Posted by on Dec 3, 2011 in Tutorials | 10 comments

General ZBrush Tips & Tricks



ZBrush is a wonderful application in so many ways, but if you’re a beginner it can be one of the most infuriating experiences you can have in CG. It works based on black magic and voodoo and you simply need to forget a lot of what you know about traditional 3D application and accepts that ZBrush is a special child.
For instance, the way Zbrush handles scenes is vastly different from how a normal 3D app does. Also, the navigation and general UI feels rather alien at first

The first thing you will see when you fire up ZBrush and you start to draw on the canvas, is a bunch of super-funky squares, something like this.


This is the phase commonly known as “What the hell is going on and where is my beautiful ZBrush-demon?” What’s going on here is that you’re seeing the magic of pixols, wonderful dark magic from Pixologic. From wikipedia:

Like a pixel, each pixol contains information on X and Y position and color values. Additionally, it contains information on depth (or Z position), orientation and material. ZBrush related files store pixol information, but when these maps are exported (e.g., to JPEG or PNG formats) they are flattened and the pixol data is lost.

This basically just means that they are pixels on steroids; they have depth and store some additional info. This is amazingly cool, but frankly, it’s something which hardly anyone uses. The reason I’m spending time writing about it is that you need to know what all those funky squares are. After you’re done playing with this, you’ll eventually get bored and you’re wondering what all the fuzz regarding ZBrush is all about.

At this point, you might have played around and realized that you do indeed have some 3D objects you can use. You try to get them in 3D and actually get something done, but again, ZBrush is being super funky.




Getting there, but still not full 3D. In order to get an object to be in 3D, you need to enter Edit Mode. You can find it in the top left of your UI. The hotkey is T, which is what you want to get used to using.


If pressed, you’re going to see that you can now finally rotate your model around. Hit Ctrl + N to clear the canvas and get rid of all the junk you just put there. You now have a clean canvas with a 3D model which you can rotate. See below for how to navigate around.


You’d assume that you’re there now right? Finally your ZBrush demons can come to life! Wrong again.



BAM – another message annoying you. You get this message up whenever you’re using a ZBrush primitive, like the Sphere3D, Cylinder3D, and so on. This is because you’re currently in a mode where you’re changing the properties of the primitive. If you go to Tool – Initialize, you can change the properties. Frankly though, I very rarely use this, but you need to know that you can do it and why you’re getting the message popping up.




That said, you shouldn’t underestimate what you can do here. It’s an insanely fast way of making horns or sea shells, if you’re using the Ring3D. Play around with the options and you might discover something interesting.



At this point, we now have a 3D model which we can navigate around, but that’s not enough: You want to get your hands dirty and get some sculpting done. Remember that pop-up message you got before, telling you to make into a polymesh 3D? Under Tool we have a lovely button: Make PolyMesh3D. Hit it. This will allow you to get to sculpting. In your tool-stack, you’ll see that you now have a duplicate of the original model, but with the name PM3D_ added as a prefix. This means that it’s a editable 3D object.



This was a lot of steps just to get to sculpting, at least it seems like it if you’re knew to ZBrush. Trust me, it isnt once you get used to it. In short, it’s very simple:

1. Find whatever primitive you want to start off with. If I’m starting with a primitive, I use a Sphere3D.

2. Hit T to enter Edit Mode

3. Dont worry about initializing the model; go straight for Make PolyMesh3D

4. Boom! Ready to sculpt.



Let’s take a look at how we can actually move around in this bad-boy. If navigation feels awkward in the beginning, that’s because it is. You’ll get used to it and not before long, you love it (trust me on this one).

Alt + RMB

RMB + Drag the cursor

Scale: (this one is a little funky):
Hold Alt and RMB. Release Alt and drag with the RMB


Snapping to Views

Hold down Shift when rotating to snap to the various views, like front, side, back, etc. I use this all the time, and it’s a huge helper when it comes to quick and accurate navigation.


You messed up – now what? 

At this point, you’ve navigated for some time and your model is completely off when it comes to placement and orientation. This is a very common issue when learning ZBrush, but it’s easy to overcome. In order to get your model back to the center, hit (same as Maya). This will bring it from where ever it is on the canvas to the middle. Extremely handy. You’re going to use the F hotkey very frequently.

As I wrote above, you can snap to views by holding down the Shift key. This is very useful for changing the orientation of the model.

Your model is off axis and you’re getting frustrated. Simply holding down the shift-key and dragging to the right of the model. This brings it back to a proper orientation.




Making it more like Maya

This is a preferred method by some, and this next paragraph is written by my friend Kim Strandli.

To make the navigation act more like Maya/Mudbox, activate “Y-navigation” to the right of the canvas. By default, “XYZ” should be selected, and “Y” should be right below. Select that one for a happier experience using Zbrush.




In pretty much every application ever made in the history of software, saving is a simple procedure. Zbrush however, being that special child, decided to do their own little thing. In Zbrush, you have 3 ways of saving:

It’s super important to know the difference between the three.
As a Project

As a Tool

As a Document



Saving as a Project is the newest feature of the three.  This will save whatever you have at screen, the position of the model and the material you have assigned to it and so on. It will also save your entire tool palette, so if you have more than one tool (not subtools), it will save those as well. The pros of saving as a project is that you keep all your info. The cons are that the file can get heavy and messy after a while.
I personally save as a project most of the times.


To save as a document, you either go to File – Save As, or you hit Ctrl + S


From the documentation, regarding what a project includes:

  • Document size and colors.
  • Loaded Tools and their SubTools.
  • Current Tool position.
  • Camera position.
  • All maps assigned to a Tool or SubTool.
  • Floor visibility.
  • Perspective value.

The Project file doesn’t contain:

  • Textures residing in the Alpha or Texture palettes.
  • Position of the elements in the User Interface like opened menus.
  • Brush settings if they have been changed, or brush inventory.


Saving as a tool is the original way of doing it. This saves only the current tool. The files are clean and easy to handle, but you don’t store the same amount of info as in a project.
Saving as a Project can be compared to saving as Maya Ascii, where your entire project is saved, while saving as a tool can be compared to saving as an OBJ. When my Projects become bloated with tons of tools, I save it out as a Tool to get rid of the junk. I then restart ZBrush again, open the tool and save it as a Project. This will basically give you a very clean Project without the bloat.

Irregardless of which format you chose, the subtools will still be saved. HOWEVER, if you save as a tool, ONLY the current tool will be saved. This is important.







Now let’s talk about what a Document is. Remember when I said that ZBrush was built upon black magic? Well, this is some of it. Remember what I wrote previously about pixols? This is one of times when it’s important to know what they are. When you first start to draw around on the canvas in ZBrush and you see the weird strokes which seems to have depth, that’s pixols. If you save as a document, you’re storing the pixol-information. When ZBrush started out in the late 90′s as an illustration application, this was awesome. However, if you’re using ZBrush for 3D, like sane people are doing, you NEVER EVER EVER EVER save as a document. EVER. No excuses. Bad CG artist. BAD. Basically what happens then is that when you open up the document again, all your beautiful sculpting will be dropped to the canvas and it’s impossible to edit it ever again.

Whatever you do, DO NOT save as a document. This will drop the tool to the canvas and there is NO way to edit your model.

See this? Big, red letters written in Bold? This means it’s kinda important.

In short: Save as either a Tool or a Project, but keep it consistent. You never want to use multiple formats in a production. Let’s say you’re normally using a Tool and



Ctrl S

Ctrl  D

Go up in Subdivisions

Go down in Subdivisions
Shift D

Frame Selection:


Change brush size:

Change brush intensity:

Ctrl G

Clear Canvas:
Ctrl N

Toggle Lazy Mouse on and off

Toggle Hide and Show UI

Quickly switch between subtools
Hold down Alt while clicking on the subtool in the viewport.
You can also hit N to get up a list of the available subtools.

Repeat last action

1  - This one is a handy one, and a lot of people dont know about it. It will repeat the last action you performed, be it a rotation of the model or a stroke. Particularly handy when doing precise strokes, as you can repeat it without tracing over it again.



ZBrush would be nothing without its brushes. In order to access them, you can go to the Brush-menu in the top left menu bar, hit the Brush-Icon in the top left or simply by hitting B.


Honestly, I hardly ever use these menus as I have all my frequently used brushes mapped to keys, which you can read about below.

This is the brush menu you get when you press B. As you can see, it’s a mouthful. A lot of these are only useful in very specific cases and knowing what every single one does isn’t necessary.


To organize the brushes, Pixologic has made them searchable. If you want to use the Morph Brush, you don’t have to look through the endless list. Instead, hit the M key while in the brush menu. This will give you all the brushes which has a name which starts with M. You can now see that all the brushes have a letter above them.



The Morph-brush has an O next to it, meaning that if you press O on the keyboard, the Morph Brush will be selected. This is a very fast way of selecting brushes. It seems perhaps a little convoluted in the beginning, but the only thing you have to do to access the Morph Brush is to hit B (to open the brush palette) M  O. You can access all the brushes this way. To access for instance the Clay Brush, you hit B C L. After a while this will all be muscle memory and you’re going to switch brushes without thinking about it.

My Frequently Used Brushes

Here are my favorite brushes and the hotkeys I’ve assigned to them. The number next to the brush name is the hotkey I’ve assigned. I use the numbers (not the num pad) as hotkeys. This is simply a habit of mine, and might not be the most efficient way of doing it, but it works well. I’ve also included the letter combination you need to access the various brushes.

Standard  - 2 – B S T 


This brush is, well, standard. Nothing fancy about it and it’s been in Zbrush since forever.

Clay Buildup – 3 – B C T



This is one of my favorites. It behaves very much as real clay. If you dont like the harsh clay feel of it, remove the square alpha.

Move – 4  - B M V


This moves the polygons independent of topology.

Dam_Standard – 5 – B D S


This brush is amazing for wrinkles, scars and so on.

Inflat – 6 – B I N


Gives your mesh volume. If you for instance have a thin finger which you want to make thicker, sculpt with the Inflate brush for happy times.

Trim Dynamic – 7 – B T D


A really cool brush for making planes. I really enjoy using this together with Clay Buildup. Clay buildup for blocking in the major forms and Trim Dynamic for defining the planes better.

Move topological – 8 – B M T



This moves the polys based on topology. What this means: If you have a subtool which consists of various models, this will allow you to only move parts of one model. Example: You have a model with horns where the horns and the body are both part of the same subtool. You can now move the horns without affecting the body by using this brush. Only useful in some cases, but then it’s extremely handy. Also, in the image above, I’m using the Move Topological to move only the top part of the lip, even though the two lips are almost closed.

Polish – 9 – B P O


Similar to the Trim Dynamic brush, but this allows you to get smoother shapes too, depending on how hard you push.

Pinch – 0 (zero) – B P I


Pinches the polys. Awesome to define features better. Be very careful with it when you’re sculpting on a retopologized model though, as you can pinch stuff too much and the displacement map will be messed up. For a concept sculpt, use pinch as much as you like.


How to map stuff to hotkeys:

You definitely want to make a couple of custom hotkeys as they are really speeding up your workflow.

Hold down Ctrl and Alt while clicking on what you want to hotkey. Then click the key you want assigned to the command. Example:
You want to map the Clay Buildup brush to the “3” key. Hold down Ctrl and Alt while clicking the Clay Buildup brush. Then hit the key, in this case “3”.  Then hit Ctrl Shift I or Preferences – Store Config, to save the changes.


The only thing I’ve mapped to a hotkey except the brushes is the Solo-button. This makes isolation of the current tool very easy and fast.

General Tips

- Hold down Ctrl while hovering over buttons and commands in order to get a popover with help. Let’s say you’re wondering what L.Sym does, move the mouse over the button while holding down Ctrl. Bam, instant help.


Image Planes

Setting up image planes. There are many ways to set up image planes, but the most intuitive is the following:

Go to Draw and on the bottom, you can load images under Front-Back, Up-Down and so on. In order to get it to work, you have to enable the grid.

Common Problems

If you have a mesh with not a lot of thickness and you sculpt on it, you might see the following problem occurring: You sculpt on one side and the other side gets messed up. This is a very common problem when sculpting areas like ears and other thin surfaces.

The fix to this problem is very simple. Go to Brushes – Auto Masking and enable BackfaceMasking. This will ensure that you’ll only sculpt on one side of the mesh. I highly recommend enabling Backface Masking at all times, as it’s sometimes very time consuming and difficult to fix these problems.

I’ve added the Backface Masking button the my UI.


Importing to Maya splits up the mesh into a lot of groups

This is a very common problem when exporting from Zbrush to Maya. It only happens when you’re using polygroups, which I am 90 % of the time. If you’ve seen this yourself, then you know how annoying it can be



The fix is very simple though. Make sure that Grp under Tool – Export is unchecked. What’s happening is that Zbrush tries to export the poly group information and maya doesnt seem to appreciate it. Unchecking Grp will disable this. You can also get rid of the various polygroups, by going to Tool – Polygroups – Auto Groups.



Your model is pure BLACK!

In short: Hit V

You’ve been sculpting on your little masterpiece and suddenly: BLACK. What could possibly have happened? Did you button smash your keyboard and accidentally hit something, even though you deny the very possibility? You probably did, you little rascal. This is something pretty much every person who’s ever attempted to make anything in ZBrush has encountered.

It should look something like this.



I’m sure the suspense is killing you here.  Well, the answer is simple. You see the black and white swatches on the bottom left of your UI? This selects the fill color of your tool. To switch between the two hit V. This will make tool look normal again. Thank me later.




















  • CGRTist

    Thanks for taking the time to put these tutorials together. I found your site via the Tips and Tutorials forum over at the Luxology site.

  • David

    Great help dude!

    I bought Zbrush yesterday and I’ve found the official learning videos not really helpful. This here really helped me to understand Zbrush a bit better.
    Coming from Blender, I thought I already know the most unusual workflow in the 3d world. But I was wrong lol.


    • henning

      Thanks! :) Just let me know if you need any help and I’ll see what I can do.

  • Tiancum

    I literally googled “How the hell do I use ZBrush?” and this was one of the top results. Thank you so much!! Glad I’m not the only one it confused the crap out of. This will help a lot!

  • ThePixelchik

    This article is awesome, Zbrush makes my head spin. Thank you so much.

  • jay

    Really helpful guide. Thanks!!

  • neo

    Ah, this was nice
    Thank you.

  • Rodolfo Rubens

    yo, there are two images missing, please fix it! Also, everything here in the bottom has white font with the background also being white. Thanks for this tutorial!

  • Isac Galvão

    Thanks. Late:-)

  • Razz

    Awesome stuff!
    I’ve messed up with saving as document and i’ve lost part of my progress, but also it brought me here.
    Now i will know… :P