Storytelling through sculpture

Expert sculptor VicharBN explores the world of sculpting, showing best techniques for a thoughtful workflow that considers how best to tell a narrative…

Vichar's Artstation

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As Michelangelo said, every block of stone has a statue inside and it’s a sculptor’s task to discover it. Well! I am a person obsessed with the form and shape of things, on an ever ongoing road to discovery. I am a digital and traditional sculptor with 18+ years of experience sculpting characters, creatures, sets, and props. I’m currently working with Technicolor India as a Departmental Director for the gaming division. Over the years I have been lucky to get the opportunity to work on a wide range of projects, spanning from cartoony to hyper-realistic styles.

Unfolding a story through sculpture that tells a tale!

A good and well-presented sculpt is successful in reaching its objective and remembered long after, above others. Works of art often tell stories. Artists can present narrative in many ways—by using a series of figures representing moments in a story, or by selecting a central moment to stand for the whole story. Narrative works often illustrate well-known historical, religious, legendary, or mythic stories. However, artists invent their own stories, leaving the viewer to imagine the narrative. Holding the interest and crossing all age barriers is the impact of an effective storytelling. I believe knowing and applying the art of storytelling will not only strengthen your sculpting, but also develop the desired interest in the audience.

I prefer to create a character with a backstory that is reflected in everything from expression, to clothing, to the pose. I start with questions like - Where are they from? What is their motive? What are they feeling?  It is not just about making your character look “cool.” The planning and intention one sets before the actual execution always reflects in the sculpture one sculpts.

I aim at creating a piece that provokes an emotional response. From a personal standpoint, given the right subject and the right sculpt, one can deliver a powerful message to the viewer (art lovers). Here's an example:

crocodile and woman underwater

Beauty and the beast

La Belle et La Bête (French for The Beauty and the Beast). However clichéd the title might be, this work of art has been inspired by the very thought of freeing ourselves from the cliché. Prejudice and stereotypes become part of our system from an early age. I see babies and young kids marvel at everything about everybody around. But as they grow the typecasting sets in, ironically, taught by us as parents, peers, friends, and teachers.

I dream of a world with the vision that each one of us has beyond the pigeon hole, a vision that considers and appreciates the unconventional thought processes and approaches. With this piece of my work I wish to take a step towards that vision.

At first sight, our banality makes us assume that the girl (human) in here is being referred to as the beauty and the scary crocodile is the beast. At this point I would urge you to take a step back and consider that it was meant the other way around. Challenging right! Surface never always delivers the complete truth. Each year we humans hunt and kill thousands of crocodiles for their skin.

Sculpting workflow

Before I jump into my workflow and style, I want to talk about the most important pre-sculpting prep step – Research. I always start my project with research. Spending at least a third of my time downloading descriptions, photos, and analyzing them. Next, I will sketch some simple shapes and make a collage. This way I get to know my subject better and I get a clear vision and plan of what needs to be done. I cannot stress enough how important this stage is. I personally consider it a make or break step of the process.

Reference collection before sculpting

When creating 3D art, be it realistic or stylized, using reference is one of the most important parts of the process. Since the creation of any art asset starts with building reference, you can go as far as to say that the final quality of the finished product is largely defined by the effort you put into research in the beginning. Gathering reference is the next step in the process, but you should actually already be gathering material when researching info on your subject. You could even be performing this step for a project you’re not even sure you will ever create; having a few folders of material on interesting subjects is great for when you’re looking for ideas.

Your main source is of course Google image search. You can probably get around just searching here, but it can be interesting to search on another website as well. Searching by Pinterest and YouTube can provide some interesting results on certain subjects, especially environments, but you’d be surprised what else can turn up in people’s photo streams and anatomy sites and adult sites,classic sculptures and paintings, deviantart, and many more.

There’s more than just internet! Books, magazines, and papers can provide great reference that you just won’t find on the net. Reference is not just mindlessly saving every high-res picture. It requires thinking and analysis to make the most out of it. This is vital to make the most of your reference material.

cyberpunk female character showing model
A Shower of Summer Day
male character 3d model
A Morning Bath

My approach is that of a traditional sculptor. I start with armature (zspear) and then add clay layer by layer, trying to achieve the silhouettes, subtle variations, and the volume changes. Once the basic form and shape is achieved, I pose the sculpture with zrigg and work in asymmetry to add more weight and tension, to attain a more realistic look. Usually, I don’t use alphas, instead I try to reach the final goal by manual sculpting. This helps me learn the strengths and limitations of the software in depth.

man holding woman figurine 3d

Over the years, my process has been more scientific than creative. I like to study the interaction of muscle and bone in motion and the way light interacts with a surface. And last but not least, feedback. It’s important and a good practice to ask people for their opinion. Sometimes they see things that you might have not noticed. When finished, show your work. It’s good to have critics, you can learn a lot from them.

The most important thing for me in the character model are the face, the action (movement), and hands. These determine if a character is alive or dead. You can make a character with incredible anatomy, realistic textures, and incredible details but if the pose or face don’t work the figure will look dead. In ZBrush you always tend to lose your mind detailing things, so knowing when to stop is an important thing.

Tips for establishing your own workflow for anatomy sculpting

  • Sculpting is dependent on capturing form and proportions to produce a good likeness. It is important to have a good photograph reference of the subject
  • Don’t sculpt what you assume something should look like. Check the reference materials
  • Continuously study reference materials while sculpting. Keep all the reference materials organized and handy
  • When you make a change in one area, check how that change has affected other areas of the sculpture
  • Use a photograph-editing program to change the contrast if the photographs don’t provide good contrast
  • Continuously compare the sculpture to the reference materials
  • Facial expressions: Understanding how expressions affect and change the face is important in sculpting a natural likeness of an individual. Different facial expressions can drastically change the face. For example, a full smile changes the shape of the mouth, the cheeks, forehead, and even the eyes.

You can make a character with incredible anatomy, realistic textures, and incredible details but if the pose or face don’t work the figure will look dead

  • Measurements of the subject are taken to assure accurate form and proportions. Even though measurements you take will provide you with a solid reference for the correct proportions of your subject
  • To be a successful figurative sculptor, a fundamental knowledge of anatomy is required
  • In figurative sculpture, add mass according to the underlying muscle groups and smoothen the clay (or polygons) in the direction of the muscle bundles
  • The form of your sculpture is perceived by how light, shadows, and the transitions in between are created by the underlying shapes. Form is intimately tied to proportions because basic forms correspond to the initial proportions of the sculpture and can also be broken down into planes. For example, the basic form of the head can be reduced to a few planes such as the forehead, nose, brow, nose, chin, and so on. By reducing the sculpture to its corresponding planes, it is easy to see the relationships between forms and proportions
  • Negative space: An important but often overlooked aspect of form is the negative space. Negative space is the space around and between a part of the subject or even the entire subject.
  • Gesture refers to the flow of lines in the figurative sculpture. More precisely, gesture describes the rhythm, weight, and balance in the design of the sculpture. Gesture is what makes a perfectly still sculpture appear to be alive and in motion.
  • Dynamic figurative composition: The dynamic figurative composition spirals upward in a twisting figure, with no frontal view. This is one of the unique attributes of the sculptures – it offers multiple viewpoints, and its impact changes with the viewer's position. And I always try to use this technique in my sculpture. It gives life to sculpture with the play of light and shade, as a viewer your eyes will be revolving around the sculpture and you will be more involved with the artwork.

Examples for spiral composition in sculpting.

man holding woman 3d model

Another few examples of frozen moment, leaving the viewer to imagine the narrative:

dragon hunting dear 3d model
Hunting Dragon - In this artwork I tried depicting a frozen and tense moment. However, I left the narrative, of what is going to happens next, to the viewer’s imagination
droste 3d effect greek mythology
Helen of Troy - I tried portraying the droste effect (a sculpture inside a sculpture) for this sculpture
young boy having haircut model
Haircut on a Sunday

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