3D character sculpting: a guide

Introduction

In this article I’ll talk about some key things to remember when you approach a character sculpt. Specifically I’ll talk about my recent work Steampunk Huntress. I divided my process into three parts: Preparation, Execution, and Presentation. This will be the overall art process that I learned from different sources. Other than this, I’ll share some useful tips and tricks, and of course about how I do lighting.

steampunk huntress

Steampunk huntress

Preparation

For concept art you have to get a clear idea of what your main motive is. For example, I want to model a huntress (she is a superhero from DC Comics) and I also want to give her a steampunk look. So I search for a lot of artwork on different sites, and when I get some ideas, I start putting them into a reference sheet with groups like shoe, body, face, mask, hair, gauntlet, leggings, and so on. Try to minimalist your reference sheet; it’ll help you to not get confused mid-way. If you can’t find proper references for something you can always rough paint it in Photoshop.

references

Shorten and minimize your reference collection

Blocking – execution

At this point I started blocking out all the parts, moving stuff until I acheived a good silhouette. Most of the time I only model those things which are bigger chunks. Don’t just be happy with your first attempt – try different things. These should be quick passes which help to move toward a certain direction. Something to keep in mind is that you should not lose the main character feeling, in my case it’s a superhero. I can’t make her a fashion model or something like that. Also, I paint my blackouts with bright colors which help me to see the model breakages from a distance.

character vibe and blocking

Finding out the character vibe and blocking

Refining the block out – execution

You can say this is a details pass but it’s not at this stage yet. I add more things which I call Attention Points to the character at a smaller level. These are the points which grab the attention of a viewer. This step is going to be stretched until the end because you are not certain how something is going to look after posing.

adding attention points

Refining the block out and adding attention points

Light breaking – execution

So I called this stage the Light Break stage, because human eyes don’t like blank things. In 3D, you need to model, which means if we add something to a blank surface like belts on a corset, or a necklace on her chest, or the huge symbol on her belt – these things are going to block the light and create shadows, which is going to be much more interesting to look at. But adding too many assets will also ruin your artwork. It’s about finding the right balance.

breaking flat light with shadows

Breaking flat light with shadows

Detailing – execution

Every sculptor loves this stage but the thing is, if your base isn’t correct or you just get satisfied easily with that then no matter how much detailing you do, it’ll never show up correctly. Things which can be counted as details – small folds along the stitches, leather stitching seams, small screws, laces, buckles, fabric patterns, skin pores, and so on. I only add details that can be seen at least halfway from the character. It doesn’t make sense to put in so many small details that can’t even see from a distance.

detailing character

Things that matter for detailing

Posing – execution

I highly recommend getting a pose reference, especially if you are doing a dynamic pose. Before my final pose I usually do three or four different poses quickly. It should be rough – I don’t spend too much time refining these. It’s only for the look and feel. Then I start refining the one I like the most. Making a pose doesn’t mean you can do any pose that will work, it should explain your character – in my case it’s a superhero so I just can’t make her like a fashion model or an angel. It’s not going make sense. One more thing which is very important, while posing, is the line of action – it defines the body flow of a character, and you can search for this on internet. There is a lot more you can find about that.

Pedestal – execution

The pedestal, or base, is as important as your character. I made a speed sculpt video for this pedestal:  Concept a pedestal for Character Presentation/zbrush. I follow composition rules. It not only helps character art, it also helps you with photography, matt painting, digital painting, and so on. Photoblog has some great stuff to learn from. The main thing is that the pedestal should help the main character pop out more. It shouldn’t standout by its own. Observe the pedestals of toy figures for additional guidance.

pedestals for characters

Pedestals/bases need to support your main sculpture – they shouldn’t stand out on its own

Camera angles – presentation

Camera angles also help to define your sculpture – how important he/she is. As I have shown in the image, if your camera is too high it defines your character is in trouble or weak, and the eye level camera means the subject has major value in that scene. The lower camera angle means the subject is powerful. These are my theories by observing things. I mention it because it works for me.

camera angles on character

Camera angles can define if your character is powerful or weak

Lighting – presentation

Now we come to the most important thing where most sculptors surrender. They do some really awesome work, but because they couldn’t light it properly the work doesn’t get that much attention. I rendered this in Arnold but the basics remain the same in all the renderers. Three lights will do for your character lighting. As you can see I place the key light towards the top of the head because on Earth our sun is above our heads, so shadows are created that way, we are not used to seeing shadows from any other direction. Even in our home the lights are above our head. If you place the key light in front of the character it’ll give you a result like the second image – you can see by only changing the angle I get so much detail from character. If you are still struggling then one easy tip – take an artist’s image and try to recreate that lighting to help you set a goal and work towards it.

Don’t settle

So this is my final tip. I said it before but I want to bring it up again. Never be satisfied with your first attempt. If you are doing this then you are lying to yourself and selling yourself short. I have done this before. That’s why I am writing all this. I’m posting this image to show you how many iterations I have done, and one more thing – this is only a third of my iterations.

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character development