Customising ZBrush UI with purpose

Customising ZBrush UI with a purpose!

In this guide, I’m going to show you a couple of things you can do, to customise the ZBrush user interface with purpose, so that it truly suits your own workflow.

The guys at Pixologic, have made it really easy to move buttons around, change colours and even make your own “tools” within ZBrush. Not only that but, you can also create your own palettes with sub-palettes and automate processes with macros. There are plenty of tutorials around that show you HOW to do this.

I’m more interested in WHY is beneficial for your workflow to customise the UI. As we move forward in this short guide, you’ll see that the “HOW”, is a very simple process, but making a nice looking UI, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s useful. 

So, I divided this guide into two parts: The HOW and the WHY. The first part is an overview and summary of the steps and things you can do with the ZBrush UI. In the second part, I’ll show you a method to customise the UI and how to make it part of your workflow.

I recommend that you read this guide ‘linearly’ but if you are already familiar with some of this stuff, clicking any of the titles below will jump you to the relevant section.

Here are the links to navigate this post:

Grab a cup of coffee, tea or a cold beer. Open ZBrush and let’s get started.

 PART 1

Enable UI customisation and move things around.

Before we can start moving buttons around, we need to enable customisation. Under the Preferences palette, open the Config sub-palette and click the “Enable Customize” switch. You’ll see that the spacing at the top and bottom of the ZBrush UI, shifts a bit.

Done, you are ready to start adding, removing or moving things around. To do any of these actions, all you need is “Ctrl+Alt+Click and Drag”. 

You can place the UI elements anywhere in this area:

To add anything, just find it within the menus/palettes, hold Ctrl+Alt, click and drag the UI element to where you want it to be.

To remove anything, like a button, for instance, use the same Ctrl+Alt command and just drag it to the canvas and let it go…

To move things around is basically the same thing… hold Ctrl+Alt and rearrange any UI element.

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Custom hotkeys

Create custom hotkeys is the easiest thing in the world. Don’t worry too much about replacing a letter that is already in use… I think that if you use a letter often, you’ll remember what it is used for and you won’t assign it to something else, For example, “P” for perspective, is something I have already memorised and I use often, so I know ‘P’ is a letter that I cannot assign to a new hotkey.

If you are not sure what a letter is assigned to, it’s a good sign! It might be a good one to use in your new hotkey. I never use “S” to change the “Draw size” of my brush (which is the default hotkey for this action – ZBrush 4R7) so I assigned this letter to “Solo” mode which I use more often.

To assign a new hotkey, the “Enable customize” switch needs to be OFF. Find the button or switch you want to assign a new shortcut to, hold Ctrl+Alt and click it once. Whatever you press after this command, will be your shortcut… click “Esc” to finish.

You can also remove a shortcut, hold Ctrl+Alt click a button and press DELETE.

Change UI colours

Changing the colours is awesome because you can create your own “theme”. If you spend a lot of time in ZBrush, like me, you’ll probably want something neutral and easy on the eyes (which is why the default UI colours are already pretty good). Click here if you want to download some of my UI colours.

You can completely change the look and feel of ZBrush. To do this, we can dock the Preference palette to the left (or right) tray and “Enable customise” from the config sub-palette again. Then, expand the Icolors sub-palette (it’s pretty long) and you’ll see everything that can be changed.

You might intuitively click on a colour expecting a popup that lets you choose a new colour… sorry, it doesn’t work like that. As soon as you click a colour in this sub-palette, the mouse becomes some sort of ‘colour picker’, the new colour would be sampled directly from where your mouse is hovering, before releasing the click. So here is what I do to make sure I get exactly the colour I want:

a) First, select the colour you want from the colour Selector so that it becomes your Main colour

b) Now, click on the element you want to change or/and drag the mouse over the main colour square and release.

The first two buttons in this subpalette are to save and load JUST your custom UI colours not the entire UI. Also, you can hover over any colour in the Icolor subpalette and you’ll see a little popup that tells you what colour of the UI is being affected.

Creating custom palettes

In my opinion, this is one of the best customisation options in ZBrush. With this, you are able to create your own palette with sub-palettes and buttons to make your own “toolbox”.

Let’s create something simple so you know how it is done and you can create our own after you finish with the second part of this guide 😉

With the Preference palette docked to the left tray, expand the sub-palette called Custom UI. click the Create new menu button and give it a name, I’ll call this “My Tools” and hit enter.

The new palette will appear as a new menu item at the far right of the main menus, click it once and ZBrush will re-order the menu alphabetically.

Go ahead and dock our new blank menu to the right tray so we can start filling it with buttons:

I’ll use this custom menu for a quick access to things I use when texturing, so from the texture subpalette I’ll drop in the Texture map thumbnail, the “Texture ON” switch and the “new from polypaint” (same process we used before to drag and drop from other palettes using Ctrl+Alt).

Also, I might add some quick access to polypaint tools, so I’ll add the “Colorize” switch, the “fill object” and the RGB and M switches.

That is pretty much it, really. To arrange elements within the palette, you’ll notice a bunch of “empty” switches under the Custom UI sub-palette. You can drag and drop those elements to “fill” areas of your new menu palette and re-arrange items in it:

Save custom UI and shortcuts

Once you finish customising your UI you can save it, share it or take it with you anywhere in a USB. you can do the same with the hotkeys and UI colours.

To save the UI changes, simply go to Preferences, and under the Config sub-palette, click on Save UI. Clicking this button will save your preferences as well as the UI colours. Also, this will save any custom menus you have created and the layout of the screen (if you leave the right tray opened with your custom menu, ZBrush will remember it).

To save hotkeys, go to the hotkey sub-palette (under Preferences) and click on save. Also, you can click on “store” and they will be stored as your default hotkeys every time you open ZBrush.

Make custom UI the default

If you are really happy with your custom UI, you might want to make it the default UI so when you next open ZBrush, all your custom tools and buttons will be there.

Under the Config sub-palette, click on “Store Config” to make your recent customised UI your default ZBrush UI. That’s it, you are good to go!

ZStartup Master

I wanted to finish up this part 1 with a little gem from the awesome Joseph Drust. Among all of his powerful plugins for ZBrush, the ZStartup Master is one that I cannot leave without. It lets you turn ON and OFF things to customise your “Startup scene” in ZBrush. This might seem very trivial, but it saves so much time when you just want to ZBrush and start sculpting, or if you are working on a big project.

The plugin has a few switches, all of them very self-explanatory. You can install it and basically switch ON or OFF things you want to have ready or not when you start ZBrush.

This is my ZStartup Plugin setup for quick sketching sessions:

Go to Joseph’s Gumroad to get this handy plugin and take some time to explore the rest of his great tools.

 

 

PART 2

Track your needs

Now that you know HOW to move things around and customise your UI, Let’s talk about WHY you should customise ZBrush. The simple answer is: because it will improve your workflow. 

You can make beautiful UI layouts and harmonious UI colour combinations, but if you are still struggling to find the things you use the most, then the UI has no real purpose and you are better off leaving it as a default.

I’ll be the first to admit that I get excited when a tool or software gives me the ability to customise it. I remember a few years ago I use to look for UIs that other artists were sharing to try them out. They were awesome and often, just what I wanted, but the more I try to refine my workflows, the more I feel the need to create something that fits me and my way of work.

I still think is cool to use other artists layout, but I wanted to share with you a process I found to be very efficient to create your own UIs.

Customising anything is relatively easy, but personalise it will probably take a bit of trial and error.

Personalising your custom UI.

The best way is to “track your needs” and pay attention to what you really use all the time. There might be other ways to do this, but my favourite is to record a full ZBrush session using the Standard UI. There are many tools to record your screen, I personally use BandiCam for my tutorials, but I’ve also used Camtasia and Screen-O-Matic in the past. If you want a free option, you can try Open Broadcaster Software (which is actually very very good) or IceCream recorder, (mmaximumof 5 min per video on the free version) which will be more than enough for this exercise.

Obviously, you can also record the sculpting session directly from ZBrush using the Movie options. However, I did use it to record the sample video below and I found it a bit harder to spot the ‘clicks’ and figure out how many times I use a specific tool. 

The video below is a recording of a quick sketch I made from scratch. I recorded myself doing this sketch using the ZBrush standard UI, and then I play the video and counted how many times I looked for a UI element within the ZBrush sub-palettes.

So you don’t get bored, I’ve turned the video into a time-lapse, but I’m tracking the clicks on the most used tools and features.

 

I recorded this video on my Wacom Studio Pro with the ‘rocket ring’ disabled and the keyboard unplugged, so that I had to manually access every feature or brush along the way. This is a really powerful method because you’ll pick up on a lot of interesting things, for instance:

I realised I use quite a bit of hotkeys and shortcuts for the buttons that are already in the standard UI like Perspective (P), Polyframe (Shift+F), Solo mode (S, my custom hotkey), BPR render (Shift+R) and Frame (F) so I can get rid of them because I work faster with these hotkeys that I already know (Obviously you cannot see this in the video, but while sculpting, I kept reaching for the keyboard to access this tools).

Also, I have one of the keys on my Wacom mapped to space bar which gives me access to the Quick menu from where I can change the Z Intensity, Draw Size, Focal Shift and all those sliders at the top of the ZBrush UI. What’s interesting is that other things such as the colour picker, MRGB, RGB and M, which are also part of the Quick menu, I always go to the top to click them. So I can get rid of some things at the top, but not all of them.

Aim for space!

I personally prefer to have a lot of space to move and see my sculpt while I work, but you might feel more comfortable with having more buttons and quick access to things all around the UI. Regardless of how many different tools you use in ZBrush, I suggest you aim for space, in the actual sculpting area, when arranging your custom UI.

The two UI screenshots above, have exactly the same buttons. In the first image, they are all ‘neatly’ organised at the top, but that leaves us with not much of vertical space. On the second image, the UI elements are distributed along the 4 edges of the canvas leaving more space to work with.

Ultimately this is up to you, in my case, I try to set up things so that I don’t even have to keep the right or left trays opened.

Keep it simple, learn the shortcuts

It’s easy to fall in the trap of adding a lot of things to your custom UI that you won’t even use. This is another reason why recording yourself in a project is a great idea. Try to keep the layout simple and group things that are related. For example, anything related to your brush and stroke could be at the top and anything to do with the mesh and geometry etc, could be at the bottom.

This is an old custom UI I made to use ZBrusn on a Cintiq Companion vertically, but it helps to illustrate the concept:

Customising your UI also means learning the hotkeys of certain things. Remember you can create your own hotkeys, and assign them to what you use the most.

The more hotkeys you manage to learn, the more space you can free up in the UI.

Macros

I think macros in ZBrush, are one of the pinnacles of simple UI/Workflow customisation, They are, in a way, similar to “actions” in Photoshop, and they are great for any repetitive action, they let you record and replay a series of steps. Each macro you create saves with a button, so you can actually assign a hotkey to your own macros to do certain things.

Let’s make a simple one to give you ideas of what sort of things you can automate.

During my sculpting sessions, I like to do quick “clay” render tests with a basic material, but I generally prefer to sculpt with the MatCap Grey for instance. So I’ll create two macros: 1 To set up the test render and 2 to go back to ‘sculpting mode’.

  • Go to the Macro Palette and click on New, you’ll get a pop-up message about initializing ZBrush, just press “No”.

  • Now, everything you do will be recorded into your new macro. To set up our test render:
    • Select the material of your choice (I like basic material2).
    • Choose a brownish colour.
    • I like to reduce the document to Antialiased half document so clicked on that too.
    • And finally, hit render. Once the quick render is finished, click on “End Macro”.

When you click “end macro”  you’ll get another pop-up window to save your macro as a file. I’d suggest you create a new folder within the ZBrush/Macros folder (in windows would be C:\\Program Files (x86)\\Pixologic\\ZBrush 4R7\\ZStartup\\Macros\\) so that all your new macros are organised in your own macro sub-palette. I created a new folder called ‘PMG_my_tools and saved my macro with a name like Quick Render Test Clay.txt

TIP: If you cannot see your macros as buttons or they are not loading correctly, try to name them with more than 8 characters long and avoid spaces (or use underscore: “_”).

Click save, and your macro should be under a new sub-palette (‘PMG_my_tools in this case) in the Macro palette:

Now, to set up the new macro, we’ll do the same process: click on new, and simply select your preferred material for sculpting and the document at full size. Click on “end macro”, save it with a different name within your recently created folder and we are done!

We should have two buttons with a sequence of simple steps attached to them, with “enable customise” we can place these buttons anywhere we want (like in our custom palette) or even give them some hotkeys (Ctrl+Alt click and assign).

Here are the macros in my UI working like a charm! If you haven’t tried macros in ZBrush, you are going to love them!

More than one UI

It’s useful to have more than one UI for the different process you do within ZBrush, this way you can spread the various buttons and tools across multiple custom UIs to keep a spacious working area (Canvas).

The tools that you use for sketching a Dynamesh blob might be very different from the tools you use for Polypainting and texturing. Since these two processes are relatively well defined within a standard workflow, you can have a UI that suits the sketching and sculpting part of the process and then switch to the UI that lets you move faster when Polypainting.

To create new UIs, simply follow the same steps we have been discussing in this guide and save them with a different name.

The cool thing is that, if you save the UIs in the folder ZStartup/UserInterfaceLayouts you can use the buttons at the top right corner of the ZBrush UI    to cycle through your saved custom UIs.

You can do the same thing with custom Icolors. Using these buttons   to cycle through them.  

If you want to download some of my specific ZBrush UIs and colours, you can grab them here.

Finding where a button was…

One final little trick I wanted to share with you, is how to find the palette/sub-palette that a button belongs too. This might not seem like much, but when you have a custom UI that you have been using for a while, you might need to find the original location of that button to grab an extra setting related to it.

To find the ‘parent’ palette of a button/switch/slider, hold Alt, and click on it and ZBrush will dock and expand the palette that the UI elements you clicked, belongs to.

 

Ok, I’m wrapping up this guide here. It ended up being rather long but I think you’ll have some good fun customising your own ZBrush Interface.

I hope you find this guide useful, and if you have questions or want to share your own UI, feel free to post it in the comments below.

Cheers!