10 professional tips and time savers in ZBrush

10 professional tips and time savers in ZBrush

Some of these tips might be pretty basic, but if you haven’t used ZBrush for a while, it can be easy to forget using them. It’s almost as frustrating trying to remember how you did, “that one cool thing in that tutorial you saw posted uh…where was that thread again?”

1. Performance

Despite having the best intentions in ZBrush, when it comes to keeping poly count low we all want to push it to the limit sometimes. Setting “Compact Memory” to 4096 instead of the default can help under Preferences > Mem > Compact Mem.

My system is an older Dell 690 with dual processors (E5345 2.33GHz – 4 cores each), 16 GB RAM, 2TB SCSI storage and an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 660. I’m running Windows 8.1, and with this setup I can just about push all my SubTools to 32 million before getting a cup of coffee.

This is way beyond anything you could transfer to a texture or use in a game. Honestly, the detail level would never need to be this extreme.

At least not yet.

Remember to keep these settings by saving your configuration file by going to Preferences > Config > Store Config or using the shortcut Ctrl+Shift+I.

2. Lazy mouse


It’d seem that “lazy” means more than one thing for lazy mouse. It’ll most likely be on by default, despite turning it off, under Stroke > Lazy Mouse, when you save your config file.

You can use the L key to toggle the setting on and off.

If you like having it on but wonder why it’s not as strong as the default brush, it’s because the Pressure setting under Preferences > Tablet > Lazy is set to 0.5 by default.

Luckily, this setting can be changed to 1 and saved to your config file with the preferences.

3. The one

48747_Inline_04Ever use lazy mouse and wish the stroke was twice as strong?

Well the 1 key can repeat your last stroke and do just that. Make sure the process you want repeated is the very last stroke you make. The 1 key will also transform your object, making it a great way to step through a rotation preview.



4. DynaMesh and ZRemesher FTW


If you use another modeling program like Maya or 3ds Max, at some point you’ll probably want to create a detail mesh for polypainting or sculpting in ZBrush.

Just import the low res model and use DynaMesh for a high resolution grid that’s parameterized evenly on the surface. This can be sculpted and polypainted, then baked for textures in ZBrush or your favorite modeling, painting package.

For a DynaMesh, turn on Polish and set Blur to 100. The resolution slider should probably be set low to start but will even work on triangulated meshes if you set it high enough.

A value of 128 seems to be a good place to start for each SubTool.


If your model contains complex angles that aren’t maintained with DynaMesh, you can use ZRemesher by creating polygroups first. Simply apply Auto Groups With UV, Groups by Normal with an appropriate angle, or any other UV configuration that maintains the shapes of your model.

Then apply a crease (the crease isn’t always necessary) to each Polygroup by pressing Crease PG under Geometry > Crease > Crease PG.

Set Smooth Groups and the Adaptive slider to 0 and use ZRemesh with the Keep Groups and Double button activated. You can ZRemesh the same model several times to get to a subdivision level that’s ready to polypaint. In the example below, the mesh was ZRemeshed 4 times at double setting.

Sometimes it’s possible to get an even better result by using DynaMesh one more time after a ZRemesh pass depending on the shape of the original geometry.

5. Clowning around


If you use a texture generation program like Substance Painter or Quixel, you’ve probably created color ID masks at some point for your texture generation pipeline.


ZBrush has a handy setting under Preferences > Importexport > Import > Import Mat As Groups so you can use your “Clown” masks to create Polygroups and save time establishing them in ZBrush.

This assumes that each color is its own material applied to the exported mesh from Maya, 3ds Max, etc.


6. Flipped out


Exporting normal maps with the correct settings can get confusing considering ZBrush flips texture maps in addition to OpenGL and DirectX reading the green channel inverse of each other.

The main thing to remember is that –Y is DirectX and +Y is OpenGL.

Let’s start with a single, UV’d mesh at 9 subdivisions. A series of bevels have been extruded from one face at the highest subdivision level. To generate a normal map, select the lowest subdivision level then select a document size under Tool > UV Map. Under Tool > Normal Map we’ll set Tangent and Adaptive on.

You can use SmoothUV and SNormals  if you have a really detailed organic mesh but the only other button to press would be FlipG which is flipping the green channel of the normal map. Pressing Clone NM will paste the rendered normal map to the texture palette and it can be exported from there.

CAUTION: ZBrush flips textures. You can flip it to the needed UV space before export as seen in the texture export window. But this also inverts the green channel again, converting OpenGL to DirectX and vice versa.

So for an OpenGL map, don’t use the FlipG setting.

For DirectX, use the FlipG setting but remember to flip your normal map vertically in the texture palette before export.


An easy way to get around this is to invert your green channel (CTRL-I) in Photoshop, if you see odd results rendering in game. Make sure just the green channel is selected when using this method.

7. Brush settings


With so many brushes to use, it’s easy to forget they each have their own modifiers. Backface masking is almost essential when sculpting anything thin and probably a good thing to have on all the time.

Find it under Brush > Auto Masking > BackfaceMask.

It’s one of those things you’ll need to remember to turn on for each brush, though, since it defaults to off. Unless, of course, you’ve saved custom brushes for yourself.

8. Brush settings again


Speaking of brush modifiers, turning on BRadius with a clip curve brush can really speed up hard surface sculpting and blockouts. The radius of the brush will determine the inset depth of the geometry you indicate, using the clip curve stroke.


Remember, tapping Alt while dragging adds a curve and double tapping Alt will give you a hard point instead of a curve. Try it with radial symmetry for more variation.

9. Morph Target Modeling


This method can be accomplished several ways to generate interesting models. The basic idea is to sculpt against a stored morph target and then compare the edit against the target geometry to generate a difference mesh.

Start with any PM3D mesh, store the morph target and sculpt away. Once you’re happy with the sculpt, click on CreateDiff in the Morph Target palette and a difference mesh will be deposited in the tool palette. If your normals are inside out, just click the Flip button under Tools > Display Properties.

UV Master


Sometimes it takes a little extra time to UV an object in other software. One thing that’s saved the day on difficult layouts has been borrowing the UV Master plugin from ZBrush.

I’ll usually just export a model as an OBJ from Maya and run the UV Master plugin to get a base layout. Then I’ll go back to Maya to fine tune anything that’s still loose around the edges.

In the example above, I’ve used the Color ID materials to create UV Islands (or Polygroups) for ZBrush to work with. Under ZPlugin > UV Master Select Polygroups and Work on Clone. Then simply Unwrap All to generate a UV layout.

Select Flatten to inspect the unwrap and UnFlatten to return to your work.


All that remains is to Copy UVs from the clone and Paste UVs once you have you’re working mesh selected in the Tool palette. You can also Enable Control Painting or reorganize Polygroups if a different result is desired.



As I said in the beginning, some of these tips might seem basic, but I keep them handy if I haven’t been using ZBrush for a while. I hope you find some favorites and thanks for following along!

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Kurt Williams

Kurt Williams

Kurt broke into the games industry in the 90's as an artist for Midway Games, where he worked on AAA titles such as Stranglehold and Mortal Kombat as an Environment and Lead Environment Artist. More recently, he's contributed to Singularity and several Call of Duty titles through Activision's Raven Studio in Wisconsin. With 17 years of game experience and after a one year break to recharge, he's been working on an unannounced title at Twisted Pixel Games in Austin, Texas as Environment Lead and is eager to share his experiences with you.
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