Specialization: Sculpting Stylized Characters

Sculpting stylized characters is a completely different process to creating realistic ones. I have discovered so many new sculpting techniques while creating Elauriel in Zbrush, ones that I never even considered using before. I have previously been sculpting using realistic principles – meaning I focused heavily on anatomy and realistic proportions in past character sculpts. Elauriel’s stylized design posed a challenge I had never encountered before. The sculpt had to be simple, appealing and utilize form and proportions correctly to accurately convey her original concept. I had already learned about these principles in 2D, but creating them in 3D was an entirely different process.

To create Elauriel in 3D, I had to undertake extensive research on new sculpting techniques. I’ll take you through the research process I used, the new techniques I learned, and demonstrate how these things improved my sculpt!

So let’s get started!

Starting Off – How do you bring a 2D concept into 3D?

I had a big job ahead of me with this project. Accurately adapting a 2D concept into a 3D character is no easy task! I really had no idea where to start, as I had no experience with sculpting stylized characters, and didn’t know how the sculpting techniques I had learned would fit in with this new aesthetic. I started off creating a base mesh in Zbrush, not having any understanding of how to create a character with such exaggerated proportions and distinct characteristics. The base mesh I started off with looked awful, stretched, and as if I had simply pulled and prodded at a more realistic model. I wasn’t conveying that cartoony aesthetic.

oh god.PNG

I can scarcely believe my eyes! I can’t believe this is what I started with.

My start was rough, so I decided to do some research to help me with the sculpting process – and what I discovered helped me immensely.

Even though I was sculpting a stylized character, I went straight to Ryan Kingslien (my inspiration!) and looked through his videos to aid me in my struggle. I found a video about sculpting with FORM over LINE or PROPORTION, and I knew this was the thing to help me! The creation of form is definitely the one thing I struggle with the most when sculpting – and when creating a stylized character, you can’t hide poor form behind lots of muscle or skin detail. Stylized sculpts are always smooth, clean and make excellent use of form. This was what I needed to create an amazing sculpt.

When I sculpted Elauriel, I found myself struggling with finding what design principle should be my main focus. I had so many things to think about – form, proportion, simplicity, appeal – and this was incredibly overwhelming. Ryan really cleared up my confusion in his video.

He said something that really got my attention – “When I start to focus on proportion, my brain has a tendancy to change and focus on lines and linear elements – that’s a problem.” (Ryan Kingslien, 2015) This is the exact problem I was dealing with. Instead of focusing on the actual form, I was paying too much attention to the linear aspects of the sculpt. Because I was adapting a 2D concept, it was even more difficult to shift this focus onto the 3D forms at play.

You can see in my base sculpt that everything looks strangely squished and distorted – this is because I was attempting to line everything up with the concept’s use of line, without any regard for the form.


As you can see here, proportion is a linear approach. It focuses on measurements and lines, rather than the actual shapes.


Form is what the real focus needs to be here. It is emphasizing the three dimensional aspect of the sculpt, and is a much more freeform way to create a 3D character, with a much better end result. Proportion comes from good use of form. The linear focus of proportion leads to sculpts that lack appeal.

So how does this apply when sculpting in Zbrush? Sculpting with form in Zbrush means utilizing 3D shapes to create the overall form of the character. Beforehand, I was thinking of Elauriel’s sculpt as an entire entity, rather than seperate shapes which all work to create her design. As soon as I started using form as approach, sculpting because more freeform, and I started to get the results I was looking for.


Look at the difference here! You can see how lumpy and strange the sculpt on the left looks. It has too much of a heavy focus on anatomy and proportion, creating a strange mix between stylized and realistic. It doesn’t work at all. Whereas on the right, you can see just how clean all the forms are, and how it really fits the stylized aesthetic I was going for.

But you might be thinking, how do you actually use form? Well it turns out I have a great example for you!

While you can create form just by using the clay buildup brush (which is very effective for most parts of the sculpt) sometimes you need to use actual 3D shapes to create the best looking form.

The example I will be using is a very prominent part of Elauriel’s character – the eyes! Eyes are something which can look really strange if not done correctly, especially in stylized characters. Eyes are a very important part of these types of characters, as they express a lot! To create Elauriel’s eyes, I researched some different techniques. I found a video which demonstrated how to create easy eyes within Zbrush, and it was immensely helpful. It focused on a stylized look, which is exactly what I wanted. The first step is to create an eye socket, which I had already done.

eye socket

Then you insert a sphere for the eyeball. This step is one of the most important, as the size of the eyeball determines how the eyelids will look.


The next step is to duplicate the eyeball, cut it in half using the slice curve tool, then split them into two different subtools. See where this is going? Those two halves are going to be the eyelids! Using the transpose tool, you rotate the semi-spheres to the position of the eyelids.


Then you simply merge the eyelids subtool down to the base mesh, and dynamesh it! Dynamesh is a very powerful sculpting tool which I used throughout the sculpting process of Elauriel. Using dynamesh on the eyelids connects them to the mesh so you can freely integrate it into the sculpt. You can see below the result I got with my dynamesh. I had to sculpt and tweak the area with the move tool and trim dynamic brush to get the look you can see in the final sculpt.



This technique was extremely useful, and is one way to integrate form as approach into your workflow. Using 3D shapes with dynamesh is easy and effective!

Creating Form through Lines

Creating form through lines sounds silly from a 3D perspective, but this technique is so powerful when sculpting a character. Sculpting is actually very similar to drawing. The technique I am about to describe is very similar to drawing on the mesh, then creating form out of that!

I utilized this interesting technique on the nose and mouth of Elauriel. I learned about this trick from none other than Ryan Kingslien (again!), a true master of sculpting.

This method is really simple, but it does actually require anatomical knowledge of the mouth and nose area. Ryan goes over this is his video “Anatomy of the Face: The Mouth”, so that shouldn’t be a problem! It was really interesting to see in my sculpting process how vital anatomy was to the process, even when creating a stylized character. In this case, it was more about deciding what anatomical elements to keep and which ones to tweak or exaggerate to get that stylized effect.

To create lips, I used the line process Ryan taught, which starts off with lines that mimick a marionette sort of look. Ryan says that he is essentially creating a 2D setup for the lips, which he uses every single time. This is the technique of a master here, and it’s so simple!

You can see below what I mean.


He then creates up and down planes using the trim dynamic brush. The up plane is the upper lip, and the down plane is the lower lip. Planes are extremely important in sculpting, especially when creating a stylized character.. The trim dynamic brush is great for establishing planes.


He then creates the nostril and side of the nose using the dam standard brush – this was so simple, and something which helped me so much. I always had trouble creating the nose, but this made it so much easier. Getting the basic form of the nose in there helps us to sculpt the mouth, as the muscles in the face directly interact here.


You can see how Ryan has demonstrated the muscle fibres on the side of the mouth here. I sculpted the side of the mouth following the flow of these muscles directly, which makes the lips have correct form.



Once that is done, you smooth everything out. That’s right! I was confused at first as well, but I trusted Ryan.


Now that it’s all smooth, you can start the fun bit! Coming in with the dam standard brush, just like you are drawing, you simply cut it the line of the lip, add a line on the upper lip and lower lip, and you have got the basics of your lips complete!


This is the exact technique I used for my sculpt, and the lips turned out fantastically. It shows that line and form are extremely powerful when used correctly!

Adding the Details

So I have covered a lot of the building blocks for creating the character – but how did I create detail? I watched a great digital tutors tutorial specifically about creating a stylized character, and it covered this topic extensively.

What I learned is that the trim dynamic brush creates fantastic, clean and sharp details, which is exactly what I wanted. The brush takes some time getting used to, but it’s worth it! I used this brush mostly on the face and the hair. I put an example below of how the brush works – you can see it leaves really nice clean edges, and a flat plane.

You can see the main areas I used the brush below – I have highlighted them in green!


Another fantastic brush for detailing is the dam standard, which can be used to cut in or add detail. I used this on all the areas highlighted as well. It works fantastically with the trim dynamic brush!

Something else I wanted to mention was the extract function within Zbrush, which I didn’t know about before starting this sculpt. It allows you to mask sections of your mesh and extract them to a different subtool! After I discovered this, I used it to create many details on my sculpt, including clothing seams on the hood and details on the boots.


In Conclusion…

Here is my final, finished sculpt of Elauriel!!


I am extremely happy with how she turned out. Taking the time to research new techniques saved me a lot of heartache and really enhanced my skills. She is my first stylized character, and I think that I created a great likenes between her 3D version and her 2D concept! This was a huge learning experience for me, and I really value all the new techniques I learned and knowledge I gained in this project.

I hope you gained something from reading this! I encourage you to get into Zbrush and give it a try!


James, S. (2016). Zbrush Quick Tips – Easy Eyes. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UA4QziHEk8E

Kingslien, R. (2015). Do This! Sculpting Form vs Line or Proportions. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxRA1qMNQNQ

Kingslien, R. (2016). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nSW6ALspyZI

Mesh Extract » ZBrush Docs. (2016). Docs.pixologic.com. Retrieved 4 August 2016, from http://docs.pixologic.com/user-guide/3d-modeling/modeling-basics/creating-meshes/mesh-extract/

Olson, S. (2016). Speed Sculpting Cartoon Heads. Retrieved from http://www.digitaltutors.com/tutorial/753-Speed-Sculpting-a-Cartoon-Head-in-ZBrush#overview











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