painting the avatar

advanced second life avatar customization

This is a kind of follow-up to second life creation, dealing a bit more in-depth with customizing avatars for Second Life (SL). Basically there are four dimensions of manipulating the avatar’s visual appearance: shape, skin & clothes, attachments, and animations.
In order to realize a complex vision of a custom avatar you have to tinker within all four dimensions. Here is an extreme example, one of Detect Surface’s masterpieces, the “Cyver:Refract”—available for purchase at (SLurl:) D&D Creative Labs in the (SLurl:) City of Abaddon:

looks by animation

Cyver:Refract by Detect Surface

The complete avatar is covered with attachments consisting of altogether 2608 modified and textured basic geometrical objects (so-called primitives, aka “prims”). As, with the exception of the hands, no single pixel of the character mesh itself is visible, skin & clothes—the textures on the avatar mesh—play no decisive role here (nevertheless according custom items are part of the package). The shape, that is the geometry of the character mesh, is optimized in order to be completely hidden within the attachments. The SL-avatar standard animations are overriden by a script and replaced by custom animations. The right half of the picture shows the avatar without the attachments—you can clearly see that the joints of the lower body are twisted against the rules of regular human anatomy. Despite of having no direct access to the bone-rig of the SL-avatar, by using custom animations other anatomies can be achieved to a certain degree. A completely imagined one in the illustrated case. Animations for the SL-avatar are made in applications outside of SL, and then imported. QAvimator is a free open source application for this, which suffices for the most tasks. For the Windows version there has been an update on 03 December 2007, so it is worthwhile to drop by again. Animations and attachments really are things in themselves and not the focus for now—I only mentioned them as they are integral parts of “complete avatar customization” in SL, which is the focus. Just recently I found a wonderful essay by Nicola Escher, called Creating a complete avatar, which confirmed some of my deductions and suppositions, and helped me mend some loose ends. The following partly draws on her essay.


Two aspects of the avatar always should be considered together: The shape and skin & clothes. To my knowledge the shape of the avatar still only can be modified inworld by using the sliders of the appearance menu: “Getting just the right look can take a fair bit of work and a lot of back and forth between different sliders.” Exactly my experience as well. The reach of the sliders does have its limits, tries to force you to create something human to some non-explicit standard. Nevertheless prolonged experiments unearth more and more possibilities. It is like painting right into 3D space, of course without the freedom the complexity of professional 3D visualization software grants. If you strive for clean and naturalistic shapes it is wise to shy away from extreme slider settings, as those may result in strange to ugly bumps and peaks in unexpected places or even to polys folding in or over one another. Furthermore, due to the fixedly defined groups of polys each slider moves—you can not move single vertices or even polys—the avatar gets “deformed”, which more often than not leads to surprises when applying textures (skin & clothes, that is). Despite of all this in principle it is still possible to create avatars of near so-called “photorealistic” looks. In my understanding the winning strategy is to first create the shape, trying to achieve the best approximation to the envisioned shape while taking care not to create artefacts, and to keep “deformation” at a minimum. A maximum of patience is obligatory for this. In order to constantly evaluate and visually keep track of what you are doing with the polygons, I find it helpful to completely strip the avatar of everything and to apply the UV Suit (a “map” of the avatar’s polygons) by Robin “Sojourner” Wood. If artefacts and deformation start, undo and try to think up another solution, another set of slider-setting combinations to achieve the desired effect. If nothing works, gradually revert your settings until artefacts and deformation are gone. Leave that as the best approximation and think about how to compensate the lack of looks later by ways of the custom skin you are going to make.


Once the shape is satisfactory, and it seems that nothing better can be achieved, it is time to save the shape to your inventory and to start with the skin, to make the upper and lower “body tattooes” and the “head tattoo”. Those are textures, twodimensional images, which are created in an application outside of SL. After having them imported and applied to the avatar, the graphics engine “wraps” the 2D pictures around the 3D character mesh of the avatar. This is the very point where the problems usually start, where the mere dabblers are separated from the patient and skillful ;-) For making the textures you can e.g. use the free GIMP, but the costly Photoshop (PS) is the pros’ choice. Additionally to PS you need templates for the body textures in order to know where the parts of the 2D image go on the 3D mesh. There is the “official” set of templates by Linden Lab—the use of it does not lead very far. Luckily there are two other excellent sets available for free, by Robin Wood, and by Chip Midnight. It is controversial which set is “better”—get both and try them. In order to learn how to use the templates, refer to the tutorials by Nicola Escher (available in multiple languages), and to the tutorials by Robin Wood. Also recommended are Natalia Zelmanov‘s Goth Avatar Skin Part 1 and Part 2 (Natalia has a plethora of good tutorials on many SL subjects). Make yourself familiar with alpha channells and perfect their use.

textures—”skin & clothes”

A basic strategy to make more or less sure where what you make in PS goes on the avatar, is to run SL simultaneously and having your avatar wear the UV suit. Two screens come in handy, but still you have to constantly throw your gaze from here to there and back again, plus keeping in mind a growing number of data. Your cranial capacities quickly reach their limits, believe me. For really evaluating your work there is no way around seeing the texture on the avatar. But every texture upload costs L$10 and the built-in preview before payment is a bit meager. A leap forward is the SL Clothing/Skin Previewer (SLCP), a free standalone application which allows you previews of your textures on the SL avatar. It helps a lot, but still the seams, where the “wrapped around” UV maps meet themselves or another one, are a pain. Of course one can follow the strategy to only allow the same flat colour close to all seems, but this is a bit unsatisfactory, because we want killer pro results, right? Right! So now for the killer part …

painting on the avatar

There are at least two applications which allow you to directly paint on the avatar. Unfortunately both are not for free. There is the SL specific AvPainter—at L$2495 it is a bargain, but of course has limited functionality. Nevertheless I guess the combination PS and AvPainter already carries you far—I will report as soon as I have tested it. Beyond that there is the professional solution: Luxology’s modo, an advanced polygon, subdivision surface, modeling and rendering package—professional 3D visualization software. In respect to its 3D painting capabilities Wikipedia knows: “modo allows an artist to paint directly onto 3D models and even paint instances of existing meshes onto the surface of an object. The paint system allows to use a combination of tools, brushes and inks to achieve many different paint effects and styles. The paint tools in modo are things like airbrush, clone, smudge, blur. These tools are paired with your choice of “brush” (such as soft or hard edge, procedural). Lastly, you add an ink—the most interesting of which is image ink—meaning you are painting an existing image onto your 3D model. […]” From that description alone I guess that the complexity of the application may be as much a threshold for the average user as its price: US$895.00. [Still less than Autodesk’s Maya (US$1,995) or 3ds Max (US$3,495), though. I warned you, we are talking professional solutions here.] And by the way, you can make sculpted prims for SL with modo, too, including baked textures. Check Lovecraft Forest for updates and improvements—but sculpties and 3D software is a story of its own, allow me to refrain from wandering astray and stay with painting the avatar for now.

SLCP and AvPainter use the standard SL avatar meshes. Even modo can not lead you further. When you download the avatar meshes and import them, you are still stuck with characters which “match the base Second Life female and male meshes (prior to any morphs applied).” [emphasis mine] Meaning that the shape in AvPainter or modo is different from your custom shape in SL. As explained above, messing with the sliders “deforms” the avatar—in consequence chances are that your perfectly designed skin and clothes do not look so perfect on the custom shape. Again seams may not precisely meet, areas “bleed” away, and so on. But we want high end professional perfect results, right? Right! Hence, finally, the uber killer part :-)

painting on the custom shape

Enter the Dragon … erh … the combined power of open source development and professional 3D visualization software, I mean. I knew the single parts before, but Nicola Escher made the loose ends meet. There is a phreaky open source project called the OpenGLExtractor (OGLE). The extractor “allows for the capture and re-use of 3D geometry data from 3D graphics applications running on Microsoft Windows. It works by observing the data flowing between 3D applications and the system’s OpenGL library, and recording that data in a standard 3D file format. In other words, a ‘screen grab’ or ‘view source’ operation for 3D data.” When you have regained consciousness, dig this: it works with SL. Linden may very well not like this, as it principally may have the potential to undermine SL’s economy. But I do not yet see this, because there is no way to reimport geometry, except sculpties. And outside SL there is hardly a market for things created within SL. Anyway, for the uber killer solution, you, in the words of Nicola, “would need to grab the mesh from Second Life using something like OGLE, bring it into modo, recreate the UV maps,” and then perfect the skin & clothes, perfectly fitting your custom shape.

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