Sunday, April 12, 2015

Digital Portrait Sculpting - Update

I'm part of a group of sculptors in Ann Arbor, Michigan called the West Huron Sculptors. We share a studio and model time to do figure and portrait sculpting. I've recently revised my digital workflow - here's an update on what's new.

I was using a Wacom Cintiq display on a mobile stand to sculpt with (picture in use here). I still have that display but I keep it out of the studio now as I'm using a regular Wacom Intuos 3 graphics tablet. I actually prefer this much less expensive method.

The biggest advantage is I can work for 3.5 hours without plugging in. Previously I had to drag an extension cord around the studio as I worked to power the display. Given we have 4 or 5 sculptors working at once this was a hassle. Now I can freely move as I wish without having to tangle with the cord.

We have a rotating model stand. But several sculptors in our group are doing portrait reliefs. This means they generally stay in one spot, or move much less. So rotating the stand adversely affects them.

I was thinking of getting one of the Wacom Cintiq Companion laptops. I'm glad I didn't. Instead I got a Dell XPS laptop. The most amazing part of this machine is the display. It runs at 3200x1800 pixels - unbelievable crisp. Working with this laptop and a standard tablet is really a pleasure.

I also find that keeping my hands on the keyboard is more relaxing than reaching up and always touching the monitor. And of course having my hands away from the screen doesn't block any portion of the image! Finally, since ZBrush makes extensive use of the Shift / Ctrl / Alt keys I always have the left hand available for using keyboard shortcuts to switch tools.


I start with a simple base mesh and work it up using a combination of brushes. Here's the base mesh I often start with - you can see there's not much details and a low polygon count:

The choice of which brushes to use in ZBrush is key to efficiently sculpting. Here are the most common ones I work with:

Move Topological: Moves verticies on the mesh around without affecting those not directly attached to the brush area. Coupled with sizing the brush and falloff I use this all the time to adjust the sculpt. For example, using symmetry I can adjust the eye position and spacing very easily.

Clay Buildup: Very useful for building up layers of virtual clay. The alpha channel is used so it gives good control of how the stroke falls off.

Smooth: Takes a rough surface and smooths it out by averaging the level of the surface. I usually turn the intensity way down to make the effect more controllable.

Inflate: Expands an area of the sculpt by pushing verticies along their normals. Great for adding volume to a feature which is too small. It can also be used to deflate - pushing the sculpt in the opposite direction.

Slash3: This brush is used to cut into a surface to create a tight crease or slash. Great for doing things like folds near the eyes, and edges where the nose meets the face, etc.

Pinch: This brush pulls verticies together effectivly pinching the surface along your stroke. The brush optionally allows the verts to be pulled up or pushed down.

I think it's interesting to note that, with the exception of Clay Buildup, these are the tools available in Sculptris (the simpler, free version of ZBrush).


The introduction of a feature called ZRemesher is a huge workflow enhancement. This feature let's you regenerate the topology (flow the polygons and their density) of the mesh automatically. It does a pretty amazing job and gives you good control over the mesh density. Being able to polypaint the areas where you want higher or lower resolution to the mesh is helpful. I paint out the eyes, ears, nose and mouth in red. After remeshing these area have twice as high a number of verticies than the rest of the mesh which allows extra detail to be added in those key areas.


You can assign different materials, or shaders, to the sculpt to visualize it in various ways. For example with more reflection to see the smoothness of surfaces, or with harsh lighting to emphasize the edge. My favorite materials are:

MatCap Perl
This is the main material I use when sculpting. Enough highlights to visualize the curvature of the surfaces, but still diffuse enough to see overall forms rather than specular reflections.

MatCap Skin4
Similar to the material above but with a terracotta hue which is nice.

Fresnel Overlay
The specular highlights on this glossy material can really highlight imperfections in the surface as you rotate the model.

This provides a very subtle shading with no reflective highlights

Skin Shade4
Another nice variation with low glossiness - this reminds me of working in porcelain.

This is useful for studying the edges of surfaces.

There are also many metallic shaders which provide interesting effects:


Relief Sculpts

I've been interested in making relief sculptures from the 3D model. This is done by scaling along one axis only. Here's a side view. The scaling here has to happen in stages because the distance from the shoulder to the center-line of the head is great and a compression that fully brought that down to a relief scale would all but erase the details of the face. Therefore the side of the head has to be scaled down, then the shoulder has to be scaled down on its own. Then some simple cleanup has to be done to smooth the intersection between the two differently scaled sections.

Here's the finished piece, printed on a 100 micron PLA printer at Thingsmiths. The cost was $74. I made the frame from Honduras Mahogany:

Another relief, framed in African Mahogany:

Here is a 3/4 view that is scaled down. 

The interesting thing about doing this is that the model can have features behind the front face of the sculpt - for example the model's left ear is visible if the relief is viewed from the side. This is fairly common in high relief work in stone. Undercuts like that wouldn't work in bronze work which is cast.

PLA 3D print:

It should be noted that this scaling technique is not at all suitable for very low relief sculpting - for example in making coins. In those cases the artist is not sculpting form, but rather light and shadow. The effect is achieved via the appearance of shadows, rather than by sculpting forms which produce those shadows.

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