DIY Art Reference: Custom Head Sculpture

General / 04 July 2018

Reference: along with imagination and the ability to simplify a powerful tool in any artist’s repertoire.

Heads: a somewhat essential ingredient to a successful character. Tricky to draw and light from certain angles.

So you get some reference. Your first port of call will probably be photos. Personally I consider photos an excellent resource for studying – but not so great for some on the spot reference.
Let’s say you have a rough sketch of your character in the angle you want to draw them in. Now you can find the right photo to help you if you take time to search. And maybe if you’re lucky it will have some interesting lighting as well.

But for me that process is too slow and too unreliable.

Enter the head sculpture: if you’ve ever seen a “making of” of a classic Disney film you might have noticed that they have these beautiful sculpted heads in the studio for their artists to reference.

Disney/Pixar sculpts by the amazing Kent Melton

These are also wonderful tools for solidifying the 3d structure of the characters so the artists don’t run into any ‘impossible’ angles down the road.

So how to get one of your own? Well certain well to do artists will send of designs to 3d modelers and get and a nice 3d model sent back. The price for that seems to start at about 200-300 dollars and upwards depending on the complexity of the model.

If you have the budget but are short on time this might be your best option.

But let’s assume like me you’re willing to put in some work and make your own. In that case you have two options:

Option 1 – ZBrush

If you can afford the software and take time get comfortable with it’s ‘unique ‘ interface Zbrush can give you great results:

two sculpts I did for the Demon Princes project

And if like me you use Clip Studio Paint you can just drop your sculptures straight unto your canvas and get them in the right angle. You also get some limited lighting options which may be of some use.

But honestly if you’re not already familiar with Zbrush this represents a major time investment just to get some reference. Might be a bit overkill.

Option 2 – Clay

This might not yield as slick a result as Zbrush – at least not when I do it – but it is way more fun! Plus you have the added bonus of having a little bust on your desk. And whenever you want you can just quickly grab it and turn it in your hand.

The clay I use is a cheap water based clay that dries in air. I like it because it’s a lot harder than sculpey and oil based clay and the short drying time forces me to finish the sculpt in a single sitting.
If I mess up a sculpt I just toss it away and make another.

My process is simple: to save clay I make a very simple armature out of thick wire and add some bulk with tin foil. I then knead on clay to form a basic volume using just my fingers. From there I use my fingers and a few basic tools to sculpt out the planes of the face. I rough in the eyes, my meaty hands just can’t cope with the finesse needed at this scale…
After that I add in the hair and ears and I call it done!

(apologies for the messy desk)

Besides drawing reference from multiple angles another thing I like to use them for is lighting reference:

I like to shine a very strong light on them to create very hard shadows that give me shapes i can use for cell shading my characters.

Yes my sculpts really aren’t the prettiest but they do the job. Personally I also find making them a nice break from drawing and helpful for visualizing in more than two dimensions.