3D Sculpting Essentials: A Beginner’s Guide

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Sculpting has been around for centuries from the statues you see in Egypt to even older statues found (History of art course flashback!!) humans used all materials accessible to create statues from wood to marble to clay, they created statues, props, and it was considered a highly ranked job.

Digital sculpting, on the other hand, is fairly new, I remember seeing the first digital sculpt when Zbrush got released I think in 2009, it had this greyish low-resolution look but with so many details everyone was blown away with the results.

It’s safe to say Pixologic the creator of Zbrush pioneered in the digital sculpting space, later came MudBox which was created by Autodesk, and then the competition let loose.

In this article I will introduce 3D sculpting just like we did in the 3D Modeling Guide, I will cover the basics that you will find in each sculpting software and share with you some of the experience I gained with sculpting.

Check out this list of the Best Sculpting Software

What is 3D Sculpting?

Just like traditional sculpting, Digital 3D Sculpting is the art of creating Organic and Hard-surfaced models using artistic brushes and techniques that resemble traditional clay sculpting.

The only difference is it’s all digital on the computer no need for clay or traditional tools and you would get all the Undos you can dream of.

Benefits of 3D Sculpting

There are tons of benefits to 3D sculpting, actually, it’s safe to say that 3D sculpting has revolutionized the animation and gaming industry.

With the introduction of sculpting tools like Zbrush and Mudbox, artists were able to create 3D models very quickly and they looked very appealing because it gave the artists the creative freedom away from moving polygons and vertices, it removed all the restrictions and gave them the ability to add as many details as they want.

Here are some of the benefits of 3D sculpting:

  • Very artistic
  • Unlimited amount of details
  • Fast and easy to produce
  • The quality of models skyrocketed

Getting Started with 3D Sculpting

Before you jump right in let’s first discuss what you need to get started in terms of tools and hardware, back in the day it was impossible for anyone to try out 3D sculpting as you needed very expensive softwares and hardware, but today the bar is really low and anyone can try sculpting.

Required Tools and Software for 3D Sculpting

here is what you need to get started:

  • Computer: you need a good computer with good RAM (6GB minimum) and a good Graphics card (Nvidia GTX series would be fine )
  • Tablet: Yes you need a tablet (please don’t tell me about your friend who sculpts with the mouse… ) back in the day Wacom was the best and still it is but now we have other good brands like XP-Pen and Huion choose whatever fits your budget, you only need the small version trust me, I have tried Cintiq 24HD (the one with huge screen) I still prefer my Wacom Intuos small (image below).
  • Software: I recommend using Zbrush if you want to work professionally as most studios use it these days, and it’s more powerful in handling high resolutions meshes, but you can also use Blender sculpting tools which became surprisingly better in the latest versions. (Blender is FREE)
  • Secret requirement: I want to put this one here because none of the above matters if you don’t have this one, Patience, you need to have a lot of it in order to start seeing results.
Wacom Small

Basic 3D Sculpting Concepts and Techniques

Great now you have your laptop/desktop ready, Zbrush/Blender installed and you’re ready to start sculpting some models. The first thing we want to do is set up the Wacom tablet properties or whatever tablet you have.

We need to do this because we are going to use our pen to rotate, zoom, and pan our 3D sculpts and you need to be very comfortable doing this cause you will be doing it all the time.

Below is an image of the settings I like to use for my function keys.

Wacom Tablet Properties

Now that this part is setup is finished we can get started exploring 3D sculpting.

Dynamesh

When sculpting a 3D object we start with a set resolution, a polycount in other words, and during sculpting, we move, add, and modify our mesh but the number of polygons stays the same, so imagine if I had a sphere I wanted to pull out an arm like shape out of it, below is what happens.

Without Dynamesh

We are moving a number of polygons and stretching them outwards at some points we won’t have any more polygons and vertices to stretch and control and this would limit us a lot, a way around is to add a new sphere or object and keep adding whenever we need more geometry but that’s counterproductive.

Up till the release of Dynamesh feature in ZBrush adding new polygons wasn’t possible, we have to keep adding primitives in order to extend our meshes and we have to start with a base mesh early on so we won’t have to deal with this issue.

So what is Dynamesh, short for Dynamic Mesh, it gives us the ability to add more polys to our mesh with a click of a button, at any point in time we feel we need more polygons we can turn on Dynamesh.

Then ctrl-click and drag in the background of ZBrush and it will redistribute our polycount evenly, look what happened to our mesh below.

Dynamesh Applied

Then gives us the Creative freedom to now worry about polycount at all and sculpt as we please just like in real life (even better).

A similar feature exists in Blender and it’s called Voxel Remesh you can access it in the sculpt mode, by clicking ctrl+r to remesh and to adjust the resolution you can click shift+r (image below)

Voxel Remesh Blender

Symmetry

one of the most important advantages of digital sculpting is “Symmetry” I always symmetry when sculpting and keep it on for 90% of the whole sculpting phase.

That being said, depends on the art style you’re working on always keep in mind to break the symmetry before finishing your asset, 100% symmetry in real life doesn’t exist and slightly breaking the symmetry can add a lot of realism to your models.

To add symmetry in Zbrush it’s as simple as pressing “X” key on your keyboard. In Blender it’s on the top Right Menu (image below for reference)

Blender Symmetry

3D Sculpting Brushes

There are tons of brushes in Zbrush and Blender, you might get overwhelmed with all of them but don’t worry about that you will only use a very small number of brushes you will not need to learn every single brush and their effect.

In fact, you can finish a full sculpt with just one brush but it wouldn’t be very convenient but just to convey the general point of less is more when it comes to brushes.

IMM Primitives Brush

IMM Primitives Brush

IMM stands for Insert Multi Mesh, this is the brush I start with whenever I want to sculpt something from scratch, what this brush does is it adds primitives you choose on the mesh you working on.

For example, I am working on a torso, I can directly use this brush click on drag new spheres are inserted and I can directly manipulate them and start shaping the hands. (below you see the effect of the brush)

IMM Primitives Brush Effect

Unfortunately, there is no similar tool in Blender for this at the moment of writing this article, in Blender you have to switch to object mode, add in your primitives, and switch back to sculpt mode.

Clay Buildup Brush

Clay Buildup Brush

This is one of the top 3 Brushes I use constantly, I use this to add and build up forms, it has a very rough clay-like effects which helps a lot when sculpting organic shapes, below is the effect of this brush.

Clay Buildup Brush Effect

P.S: I always town down the Z Intensity of this brush to 5 or 6 because it tends to be very strong.

Move Brush

Move Brush

Number 1 brush I use, in Blender its called the Grab brush, this is essential to move and shape out the volume of your 3D sculpt, I constantly change the size of the brush using the Wacom wheel, but I never play with its Z intensity.

Another variation of this brush is the “Move Topological” brush which is very handy if you have 2 meshes inside 1 subtool and you want to move only one of them, this brush understands that they are 2 separate meshes and moves only one.

One great use of this tool is when closing an eyelid or a mouth this one tends to be very handy.

Trim Dynamic Brush

Trim Dynamic Brush

This one is also one of my top 3 brushes, I use this in the blocking stage of my sculpting process, what this brush does is it basically scraps the sculpt and creates flat surfaces, this tends to be handy to get some angles in to define your volume. (image below to explain more)

Head Sculpting

This brush is similar to “hPolish Brush” which has a similar effect but is used more for polishing hard surface sculpts, like metals and flat surfaces.

Trim Dynamic Brush Effect

DamStandard Brush

DamStandard Brush

Short for Damien Caderle who is the creator of this brush, essentially this brush is used for wrinkles or any very sharp carving you might want to add to your sculpt similar to the “Draw Sharp” or “Crease” brush in Blender. (below is the effect of this brush)

DamStandard Brush Effect

P.S: be careful of the Z Intensity on this brush as it might be too strong starting out.

Inflat Brush

Inflat Brush

Not used often but with certain situations, this brush is a saver, what this brush does it bulges everything out, I use this usually after carving with the DamStandard brush I come and do some inflate to hide that harsh seam created and give more natural effect of how wrinkles are.

Also used to add more volume, for example to the cheeks or lips area. (Below you see the effect of the brush).

Inflat Brush Effect

The inflate brush is also great with the Damstandard brush as it fills up the gap created by the Damstandard brush and gives a natural effect of filling. (below is an example of what I mean).

Inflat Brush Usage

Smooth Brush

Almost forgot about this brush, a very very important brush, the reason why I almost forgot about is that i never select it, this brush is automatically activated every time you press shift, and as soon as you release the shift button it reverts back to the brush you were using prior pressing shift. (Below the effect of the smooth brush applied to the detail on the left)

Smooth Brush Effect

Pretty straightforward, this brush is used to smooth out your sculpt but one thing I want to note here is if you use the shift and you feel that it’s not really smoothing then it could be one of these 2 things:

  • You have a very high-resolution mesh, the higher resolution your mesh is the less of a drastic effect the smooth brush will have.
  • If the scale of your 3D object/scene is very big not only the effect would be less but also you would not be able to scale the size of your brush as well.

So as an advice I always like to start with a small scene and very low-resolution Dynamesh (something like 60) then I have the full effect of the smooth brush and I can make more drastic changes to my 3D object.

Standard Brush

Standard Brush

Default Brush does the main actions of either carving or pulling, btw to pull just paint with the Wacom pen, and to carve which is the negative effect click alt+click. This brush I use whenever I want to add some volume but I don’t use it often, below is the effect of the brush.

Standard Brush Effect

Pinch Brush

Pinch Brush

I rarely use this brush but i cannot not mention it as one day you will probably need it, what this brush does is it pinches the sculpt under it and brings whatever below the brush closer to each other, for the example below I carved with the DamStandard brush and at the middle point I pinched.

Pinch Brush Effect

Masking in 3D Sculpting

Masking is very useful in 3D sculpting, just like the name suggests you can paint a mask directly on your 3D sculpt and everything you paint gets colored with a darker color indicating the masked areas.

Any action you performed on masked areas won’t have any effect on it this can be useful in multiple situations for example:

  • Creating a full blink with eyelids, you mask one eyelid and move the other one and then invert the mask and move the other…etc until you have a full eyelid closed position.
  • Moving and sculpting fingers, because they are very close to each other you can use a mask to only work or move the finger you want to work on.

In Zbrush to access the mask brush you just click and hold ctrl and then you can paint your masks as you please, to remove from the mask keep holding ctrl+alt and paint what you want to remove. (Below you can see a masked area sculpted over you can notice anything masked won’t be affected )

Masking Effect

To invert a mask hold ctrl and click ounce on the background, and to clear a mask you only need to ctrl-click and drag and release in the background.

All of these commands can also be accessed from the Mask tab image below to show where to find it.

Masking Tab

Clipping in 3D Sculpting

Clipping is a great way of removing bug chunks from your 3D model, it’s very close to the metal line they have in traditional sculpting they use to cut the big clay cubes they have. Or if you don’t have experience in traditional sculpting you can imagine it as a big knife that cuts big chunks of your sculpt.

To access the clipping brushes all you have to do is press ctrl+shift and hold it, then in the brush section you will see it change to other brushes click on it to expand it and then choose the “Clipping Curve” below an image where to find it.

Clipping Brush

After Choosing the brush, keep pressing ctrl+shift and click and drag on your mesh and release and you will see how it cuts through the mesh, you can press space to move the whole curve before committing, and be careful anything below the g below the gray gradient line of the curve is where the cut would be made.

Clipping Brush Effect

3D Sculpting Stages

When sculpting there are stages every 3D artist goes through even without him noticing, and when any of these stages are skipped you can see that in the final 3D sculpt that is presented.

That being said, it’s not necessary to have all these stages in every art style you will work on, some low poly models may not need the detailing stage of sculpting, but it’s always good to keep in mind these stages while working.

Blocking Stage

This is a critical stage if you don’t have a good block out no matter what you do later, no matter how many details you add it will look off.

Blocking Stage

At this stage 3D primitives are used to block out the main shapes of our sculpt, capturing the right proportions and the right silhouette (how your 3D object is seen when filled with a flat color).

Below is a video tutorial on the Blocking Stage

Refining the sculpt

At this stage, we Dynamesh all our primitives we used in the blocking stage and start smoothing and cleaning the sculpt, using the move brush to adjust and maybe adding forms using the Clay buildup brush.

Dynamesh resolution is often increased if necessary to refine the general shape at this stage.

Detailing the sculpt

At this point, you have nothing to add more to your mesh, you might want to exit Dynamesh as you won’t need it anymore. Instead, you can go ahead and divide the model and start adding details.

Depends on your style, if your going for realistic at this stage your would be using special Alphas of wood for example and you would be laying them on your Environment 3D sculpt.

Polishing the sculpt

Nearly done with your 3D sculpt, this stage is when you break the symmetry if needed and maybe use the DamStandard brush to add in some sharp areas like the eyelids in case you’re doing a character.

One thing to note this stage can go into infinity as for artists it’s never enough, so it’s good to set a limit for this stage and to call your 3D sculpt finished and move on to the next one.

Best Practices for 3D Sculpting

Practice Practice Practice

With sculpting as it is with any other profession, if you stop practicing it will slip out of your hand, the only way I know to get better in 3D sculpting is to practice.

It’s great to have goals, like I want to be as good as this artist, or I want to produce something like this 3D sculpt, but always remember to enjoy the process and the journey and don’t get too attached to specific goals, because who do get attached to goals quit once they reach them.

New Trends and Tools

New tools and software updates are getting out of hand these days, and it seems overwhelming, one day your working on Autodesk Maya 2020, and the next thing you notice they released 2023 with so many new tools and features, and you’re still getting used to the featured of 2019.

I know it’s hard this is why I always stress the importance of getting the basics mastered, because there will always be new features and they will all revolve around the basics.

Whenever you find some free time always check out what’s trending in the 3D sculpting world, check out the new tools just to be up to date, of course, you’re not going to use everything new but it’s good to be knowledgeable about it.

Free Sculpting Essentials to Get You Started

I know it can be overwhelming starting out your journey in the 3D sculpting phase, I know because I went through it myself. I would like to make it easier for you guys by offering some Freebies for you to get started with:

  • Sculpting Eyelids Video Tutorial in Zbrush – Link
  • Zbrush Brush Layout – Link

Hope this helps you out, I will try to add more helpful free resources to this list with time.

Conclusion

3D sculpting is an always-evolving space, it penetrated so many industries from health, to automotive to architecture. It is indeed a very exciting time to be a 3D artist with the advancement of 3D sculpting tools and the amount of education available for free.

In this article I tried to cover the basics, from this point going forward you should be practicing and learning on a daily basis, and don’t if your doing it anyways mind as well enjoy the journey.