How to Learn Digital Figure Sculpture in Zbrush or Mudbox

Anatomy for 3D Artists - Part 1

I recently saw a thread on a popular computer graphics forum that asked the question:

“I'm interested in 3D, and would like to become a character artist at a top studio! I just opened Zbrush for the first time and tried to sculpt a character but it didn't go so well. How can I learn anatomy?”

Because everyone and their mother has an opinion on the best way to learn anatomy, the thread produced a lot of responses laying out the various paths an artist can take to refine their understanding of the human form.

A few days later, the original poster replied with something along the lines of, “I tried doing all the things you suggested, but none of it worked. Maybe digital sculpting isn't for me after all.”

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Mastering Anatomy Takes Time, Years, In Fact

Overhead view architect working at computer
Hero Images/ GettyImages

After a collective groan and a sigh, it became pretty obvious that the original poster had clearly forgotten one of the cardinal rules of all artistic pursuits—it takes time. You can't learn in anatomy in 3 days. You can't even scratch the surface in 3 days.

Why am I telling you this? Because the worst thing you can do is become discouraged if your work hasn't improved early on. These things click into place very gradually. The best thing you can do for yourself is expect that it'll take you years to become a really good anatomist—then if you get there faster you can consider it a pleasant surprise.

The important thing is that you don't give up when your work isn't progressing as quickly as you expected, or when you're having trouble grasping a particular form of the body. We learn just as much from our failures as we do our successes, and in order to succeed you need to fail a few times first.

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Different Approaches for Different Disciplines:

Certain things, like learning the planes and proportions of the body or the names and locations of different muscle groups are going to help you whether you're studying to be a sculptor, a draftsman, or a painter.

However, there are also pieces of knowledge that don't necessarily translate between disciplines. Just because you can sculpt the human body, doesn't necessarily mean you'll be able to render it in graphite.

Each specific discipline comes with its own quirks and considerations. A sculptor doesn't necessarily need to know how to render light, because light is given to him in the real-world (or computed mathematically in a CG application), just as a painter only needs to compose from one angle in contrast to the 360 degree canvas of a sculptor.

My point is that, while it's beneficial for a sculptor to know how to draw or a painter to know how to sculpt, being a master at one doesn't make you a master at the other. You should have an idea what your ultimate goals are early on so that you can focus your efforts accordingly.

For the rest of this article, we'll approach anatomy from the perspective of someone who wants to be a digital sculptor or character artist working in film or games.

Here are a handful of tips for getting your study of digital figure sculpture on the right track:

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Learn the Software First

In the anecdote at the beginning of this article, I mentioned an artist that gave up trying to learn anatomy after approximately 3 days. Aside from a lack of patience, his biggest mistake was that he tried to learn to sculpt anatomy before he learned how to sculpt.

The mechanics of sculpting and the finer points of anatomy are deeply intertwined in figure sculpture, but at the same time—learning them both at the same time is a tall order. If you're opening Zbrush or Mudbox for the first time, do yourself a huge favor and learn how to use the software before you attempt any serious anatomy study.

Studying anatomy is hard enough without having to struggle against whatever application you're using. Noodle around in your sculpting app until you have a firm understanding of the different brush options and figure out what works for you. My ZBrush work-flow relies heavily on the clay/clay tubes brushes, but a lot of sculptors do amazing things with a modified standard brush.

Consider picking up an in-depth introductory tutorial for your software that takes you through the mechanics of sculpting, then when you're comfortable you can move onto bigger and better things.