Creating Realistic Reference with Sculptris
May 06 2015

Ask any illustrator and I bet most would agree that one of the most important pieces of creating a successful illustration is having solid reference. For some people, a deep knowledge of anatomy and lighting is sufficient for them to picture the end result in their mind with accurate detail. They then “reference” the image as they draw. For most however, we must “reference” the world around us as we work–translate what we see in our three-dimensional world as we compress it into two-dimensional form, and we must do it in a way that is both believable and meaningful.

There are several ways to do this. The easiest answer is to sketch from models or nearby objects, but what do you do when you want to draw something not found in the natural world? Say dragons, demons, or other mythological beasts? In the old days artists would create clay maquettes–miniature sculptures worked in clay to capture the correct lighting. Nowadays everything can be done digitally. Enter: Sculptris.


Sculptris is a 3D program that can get you creating realistic creatures in no time. It’s simple, it’s easy to get the hang of, and best of all, it’s free.

I first stumbled on the name of this program when browsing deviantart, then didn’t think about it again until years later as I pondered on what type of program could create good creature reference. As I’ve said before, DAZ studio is great for quick pose reference. Their built-in figures, Michael and Victoria, are easily morphed into the body shapes and poses I require, but what about building monsters from scratch? Sketchup is better suited for hard geometrical shapes, not organic ones, and I don’t have the money for the more expensive software out there. I hunted down the name of the program from the vague memory I had, downloaded it, and within a much faster time span than I would have thought possible, I had a dragon ready to render. I’ve since used it in other projects as you can see below.




Pros & Cons

  • It’s free
  • Easy to learn
  • Makes you feel like you’re actually sculpting
  • Has symmetry automatically enabled so you can sculpt bilateral creatures fast
  • Does not do hard-plane geometry
  • Has very few features
  • Glitches frequently
  • Can’t ctrl + save (you have to manually click the save icon and “Save-As” instead)

Despite it’s drawbacks, I think the ease of learning the tools outweighs the missing features. While I have yet to find a free program that can do character morphs, hard-plane geometry, and organic sculpting, each of the aforementioned programs works for each specific need for now. Blender might be a viable option, but I can’t wait on myself to learn it in time for commercial projects. Deadlines won’t wait on me, after all. And while I can draw without reference, having it makes the work go much faster and the artwork tends to be more successful.

How do you create creature reference?

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