s Polymesh 3D system and it’s integration of Sculptris Pro, (The Sculptris Pro features allow users to tesselate and decimate polygons while you sculpt.) quickly creating a 3D model is less of a struggle.

For newbies ZBrush will likely overwhelm and frustrate you. There’s a massive learning curve. Plus if you don’t really know how to scuplt or do any type of 3D modeling, ZBrush will be a b*tch. If you’re willing to put in the time and effort, you’ll learn a lot from Pixologic’s ZClassroom.

Zbrush is also pretty liberal when it comes to hardware. It utilizes the CPU instead of of your computer’s GPU (your graphics card’s processor) to process its polygons and pixols. Brush 2019 works pretty well on my crummy Macbook, sporting an Intel Core 2 Duo processor and 6 gigs of ram. In fact it works better and more smoothly while sculpting than Blender 2.8. (Which I guess its a lot more GPU intensive. Version 2.7 is a lot more functional when sculpting, if I don’t use too many polygons.)

If your either not up to the challenge or wish to invest the money, you may want to consider downloading Sculptris Pro for free, purchasing a stripped down ZBrush Core 2018 for $179.95, Mudbox for $10 per month, or consider Blender 3D, which has the ability to sculpt and its free. These aren’t your only options. I’m sure there are a few that I haven’t even heard of.

I highly encourage anyone to give ZBrush a try. In fact, you can download a demo of ZBrush for 45 days. It’s fully fictional, without any watermarks, etc. (The page still needs to be updated for 2019 tho.) If you’re happy with all of the tools that ZBrush provides, then you can purchase a license, using it as you wish.

Happy ZBrushing!