Hello there! My name is Alison Taylor, I currently reside in Texas. I’ve been using 3D softwares for about 6 years, mostly a mix of Softimage and Modo, but in 2017 I decided I wanted to really get into digital sculpting with ZBrush (that was also the year I found Sketchfab). I’ve always been a huge fan of the stylized characters with hand painted textures in video games, so I set out to try to make those things for my portfolio. It was difficult to find solid information on the subject and, of course, that is when I stumbled across the 3D Character Workshop hosted by Shane Olson. It’s an amazing art community with a strong focus on creating stylized characters in ZBrush, for games or 3D printing.
The Workshop also hosts student challenges throughout the year, which brings us to the month of May, or as some of us know it, MER-May. Mermay is an art challenge designed by Tom Bancroft, former Disney Animator, in 2017. This challenge was mostly aimed at 2D artists, but Shane at the workshop decided to base a student challenge around it. The goal was to simply create something everyday. It didn’t have to be finished or polished, it could just be a hand, or some faces, or a block out of a character; all that mattered was practicing sculpting everyday for 1 to 3 hours.
For me, the mermaid challenge was a perfect way for me to create something without fixating on trying to make a finalized portfolio piece, where I would spend months on it getting it perfectly polished. I could just let go of trying to make a perfect mesh and focus on creating the character, and their likeness, and their story to the best of my ability. This was my personal challenge about letting go.
I knew about the 3D Character Workshop contest a few days in advance so I set out to scour Pinterest, Instagram, and Google to find beautiful mermaid references! At this time I was still of the mindset that I needed to find a mermaid that I would work on till the end of time, and because of that I discovered a lot of my early image choices would be too difficult to get done in one session, so I had to go back to the internet and look again. For my first few mermaids, I picked out some gesture drawings that weren’t so focused on details and props as a good warmup. By day 10, I was spending a bit more than 3 hours on most of my sculpts; since they were all consecutive hours I still consider them speed sculpts. On day 18 is when I decided to be more ambitious and tackle this adorable, amazing illustration by Kellee Riley.
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#Mermay day 2. Daddy duty. I'm trying to push myself in 3 things. Storytelling, color concepting, and men. I still have a LOT of learning to do. 😑 #sketch #drawing #doodle #illustration #color #mermaid #merman #daddy #daughter #hair #fantasy #cartoon #storytelling #conceptart #photoshop #adobecreativecloud #kelleeart #kelleeriley
Planned Process: Speed Sculpting
The idea was to sculpt each mermaid on their own day and then spend the 3rd day putting them together and posing with background elements. I spent about 5 hours on each day, so that by day 20 I had a ‘finished’ product.
I started off all of my sculpts by blocking out the forms using the simple primitives IMM from the 3D Character Workshop.
Basic block outs using the 3DCW IMM Brush kit:
Dynamesh: Clay Build-up and Pinch
Once I’ve adjusted the forms how I want, I proceed to dynamesh at a very low resolution; the goal is to keep the dynamesh as low as possible for as long as possible, so I don’t end up with bumps and divots in my mesh. Once I get to an appropriate density, I start to build up volumes on my mesh using the Clay Buildup Brush.
I do this throughout the model and it is at this stage where I start to really focus on the volumes that affect the likeness of the character. Shapes in the face, eyes, and nose are crucial at this point. It is also good to note that since this is a speed sculpt, it’s more important to aim for the feel of the character and not an absolute exact copy. It is not as important to get the details as it is to translate the silhouette and mood of the illustration into your model/scene.
Topology Brush: Eyebrows, Eyelashes, and Hair
I use the topology brush for eyelashes and eyebrows and then apply dynamic sub divisions. These items, I find, are easier to control if left low poly.
For the hair on both models I started with a basic primitive and mushed it into shape. For the girl I had to get a little fancy with her curls; they were tedious to make, to say the least. By drawing a spiral along a cylinder using the topology brush, I was able to get a single sided geometry that was easy to manipulate and blend into my hair blob. Once all the curls were in place I used the ZModeler tool to add thickness to the curls with the QMesh function.
For the father’s hair I used a mix of clay build up and the pinch brush and the makkon hair curves brush I downloaded from Chris Whitaker’s website. Once I had the shapes I liked, I dynameshed them to get a cleaner blend between the hair shape and the brush shapes.
Instead of hand placing each individual goldfish in the bowl I used nanomesh. Once you get the basics down it makes populating a surface with a pattern or item very quick and easy. I started by making a polysphere and making sure there was a nice even surface on the top. Next I made my goldfish and turned it into an IMM brush. From there you can randomly populate whatever surface you want with nanomesh found under the ZModeler tool.
Environment: Coral and Rocks
This whole section was a total challenge for me, I did not have a clear usual path to take with these elements so there was a bit of trial and error, which is OK! I decided to tackle the rock in a similar style to how I block out a character; in short, insert a bunch of cubes everywhere, then dynamesh and clay buildup until it doesn’t look like cubes anymore. It was completely experimental and I think it turned out great. The coral was a bit more tricky, but it essentially came down to tracing the coral in the illustration using the mask brush on a flat plane.
For me Sketchfab has been a great way to show the people what I work on. By using this site as a vehicle for a visual, hands-on representation of my art, it has made it easier for me to explain to my non art friends and family what it is I spend all my time on.
I also use it in my portfolio work on ArtStation for quick model inspection. When I posted this originally I had uploaded this scene with mostly default settings; I changed the PBR to be something warmer, but that was about it. When someone told me my lighting was off I thought maybe I should give the lights in Sketchfab a whirl, and to my surprise they were incredibly intuitive. I tried to apply a 3 point lighting technique as best I could but it’s a bit more difficult when there is more than one character in the scene. To get an even light I used a spot light for a key light, a point light for the fill, and a directional for a rim light.
When doing these sculpts I tried to keep in mind that these are just for practice, not intended to be final, portfolio-ready, masterpieces. The challenge as a whole really helped me to learn to identify shapes and, oddly enough, slow down—take my time with the key features and aim to achieve likeness rather than exactness. I made 27 mermaids in the month of May, and spent between 2 and 7 hours on most of the mermaids. Of my 27 mermaids not all of them turned out how I envisioned them and some were significantly harder to achieve likeness than others, but overall it was a great exercise that I plan on continuing in the future, even if not every day and probably never another mermaid!
If you’re interested in stylized 3D character sculpting in ZBrush, or simply want to know more about the 3D Character Workshop by Shane Olson, you can check it out here.
I stream art and sculpting on Twitch every week day.
Header image beautifully rendered by Scott Briscoe.