Art Spotlight: Whale Airship

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About Me

Hello Sketchfab! I am Erica Riman, a 3D Artist from the Philippines. I have a B.S. degree in Information Technology but I decided to pursue a career in this field since I got into 3D art when my first mentor, Shookooboo from France, taught me how to use Maya. I started my career at Human Engine LLC, a 3D scanning company, as 3D/Technical Artist and then moved on to working in an app called Facemoji, where I create avatars’ accessories/props.

How the project started

This project came from a great concept of Duy Van on ArtStation. I was working on another personal project when I saw his art. Since I’m also practicing making hard surfaces in ZBrush, I decided to take a break from the project and sent him a message to ask for approval to turn his concept into 3D.

Tools used

  • ZBrush
  • Autodesk Maya
  • Substance Painter
  • UE4 / Sketchfab


Gathering additional references

Since the concept art only displays one perspective, I looked first for images that showed the overall shape of a humpback whale, then looked for examples of old steampunk aircrafts, engines, and aviator hats, as well as some inspirational stylized ship renders.


Whale airship

I am used to creating hard surfaces in Maya, so switching to ZBrush was really a challenge for me.

I started with the base shape of the whale since everything would be attached to this. I used masking + polygrouping and applied Deformation > Polish By groups (for straightening the polygroup line) to separate the top and bottom parts before applying a boolean to create that perfect hole shape for the engine and headlight slots.

Once I was satisfied with the shape, I proceeded to cut the bottom part using the SliceCurve, did a quick ZRemesh, and applied a bevel to create those deep panel details. But before I did that, I made sure I had a copy of the unsliced version that I would use as the base mesh for creating the low poly. I know there’s a much faster and more efficient way to create those panel details, but I was experimenting/learning and that’s the first approach that came to my mind, lol.

As for the other parts (i.e., wings, jet engine, headlights, etc.) they only came from the basic shapes inside ZBrush. Since the basic shapes were already low poly had a good topology, I used the ZModeler brush to create the panel details by scaling down edge loops and adding bevels. To bend the wires/tubes, I used either the BendCurve or BendArc transform.


I started with a dynameshed sphere to sculpt the head. I had decided to not stray too far from the concept, so I followed/copied the most noticeable parts of the face, particularly the chin, jaw, and nose. As for his outfit, the jacket and shirt started from an extruded cube just to have a base shape for the sleeves, then I subdivided it once and applied dynamesh so I could start polishing the overall shape and sculpting the folds (I used Shane Olson’s “Cloth_3DCW” brush).


I used ZRemesher for a quick and (mostly) clean retopology process. I followed the process of applying polygroups before ZRemeshing. Here’s one tutorial and here is another, to give you an idea of how it works.

As for the UVs, I created 3 texture sets (ship, pilot, and balloon) in Maya. The model was mostly symmetrical so they shared the same UV space.

whale airship mesh


Textures were all done in Substance Painter. Since the model was mostly made of metal and I wanted to add an SSS map, I used the PBR – Metallic Roughness SSS Template. I used the ‘Stylized Template’ as the base material before I jumped into adding additional details like the dirt, rust, etc., which came from Dirt and Curvature Generator. To break the pattern of the generated dirt and curvature, I added a paint layer and used a dirt brush to mask out/manually paint the areas according to the concept and to my liking.

whale airship texture

I was also careful not to add too much detail as I was still going for a stylized/cartoony look. After I finished the overall diffuse texture, I added another layer of AO and Baked Lighting Material with a low opacity just to give the texture a little volume.


I had originally planned to make this into AR right after I made some renders so I decided to use UE4 with an AR template. But before that, I thought of adding a quick rig and simple animation to make it a little more interesting.


I really like nighttime lighting and I thought it would fit this model to emphasize the headlights that have animation. I went for a Skylight lighting and added a couple of Point and Spot lights for the headlights and burner that act as a fire/heat emission. I also added a HeightFog to achieve the volumetric light and tweaked the PostProcessVolume to add a cinematic effect.

whale airship lighting

I created 3 scene setups for this: Sunset, Night and plain lighting without any fancy skies, which I used as a guide to recreate the Sketchfab scene. You can visit my ArtStation post for more renders.

whale airship renders


Sketchfab is user-friendly and direct to the point when setting up a scene; that’s why I chose this platform where viewers can thoroughly inspect assets that I make. Before I uploaded the asset, I quickly added a cone mesh with gradient texture to act as the volumetric light, just as I had for the UE4 scene. Right after I set up all the materials, I set up the lighting with the Three-Point Lighting preset (disabled the 3rd light) and the Milky Way Environment. To copy the cinematic effect, I enabled parameters in the Post-Processing Filters.

Final Thoughts

I had fun and learned a lot while doing this project. Comments and feedback are still very much welcome. Just send me a message on ArtStation or Instagram. Stay at home and keep safe everyone!


About the author

Erica Eunice Riman

3D Artist

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