Working with reference images in ZBrush

Spotlight and image planes for reference.

That’s pretty obvious right?, so why this post?

This is probably not ground breaking and most likely you are aware of this trick if you have used ZBrush before. However, I’m sharing this because I’ve been using ZBrush for a while and I know about spotlight and image planes for reference. BUT, it wasn’t until I went away with my first Cintiq Companion, that I found a great use for image planes and spotlight.

I have a couple of decent screens for my computer at home, so whenever I’m working on something I usually have ZBrush on one screen and a bunch of reference images on the other.

Something like this:


While i’m on the road with my Cintiq Companion, I’m limited to one screen. The screen is a good size and the Companion 2nd Gen resolution is amazing, but you’ll have to agree with me that this is not ideal:


So here are a couple of ideas on how to use reference images:

Image plane collage:



Whenever I hear the word image plane, I think of the front or side view from a character reference sheet. But lately, I’ve been using the image plane option in ZBrush to put all my reference images in the background and have them always visible while I sculpt.

I basically used Photoshop to create a colleague with some of my reference images and save it as a PNG:


I then loaded that PNG as image plane in ZBrush from the image plane sub-palette in the Texture palette. This way, you have your 3D object in front of the images all the time and you can constantly refer to the background for reference.


A really really cool tip is that you can create multiple collages for your background and load them as separate views from the image plane sub-palette:


Loading multiple image planes:

Open up the Image plane sub-palette, under the Texture palette, and with “front” selected (should be the default) click on load image.


Select the image you want as your first “reference board” and click the “store view” button.


Click on “back”. that will change the view, so the background you just loaded will temporarily “disappear”. Load another board from the “Load Image” button and click on the store view again.

Now you can swap between “reference boards” by clicking “front” or “back”.

To load more simple repeat these steps but loading the image planes in different views (left, right, etc. ).

A couple of tips on this workflow:

  • The image plane will fit into to your document size, so it’s generally a good idea to make the collage reference image the same size of your document.
  • You can quickly get rid of the image plane by clearing out the canvas: Ctrl+N
  • If you cleared the canvas (remove the image plane) and you want it back you need to go to the texture palette, select the collage image again and click the “image plane” button. This step can be optimized if you just place a couple of buttons on your custom UI:





I use spotlight mostly when I’m texturing or to project some guides into a Dynamesh blob, before I start sketching. But I found it to be very useful to keep my reference image on screen while I’m sketching.

A couple of tips on this workflow:


Since Spotlight works as a projection modifier to the active brush, but we don’t need to project the images onto the model, we have to turn off the “Spotlight projection” In the Samples sub-palette (under the Brush palette). This will allow you to use the selected brush to paint or sculpt freely regardless of how close your model is to the images in spotlight.

with spotlight projection ON:


Also you can use spotlight to “erase” parts of the images you loaded to save screen space and only leave what you need for reference. 


Select “Paint” from the spotlight wheel and paint your reference with pure black, ZBrush will interpret these black areas as transparent.

If you have a uniform colour in the background you can select “paint” but instead of manually drawing/erasing the image you can hold “Ctrl” and drag the mouse to remove the colour.

Overlay NOTES!

You can even load a black image to write notes to yourself. I use this when I am working on a project and I want to remember where I was or what I wanted to do, but didn’t have time to do it.

That’s it for this guide!

I hope you find this tips interesting and somehow useful. Let me know what you think in the comments and thanks for sharing!

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