Monday, March 19, 2018

Learning to Sculpt

I've been working on some homebrew rules and reached the point where my ad-hoc collections of stand-in miniatures aren't cutting it anymore. I have some specific ideas for the various figures I'll need, and don't really see anything that matches my vision available on the marketplace. I've spent hours combing through obscure figure lines, or working out the costs of converting something usable from a variety of parts, but figured if I'm going to put this much effort into this project, I might as well sculpt and cast exactly what I want. Really, how hard could it be?

I've dabbled with green stuff sculpting as well as metal casting years ago, but the results never seemed worth the amount of work my amateur efforts required. I've always felt more comfortable with a mouse and keyboard, and seeing the success of other vendors translating 3D digital designs into 3D prints and final metal castings, I decided to see if I could use a similar workflow for my own figures.

I downloaded Sculptris, a free, bare-bones version of Zbrush. Each day I spent an hour or two poking at the interface, trying to learn how to sculpt.

If only I were sculpting this guy!

Day 1:
Most of my first day was spent just learning the interface and the various ways of sculpting digital clay. This head was by no means a successful effort, but the tool itself was a lot of fun to use.

A face only a mother could love.

Day 2: To force myself to practice as much as possible, I decided to scrap each day's work. On day 2 I pulled this smiling, Buddha-like fellow out of the clay. He even had ears! His brow is too large, cranium too small, and there's a host of other anatomical issues, but it was progress!

Yul Brynner, Westworld (1973)

Day 3: I continued to study anatomy of the head and learn how to translate features into a 3D form on day 3. I like strong jaws and sharp cheek bones on heroic miniature figures (which are easier to pick out with highlights). This model's ears were a disaster though, and I wound up scrapping this head pretty quickly.

He's got a bit of a Neanderthal look to 'im.

Day 4: Ok! Still lots of issues with anatomy and scale, but I spent extra time on the nose and mouth, and was beginning to feel more comfortable with the sculpting tools rather than fighting against them.

Starting to look human

Day 5: Finally! Still issues with proportions and anatomy, but this was the first model where I could see an end state that wasn't completely embarrassing. Rather than deleting the head I picked it up again the next day to continue working.


Day 6: Still some issues, but I was pretty excited with the sculpt at this stage. Working digitally, it's hard to tell how the model's subtle details are going to translate to a physical object only 6mm high,  so I uploaded the model to Shapeways to output a few test prints.

The test prints after priming. So tiny the camera had trouble focusing.

I printed up two different materials to see how they fared (frosted extreme detail and black Hi-Def Acrylate if you are curious). I used some fine grit sandpaper to remove the VERY subtle print lines and gave them a primer coat of gray to compare them. Wow! So cool! They turned out a bit underscale since my measurements were made in haste, and their features need to be a bit more exaggerated for wargame figures, but overall I'm encouraged by the outcome. I've been soaking in all the Zbrush YouTube tutorials I can find and attempting to learn what I can about casting in preparation for an producing an actual figure. I know I'll need to bring in professional partners at some point, I'd like to see how much I can handle on my own before bringing in the pros.

Hope you enjoyed checking out my first fumbling attempts at sculpting. I have a lot to learn, so if you have any tips or contacts feel free to share them in the comments!


  1. That's fantastic. Once again, you're an inspiration. Can't wait to see all of this come together!

    1. Thanks Joe! Finally feel like I'm making progress. Looking forward to sharing it with the Scrum club.

  2. Excellent stuff. Great to see your progress. cheers

    1. Thanks! Still lots to learn, but I think i've taken a small step forward :)

  3. Wow, very interesting, particularly your rapid progress.

    I have been doing some digital design too, but of non-organic shapes so it is relatively easy.

    1. Wow! Those Klingon ships look great! What software did you use for the modeling?

    2. Tinkercad, which has the significant advantage of being free! It also has the disadvantage of not having the ability to distort shapes.

  4. You're learning faster than I did in my last shot at it. I intentionally stuck to goblins and such where I didn't have to get the anatomy right while learning the tools. Resin DLP & SLA printers have really dropped in price in the past couple years, making it practical to consider getting one for printing minis at home.

    1. Thanks Ed! I took a shot at learning 3D modeling 15 or 20 years ago and gave up. The tools have made learning so much easier I've been able to keep at it. I'll have to check out the home printers for printing tests (maybe even masters?), but I think it will be more cost effective to get them traditionally cast. I'm still figuring it out as I go. It's also hard to give up the sheer feel and weight of a metal mini :)

  5. Amazing work. You continue to produce creative and realistic characters and pieces. Thanks for sharing!