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Tips on Sculpting 3D Statues for Environment Art

Balazs Domjan discussed his approach to modeling bronze animal statues, an ornate fountain, and rocks in ZBrush and Maya. The models are part of Downtown West Modular Pack available on the UE Marketplace for free.


Hi everyone! My name is Balazs Domjan. I began my career in the games industry about half a year ago, and I’m currently working at Guerrilla as a Junior Environment Artist. Apart from that, I also had the fantastic opportunity to contribute to Downtown West, the most recent modular pack by PurePolygons. 

I have a passion for art in general. I’ve always loved drawing, but the moment that truly lit the fire in me was when I first got to experience 3D sculpting. I just love making statues and organic shapes. If it wasn’t for ZBrush and digital 3D modeling, I probably would’ve never ended up working in this field. So, when I was asked a couple of months ago if I’d like to make a few sculptures, I didn’t skip a beat and said yes. 

It needs to be mentioned that I rarely take notes, but after learning a few things by countless trail-and-errors, I felt it would be beneficial to jot down a few things that made my life easier. So, these are just brief and concise entries from my non-existent diary which I thought would be great to share with the community.

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Filing Out the Missing Parts

When I started working on the first statue (the eagle on a rock), I only had a rough sketch made by Jacob Norris.

Even though this was a decent point of foundation, I needed more resources to build upon. So the rest depended on how effectively I could take advantage of my ‘creative freedom’ (which some might consider a blessing, while others a curse). Something that comes with it is ‘filling out the missing parts’. It has pros and cons, and I’ll tell you a few tips to help you reduce the latter.

Here’s a snapshot of the PureRef board I assembled for my endeavor:

It’s important to note that I have pictures of both real-life eagles and sculptures. At the end of the day, I was about to make a sculpture, so I had to work towards that. That meant I needed to take into consideration a couple of factors: 

  • How old the sculpture is, when was it made?
  • Who made it, how good the sculptor was?
  • What material(s) is it made of? 

These were the key questions I had to find the answers for. Why? Well… Since I wanted to make a sculpture, I needed to think with the mind of the (imaginary) sculptor who tried to capture the look of a real animal but probably made mistakes as well. Depending on how good the sculptor was, I had to find the fine balance between matching anatomy as perfectly as possible and leaving a little room for ‘mistakes’ and imperfections that would characterize a bronze sculpture. 

Areas, where I relied more on real-life features were the eagle’s head (especially its beaks), legs (specifically its claws and the way it wraps them around the broken branch), and the shape of its wings and how they would look in the moment of landing. The first one is an excellent example because the bird’s head was a bit blunt after my initial attempts. Then I received my first, truly eye-opening feedback that clearly demonstrated what it was missing:

You can see in the image above that my model (images on the top right and left) felt a bit dull and less convincing. The adjustments you can see in the bottom half made the beak look more prominent, the eyes – more vicious, and its forehead and eyebrow area feel more commanding and powerful. All those details give the end result the extra punch, the difference that helped the final result to be more authentic and convincing. 

There were certain areas where I couldn’t and shouldn’t have been precise with replicating the features of a real bird. The most notorious among all was its feathers. Those are paper-thin in real life, and his excellence has plenty of those. Therefore, I reduced their overall amount and increased their thickness; in other words: I exaggerated them. That way, those shapes are more easily perceivable even from a fair distance. This way of inflating/overemphasizing forms and silhouettes is a proven method in video games as well, which is used to make certain shapes more recognizable and to reduce the visual noise.

Fountain – Crafting a Unique Prop

To be perfectly honest, the fountain was probably the most challenging prop I’ve ever done. It had multiple sub-meshes, and everything was chock-full of guess-work and challenges I have never encountered before. All the individual components required special care with their own, unique workflow, and I’m going to break down the process of how I ultimately made the dolphins.

These were the very first images I received and used as references:

Accompanied by a few notes, these pictures gave me an idea about the overall style of the fountain in general. The next step was to collect reference for the dolphin in that realm: a classical, stone, probably hand-carved, Roman-style sculpture.

After assembling a montage of images, and pushing through a few trial-and-errors, I managed to produce a rough sketch. I purposefully didn’t take the model to a very detailed and defined stage but still marked the significant features that would define the sculpt. Here’s the feedback I received on my first take:

Those comments gave me further guidance and defined the direction I needed to follow. I ultimately ended up using those three images above with one additional photo, and just combined them together. It’s almost like a puzzle but you got to refine the transitions between the individual parts. This is how I assembled a new model out of my resources:

Art is about observing nature, architecture, other pieces of art, and basically everything that surrounds us. We need to have the ability to identify what we can use and be creative and resourceful. It’s immediately apparent that I just picked certain parts of those dolphins that the real world has already produced and provided me with. Grabbing and manipulating them, and then putting them into use allowed me to craft my own unique dolphin that fitted the theme. 

Advantage of Subdivisions

When I was working on the deer, I first took the sculpt to a point where I’d feel confident about not making significant changes (means no more dynamesh). I decimated the model, threw it into Maya, and drew the low poly version. Since the high poly model was not posed at that point, I only had to model one side, make the UVs, and then just simply mirror it on the X-axis. That gave me a clean mesh with clean UVs. 

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It’s beneficial to do that beforehand because we can then transfer this clean model back to ZBrush, subdivide it a ‘couple’ times, and just re-project all the information. I can then just sculpt anything on the surface which would be stored in all subdivision levels. 

With this statue, I literally abused the ‘Layers’ feature combined with the ‘Morph Target’. The former records all the brush strokes you’d make onwards, while the latter stores the information of the mesh at the moment you click on ‘StoreMT’. That way you can use the Morph brush to morph the surface of the mesh back to the stored information when you’re not happy with your sculpting somewhere. 

You can see that I recorded different things on separate layers. That makes it possible to duplicate specific details separately, which makes them stronger and pop more. You can see how it looks in action when I duplicated the layer where I sculpted the fine fur on the body of the deer:

Only when I’m done with all the sculpting would I pose this guy. You can do that in many different ways. There’s even a specific ‘Transpose Master’ plugin in ZBrush. However, I found that just masking out those areas I wanted to move or rotate was a much faster option in this case. The cherry on the top is that this way you can record the posing in a layer as well. 

Splitting Up the Model

I like to keep my models split into smaller pieces as long as I can. All the feathers on the eagle were separate meshes until I felt comfortable merging them with the rest. I just modeled about 4-5 different feathers, duplicated and rotated them around. Then I sculpted a little to make them look slightly different. If you're lazy, you can then just simply merge them into one mesh and mirror it to the other side with the ‘Mirror and Weld’ function on the Geometry tab.

It’s preferable to assign different polygroups to each mesh (Polygroups -> Auto Groups) so that we can still handle them separately.
You can then increase the ‘Mask by polygroups’ function (under Brush -> Automasking) to 100. That way each of your strokes will only affect that polygroup where you start making that stroke. You can also hide the elements by SHIFT+ALT+clicking on any of them. 

However, Dynameshing these pieces together was inevitable at the end. This model was supposed to illustrate a real-life sculpture, which is one solid piece. Therefore, the replica itself had to be one contiguous mesh as well.

The Lady of the North – How to Deal with Symmetry

The statue gave me some unexpected challenges. I even had to come up with a battle plan on how I was going to start working on it. I began my experiment by placing a simple female base mesh I found online for free. The mistake I made was that I immediately posed her, and that resulted in losing symmetry. It didn’t seem to be an issue because most of their body was covered with her robe but later on, I noticed that her arms were too thin. Fortunately, that could be fixed by using the ‘Inflate’ feature under the ‘Deformation’ tab. 

Her head, on the other hand, required symmetry. What I did was that I chopped that off (to separate it from the rest of her body), performed all the modeling I needed, and then placed it in its place, posed and merged it with the rest, and dynamashed them together.

In regards to the flowers in her hair, I only modeled one of those and duplicated them all over. Once they were placed, I grabbed my pen and gave them subtle special care, so that they wouldn’t feel like a copy-pasted bit. 

When I was working on the rest of her body, I yet again encountered new difficulties. Her arms, for example, hindered me from accessing certain areas while I was sculpting the robe. I had no other choice than to saw them off and hide them. 

I brought up these examples to show that the beforementioned splitting-up-the-model technique can be pretty handy in many cases. Sometimes it’s just about making the workflow more practical but it can also be very beneficial when we have a huge model that otherwise would result in unfathomably high polycount. 

I modeled the rock beforehand, and I could use that to cut off the bottom of the statue by using the Boolean function. 

Making Rocks

Sculpting rocks has always seemed to be challenging to many in general, myself included. I’ve studied and tried many techniques before, so I already had a certain idea in my mind about how I was going to approach this task. However, this time I was about to make a rock sculpture, which gave the story a twist.

It ultimately boils down to a few simple steps. By bringing a few handy features of ZBrush into service, rocks can be made relatively with ease.

  • I started out by making a quick and rough sketch. The goal here is to solidify the big shapes so that the rock has the silhouette we want.
  • After that, I added a layer and pulled out a few alphas on the surface to add details to it. Layers allow us to play with the strength of those alphas, morphing them back, etc., so we can break it up a little. 
  • Next, I applied a subtle clay polish, which ‘relaxes’ the mesh and gets rid of the very sharp and minute details. Those are not beneficial when we want to achieve a smoother result that gives us the illusion of a bronze sculpture.
  • Then I leveraged the power of masking options. The ones I found very useful are Mask by Smoothness, Mask PeaksAndValleys, and Mask by Cavity. However, those can give quite sharp masks sometimes, so blurring them a little could help.
  • Then I oriented myself to the Deformation tab and used ‘Inflate’. With a low value (somewhere around 0.5), it pops the masked areas a bit, which can help with selling the molded bronze effect.
  • After that, I used another masking type but I also masked out some parts by hand and inflated it again.
  • The final touch was storing Morph target and applying Clay Polish once more. This can make the mesh even smoother, but that can potentially be too much in some parts. That’s where the beforementioned feature comes into play: by grabbing the Morph brush, we can simply paint the mesh back to the point where we stored the information. And the rock is done! 

The example you can see in the Gif was a very quick and dirty demonstration but it shows my workflow. 

One Last Pro Tip

Find a way to leave your name there! Carve, engrave, chisel, or whatever you feel would work. I personally carved my name in the rock, underneath the log occupied by the eagle. A really creative addition (by Jacob himself) is the sign on the fountain that specifically says my name. So, be inventive and leave a smart and smashing Easter egg there for prosperity and coolness! 


Don’t forget to check out Jacob Norriss on ArtStation! Also, be sure to take a look at or even download our content from the UE4 marketplace (if you haven’t already).

If you liked the article and are interested in my other works as well, you can find my portfolio on ArtStation here. Thanks for reading! 

Balazs Domjan, Environment Artist

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