Digital Sculptor Alex Carratalà has told us about the nuances of sculpting realistic human models, talked about the importance of silhouettes, and shared a detailed breakdown of the recent Red project.
I’m Alex Carratalà, just a dude from Spain currently living in Italy. I earn my living by sculpting expensive toys.
My professional career is extremely short, believe it or not. The niche I belong to relies a lot on small one-man businesses and private collectors. Nonetheless, there are some well-built brands like, for example, Kimera Models. I fundamentally make collectibles about 90mm tall, mainly made for hobbyists that enjoy painting miniatures, although there are some professional painters as well.
How Did You Get Started With Character Art?
I always like to answer this "when did you start/how long did it take" question like so – my entire life.
Like many artists, I always remember myself drawing and that kind of stuff. I had fun with all arts and even became a musician later on. I guess what people call talent is just the time you were practicing the craft and you didn't realize it. Could be just your mom encouraging you with validation and kind words to keep exploring some activity. Could be you developing an obsessive personality, could be some cartoons or video games you used to play, every activity, every joy, and every trauma – everything unconsciously.
When things got more conscious or aimed, I think I was 16 years old. I remember myself casting some kind of vow into the sky that said something like, "At some point, I will find a way to make art my profession!" Then that spell started to sink in over the years.
When I was about to finish university in Fine Arts, I found out, totally by chance, that I was really good at sculpting. Read that again. Fine Arts, last year, totally by chance, I ended up in a clay sculpting class with a teacher actually teaching proper sculpting. That, sadly, is our current level of education, but that's a topic for another interview.
After that discovery, I aimed as best as I could in that direction but I was still very lost. I traveled a bit to know what life was about, then went back to uni because I had nothing better to do, met some interesting people, got out in the real world again.
Long story short, thanks to a friend of mine who is now a Character Artist for videogames, I found out about digital sculpture at some point, and being tired of the shenanigans of traditional sculpture, I gave it a try to digital sculpture, fell in love, and basically crawled my way out to where I am right now.
The Red Project
Perhaps I'm the most boring guy to explain the tips and tricks of things, as I really don’t have many. I approach my sculptures as If I was sculpting a chunk of clay or plasticine. ZBrush, or your chosen sculpting software is just another medium to perform a craft that is as old as humankind. Sculpting.
So I just sculpt, keeping in mind the traditional values of sculpture but also being smart about it, using the advantages of a 3D environment and the tools provided by ZBrush. It helps with tasks that would be absolutely tedious and horribly performed on real-life materials.
I have zero romanticism about art. I want to focus on the subject of creation and I don’t want to deal with the cons of traditional art and neither the excessive technical stuff of the 3D world that sometimes slows down your workflow more than anything. So I keep it super minimalistic and go straight to the basics:
1. I study the original concept and make research, about the subject, references, etc. This will evolve according to my needs during the production process.
2. Start posing with a mannequin and with some "chunks" of digital clay to start building main volumes and masses. A lot of times I pose myself in front of a mirror to get into the character and its pose.
3. Zero symmetry, only for mech parts, props, and when I feel lazy to sculpt super early stages of a face for example. I normally use a custom base mesh that I immediately get into the pose, only to save myself time from sculpting stuff from scratch, which doesn't make a lot of sense in a professional context.
4. I sculpt everything at the same time, from general shapes to details without skipping steps, all at the same level of progression. I keep my shapes sharp and raw as much as I can to protect myself from smoothing until the very last stages. This helps me hold some character and expressiveness to my piece.
5. I sculpt thinking about the final product, having the engineering of the piece in mind all the time. That means, I sculpt volumes as a solid rock or piece of clay, let's say, and I keep in mind where I should cut the miniature. That’s how you will facilitate the next step: printing, molding, and casting, but this is not our job, God forbid.
6. I cut the piece, decimate every part resulting, I scale the model into real scale, and send them in STL to the client.
7. I get the model into Blender and I set up the scene for render.
I usually use the H-Polish, Trim Dynamic, Standard, DamStandard, and Move brushes, nothing very crazy. I find the group of Smooth Stronger, Smooth Directional, and Smooth Groups to be very very useful, so I would highlight those. In order to be more efficient in your workflow I must say, alpha brushes and IMMs are just God's gifts to save time.
Rules and Intricacies of Making Miniatures
Keep in mind the scale you’re sculpting for. This is something I try to remind myself every day because I have a tendency to over-sculpt beyond what’s actually required for the scale.
Surprisingly, that has been more of an advantage for me than anything else sometimes, for several reasons, but generally speaking, having a good awareness of that and knowing to what degree you can overextend yourself in a specific job, is crucial.
One of my biggest challenges is cutting pieces for production. Luckily, the business is moving forward and some top-tier companies have a team for the engineering process, so you just need to focus on your most valuable and profitable skill: sculpting.
You sculpt the piece and deliver the job. Done. I only had the chance to do one job like that, which is more common in 1/4-scale collectibles.
In this picture, you can see 7 pieces but I recently had a project where the total amount went up to more than 32 pieces, and was absolutely insane.
The biggest challenge for me is, when you get the job, evaluate the resources that will be allocated on that part of the process so you can get a time/cost pricing ratio justified.
Tips on Silhouettes
A good silhouette will make our sculpture convincing and believable and is strongly related to composition. As I see it, a good silhouette is the result of proper posing, not something you can work on upfront, in my opinion. Get good at making poses, and silhouette will be the involuntary byproduct of that.
Having interesting poses, or at least accurate ones, depends on factors like understanding weight and gravity. Also, understanding anatomy is a way of knowing how much you can naturally stretch the body.
As I said earlier, basic notions of composition will help us a lot in designing our image. I said image, because be it sculpture, illustration, photography, or a ballet show…. we are creating an image, framed in a given context, and composition laws apply anyway.