Defining Digital Sculpting, Its Elements, & Impact on the Toys and Collectibles Industry

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Have you ever gazed in awe at a sculpture? Its delicate details, lively posing, and near-realistic form come together to make a great piece of art. This level of artistry is possible because of a sculptor’s skills, tools, and experience — but up until this sentence, you’re probably thinking of a sculpture in a more traditional sense.

You’re probably thinking of a towering statue in a museum or a varnished wooden bust of a prominent figure. But reread the paragraph. This time, think of a scaled-down type of sculpture — like a toy or a collectible action figure. You will see every part of it — the details, posing, and form — still applies. And it’s thanks to the technology that makes digital sculpting possible.

Wolverine Digital Sculpture by NarraSoft

Defining 3D Digital Sculpting 

Digital sculpting is the process of forming 3D sculptures using computer software. It’s similar to the act of sculpting with clay, wood, metal, or any other physical material in that you can manipulate the material’s form. Except in digital sculpting, the material is a collection of polygons, formed together to create a mesh that can be manipulated with digital brushes and other digital tools.

People often confuse 3D sculpting with 3D modeling and think the two are interchangeable. The line between these processes tends to be hazy, but they’re essential parts of the 3D art creation process. In 3D modeling, the resulting output tends to be more mathematically precise. It can also be referred to as blocking, which we will discuss later as a 3D sculpting technique. But in 3D sculpting, the intricate details of a sculpture come out through a more organic process. The artist gets to push, pull, and play around with the mesh.

Digital sculpting also commonly gets compared to traditional sculpting, especially nowadays, when technology makes sculpting much more convenient. For example, in traditional sculpting, artists will need various implements and a large workspace to make their art. According to sculptor Lisa Schindler, the costs involved in setting up a studio complete with sculpting tools and equipment can cost an artist over $1,000. On the other hand, if an artist decides to sculpt digitally, all they need are a computer, an application, and a comfortable chair to start creating 3D sculptures.

Image credits to Pexels

Is Traditional Sculpting Good for Toys and Collectibles? 

Because digital sculpting has saturated the toy market, aspiring sculptors are inclined to believe traditional sculpting is past its prime. This notion is far from the truth. The skills involved in traditional sculpting are still needed because it offers values that digital sculpting generally cannot give. Sentimentality and uniqueness are only a few of them.

That said, traditionally sculpting toys and collectibles is not economically sustainable. It takes so much time and resources away from the toy producer. In consequence, digital sculpting is considered a more viable option for toy companies — it’s a dynamic way of supplying the demands of consumers. 

Why 3D Digital Sculpting Is Important to the Toys & Collectibles Industry 

Toys are expected to be a much bigger and more profitable niche in a few years. According to an industry report published by Mordor Intelligence, the toys and games market is likely to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of almost 10% between 2020 and 2025. Within that period, the market will be worth around $120 billion. 

Now let’s look at a more recent indication of the market’s profitability. In the first quarter of 2020 alone, another report notes an “unexpected growth” in game-related toy categories, particularly in the US, UK, and Canada, among others. And most of these sales took place online.

What’s the data telling us? For one, the demand for toys and collectibles is going on an upward trajectory, and it appears the lack of physical means to acquire these toys because of the pandemic is not doing much to hamper the trend. Another thing it’s telling us is the toy market should be able to sustain a steady supply of products given the demand. This is where digital sculpting steps in.

How Digital Sculpting Helps the Toys & Collectibles Industry

When it comes to the production of toys, digital sculpting helps with three factors — (1) quantity, (2) accuracy, and (3) time. The toys and collectibles market often requires uniformity, especially when the products are targeted to a wide audience and produced on a large scale. Moreover, digitally revising a toy’s appearance is much more efficient at saving time. And with no resources wasted on any changes, money is consequently saved, too.

Because of these reasons and more, many traditional sculptors are likely to transition to the digital platform. During a ZBrush Summit in 2015, sculptor Walter O’Neal revealed he had to learn digital sculpting after years of working with its traditional counterpart. While he still incorporates traditional sculpting into his work, he acknowledged the ease that comes with creating sculptures on a digital platform.

Digital sculpting, O’Neal said, is very precise. “Add to that the ability to work in symmetry and build both sides of an object at the same time to be exactly identical, and it’s easy to see how working digitally can speed up the sculpting process,” he said.

Image credits to Pexels

Elements to Consider to Create a Good 3D Digital Sculpture 

As with any art form, you must think of the fundamental elements first so your artwork takes shape with intent. According to Madeleine Scott-Spencer in her book ZBrush Character Creation: Advanced Digital Sculpting, three important elements to consider before diving into your work are the following:

  • Proportion
  • Form
  • Gesture

These elements originate from the discipline of traditional sculpting, demonstrating how the two fields are so alike in principle, differing mostly in execution.

Proportion shows how the basic units of a sculpture relate to the sculpture’s overall size. According to Scott-Spencer, there are guidelines artists generally follow when it comes to this element. An artist needs to acquaint themselves with these guidelines to avoid building an incongruous figure.

The next element you must consider before creating a digital sculpture is form. Form refers to the shape and structure of a digital sculpture, emphasized by the way shadows and light appear on the object. To get this element correctly, the artist must ask themselves what they want the sculpture to look like. In Scott-Spencer’s book, she says a helpful way to create an object’s form is by starting with its base shapes.

Gesture pertains to a sculpture’s implied movement, expressed through the figure’s “dynamic curve”. You will see in the image above that the horse sculpture is rearing. We can infer that such is its movement because of the sculpture’s dynamic curve, as shown by the red line. Of course, other elements come into play, but to make a sculpture — digital or otherwise — look and feel as though it were moving, the artist must determine its gesture. What movement should take place? And at what point of the movement do you want your figure to express?

Image credits to Pexels

Basic 3D Digital Sculpting Techniques 

Knowing the elements of an excellent digital sculpture is only one part of the 3D digital sculpting process. While figuring out a sculpture’s gesture, form, and proportion builds toward your output’s idea, the following techniques build toward your output’s creation: 

  • Blocking
  • Detailing 
  • Posing

All of these techniques put the elements into action. When an artist creates blocks of the model’s forms, they’re trying to get the sculpture’s proportions right. This is also known as 3D modeling. With a base mesh, a customizable model made up of polygons, an artist begins reshaping to make sure each of the model’s parts has the correct size relative to that of the whole sculpture. For example, a regular-sized human character should be around six or seven-and-a-half heads tall.

The next step is to give the sculpture details. This is the defining technique of digital sculpting. Detailing the model is essentially giving it a very specific form. Here, the artist goes beyond general details and zeroes in on the minuscule aspects of a sculpture, such as its hair, muscles, or creases in its clothes. Then, the artist applies proper posing to the sculpture, otherwise known as its gesture. As we discussed earlier, applying gestures or proper posing will make the sculpture appear dynamic. It gives life to a lifeless object.

In Summary

Digital sculpting is the process of forming 3D models using computer software. Toy companies prefer this approach to designing their products because it significantly helps with the following factors:

  • Quantity
  • Accuracy
  • Time

The elements a digital sculptor should consider before producing their work are:

  • Proportion
  • Form
  • Gesture

And the basic digital sculpting techniques that will bring these elements to life include:

  • Blocking
  • Detailing 
  • Posing

Want to work with us on a digital sculpting project? Check our portfolio to see what we can offer you.

NarraSoft’s outsourcing services include 3D digital sculpting, game development, software development, and so many more. 

Send us an email at sales@narrasoft.com or message our chat box or contact form so we can help your company achieve your business goals!

Justine Jordan

Justine Jordan is a content and copy writer. She has written for a popular business daily in the Philippines and for various startups across the globe before transitioning to work for NarraSoft. She graduated cum laude from the University of the Philippines-Diliman with a bachelor's degree in journalism.