Art Spotlight: Abyss

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Hey! My name is Michael Butcher and I’ve been working in the Video Game industry for the past six years.

I went to Champlain College in Burlington, VT where I received a Bachelor’s of Science in Game Art & Animation.  I was driven by an interest in art and my borderline game addiction, but have traded most of my time gaming for my passions of digital sculpting and character creation .  

I got my start in games as an environment artist, but have spent the majority of my career working as a character artist.  I’ve worked with companies like WB, DC Comics, EA, and most recently for NCsoft in the Bay Area as a Senior Character Artist.

I have since transitioned into Freelance as it allows for more independence and I wanted the flexibility to be able to work from anywhere.  I just wrapped up a contract with Nightdive Studios on their new take of the original System Shock title and I am currently available for production and concept opportunities in games, film, and toys.


Like most of my personal work, the idea for the “Abyss” creature came from sketching. I try my best to do a speed sculpt every day or two, and often times these explorations are the catalyst for a more fleshed out idea. My biggest problem is finding the free time for all of the ideas I want to work on!

Generally speaking I give myself a lot of freedom when coming up with concepts since you don’t always have this luxury working professionally as a production artist. I keep a lot of the initial block-in and exploration of a character very loose, focusing on shape and silhouette.  Maybe at a certain point I decide more of the specifics if I can draw parallels to things in real life, but even then I’m only using these similarities as suggestions to help shape the final design.

This creature for example has a cross between what I suppose is a horse and dragon skull with the tusks of a boar, but I certainly did not make it scaled or covered in fur.  Instead I opted for a more Predator-esque approach, using frog, turtle, and fish scale patterns as a source of reference for the skin textures.  Frankly I’m not sure what inspired the external organs – I’m saying they’re for sensory purposes since the creature has no eyes – and they were more or less just added on a whim for gross factor and to break up the surface materials and colors.  Although the horn design, however, help to strengthen the story of how this creature would operate in the real world as they are very wide and curved – somewhat like a satellite dish – supporting the narrative that this creature is blind, but equipped with a number of extrasensory organs and appendages.


Once I got to a point in ZBrush where I felt I was happy with the design I set down the path of generating a low-poly using ZRemesher with the help of guide curves.  My focus with this piece was speed and proof of concept, not animation, so the geometry isn’t optimized; however,I did do some cleanup of the model in 3D Coat to help achieve better bake results.  This was especially the case around a lot of the deep pockets and concave surfaces.



After unwrapping and organizing UVs quickly in Maya I moved into Substance Painter for bakes and textures.  I knew the biggest challenge was going to be layering all of the different colors, textures and materials.  Unlike a typical humanoid character with gear and clearly defined materials a color ID was of little help for this project with the exception of the teeth/mouth.  This meant that a lot of the process would be done through procedural masks/textures and custom paint job.

Without getting too far into the gritty detail I’ll go over some of the basics of the texturing process.  I typically start with a base skin tone and try to establish the reflectivity and pore details (through height or micro normals) that I want the whole skin surface to share.  I then move to color zone blockouts, which doesn’t always mean the cool or warm spots of skin.  In this case it refers to the general color palette and gradation I wanted for the creature.  I did a few quick passes with different color variations at this stage, but forgot to save the images (whoops!). After establishing base colors I move into general cavity in/out coloration and differentiation, my goal being to make the details of the sculpt pop naturally.  Sometimes people go too far with this pass and it can make your piece feel a bit too cartoony or stylized with dark cavities and bright edges. Subtlety is key here if your goal is something more realistic, even for creatures.

The next step is to break up the surface with underlying plasma noise as to achieve more believable hue variation and keep things from looking too flat.  After this stage things tend to get a little free form just playing with different assortments of skin details (i.e. moles, raised spots, freckles), screen and multiply layers to lighten and darken patches, and custom paint or mask layers for things like the striping on the horns.  For parts like the teeth, mouth, and organs I generate new smart materials and paint their masks once I’m happy with the results.


If I’m being perfectly honest I was a little slow on the uptake for Sketchfab.  I was already working locally in 3D previewers/engines and felt hesitant to pick up another application with a community aspect tied to it. I’m not a lover of social media, but I figured Sketchfab doesn’t exactly fit into that category and giving audiences more ways to interact with your work is always empowering.

Part of me wishes I had tried it out sooner, but in a way I’m glad I jumped in when I did.  The platform is really fleshed out at this point  and there is a wide user base, providing more inspiration and ideas for how to truly make the most of it.

What drove me to give it a shot was actually the Sketchfab export option in Substance Painter.  To my surprise this exporter isn’t just an asset bundler, but it literally hooks you up to your account and is a seamless integration between painter and directly uploading to Sketchfab’s site.  Completely pain-free and the load time for viewers is really well optimized!

I’m looking forward to the next update with SSS to help add yet another layer of depth to all of the work on here.  Based on the demo it looks very exciting and I can’t wait to get my next project on Sketchfab using that new feature!

Big thanks to the team over at Sketchfab for all of their hard work and giving me the opportunity to share some of mine!


Feel free to contact me via email with any questions about my work or additional inquiries.  You can also follow the rest of my art on Artstation and if you care to follow along I post my WIPs and sketches on Instagram.

About the author


Seori Sachs

Community Person!

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  • Avatar Alberto says:

    Hello, I’m a student and wanna do this kind of 3D models but I’ve been having some problems to know how to start and no one wants to tell me :(, any recommendations? Like programs to use or something

    Thanks for your time

    Pd: my native language isn’t English then sorry if I can explain my self correctly. I speak Spanish/español

    • Avatar Seori Sachs says:

      I can’t speak for Michael but getting acquainted with the tools used like ZBrush, Substance Painter, or Maya would be a start! Look up tutorials on YouTube. If price is a concern, try free versions like Blender or Sculptris, which set foundation for those other tools. Hope this gets you started!

    • Avatar Mike says:

      Hey Alberto! As Seori already mentioned, the big three are ZBrush, Maya, and Substance Painter. Understanding these three pieces of software will be the first step towards getting into this type of work.

      Reiterating Seori’s words again, Sculptris and Blender are good (free) alternatives to at least familiarize yourself with similar tools to start and determine if this is something that still interests you. It’s a big commitment to get involved in 3D fields and they are highly competitive, so being sure early on can save you a lot of heartache and frustration in the future.

      Once you have learned the tools the next steps in learning are obviously doing anatomy studies, sketches, and setting goals for yourself with new projects. Always try and focus on one or two goals with each piece you attempt so you don’t overwhelm yourself at first.

      Lastly, get involved with communities early (Sketchfab, Polycount, ZBrushCentral, etc.). Show your work and get feedback, since this will be one of the most important parts to grow and learn, but also get visibility on your progress.

      I hope this helps and good luck!

  • Avatar Patrick says:

    This was super cool to read about. I don’t know the first thing about 3D design but it looks incredibly difficult.

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