As artists, we are trying to explain life; to give it meaning and purpose. My intent with this article is to share some insights and my own mindset when sculpting. My main tool of choice is ZBrush, but the same ideas can be applied to other methods: clay sculpting, VR sculpting, drawing, etc.
I neglected drawing for a long time, but its importance and benefits become apparent once you start this lifelong project. Since I will also be quoting Edouard Lanteri to a potentially shameful degree, let me begin by sharing his thoughts on this:
...and as Drawing is the principal foundation of Sculpture, and a good sculptural work depends largely on good drawing, the student should draw as much as, if not more than, a student of painting.
I won't be discussing drawing from this point on, but this quote illustrates well that time invested in drawing is never time wasted.
There are no secrets when it comes to learning a new skill: it requires enough repetition until it becomes second nature. Noticing new forms and being able to interpret the shapes are essential skills to be learned but will usually come with daily sculpting and drawing practice. The method by which you learn these skills doesn't really matter, as long as you practice frequently and try to challenge yourself once the current task becomes too easy.
Our brain has a particular and astonishing way of dealing with the learning process, as Sam Harris points out in one of his books, Waking Up:
Many other findings attest to the importance of our unconscious mental lives. Amnesiacs, who can no longer form conscious memories, can still improve their performance on a wide variety of tasks through practice. For instance, a person can learn to play golf with increasing proficiency, all the while believing that whenever she picks up a club it is for the first time. The acquisition of such motor skills occurs outside of consciousness in normal people as well. Your conscious memories of practicing a musical instrument, driving a car, or tying your shoelaces are neurologically distinct from your learning how to do these things and from your knowing how to do them now. People with amnesia can even learn new facts and have their ability to recognize names and generate concepts improve in response to prior exposure, without having any memory of acquiring such knowledge. In fact, we are all in this position with respect to most of our semantic knowledge of the world. Do you remember learning the meaning of the word door?
The ideas presented here may only be shortcuts to an unavoidable end (in this case, of learning how to create good forms) once we put ourselves on this path.
Dealing with forms
In a known language, words will be read and understood at the moment we bring our eyes to them; when listened to, sentences will make sense prior to our awareness; and our names, when heard, will activate the middle frontal cortex, providing evidence that hearing one’s own name has unique brain functioning activation in relation to the names of others (Dennis P. Carmody and Michael Lewis, 2006). Something similarly automatic, I argue, must be happening, without our conscious awareness, while we navigate through the landscape of shapes, forms, and lines.
Gestalt psychology is a philosophy that theorizes about the way in which the brain behaves while perceiving forms and images. The Gestalt principle can provide a glimpse into the similarities of people’s unconscious reasoning when it comes to experiencing, amongst other things, the effect of light on shapes without explaining why or how it happens. This concept has been criticized for “being descriptive of the end products of perception without providing much insight into the processes that lead to perception” (Wikipedia). However, this is arguably irrelevant as, subjectively, we are capable of noticing how our brain is, but not limited to, a pattern-recognition machine. This is something to be experienced in the laboratory of our minds.
While these principles may not translate directly to the anatomy or sculpting practice, this is not the point here. My claim is that we don’t have the ability to realize what is happening beyond our awareness when we find something to be beautiful or appealing. We just do. But there is a line to be found somewhere, or else we would just feel the same way about everything we see. In being aware of these aspects of the human mind, we can behave in a way that is closer to reality and allow this behaviour to guide the choices of what to do next.
Consequently, in order to actually apply this knowledge and make better choices when it comes to creating shapes or forms on a figure, it is crucial to understand that perfect anatomy is not the most important aspect. If perfect anatomy becomes the ultimate goal, a sculptor may lose sight of what truly makes a figure look good.
The focus should instead be on the gesture of the figure and on the relationship between the forms; this is a skill that live models can help you grasp and develop. I am not arguing that anatomy isn’t important, and I hope you won’t neglect this practice, but it isn’t what the brain is drawn to at first glance.
Knowledge of anatomy will always be a reminder of what is happening under the skin and what may or may not be possible in this world. It will also provide you with the tools to bend reality in a suitable way, but it won’t work on its own. As brilliantly defined by Edouard Lanteri:
Anatomy teaches you the general laws of the human form, whilst the living model shows you the same laws applied, and modified by individual characteristics.
Moreover, I don’t believe that what has been described so far repudiates the notions that “just letting your mind flow” or “just using your feelings” are the best ways to approach artistic expression. We must follow a learning process at the beginning so that later on we can let go of a few concepts in order to be as expressive as possible. Even the British artist Stephen Wiltshire, who can draw beautifully detailed panoramas from memory, had to actively study and practice in his early years (although most likely not as much as the vast majority of us, since he was born with a unique mind and memory capacity). In short, no matter where we find ourselves on this spectrum, the inner workings of our perception machinery will always be beyond our control, leaving us with the only option of having a felt sense of the results of it all.
Once again, Lanteri has thoughtful words to define the importance of the first stages of development:
The more care you spend on this preparatory labour, the less you will feel that uncertainty which is so apt to discourage one, and to destroy one’s interest in the model.
One way to achieve this is to consider the following two big concepts or ideas while developing a figure. These explanations are similar to the way the painter Steve Huston explains them in his thinking process:
Gesture is the relationship between parts and is also the most important aspect of the sculpt. It’s where the story begins and where the beauty comes from; all the nuances of life are born here. Keep in mind that anything that is added after the gesture will usually work against it, so make sure you overdo the curves a bit at first.
Structure is what is happening between the joints and it is best to keep it simple in the beginning. For instance, when sculpting a leg it is easier to create a cylinder or two first. By making it simple we have control over it and the design can be changed later on, giving it a different quality.
With drawing, we can usually start with light curves to define the gesture and, once settled, draw a simple structure on top of it. From there, develop the shape itself, add more details, and so on.
The sculpting principles are similar. Start with simple and manageable shapes and add details from there. The doing will become easier the more you can see things. Hopefully it will become clearer with the following example.
1. The only idea I have at first is that I wanted to make the model off the ground, almost as if it was floating in space. And if a feeling of anguish is something that appears in my consciousness at this moment, this is now part of the idea and I will go with it. From here on, I know a wide open posture is something I will avoid.
With this idea in mind, I am using simple shapes to create the gesture and develop this initial vision. Notice that I am further developing the structure where needed (the torso for instance). If it helps, you can also cut the model into more pieces or make it even more geometrical: anything that helps the brain to see and feel the gesture and forms will do. Any changes to the gesture are easy to do, so spend as much time as possible here since this is the stage from which everything will be derived.
Keep in mind that this is not a production asset, so the approach is mostly artistic with little regard to the tools being used.
2. While still working with separate shapes, I am trying to feel the pose so I can find tension areas and landmarks. Rotate, scale, and move parts as needed to make it proportional and pleasing to the eye. There are also hints of the design and the look of the anatomy that I am aiming for. This is a good stage to decide what style you want to give it. In this case, I know I want a stylized look but with a realistic foundation. I won’t be too subtle when establishing it so that I can then push the forms as much as I can. If any problem arises with regard to the anatomy, I always look at references while trying not to go too aggressive with it yet. Keep it clean so that you can actually see the simple shapes first.
3. No figure is complete without hands as they will greatly influence the overall feeling of the model. There is no real reason as to why I just added them now, but if I had to find one it could be that I wanted to give their pose extra care and it wouldn’t have been as quick to get to this stage if I had spent the time working on them. From here on, only small changes will happen regarding the pose itself. Looking from all possible angles (not only the “final image” angle) will make the piece look better as a whole.
4. Separate parts are still being used, but since they can become a problem where they meet each other, I am merging some of them. Now I have only five to work with: two legs, two arms, and a torso with the head. I did this only because larger changes are not happening anymore. I feel comfortable with where this is going, so it is safe to merge them and keep working on it.
I am using a lot of photo references during the whole process, and I even took some pictures of myself to help me visualise things. The translation to the 3D shapes is up to you, but using references is always required.
Try not to copy exactly what you are seeing or else the shapes won’t connect beautifully. We should instead study the references, find the things that are pleasing, and apply it based on our specific model. It also means having an understanding of the underlying anatomy forms, so you are not just replicating surface lines that don’t mean anything. This is how you make sure that you are heading in the right direction, even if your current skill level is not well developed yet.
5. I am constantly and patiently working on it, bit by bit, part by part. Several small changes are done, but the gesture is kept the same. Hair and a beard are added and hopefully the amount of noise on them is enough as an addition to the overall character. I am also not worried about high frequency skin detail, as this is not the intention of this piece.
In order to be as clean as possible (although not actually needed for a practice model), ZRemesher is used on each individual part so they can all be merged and welded together in Maya. Mesh projection and cleanup are required in ZBrush after this.
This is the final model, as it gave me enough room for improvement and, of course, fun and enjoyment. I have no need to go any further, but I will just render it properly for a better presentation.
I am aware that this thought process may not work for everyone but hopefully these words will help you develop your sculpting skills in some way, and in time you will be able to see and feel the forms, shapes, and volumes of anatomy with ease.
I am in no way done with learning and practicing—even during the creation of this article and model I was able to notice things and make decisions that were not available to me in the past. We are all constantly learning.
I would like to thank my friend, Janine Sziklasi, for helping me with the grammar and text corrections.
Edouard Lanteri book
Sam Harris book
Brain Activation Scientific Paper
Further reading: The-Scientist Neuroaesthetics