Thanks for the comments, folks, much appreciated. I'll take things in order, please forgive any sluggish words, I'm fighting off a cold and have to drag them out of my head through a layer of goo. Yuck.
@megastor I'm finally happy with my skin shader, don't really see any "plastic" in the Amber Gatherer renders, just that slight increase in specularity that comes from a thin perspiration layer, natural consequence of a hot sunny day at the beach. I don't use Emit except for special effects (like Neziņa's vampire eyes), it's too powerful an influence that to my eyes usually looks too unnatural. The scene lighting's dynamic range I determined after poring over a lot of "beach party" references (tough research), as well as dredging up memories of living practically on the Atlantic as a kid (east coast of Florida, USA). I wanted the image to seem suffused with light, and that meant a challenge balancing highlights that shouldn't be too bright and shadows that shouldn't be too harsh, yet still preserve solid modeling of the forms. It turned out to be more a matter of shader specs than lighting levels, however. SSS played a huge role in the look of the skin as these comparisons show:
The left image has no SSS, the right, SSS has been enabled with the specs shown. Note that I use a very high-value, low saturation color for the base RGB of the SSS effect. This not only lightens the skin but also helps balance the intensity of some of the textures applied, many of which are very saturated. While I like the very sculptural effect of the no-SSS shadowing, and it may be truer to actual beach sunlight conditions, the skin, beyond being a shade more appropriate to a tropical than northern European ethnicity, lacks depth, and is much more "plastic" to my eyes. The with-SSS skin diffuses the light wonderfully (or seems to, at least), but without that waxy look that too high a Scale value can create.
In Seeking I wanted to explore the consequences of light heavily filtered by the environment, in this case, a deep forest canopy, so lots of fairly saturated green. The most noticeable effect this had on the skin shader is that a great deal of the red components are suppressed (red and green being near-complements on the color wheel), and the skin appears much lighter and slightly yellowish in tone, like fine ivory. Yet the only difference between this scene and the beach scene is that I added a second texture channel for coloration of the redder parts of the skin, such as lips and nipples. They had otherwise just faded to a dull tan. A good illustration of how specific lighting can fairly radically alter the look of Materials and shaders.
@Khell[PT] Thank you, I agree completely, this image sets the bar for my future work on the project pretty high. But that's a good thing, as I'm slowly defining the requirements for achieving the high degree of naturalism I want, without being a slave to the "photorealism" addiction that pervades so much of 3D work.
@loramel Thank you, Martin, I'm glad you're enjoying the fragments I'm tossing out as teasers in this thread. Without the story this would just be a rather dull exploration of technique. With Neziņa's experiences driving the production of scenes, it's a lot more focused and gives me a chance to hone the image to the perfection you mention -- which perfection I know is not possible except as something to strive for.
What I find interesting is that the story and the images sometimes happen in what might be considered "reverse" order. For example with Seeking, I knew I wanted to see what could be done with a deep forest environment, but had no particular story event to illustrate. But after doing some research into waterfalls and springs in the region of the story, and recycling a contrapposto pose from early on in this thread, I realized that a plot point I had yet to resolve could be realized in this image -- I needed a way to keep Neziņa from actually marrying Vientuļiš, thus setting up an even more important event down the timeline of the story. She has a very strong spiritual aspect to her personality, and taking a few liberties with the concept of the Native American vision quest, I was able to turn what would otherwise be a joyous life event into a moment of terror for the character that affects the direction of her life from then on. I probably would not have taken that route with the story unless I had begun rendering up poses and sticking them into ref pics as early tests of setting and composition ideas.
@ furlow Yes, I'm sorry that the links to the vids has gone down, the server was shut down after 8 years of excellent no-cost and ad-free service, so I really can't gripe. But I haven't had time, either, to scare up an alternative. The videos can be seen in slight lesser quality on my Facebook page, though. I'll look into putting them on Vimeo as well, though the formats don't fit the requirements that site recommends. The Neziņa models use my Othello face rig (Version 2), which employs only bones, though for some types of expression I would no doubt be using shape keys as well.
Speaking of facial expressions, as sometimes happens, the pose and lighting for Seeking revealed a weakness in the facial topology of the Neziņa model, with her naso-labial folds originating too low on the face. Made her look odd, so I fixed that, which required not only revising the mesh, but also the UVs that I'd already painted some skin shader components to. Oh, the price of progress!