Just as sculptors take clay and manipulate it, digital sculptors work with a computer, mouse, and software to produce 3D models.
3D sculpting software bridges the gap between physical sculpting and 3D modelling, letting artists sculpt 3D objects by pushing, pulling, smoothing, grabbing, and pinching digitised clay to produce real-life models in software.
While 3D and physical sculpting are sometimes pitched against each other, they are complementary art forms with different purposes.
Digital sculpting is for imagining complex organic objects and scenes for video games, entertainment, and architecture. It is also utilised for additive manufacturing, but so is clay sculpting with the addition of a 3D scanner.
The best sculpting software makes it easy to create freeform shapes and lets you define X/Y/Z dimensions (with meshes) to get off to a rapid start. You should also be able to import files and manipulate them without breaking a sweat.
How does sculpting software work?
Sculpting software provides a digitised material that you stretch, pull, smooth, and otherwise manipulate to mould into shapes. The digitised material requires mouse or touch input and no code or complicated instructions.
Sculpting software works in one of two ways, with polygonal meshes or voxels.
Voxels are 3D pixels or three-dimensional cubes representing uniform volumes of space (in other words, they are perfect cubes). You can think of them as tiny virtual building blocks offering individual control over every bit of space.
Meshes are faster than voxels because they represent empty space – you can build structures rapidly with empty or homogeneously filled space. The level of control is less, but you get a faster and simplified tool.
The limitation with polygonal meshes is you cannot add a high level of sculpted detail because you only manipulate the empty space. A helpful analogy is to think of meshes as a metal-wire frame and voxels as a piece of clay with true volume.
The best sculpting software of 2023
Without further ado, these are the best tools for 3D sculpting:
ZBrush is the best sculpting tool because it perfectly simulates working with clay in software. You can mould in any dimension to produce fine surface details that are impossible with polygonal meshes.
Customisable brushes for smoothing, curving, clipping, trimming, stroking, and more let you shape, texture, and colour digitised clay down to a tee.
The best feature is ZRemesher, which converts a mesh with messy topology to a neatly arranged structure of quadrangular polygons.
The beauty of ZBrush is it is built with the artist and sculptor in mind while retaining the additive manufacturing element. It prioritises free-form art and supports all major printing file formats, including STL, OBJ, and VRML.
Simply put, you can sculpt in ZBrush to produce models that are impossible with CAD software by pushing and pulling the surface. You can then save the file as an OBJ, slice it in another program, and send it to print. Easy!
We adore ZBrush’s ease of use and ability to replicate clay sculpting with near-unlimited deformation, geometry, and surface noise features. You can also use a non-linear workflow with 3D layers to jump between development stages.
Mudbox from Autodesk is the biggest competitor to ZBrush and has the significant advantage of superior texture painting. It uses a layer-based texture workflow, assigning vector maps that can have multiple layers.
While ZBrush uses poly painting for surface texture, Mudbox adds UV mapping, which can be tedious but offers far greater control. In other words, if ZBrush’s texturing tools won’t do what you want, Mudbox’s toolkit offers the solution!
The downside to Mudbox is that it has fewer customisable brushes and sculpting tools, so what it gives with one hand takes away with the other.
Vector displacement maps as stamps are the most significant benefit, allowing a texture input to manipulate the position of vertices for epic detail.
Mudbox is fantastic for creating realistic and stylised 3D/digital models and environments, accommodating wild textures, geometries, and details.
Mudbox is better for texture painting than ZBrush, but it is less capable when you want to do free-form sculpting.
Blender is a 3D modelling tool with digital clay sculpting features. It offers twenty different sculpting brushes and perfectly suits basic sculpting requirements.
Sculpting is a dedicated feature in Blender that allows you to edit clay as if you were sculpting it with your own hands.
It lets you use dynamic topology, a tessellation sculpting method that adds and removes details under the brush. This works by tessellating the mesh and then using sculpting strokes on top of the mesh to create complex shapes.
The result is a basic but competent sculpting tool that is easy to master. You can use crease, clay strip, pinch, grab, mask, smooth, and more brushes to manipulate the surface geometry of models without selecting vertices.
Blender is also a powerful polygonal modelling tool, so you can use it throughout your 3D printing workflow to produce unique parts and models. The traditional polygon and curve modelling toolset comes in very handy!
We love Blender because it gives us a bit of sculpting with a lot of 3D modelling, giving us the best of both worlds in a free, open-source tool.
Maya from Autodesk is primarily known as an animation tool (it’s regarded as one of the industry’s best), but it also lets you perform basic sculpting.
You can use the sculpting feature by selecting the Sculpting tab and a brush to change the model’s form. You can sculpt, smooth, relax, grab, pinch, flatten, foam, repeat, imprint, and blend to create unique shapes and details.
The limitation of Maya is it doesn’t provide customisable brushes, and sculpting is very much an afterthought to animation. Maya is best for animation, graphics, and 3D modelling, whereas ZBrush and Mudbox are best for sculpting.
Maya comes into its own as a first-class animation and modelling tool that offers basic sculpting features for free-form design.
Another much-loved sculpting tool developed by Autodesk is Meshmixer. Although the software is no longer being updated and most features are available in Autodesk’s all-in-one tool, Fusion 360, Meshmixer is entirely free.
Meshmixer is more basic than Mudbox and ZBrush but has the advantage of being able to create detailed surfaces with a much lower polycount to produce efficient models.
You get Volume and Surface sculpting brushes, each category containing more than half a dozen controls, including inflating, smoothing, pinching, and flattening. Each brush has size and strength controls to adjust your workflow.
To make your workflow faster, you also get a history of the sequence of brushes you have used, and you can toggle these using the left and right arrow keys. This makes sculpting an easy task with minimal mouse clicks.
Sculpting with digital clay in Meshmixer is an enjoyable experience perfect for beginners because it is easy to master.
You can also use the brushes to refine CAD designs and transform them into optimised models for 3D printing. Meshmixer can export both ASCII and Binary STL, and it can read STL and OBJ, making it an excellent tool for your 3D printing toolkit.
ZBrush is the best sculpting software because it is a single-purpose solution designed by artists for artists. The brushes simulate working with clay perfectly, capturing the form and artistry of traditional sculpturing in software.
Mudbox offers superior texture painting and most of the brushes you need for a clay-like workflow. It lacks the polish and customisation of ZBrush but is better for texture painting with vector displacement.
Blender is our next-best option, offering 3D modelling and sculpting tools so you can refine models with free-form controls and pre-set tools. However, the sculpting functionality could be improved compared to ZBrush and Mudbox.
The remaining tools on our list (Maya, Meshmixer) are worth exploring but could be better for detailed sculpting with free-form brushes. Of the two, Meshmixer is worth a shot for basic sculpting.
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