Monday, May 07, 2012

How to Sculpt Miniatures 3: Sculpting Skills

This How to Sculpt Miniatures series is my attempt to demystify the idea of sculpting your own miniatures. It seems that more and more people are taking cracks at it these days as the means of production are getting so very cheap and third-party casting companies are growing like mushrooms. Still, no matter how many head-swap bits are retailed, there is going to come a time when you have an awesome idea for a miniature, and there might not be a compatible, ready-made bit. You're going to have to make it yourself, and it is my belief that the only thing standing in your way is a few helpful tips.

UPDATE: I updated this article on Wednesday May 9 to add in a fourth Caveat. It was the type of thing that seemed obvious, so I left it out, but I have since realized that it is pretty important if you've never sculpted before or are just starting. Be sure to check it out below!

The following is best viewed as a continuation of How to Sculpt Miniatures 2 as I wasn't exactly sure where you break that article. Now that I've gone over the putties I use and have talked a bit about how to get a bit more out of them, I'll be getting into the nitty gritty of how parts 1 (tools) and 2 (putties) come together.

First off, let's talk about some caveats of working with epoxy putties. There are a few very simple strategies that will allow you to have far more control over your sculpting. Some of them may seem painfully obvious, but if you hold to them, they will go a long way making your sculpting go smoother and to keeping you from messing up things that you've put a lot of time into.

Caveat The First: Lube it Up
As someone commented at the end of the Putty article, one of the most important things to tell someone about working with epoxy putties is that they are STICKY AS HECK. It's not just you. This is a property of the stuff, and if you don't know how to control it, it is absolutely MADDENING. Very early in my sculpting career, someone told me that I should wet my fingers and my tools when working with putty to keep it from sticking. I say this was early in my career, but the reality is, likely, that this tip was were my career started. Once you know to lubricate your tools before endeavouring to sculpt anything, your ability as a sculptor has already increased by about 100% as it is nearly impossible to get anything accomplished with dry tools.

So, the obvious choice for sculpting lube (yes, I'm going to continue to creep you out by referring to it as lube; no, I have never tried using that kind of lube, so get your mind out of the gutter) is water as it is available and cheap. You can keep a pot of it beside your workstation and just dip your fingers/tools into it as needed. Also, if you're using Apoxie Sculpt, water is indispensable as you'll need to wash off the chalky residue that appears early in the Apoxie Sculpt curing process.
Water will serve you just fine. It kept putty off my tools/hands for years. The only thing to be careful of is to only moisten your fingers/tools, but not the putty itself, or the model/armature you're working on. Though some will transfer, you definitely want to keep as much water as possible off the model/armature you're using so that the putty adheres to it.

Now, though water will treat you nicely, if you're looking to take your SKLLZ to the next level, I'd recommend using some kind of lotion as lube for your tools. Hydra is an advocate of pure Nivea cream, so that is the stuff that I use. Though any kind of moisturizer likely works comparably, I use straight Nivea, from the blue tube/tin, and not any kind of Nivea hand cream that has been diluted/mixed with other stuff.
 The Nivea is used just like water: to keep the putty you're working with from sticking to your tools/hands. You want to squeeze out a little blob of it so you can easily dip your tools in as you work. I used to use a palette, but Hydra was always using the back of his non-sculpting hand. Somewhere along the line, I got tired of searching for my blob of Nivea in the midst of sculpting, so I started doing the same:
One important thing I'd like to point out is that you DO NOT need a lot of Nivea on your tool, and you certainly don't want to get too much of it on your model or your putty. When mixing putty, I still use water, rather than Nivea, to keep the putty from sticking to my hands. I save the Nivea for use on my tools, and when I do use it on my tools I use it sparingly:
Even that picture is showing too much Nivea on the tool, but I wanted to make sure the camera picked it up. You are using the Nivea as a lubricant to keep the putty from sticking to your tools, but it is the oil in the cream that is the most important part. You don't need a lot of this oil on your tool to keep the putty from sticking, and the less of the Nivea you keep on your tool, the easier it is to keep the Nivea off your sculpting work.

When applying it to my tools, I tend to dunk my tool in the cream, then wipe off the majority of it on the back of my hand, leaving only a thin skim of cream on the tool. It is always better to have too little than too much as you can always go back to your hand for more.

Added bonus of this practice? The softest knuckles in the world :)

Caveat The Second: Patience Is Your Friend

This is the kind of thing that is hard to tell someone, and you need to learn it through not observing it. I have a particular kind of gaffe that I call "Pulling a Pink." I often exclaim to my norn queen while sculpting "AH {expletive}! I PULLED A PINK AGAIN!", and I do this so frequently that she knows exactly what I'm talking about.

Once you're on a roll with a model, it is so easy to think that you'll do just a little more here, and a little more there, and then you'll put it down to set.
However, you, instead, continue on this roll, and before you know it some detail that you had just right on the opposite side of the figure is now a pancake with a very accurate replica of your fingerprint pressed into it.

So, what I'd recommend, and what I try to hold myself to, is working in small-ish areas on one part of a model at a time, putting it down, and not picking up that model again until it's been at least two hours, and I'm sure the putty has cured. That sounds obvious, but if you hold to it, it will save your models. If you're working in small areas like this, and not trying to sculpt whole swathes of the model in one go, you can get into a kind of assembly-line groove so that while one model is curing, you can be working on the next, and the next, and the next.

Also, if you get something looking perfect on a model, then, for Sky Mother's sake, put. the model. down. Do it now. Honestly. Don't sculpt another scratch. You have got it perfect, and if you continue, you will screw it up. You can go in and sculpt that amazing detail you just dreamed up once your previous amazing work is safely cured :)

Caveat The Third: It's all about LEVELS!

Or, you know, layers.

This is something I learned while sculpting Tyranid carapace plates, and it dovetails nicely after the previous note about having patience. Sculpting successfully, for me, is all about not trying to do too much at once. If you're on a roll, and you can manage it, then, by all means, sculpt an entire model in one go. I, however, have had more success in working in layers. Instead of sculpting an entire model from wireframe right up to the armour in one go, I'll sculpt a skeleton of putty over the wire frame, then add some detail/veins/skin to that skeleton, and then add in some armour or final details on the surface. I do in three stages what you could try to do in one, but because I let the putty set between each stage, I've got a more solid, backing to work against at each level. What's more, when you take your time and work in levels, you have plenty of time to get each level right, and you're not fighting against that ~2 hour curing deadline that the putty sets.

So, back to the example of Tyranid carapace plates. They come in long rows, with each subsequent plate seeming to grow out from under the previous one. When I first tried sculpting long rows of carapace plates, I tried sculpting them all in one go, and they turned out...alright. They certainly weren't great. It was always difficult to apply pressure to flatten and cut straight the edges on a plate without flattening the one under it which was still curing.

This is a specific example, but, more generally, if you try to sculpt models out of massive hunks of putty without having any solid substructure to push/sculpt against, you can often distort other areas of the putty by applying too much force in the area you're focusing on. Further, you can wind up fudging really nice details because you're determined to get them all in before the putty sets on you.

Thus, what I tend to do to alleviate any concerns about distortion is to sculpt in levels or stages. I sculpt in the base level, say, with musculature or organic tissue to get the rough shape/all of the detail even if it will be partially covered, and then I let that layer cure. Once it is set, I return to the same area and sculpt in one armour plate. Then I wait for that armour plate to set, and only once it is done curing to do I go in and sculpt in the armour plate that overlaps the first. This way there is less chance of my screwing up what I already sculpted, and when I'm sculpting in the higher levels, I've got a nice solid surface of cured putty to push against.

I'm not sure if that makes sense in words, so here is an illustration:

You can't really see it, but Mr. Acothyst has already had some rough abs sculpted in, then an armour plate was sculpted in in front of them, and then a second armour plate was added. At each stage I let the putty cure and went off to work on something else before returning to add the next armour plate.
 Now it's time to add his third and final armour plate, so once I'm sure the second plate is good an hard, I add on a blob of putty...
 ...and shape it into the plate...
...and I'm done. It takes a bit of patience since, if you were in a rush, you might think that you should get all three of the armour plates sculpted in one go, but I feel this waiting/levelled approach is far safer in terms of safeguarding the work you've already done and giving you the time to get the job done right. That's more, I think the plates look way better than a set that I tried to sculpt all at once from a single piece of putty:
And, if you've got a good sculpting assembly line set up, and you've got your putty safely stowed in the freezer, you've got all the time in the world to move on to sculpting project B or C while sculpting project A is curing.

Caveat The Fouth: Practice
If your eyes glaze over that title, and you skip onto the next section of the article without reading this, you will never be a decent sculptor. I've mentioned this in a few places before, but I think I should state it here, loud and proud. I am an amateur. I have never been trained to sculpt. I've never taken a course, and when studying art in high school, I was never interested in clays or other sculpting mediums. All of my sculpting experience has come from messing around with epoxy putties and Games Workshop models. The majority of what I've learned, I have learned through trying things, screwing them up, and then having to try them again/come up with a better way to make them work.

One of the most important skills that you need to be a good sculptor is practice. You can't read a series of articles like this or something similar and go from gap filling to sculpting an entire marine in one day. It doesn't make sense. You need to learn things like how much putty is too much putty, or when you've got something right and should stop, or how to keep from leaving fingerprints all over your sculpts. I can try to advise you on these things, but the real way to learn them is in the doing.

I made sure to add this Caveat in because I'm sure many people, emboldened by this series, will try sculpting again, have it not come out perfect, then swear off the entire enterprise in the belief that they "can't sculpt." That may well be the case; perhaps you can't sculpt. However, I, too, couldn't sculpt once, and I assure you that every thing you produce in putty that you think is crap is bringing you one step close to being awesome.

As proof of this, I present you with the following:

Exhibit A: Dominatrix The First

Exhibit B: Dominatrix The Second
It's not just the picture quality; that first model is nowhere near as good as the second. Those two projects are divided by a year and a half, two years TOPS. In the interim, I sculpted a whole whack of Tyranid scenery for the Casavant Prime project, and all of that work with tools and putty made me a lot stronger at sculpting.

So, basically, you will be discouraged. You will want to chuck what you just sculpted in the bin, or you may want to tear off all the putty and start over again. This is normal. Everyone goes through it. If you keep on trying, you will improve. All you need is practice.

If you're looking for my suggestions for practice, try working from pictures or concept sketches so they can keep you on track. Try sculpting bases or adding random mutations onto marines (everyone has got marines kicking around, and it's not like anyone's going to miss them). Start sculpting bigger stuff, where you don't have to worry about as much fiddly detail, then progress to smaller and more detailed projects. Try putting a lump of putty on your work surface and push it around with your tools to see what kind of shapes they can make and what combination of angle and force you need to use to make them (as I did below for this article). Just play with putty, and that time spent playing will be an investment in your sculpting ability.

Alright, so to review the caveats:
1) Always lube up your tools
2) Have patience with your sculpting
3) Sculpt in levels or stages
4) Practice. Practice. Practice. Everyone's crap the first time :)

Alright. Now that we've got the caveats out of the way, we can get onto the sculpting. As an example, here is the way my workstation looks while sculpting:
You can see I've got some water for wetting my fingers when doing the initial mixing of the Apoxie Sculpt and Greenstuff; I've got my putties ready to be mixed; I've got my freezer container for storing excess putty; and I've got my tools. That pile of tools on the side should look familiar from my first article, and just to review, here they are all nicely sorted:
Next, I'm going to go through each of these tools and show you the kinds of patterns they can create/talk about what I use them for when sculpting.

As I said in my first article, my favourite tool has got to by my 'spoon' one (I think the name for the dental tool is an 'elevator'?), of which there are clones in the cheap-o wax carving set I mentioned.
Though it's a personal choice, I always grab this tool first after applying a fresh blob of putty to something as the smooth, rounded side is ideal for spreading the putty around without making any sharp cuts in it:
 The curve of the tool can be used to make great organic structures, but I mostly use it for spreading and smoothing putty. In the example below (all accomplished with this one tool), it's hard to see but the upper, left-hand quadrant of the putty has been polished using the convex side of the spoon. Honestly, I think that this ability to polish putty is the feature of the tool I use the most. If you're looking to polish putty with a smooth tool like this, it is easiest if you load up with more Nivea/Lube than you normally would.
Next we have the knife tool, or the Games Workshop Sculpting Tool for some...
...also duplicated/cloned in the cheap-o wax carving tool set, and you can buy all 14 of them for the same cost as the GW tool. I find it kind of unfortunate that this is GW's default tool. Though the knife blade on it is great for making sharp lines for things like armour, the tiny spoon on the opposite end is way too small to push putty around/smooth it out nicely like my favourite tool above does.

Still, this knife blade tool is perfect for cutting sharp, straight lines into putty, and I use it most often when working on Tyranid carapace plates. The sharpened edge is used to cut the shape of the plates and to separate the upper and lower plates, while the flat side of the blade is the perfect thing for flattening the surfaces of the plates. Once they're cured a bit, you can go back and add some cracks to them with the knife blade, and you're good!
I also use the knife blade when I'm marking out the breaks in the spinal columns on all my Haemonculus gribblies. It should be noted that a well-lubed exacto knife can stand in for this sculpting tool, and the only thing you're going to miss is the curve towards the end of the blade, which is sometimes useful for shaping curves into armour.

NEXT! Ball burnishers/embossing tools. Though these come further down the list after the spoon and knife tools, they are no less indispensable. 
These, unfortunately, cannot be found in the cheap-o wax carving set. You'll have to get them on their own, and they run about $5-$9 each. They are completely worth it, though. They were so very key when I was stumped as to what texture I should use for massive areas on the underside of the Dominatrix:
Answer? GO TO TOWN with the ball burnisher ;)  I love using them to make organic patterns, and, if used carefully, they can serve to sculpt in subtle valleys between muscle of connective tissue. Here's an example of the kinds of patterns you can make using them:
I have two, which means I have four different sized balls.
I feel like I should have more objective, academic strategies to talk about when it comes to these ball burnishers, but I usually just grab for one when I need to mess around with some organic tissue. OH! I also use them to great effect when working on the external spines for the Wracks and Grotesques. Once you've cut a gap between two spinal column sections, shoving one of the tiny balls in the base of the gap, where the spine attaches to the torso makes the column look like it's curving inwards. Also, the flat surface of each section can be given a nice, subtle concave depression along it by running one of the ball burnishers along it.

Here's hoping you can see what I mean, because I'm sure I'm doing a pants job of explaining it:

I think I also used them a goodly amount on the insides of my quick'n dirty Mycetic Spores:
Long story short, the ball burnishers/embossing tools are key. Go buy some, and pick them up the next time you want to run a groove down something/mess around with some organic matter.

This one, also, is not one you're going to find anywhere, but that's cool 'cause you can easily make it for yourself. This tool comes from the Howling Banshee Power Sword school of sculpting. It's highest tennet is that you already have all the sculpting tools you're ever going to need, you just haven't found them yet. The tool is made of two nails (one sanded down to a round end), shoved into opposite ends of an old paintbrush, which was then duct taped around the ends to give the sculptor something to grip. It was custom made by Hydra.

He swears by this tool when it comes to sculpting Tyranid ribs. I didn't do near as nice a job on the test piece of putty below, but I think it still illustrates the potential of such a simple tool. It can perform similar patterns to the ball burnishers, but it has the advantage of being straight, rather then indented behind the ball ends, so you can use the straight shape of the nail to press in furrows.
It's a brilliant little tool that I don't use nearly enough.

Next we have another tool that I was turned onto courtesy of Hydra. He was preaching its merits loudly when he recently visited Canada, and he believed in it so strongly that he decided to leave me his when he flew back to Germany. He called it a silicone brush, but I have since found a smaller version of it in DeSerres here in Canada (which I bought immediately), and they seem to call them silicone paint shapers. I guess they are used for moving around thick pigments, like oils.
They seem simple and unassuming, but this thing is very quickly changing my life. After creating the following pattern to demonstrate what the tool was capable of...
...I suddenly exclaimed to my Norn Queen (who is very much not a sculptor herself and, thus, shouldn't give a damn) that the thing was like a paintbrush for putty! I think it is well placed to replace the ball burnishers in the roll of go-to-organic-tissue-tools. Where the hard metal of the ball burnishers can sometimes leave hard edges on your sculpting, these silicone tools are firm enough to shape putty, but not so firm as to leave behind hard lines. They're gorgeous. They're elegant. They're the thing you've always been looking for if you've ever wanted to smooth putty, sculpt anything that flows (robes, fire, water, hair), or just push putty around without leaving annoying tool marks everywhere. They are a thing that needs to be tried to be believed, so if you've got a few bucks, and you're passing an art store that has them in small enough sizes, pick one up, and you can thank me (and Hydra!) later.

Finally, we have the second entrant from the Howling Banshee Power Sword school of sculpting: the humble Old Pen Parts.
Yeah, not much to look at, but get a load of THIS:
That's right. All the oculuses a mad scientist could ever want! And all you've got to do is press a pen end into some putty, and you're done. The only real challenge is finding an adequate time to raid your sister's old Glittery Gel Pen collection to get all the different gauges you need.

Here is an idea of how I've applied them to nids, but they are the perfect things to use for some special-ops type troopers who have your typical helmet visor replaced with all manner of optical scanners.

How's that for enhanced senses?

YEESH. So I think that about does it for the techniques I use with my various tools. I hope it has been helpful and has inspired you to think about the kinds of things you can accomplish using some epoxy putty. Next up, I hope to do some articles focusing specifically on the kinds of things I tend to sculpt all the time: namely, Tyranids and Haemonculi Coven Gribblies (oh, there will be spinal columns!).

If you have any suggestion on the type of sculpting tips/techniques that you would like to see covered in an article like this, please post them in the comments below, and I can see about making them a reality!

Also, if you know anyone who this series of articles would be useful to, please send them the links or post the links to your own site. I have no issue with people reposting my articles so long as they are attributed to me and linked back to this blog. Like I've said before, it is my belief that ANYONE can sculpt miniatures, given a few pointers, and it is my mission to empower more people to pick up the putty!

> Next: How to Sculpt Miniatures 4: What to Buy?

< Previous: How to Sculpt Miniatures 2: How to Use Epoxy Putty, Greenstuff, Epoxy Sculpt


  1. This article series is really great. I havent found a beginners guide as comprehensive and easy to understand before so genuine thanks.

    My sculpting skills are undeveloped in the extreme: I just fill gaps generally. In a bout of optimism a couple of years ago I bought a set of the meta wax tools and two sets of silicon clay shapers. I found the clay shapers to give much better results to a fumbling beginner like me.

    The Nivea tip is really practical too. I will definitely be trying that.

    This series has me enthusiastic about trying to up my sculpting game. Thanks!

  2. Oh those accidental "smushies". The "s word" pops out of my mouth when I pull one of those lol. I tend to be impatient too. I want to get as much as I can done when my creativity is on a high.

    I use a moisturizer (cant recall name atm lol) for my sculpting lube, but it has that slippery issue, as in you cant stick more GS over lubbed GS because it slides off. I remember you and Hydra saying that the Nivia cream does not have that "overlube" property to it.

  3. Glad someone told me that i needed to lube the tools, I think i would have failed for the rest of my life! Thanks Mr Pink. Could I make a request for a demonstration on fire one day soon. I've read tutorials on the net but they don't work for me and i would love to see your technique!

  4. I'm glad to hear that so many people are finding these articles so helpful.

    sho3box, the key is the practice. It's daunting to start, but if you've got the tools and you've got the putty, what have you got to lose? がんばれ!

    Krewl, it sounds like you may have WAY too much lube on the actual putty. You only need the lube on your tools, and you only need a very small amount so that the putty doesn't stick to the tools. You never want to have large amounts of lube accumulating on the model/putty. If you're still finding that the putty is too well lubed, try washing it off with soap and warm water after it has properly cured. This should remove any lingering oils.

    Anonymous, I have certainly been considering recording a video of sculpting in action. I'll see what I can whip up.

  5. Outstanding series, extremely helpful. Keep up the awesome work!

  6. Thanks 40k! I hope to be able to get back to the series soon, but Real Life is a little hectic right now.

  7. Nice articles! I'd love to see a video, especially using the clay shapers - I have one but haven't yet figured out how to get best results from it yet.

    A couple more ideas for you:
    + Vaseline is a good lubricant, use in the same way as the Nivea, but a lot cheaper; wash off excess with soap and water then use Superglue to attach the sculpted part to the plastic (I use the Vaseline while mixing up the putty so I always have too much)
    + Another handy tool - like your Hydra tool - is the inside of a ball-point pen. Dip the nib in Superglue to lock the ball in place, and you have a nice burnisher without needing to sand down a nail.

  8. Fantastic helpful and interesting :) it doesn't get any better. I really enjoyed reading this one, thanks Mr Pink.


  9. Welcome to all the Redditors who stumbled across this from giantrobotman's post.

    I hope you folks find some helpful sculpting tips over here on Modern Synthesist!

  10. Encouraging post, I re-read it sometimes. Thank you!