Art Spotlight: Flying Cthulhu

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About the Piece

“Cthulhu is NOT cute. Cthulhu is scary and dark.”

This was my vehement protest to my little sister (who is consistently my harshest art critic), as she showed me the results of a “cute Cthulhu” google search. I couldn’t believe it. There were plush dolls, children’s books, bobbleheads….. Lovecraft would spin in his grave. It was a veritable mountain of Cthulhu products and art centered around the motif of an adorable, huggable dark god from another dimension.

Cthulhu is dark and scary and enormous. He is the horror in the deep and the warper of minds. Being the diehard Lovecraft fan that I am — and taking advantage of a contest hosted by Sketchfab — I sat down to sculpt the Ender of Worlds.

Admittedly, I also ordered a Cthulhu plush from Amazon to watch me from my desk…

About Me

Hello, my name is Allen Grippin. I’m an old comic book artist who grew up reading X-Men and Spider-Man. I became very adept with a pencil and moved into tattoo art. I have always been attracted to art that is dynamic and in motion, and with my first Wacom, I became addicted to Manga Studio 5.

Several years ago my younger sister pirated Mudbox and left it open on my computer. I had no idea what it was and formerly had no experience with 3D software at all. I sat down and started playing with it and couldn’t stop. I became obsessed with 3D art in all its forms from that day forward, and haven’t picked up a pencil in quite awhile.

I’ve poured a lot of money into my hobby and delved into Maya for several years. From there I explored just about everything. I watched countless tutorials by Digital Tutors, Gnomon Workshop and Lynda, among others. I love all 3D software and am not biased, though Blender and ZBrush are my tools of choice at this time.

A Bit About my Process

When it comes to art software, I believe the most important thing is raw, sheer speed. If you spend less time looking around in the interface, then your art experience and results will be more satisfying. This is why I prefer hotkey-oriented software like Blender and Mudbox, where modelling is as fast and natural as playing an instrument.
And then along comes Zbrush, the Cthulhu of interfaces….

I’ve configured Zbrush to work like Mudbox. The number keys access my core brushes, with shift or alt to access different variations. It works very well; I don’t get slowed down hunting through brush icons and sliders. With my hotkeys, I can switch between every brush as fast as thought, while keeping my cursor over the model and staying in full-screen mode the entire time. This results in a truly ‘full-mind’ sculpting experience.

Zbrush might be the most powerful artist’s tool out there. Of all the software for 3D art, Zbrush may rely most on the user’s natural ability to draw. If you can draw, then you can sculpt. It’s such an enjoyable experience that it would be tempting to ignore the advantages of all other softwares and… Just. Sculpt.

When making art, I always choose music that fits the subject matter. Music is a fabulous tool beyond listening for pleasure; I believe it is optimal to pick music that coincides with the theme of a project. For a dark monster like Cthulhu, moody ambience brings my mindset into the art. The musical geniuses of the Cryo Chamber Collaboration made a long ambient track devoted to Cthulhu:

I found it to be very well done and it became the mental bedrock of the sculpture.

I usually use a base mesh for sculpting, but in this case I started from a sphere. Since I was sculpting without a reference (other than the general idea it would be Cthulhu), I wanted to be free with the work and see where it would take me. Having no reference to follow is (imo) by far the most enjoyable way to sculpt.

The one thing I love in all depictions of Cthulhu is his scowl. It’s not an enraged or hateful look; It’s a slow, controlled burn of patient, unknowable evil. He’s going to get you… eventually. The trembling anticipation is the fun part, and that’s the way Lovecraft wrote his stories. It’s right there in Cthulhu’s look, in a great many depictions of the dark god. It’s achieved by keeping the eyebrows in a low furrow (avoiding the overarching look of rage), and is almost an expression of boredom. With no discernable mouth or nose, it gives the character a dispassionately dark look that is beyond time and ego.

The other fascinating aspect of Cthulhu’s look is (of course) the octopus face. Altogether he creates something that’s frightening and difficult to identify with. Out of the murky deeps, into your nightmares… juicy.

I decided to approach the model in sections, starting with the torso and head. Since Cthulhu is the size of a mountain and I am ambitious, I decided a great amount of detail was necessary. I broke him up into chunks: Torso, Arms, Legs, Head, and Wings. I isolated and sculpted each piece before mirroring, and paced myself so I wouldn’t lose steam with the project (“Today, I’ll sculpt the soft form of the legs… “)

Each piece received three passes: A form pass, devoted to achieving the proper form and size of the appendage with the clay and move brushes. A Silhouette pass, where I hardened and polished the form with the trim brushes, paying attention to the angles and shape of the silhouette. And lastly, a detail pass, in which I pull out my arsenal of alphas and skin brushes (the XMD Toolbox is a must have for the Zbrush artist!), and go to town.

By planning and pacing myself, I knew that with just a few hours a day, I could make a very beautiful and detailed sculpt by the contest’s deadline, with time to spare for posing and cleanup (and possible revisions or improvements).
During most of the model’s form phase, I got the chance to explore Zbrush’s new Sculptris feature. It’s the most awesome concepting tool I’ve ever used. I was able to iterate so fast it felt just like sketching on paper, and I lost no detail to Dynamesh. Zbrush updates are always amazing but I think this is definitely one of the best (right up there next to Zremesher).


A Bit About Art Contests

From every contest there is a chance to learn some fabulous secret and walk away with a great deal more knowledge about methods and workflows. I frequently enter such contests and winning is no longer the primary goal. An art contest is a great opportunity to study and observe the best. In each one, win or lose, I’ve walked away with some new bit of knowledge or skill garnered from the community. If you aspire to get better at what you do, it is beneficial to enter as many contests as you can in your area of interest.

In this contest, I walked away with several bits of awesome knowledge from the other contestants. Thanks to the user dark_minaz, I discovered Sketchfab’s matcap and curvature rendering. From Tshahan’s entry, “Flying Creature Sculpt”, I learned some fascinating ways to render a model which may come in handy in the future. From Roderick3D’s “Undead Frost Wyrm”, I learned that you can get some great looking ice/cold effects using the metallic channel. (He used the spec/gloss workflow, but I paid attention to the black flecks in his baseColor to see how this could be done).

Lastly I was pushed to learn more about Zbrush rendering and Photoshop workflows. This would have not been done without an art contest forum to scrutinize my results.

The Importance of Sketchfab to the 3D Community and Aspiring Artists

The rendering options on Sketchfab are getting more advanced and more fun to play with. Some can be mixed in interesting ways to produce strange effects. Models with unusual tricks and methods of rendering are popping up all the time and surprising me (“…wait, how’d he do that?..”) I find the final render presentation on Sketchfab to be an enjoyable part of the art process in its own right. A key point to using these features is to be conservative; options like bloom and depth of field can easily be taken too far, detracting from the detail of your work.

As a bit of critique, I think Sketchfab could use a dark skin (much like ArtStation). Browsing art for an extended period of time can be hell on the eyes in a website that has an abundance of white pixels. I believe a slick pro-gray layout would be phenomenal and actually enhance the art showcased here.

All warts aside, Sketchfab is hands-down the best 3D website there is. It’s a fabulous place to learn how things are done and pick up inspiration. On a regular basis a user can go in, find a model he/she loves and scrutinize it. An artist can (in most cases with a good model) examine the channels, the normals, the UV’s, and really see how the author made it. Done regularly, you’ll set your own standard to a higher level and aspire to do better, to say nothing of the raw acquirement of technical skill.

That is one of the beauties of 3D art. We can never know it all. It’s broad and diverse enough to challenge us infinitely. There is no cap, and there’s always something new and innovative to learn, whether it’s a subtle artistic tweak, a workflow shortcut or a fabulous new tool.

Sketchfab is the window to this culture. It is personally my favorite art site to explore, and sometimes I can get lost for an hour or more just looking around. And of course I appreciate the chance to say some things and show off my work :3 Thank you.

Allen Grippin

About the author

Allen Grippin

Always working on something; My free time is always devoted to 3D art.

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