Digital vs. Traditional Sculpting

Jun 30th 2016


"I’ve been asked over and over again: ‘Why bother sculpting a figurine in clay, making a mold and finally casting a copy of the clay original in resin when you could do it all digitally?’"

~ Lisa Schindler

We asked our two sculptors, Lisa Schindler (traditional sculpting) and Kent Trammell (Blender) how their two worlds compare. So what are they? Traditional sculpting, considered one of the plastic arts, is the process of shaping a material to create a three-dimensional object. In digital sculpting (or sculpt modeling) we use tools to manipulate digital objects as if they were made of clay or another real-life material. 

First things First: What are the Starter Costs?

Traditional: If you’re looking to get your hands dirty, a few basic tools and one type of clay will cost you $50 to $100. Another $50 will get you a silicone or casting resin in case you want a permanent copy of your sculpture. There are also many tools that you can make yourself for a fraction of the cost of store-bought versions as Lisa often does. “I’ve been known to use a dental rubber-tip gum massager when I needed a pointed tip with softer impact!,” laughs Lisa.

Video: Learn how to create your own (cheap) sculpting tools

What about taking it further and making sculpting more than a hobby? “A mini-studio with all the tools, equipment, materials and storage space will likely set you back over $1,000,” says Lisa. But that’s not the end of it. “I know I will need to invest in a pressure chamber at some point, which, with a compressor, will probably cost me another $1,000.”Digital: To become a digital sculptor, you will initially need just a computer and the right software. A three-button mouse is enough to get you going, but if you want to continue and grow as a sculptor, you should seriously consider getting a pen and tablet.“I’ve personally never met a professional digital sculptor who doesn’t use a tablet,” says Kent Trammell. “Tablets offer a more intuitive, artistic interaction and pressure sensitivity.” There’s a wide range of tablets available from $29 to $2,299. Kent uses a mid-range budget model: The Intuos Pen & Touch.

"Do I really need a tablet?" (It depends on the kind of artist you are)

What Tools Do You Use?

Traditional: Tools are instruments you use to shape your material. 

There are two main types of traditional sculpting tools: wooden and metal. “Working with wooden tools feels more gentle, while metal tools tend to produce sharper edges,” explains Lisa. Each type comes in a variety of forms, from pointy and edgy to flat, round or looped.

ToolsTraditional tools and digital brushes

Digital: In digital sculpting, we also use tools, called “brushes”. Just like in traditional sculpting, these brushes shape and form your material. Blender offers various brushes like “blob”, “clay”, “crease” (Kent’s favorite), “inflate” or the essential “mask brush”. Each of them can be controlled for radius and strength, mimicking real-life tools.

The Stuff You Shape: Mediums 

Plymer Clay_Sculpt

Lisa stretching polymer clay

 Traditional: Mediums are the materials you shape to get your final sculpture. From air-dry to oil-based clay and everything in between, each material has its pros and cons. Choosing the right one can be tricky: “I spent well over $200 just to find my favorite type of clay,” says Lisa. “So the search can be a lengthy trial-and-error approach.”

Snake Hook Brush_BlenderThe 'Snake Brush' can be used to drag out 

 a tentacle while new geometry is being generated.[/caption] Digital: There are different mediums, or types of ‘digital clay’ to sculpt with, the main ones being multi-resolution and dynamic topology.  “With multi-resolution, we sub-divide an existing mesh to create more geometry for us to work with and add detail,” explains Kent. Dynamic topology (or ‘dyntopo’) generates new geometry as needed. “If I want to pull a horn out of my character’s head, dynamic topology will magically extrude that new geometry as the sculpting stroke is performed,” says Kent. “It offers incredible freedom to discover shapes and forms without considering the input mesh’s limitations - sort of like having unlimited digital clay in your hands.”

Full course: Fundamentals of Digital Sculpting

Posing Your Model: Armature vs. Rig

Screen Shot 2016-06-29 at 11.28.02 AM

Traditional: An armature is a structure supporting the weight of your clay and helping it stand upright, functioning as a skeleton. Unlike digital sculpting, the pose of your model is permanent: “I have to decide on a pose before starting to put any clay onto my armature.” says Lisa. “Muscles change their shape with movement, which means once I have a pose I have to stick with it.”   Digital: A “rig” is a hierarchical system of bones and constraints that enable a 3D model to be animated. For obvious reasons, they are not needed to make your model stand upright like in traditional sculpting. Isntead, working digitally means you can sculpt your anatomy in a neutral pose, then rig it for easy, non-destructive posing, or make it do cartwheels all over your screen.

Molding and Casting

Traditional: This is yet another step which only exist in traditional sculpting. If you want to make an exact replica of your beautifully sculpted clay garden gnome in a permanent material, you better get moldin’!  In a series of steps which involve engineering the right mold and casting your model in it, an intimate knowledge of the different materials is required. “You have a variety of options to choose from, both for molding materials and for casting. To be a sculptor, you have to become a bit of a materials scientist first,” explains Lisa. Digital: In digital sculpting, none of the above is needed. Replicating your sculpt is as easy as copy & pasting your little clone army in seconds. 



Tigrelito, created with dyntopo, by Kent Trammell[/caption] Traditional: Trying to get the left and right side of your character’s face exactly the same? “My eyes have to be my guide to make sure I’m not sculpting a lopsided head. Because that’s not a good look,” says Lisa.   Digital: In Blender, this is done simply by enabling symmetry for a selected axis. “I can mirror my sculpts from one side to the other, even top-to-bottom and front-to-back,” says Kent. “Perfect symmetry is a given with digital sculpting. In fact, the bigger problem is reminding myself to add asymmetrical details since perfect symmetry is unnatural and usually hinders a sculpture’s appeal.” 

Limitations: The Laws of Physics

Traditional: In the real world, we are bound by a pesky set of rules known as the laws of physics. “If you want to pose your sculpt in a dynamic way, you need to make sure it can support itself,” explains Lisa. “If its center of gravity is off, you will have to integrate some sort of support structure in the base to counterbalance this.”Digital: In 3D, your imagination is the limit. You can create models that defy gravity, are paper-thin or simply impossible in the real world. Lisa knows that one of the strengths of digital sculpting lies in the speed and creative freedom it gives to artists: “If there is a sculptural piece that’s too outrageous to be sculpted in clay, I simply do it digitally instead. That is especially the case if I want the idea out quickly and without dealing with all the problem solving of traditional sculpting.”

Full Course: Sculpting a Character for a Game

The Tangible vs. The Digital

Finally, after all the work, you have your end product: a real-life sculpture, or a 3D image on a screen. How do they compare?“That feeling of holding your sculpture is significant,” says Kent. “I’ll admit that over time digital sculptures seem to move me less; in the back of my mind I know it’s just a visual representation of certain 0’s and 1’s. But when I see a physical sculpture - often being Lisa’s - I’m moved a little more, I gaze a little longer.”

Get Started with Traditional Sculpting Fast: Lisa's "Sculpting Basics"

Lisa confirms this: “Every artist I know who works both digitally and traditionally confirms that there is something almost cathartic about working in real-life mediums,” she says. “As a digital painter, picking up a charcoal pencil, acrylic or oil paint and working with a real brush feels so raw and satisfying.” However, this experience doesn’t need to be absent from digital sculpting entirely: “Let’s not forget that 3D printing offers tangibility for digital sculptures,” says Kent, “though this comes at a cost - sometimes a steep one.” The Ticketeer, digital and 3D printed model, by Kent Trammell[/caption]

The Final Verdict

“When comparing the two approaches, neither is better or worse any more than the trumpet is better or worse than the guitar. It comes down to the preference of the artist,” says Kent. The good news is, you may not have to choose, as Lisa knows: “Nobody says you should restrict yourself to digital or traditional only” says Lisa. “As an artist, you should be open to every way to express yourself. You can embrace both worlds.”

Learn more about Traditional Sculpting or check out our full offer of Digital Sculpting courses.


Pavla Karon
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