Sculpting a Beowulf Miniature in ZBrush

Scott Sleeter took a Game Art Institute course Sculpting Miniatures For Production and talked about the production of his Beowulf 3D sculpture.


Hello, my name is Scott Sleeter. I currently reside in Tampa, Florida, and in between frying in the sun or getting soaked by the rain, I freelance as a 3D sculptor specializing in gaming miniatures. I have served as a paratrooper in the army and I have a B.F.A degree in Art from the University of South Florida with a specialization in painting and drawing. For many years I also worked in commercial printing as a means of paying bills. Although greatly admiring the medium of painting, I found it limiting; and after a few too many years of frustration, I realized my heart wasn’t in it. Around this time, I was severely injured while saving my daughter from a potential fall. My shoulder and arm suffered extensive bone, tissue and nerve damage. The doctors told me I could lose the use of my arm. Following two surgeries and rehabilitation, I struggled to come to grips at the possibility my art career could be in jeopardy. During the initial phase of my recovery, I had to have a special bed that would assist me in getting up and down; sitting up to either paint, draw or eat was excruciating. At this point, I started looking for alternative ways to make art by someone with a disability.

Already discouraged with the painting process, my mind was open to alternatives. While surfing the internet, I saw images of works being completed in ZBrush, Maya, and other software packages, and I was enamored by the work being done by 3D artists. I felt an instant connection with the art I was viewing, and I knew I had to get my hands on this magical software and try it out. Having already worked professionally with the full array of Adobe products, I figured the transition to 3d wouldn’t be difficult. However, the first time I opened ZBrush, then Maya, I was quickly overwhelmed, shut off the computer and busied myself with other triviality. It took me a few days to regain the courage to dive in and learn the tools. So, as I started the long journey of physical rehabilitation, I was also teaching myself 3d. For the beginners reading this, make no bones, it is a long process and there are many frustrating times.

Just keep in mind that it is a daily grind and it won’t happen overnight. Like anything in life, it’s all about desire and the will to see it through.

Recently I have focused on miniatures within 3D sculpting. I can equate my experience of discovering 3d art using an example of a quote from a J.R.R. Tolkien poem from the Lord of the Rings novel series. It states, “not all who wander are lost.” In my youth, I loved fantasy, Dungeons and Dragons, and comic books. These were the genesis of my interest in art. When I settled on 3d as my future, I was naturally drawn back to my childhood fascination with fantasy miniatures. Hence, after all the “artistic” wandering and experimentation, I found myself back at the beginning and that initial artistic spark. The time I spent training in painting and drawing would serve me well during the transition. As a youth, my favorite aspect of fantasy gaming was the miniatures. I couldn’t get enough of them, especially “old-school” metal ones. They were quaint and unsophisticated, but their simplicity was elegant and to the point. Only the absolute essence of the character and the pose came through due to the limitations of miniature production of the times. In the early days of miniatures, there were no 3d printers, silicone molds, resins or crowdfunding. I believe that some of the most successful miniatures were produced during this era. If I had a mild critique for modern miniatures, it would be the incessant need to over cram the sculpts with too much detail.

Just because we can do a thing, does not mean it must be done. Miniatures are avatars within a game setting and need to be easily read as such – especially at 32mm and below.

Concept Selection

Okay, so let’s talk Beowulf! First off, I enrolled in an online course at Game Art Institute especially targeted to 3D printing for miniatures in production. Since I already had a great interest in this process, I felt signing up was a no-brainer. As a side note, even if you are a working pro with a few years under your belt, it’s always a keen idea to take a class or two now and again – if only for the exposure to another industry pro’s workflow tips and thought process. It usually represents growth for your craft. Even if during the instruction you’re thinking, well I would do this element of the project differently; it forces you to analyze why you believe in your methodology in comparison to another’s. Over the years I have found this useful to sharpen my skill set and increase efficiency. Choosing Beowulf as my subject matter reflected the instructor’s choice to complete a standard Viking character for the in-class example. It would offer a side-by-side comparison to how the class was developing. Beowulf also afforded me a recognizable character from oral and literary tradition. I immediately had a vision in mind for the pose that would highlight when Beowulf defeats Grendel, he presents his arm in victory. This pose allowed expressing a readable narrative within the context of the sculpt. It doesn’t always work out, but I try to find a relatable hook in the work so that it can offer a more memorable image.

Start of the Character

After having settled on the subject matter, I collected visual reference for traditional Viking dress and equipment. I never intended to slavishly follow any specific costuming reference, but to only use it to get a general read on the character. Later in the project, I went on to collect additional reference to see how linen material created fold patterns for pants. I executed the initial sculpt using object primitives to keep the mesh nice and light. This action is very simple: only using the move, smooth, high polish brush and ZRemesher when the polygons become too stretched. This lets me stack the density of the mesh toward the end of the build, thus allowing for easier posing and manipulation of the geometry.

Miniatures in Production

Now is a good time to speak about elements of sculpting miniatures that one needs to keep in mind early in the process. For example, hands, feet, and heads need to be exaggerated in size to accommodate the printing, molding, and casting process.

Also, areas like joint transitions, such as knees and ankles, need to be beefed up to not create a weakness in the final product, which could lead to breakage for the end-user.

Another production issue is weapon creation such as swords, axes or any objects that have a pronounced edge. These should be created without sharp elements.

The sculpts need to function in the real world, keeping in mind the scale and how еhe miniature affects how detail is translated into the real world. After the model is blocked out using object primitives, it is time for adding sculpted details. The method I found to be the lightest touch to the mesh is once again using ZRemesher in my pipeline. My goal at the end of the detailing phase is to have a mesh that is low in density with subdivisions To accomplish this, I use standard and modified Zbrush sculpting tools to include pinch brushes, inflate, clay tubes, and a modifies dam standard. Also, I use an array of brushes I have picked up from other classes and Gumroad.

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As a bonus, this method also preserves CPU power and speed. I also keep as many objects separated into multiple sub tools before committing to merging; and now that ZBrush 2019 offers folders, I have incorporated them as well into my workflow. As a result, breaking these down into main anatomy elements, clothing, and equipment lends itself to an easier organization. As the project progresses, some of the folders and sub tools are collapsed and merged. In most cases, I try to have a condensed organized folder structure just before creating the pose.

Posing and General Detailing

Now with most of the elements created and containing a Dynamically subdivided mesh, I execute the pose. After the pose, I tackle the chainmail and heavier detailing.

The chainmail element for 3d printing cannot contain holes and undercuts, as it will make the mold creation and casting impossible. The links are created with filler geometry contained inside the chain links. After the link is created as such, they are placed together to form the base for the chainmail.

The chainmail element will be placed on a base mesh using a created Insert mesh brush first and then a Nanomesh brush. The base geometry that the Nanomesh brush is applied should contain even and square topology for the best results. I created the base using masking and mesh extraction. I then export the extracted mesh to Maya and created more suitable topology using Maya’s re-topology tools. After building a more even mesh in Maya, I import it back into ZBrush and apply chainmail Nanomesh I previously created.

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This method was used for most of the extraneous surface objects such as the cape, shield, sword, fur skin cloak, boots, drinking horn, etc. – all to build with more uniform topology. I would bring in the objects from Maya, and once again, employ the Dynamic subdivision technique. I wanted to keep the topology as editable as possible for as long as possible before committing to Dynamesh.

Final Details

Now that all parts of the miniature are in place, I do several detailing passes over any elements I feel need to be “punched” up. This is where I would employ the previously mentioned photo reference for pants, wood detailing on the shield, Viking drinking horn and the small leather pouch. I handled sculpting the fur cloak by using an IMM brush that contained several fur elements. Also, Grendel’s arm was given a more monstrous appearance. Here I employed alpha masking techniques to build up the surface and sculpt the rest of the details using common ыculpting processes. The sharp detailing elements on the shield was achieved by hand drawing the design, then scanning and converting it into vector art in Adobe Illustrator.

From there, I imported into Maya to create geometry and then to ZBrush where I cleaned it up and extruded to desired thickness.

Once I was satisfied all the areas were sufficiently detailed, the main sculpt was finished. At this point, depending on production needs, which will determine how many molds will be used in the casting process, the miniature is separated using a technique of cutting and keying the joints. These are placed in areas as inconspicuous to the model as possible. An example would be in areas where natural “breaks” or seams may occur; like where an arm enters a sleeve in a shirt or a torso in pants. This makes the reassembly by the end-user easy to follow and makes for a high-quality miniature.


The strongest challenge in completing this project was keeping a balance between object readability concerning real-world scale. When creating small miniatures, it is easy to get wrapped up in the minutia, which then leads to over detailing. It is paramount that a balance between committing to specific details and object legibility in the final product is attained. The chainmail is a prime example of detail and time-vs- scale and clarity. I felt it was worth the extra expense in time on the chainmail, as it was key to the character presence. The Game Art Institute course provided a fantastic resource and opportunity to discover techniques and methods involved in 3d miniature production. The class unselfishly presented by industry pro-Bob Plociennik-has been invaluable regarding the methodology and limitations of miniature production for the desktop gaming industry.

In the end, I was able to rehabilitate my shoulder and arm to about 80% functionality. What seemed like a huge misfortune in injuring my arm, turned out to be the catalyst for my discovery of 3d art. In effect, I was liberated of my expectations, thus allowing myself to think of art creation in an alternative way; hence breaking free of self- imposed constraints. This reminds me of the saying, “Only in the darkness can you see the stars.”

Scott Sleeter, 3D Sculptor

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev


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