ZBrush 4
Price $330 | Company Toon Boom | Web www.toonboom.com

Many experienced illustrators believe that great artwork, whether it’s a rapid concept piece or a painstaking painting, simply isn’t achievable without great reference. But what happens when examples of your chosen subject don’t exist? After all, there aren’t too many dragons around to take photos of. The solution is to make your own.

The traditional, homemade reference technique, practised by James Gurney among others, is to build a maquette: a scale model made of wire and clay. But 3D software now offers another route, enabling you to model anything you choose out of simple polygons. This is where Pixologic's ZBrush system excels, focusing on tools that enable you to sculpt with the digital equivalent of clay. If you want to model organic forms such as characters and animals, few programs come close to matching its capabilities.

This fourth major iteration sees a wealth of new tools, but unfortunately nothing to stop the package being intimidating to newcomers. ZBrush 4 retains a complex user interface, with two-dozen menus, its own terminology and various toolbars heaving with options. Have an instruction book and plenty of patience on hand.

Figure artists will appreciate a new way to start a sculpture. The existing ZSpheres feature, which enables you to build a base shape by placing and stretching spheres, has inspired the provision of ready-made mannequins that you can position. They’re a welcome entry point for newcomers, and particularly useful for establishing multi-figure poses.

The bread and butter of ZBrush is its selection of brushes for tugging and tweaking one form into another. This version of the software adds to an already overwhelming choice. Some have narrow roles – there’s a new brush for adding rope-like detailing, for example – but a few should become part of your standard repertoire. Move Elastic is a variation on the existing Move brush, aiding manipulation of organic shapes, while Move Topo makes it possible to reposition a detail like an upper lip without distorting surrounding polygons.

There’s so much new stuff to explore in ZBrush 4 that no overview can do it justice. However, its fundamental proposition remains exactly the same. If you’re prepared to invest in exploring a toolset that’s sometimes perplexing through its sheer depth, you’ll be rewarded with the ability to create some extraordinary forms.