I see many people’s work on the web (ZBrushCentral and elsewhere) where they just dive right in, working on very difficult subjects: dramatic poses, multi-figure compositions, etc.
Sometimes the results are not as good as they would expect and they are left wondering why. Most often they are attempting something of inconceivable difficulty without a proper foundation. It is like attempting to play a piano concerto without learning to play scales first.
A portrait, for example, is one of the most difficult things an artist can attempt. Every face has a huge number of planes, large and small, that have to be constructed and placed in correct proportion in order for a likeness to be achieved.
The unstudied artist either misses a large number of these planes or puts them in the wrong places. Similar complexity exists with the rest of the figure, which is why we must study in order to be able to model it accurately.
Studying from Reference
Finding good reference is our starting point. I have chosen a sculpture from the Louvre and photographed it from a number of angles.
Our goal is to digitally recreate it in an attempt to gain insight into how ths figure was constructed: proportions, volumes, shapes of muscles, gesture, pose, balance, etc. It sounds daunting, and it is, but luckily our reference doesn't move so we can take our time and study it closely.
In the interest of doing something that will hold your attention, we are going to attempt an ambitious digital sculpture after an 18th century reception piece from the French Academy, a sculpture by Edme Dumont called "Milon de Crotone". The piece is admittedly complex but should reveal many secrets as we study it.
Training typically started with very simple shapes and forms -- often casts of fragments from antiquity (Greek and Roman) -- and progressed to more complex, full figures. A sample of the lithographs that students in the academy were required to copy can be found in the "Drawing Course" by Charles Bargue, recently reprinted by ACR Press.
A Study, Not a Copy
For thousands of years, artists from the Romans to Michelangelo to 19th century academies have studied from master works in order to learn and improve.
Why should we be any different? So when I talk about studying from reference, I am not talking about slavishly copying a model from reference planes (something that is closer to tracing than studying). Rather we are practicing seeing shapes, forms and angles in our reference images and then modeling from these observations.
These exercises are our “piano scales,” not inherently creative, but meant to help us learn, and develop technique. We will be creative later (we hope). And now a few points to keep in mind before we begin sculpting.
Look for the Levels of Detail
One of the hardest things for an artist is seeing levels of detail – looking with a critical eye and being able to separate the important shapes and forms from the superfluous surface details. In the beginning, only proportions and large shapes matter, all the intricate details must be ignored and left for later. Once the large shapes are correct, the smaller shapes easily fall into place.
ZBrush’s subdivision levels give us a good workflow for constructing our levels of details. Each sub-d level represents a level-of-detail; as you subdivide you get more “clay” to work with. Always work on the appropriate subdivision for the size of the details you are trying to put in.
This helps keep your mesh organized and allows you to control your mesh even at high subdivisions. (I disobey this rule when I am building up muscles using the clay tubes brush, which requires a high level of subdivision for the clay-like feel. However, once I start to refine the model from the “clay sketch” I switch back to this disciplined approach).
Anatomy and Ecorche
Central to all successful figurative work is a solid understanding of anatomy. The human body is so complex that without a solid foundation in anatomy important details go unnoticed, or noticed but put in the wrong place for want of knowledge of how the body is constructed.
This is not a comprehensive treatment of anatomy, this would take more space and time than we have available, but we will touch on a few critical aspects of anatomy. To complement every artist needs a good anatomy book. I am often asked which books are best because there are so damn many, both good and bad. My list of top anatomy books is [here].
This piece is an anatomical tour-de-force with many lumps and bumps that we need to decipher before we can progress very far. It is essential that we understand what is going on under the skin to help us locate many of the shapes that we see on the surface. We don’t want to misrepresent or misplace muscle and bone.
We make ecorche drawings over top of our reference images to help us break down and analyze the musculature. Ecorche is one of the best tools to help an artist learn and understand anatomy. The process is deceptively simple, but, as many students who have taken my [anatomy class] can testify, it is much harder than it looks.
With a good anatomy book open next to you for reference, find and trace the outlines of each muscle group on your reference, ensuring the muscles flow from the correct origin to the correct insertion. Some muscles are easy to locate, some you have to infer or locate with a little detective work because skin and fat often mask muscular detail.
Hint: first locate boney landmarks and adjacent muscle groups; these will help you place obscured muscles. As you progress, the muscles and bones should fit together like a jigsaw puzzle: everything interlocking and fitting together perfectly.