Behind the art of Jonas Skoog

Jonas Skoog worked as a freelancer for nearly a decade, racking up an impressive list of clients such as DICE, BioWare, Paradox Interactive and Sony PlayStation. His award-winning work has been seen in just about every medium you can imagine from AAA games, feature films, art books, magazines and more. He's also an avid Digital-Tutors user. We had the chance to chat with Skoog to get a peek into how he works and to get some advice from his extensive career as a character artist.

Can you tell us a little about your professional background and what you’re doing now?

I have been working as a 3D Character Artist for several years now, but I started out like most people struggling as a freelancer taking on various projects, doing everything from 2D layouts to 3D generalist stuff.

Over the years, I’ve created characters for everything from commercials to AAA games to feature films. I’m now employed as a character artist at a studio in Sweden called Bläck, aiming mostly towards game cinematics.

Sculpture of Skoog’s favorite Dragon Ball Z villain, Majin Buu. Sculpted in Mudbox and rendered in ZBrush. View a larger version on Skoog’s site.


You’ve worked on a broad range of projects. Do you have a favorite?

That’s a really hard question, actually, because I have lots of favorites. Every new character presents its own challenges, which I love.

One month I’m asked to recreate someone in 3D with a spot-on likeness for a VFX commercial while another month I might be doing a game character. Both equally fun!

But to be specific I’d have to choose a short film called State Zero that I worked on until a couple of months ago. State Zero is the creation of first-time director Andree Wallin.

The setting is a post-apocalyptic Sweden a few years into the future. My job was to create all the CG vampires that were later on integrated into the live plates. It was a significant challenge to make them scary but still very humanlike.

Another project I enjoyed very much was a release trailer for a role-playing game called Mutant: Year Zero, where I got the opportunity to design and create my own fly-man-mutant. I’m a big fan of post-apocalyptic settings like Fallout, Stalker, etc. so it was incredibly fun to be a part of both of these projects.


With such a wide range of projects comes a lot of different styles you have to match. Do you find it challenging to jump between different styles?

Yes, it can sometimes be a challenge to nail a particular style but it’s always very rewarding when you succeed. I’ve always felt closest to realism and love the art of portraits and human anatomy.

Knowing your anatomy and how the body works is very advantageous regardless of style. Researching the specific style at hand is also crucial to understanding the essential elements that hold it together. Observations are often more important than the actual work itself.

Skoog’s artwork done for the game Lord of Ultima. View a larger version on Skoog’s site.


What does your typical workflow look like for character creation?

For scenarios where I’m given a concept to start out from, I usually dive straight into ZBrush building up all the basic forms and making sure the silhouette and proportions are correct. I mostly create humanoid characters, so to speed up the process I often start out from a full body base mesh I created a few years ago.

I also make heavy use of DynaMesh to flesh out various parts and clothing before I finalize the topology and move on to Marvelous Designer for serious cloth making. One important thing that mustn’t be overlooked when diving head over heels into a new creation is researching your subject. I spend many hours scavenging the web for pictures that will aid me in the process and then put them together using a neat program called pureRef.

When it’s time to create the topology, I actually stay inside of ZBrush making use of PolyPaint to plan out my edge flow. Both TopoGun and Maya have great tools for this, but I really like staying inside of ZBrush as much as possible.

After the UVs have been shuffled around into good-looking UDIMs, I continue texturing in MARI and/or DDO. When I begin to feel satisfied with the textures, I move back into ZBrush again to start working on the tertiary details with the help of my textures.

The last pieces of the puzzle are adding hair/fur using Yeti and creating all the necessary shaders in Arnold before shipping off to render.


You worked as a freelancer for many years. What’s one of the biggest challenges you had to overcome as a freelancer?

As a freelancer, you’re not only a creative spirit making cool stuff, you are also equally a businessman negotiating your paycheck as well as being head of marketing. You have to keep ahead of the competition and make sure your art is seen by all potential clients.

As the boss of your company, you’ll have to make long and short term decisions regarding the economics, meaning aside from taxes you also need to make plans for vacations and pension saving, etc.

If you’re smart about these things, you’ll find more time to spend on what you do best instead of going over numbers again and again. Less hassle more art!

Skoog’s artwork for the Battlefield 3 trailer. Sculpted in ZBrush and rendered in V-Ray. View a larger version on Skoog’s site.


What are some common modeling or texturing tips and tricks you’ve found helpful over the years?

  1. Topology is often unnecessary at the beginning of a sculpt and can with ease be applied later on. Another benefit is you won’t be restricted by a predestined edge flow that can alter your creative input.
  2. Save often! Save incrementally! Computers can’t be trusted and losing hard work hurts.
  3. When working with textures it’s better to work in large resolutions. Much easier to scale down that up.
  4. Always start with the big shapes and work your way down to the details, not the other way around. Same thing applies when texturing.

You use both Mudbox and ZBrush, and a lot of artists see these as the essentially the same program. Can you explain how these similar tools fit into your workflow?

Both software programs have their strengths and weaknesses. I find ZBrush superior when it comes to sculpting with a far more advanced toolkit that fits my needs. I just love the possibility to create your own custom brushes and play in the sandbox called DynaMesh.

I seldom find a reason to step outside of ZBrush while modeling.

There are two key ingredients that ZBrush still lacks, though. One is the ability to paint on UVs and the other is physical perspective cameras. That is where Mudbox comes into play, but not primarily for texturing.

Mudbox does have physical cameras that can be imported via FBX from Maya. This is very handy when following references taken with a specific FOV as you can input these values into the digital cameras.

When it comes to texturing, MARI is my first-hand choice because I can utilize a vast number of adjustment layers and it eats large texture maps with ease. It’s much like a powerful Photoshop in 3D. Another very handy texturing software I use a lot is Quixel’s DDO.

Skoog’s Man on Fire character sheet for the Battlefield 3 trailer, rendered in ZBrush. View a larger version on Skoog’s site.


How has Digital-Tutors been a helpful resource for you?

Digital-Tutors has been around for a long time and was among the first tutorials I watched when I first learned 3D. Over the years, you’ve grown exponentially and now offer starter videos for all the major software programs, as well as really in-depths ones for the more advanced users.

To this day, I still pop by your website from time to time to see what’s new and exciting.


What do you love most about what you do?

What I love the most is the challenge and the aim to get better at what I do. Every day I learn something new and get inspired by all the talented people around me. Art has been a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember and I can’t imagine living without it.

Skoog won first place with this character, titled Centipede ex Inferis, in the Critters & Creatures Challenge at cgcoach.com. This is a character sheet rendered in ZBrush. View a larger version on Skoog’s site.


What are some ways you stay inspired?

I think what keeps me inspired is my will to evolve continuously. There are so many great games and movies coming out every year and I try to follow as much as I can to stay informed of new techniques and progressions.

Not to mention all the forums out there with both new and established artists posting amazing art every day. Stepping outside of the digital realm, I also love visiting photo exhibitions and traveling to exciting countries to boost my inspiration.


Thank you for your time, Jonas! Can you give us some parting advice do you have for aspiring character artists out there?

Thanks, it was a pleasure talking to you!

Work hard, show your work, be a nice person and love what you do, is the parting advice I would like to give.

To be good, you have to be willing to put in the hours unless you are some kind of brainchild.

For people to know how good you are they will have to see your art. Makes sense, right?

In the art industry, you often work in small teams, which makes it crucial to get along with one another. This is often rated as highly as your skill set.

And finally, enjoy what you do because hopefully you’ll be doing it for a long time!