Learning to sculpt

As much as I’ve enjoyed collecting dolls to make into characters from my stories (something I don’t share here quite as often as I should, given how well blog posts are suited to sharing images of what I’m working on) I’ve always found it hard to fit the look of the characters to the look of sculpting done by someone else.  From there, I suppose it was a natural progression. If I couldn’t find a doll that was perfect to make into one of my story characters, why couldn’t I make one? To an extent, that’s sort of the way the hobby goes. Eventually, a large number of people who get started collecting dolls move into being part of the making portion of the hobby, too. So, without any sculpting expertise, I decided to try my hand at making Rune.

Fair warning: this is a very image-heavy post!

Armed with a recent digital painting I’d done, I sat down to begin work. For a number of reasons, I decided to pursue 3D sculpting instead of traditional sculpting using clay. For one, it would be a lot more budget-friendly. Blender is free and I could use my tablet to “draw” on the surface in sculpt mode, which seemed somewhat intuitive, and I could rework the project indefinitely. After a few hours, I had my first look at what my very first sculpted doll head might look like.

After the smooth beginning, I figured it would be easy, but it turned into a five-year-long project, instead… one that’s finally reaching an end this month, as I get the doll painted and put together, just the way I wanted him.

The actual digital sculpting process took a bit over two years. The doll went through a lot of changes in that time frame, but as I progressed, I found I was overall quite happy with how much the head I’d made resembled the character I’d always drawn.

I had started with the plan of making a traditional head, then in the last month of digital sculpting, decided I’d switch to a hybrid mode of digital and traditional sculpting, where I would reduce the head I’d rendered to just a faceplate (and not keep a backup of the full head version, like an idiot) and make the headback by hand. Once I was happy with the faceplate, I had my render 3D printed by Shapeways.

My plan was to make different faceplates that would all fit on a single headback, so I would only have to do faces from now on. Part of that, too, was thinking I’d sculpt the ears separately and have them insert into the sides of the head, so every faceplate I made could be combined with different ears. Unfortunately, that was a little bit ambitious for a first-time sculptor. Refining the sculpt ended up being difficult enough, especially since the laser-sintered nylon wasn’t super cooperative with drilling or sanding.

Over time, I smoothed out some things I wasn’t happy with, such as the ridges I’d sculpted into his brow, thinking it would give him a perpetually grumpy look. I also worked on refining the parts that weren’t as defined as I wanted, such as his mouth.

At this point in the project, I’d spent three years working on the doll. I’d started his headback, and then shortly afterward, we sold our first home and moved to the house we’re in now. After we were better settled, I got back to work. The next piece of the puzzle was ears.

Absolutely, positively my least favorite part of the whole ordeal, but they turned out well enough–and ended up being the part of the project that convinced me I didn’t like the idea of separate ears, or even separate faceplates. I wasn’t happy with how they were working out, though I was just about satisfied with Rune’s face.

I changed the shape of his eyes a bit, making them a little larger, refined his mouth some more, fine-tuned the shape of his nose, and decided it was finally time to start smoothing out the surface with filler putty.

I was pretty sure I’d gotten the surface of his face smooth, so while I puzzled over the ears and how I might make them work out the way I wanted, I moved on to primer and smoothing for his face.

When I doodled some eyebrows on his primered face with pencils, I finally started to see him–the doll I’d always wanted. He was close, but it would be the better part of a year before the project would be ready to move into the final stages. I finally resigned myself to the fact I needed to return to using a typical-style BJD head for him, which meant I had to fuse the faceplate and headback together, get the ears put on, and then cut the top to create a traditional headback.

I borrowed my husband’s coping saw and appreciated that he never thinks I’m weird for doing this kind of stuff.

My cut didn’t turn out very clean, and the headcap broke. I’d used half a plastic Christmas ornament to keep the headback round when I sculpted it, and part of the headcap that didn’t have that extra support split under pressure. The next task would be putting it back together and then smoothing the inside of the head.

Smoothing was easy. Repairs to the headcap took a bit, and smoothing out the seams took a bit, too. Lots of sanding, spraying the doll with primer to better show uneven spots, sanding, spraying…

But eventually, the last coat of primer went on, inside and out, and he’d really begun to look like himself.

The next step was the most intimidating: making molds and home casts. I don’t have a good setup for casting, since ideally, you’d have vacuum chambers for moldmaking and pressure pots for casting resin, but I had to work without that. I’d made some silicone molds before, for things like miniature knives and shoe soles, but a head was a whole different deal.

I ultimately decided to make a 2-part mold in a cardboard cylinder with the head top-down. That would let me flip it over and fill the top to create the second half of the mold, which would create a “core” of sorts that would be the inside of the doll’s head. The core was, uh, weird.

But it worked well, and the interior of the lower part of the mold looked promising.

Getting the head out of the mold had been very challenging, but it went well, and it was finally time for the moment of truth: the first cast, five years after the sculpting project began.

I have videos of the casting process on YouTube, but the important part is really just this: removing the original…

…and then finally removing the very first cast.

There he was.

Five years of work. A good, clean cast. My first doll.

So I cast a bunch more.

Not all of them turned out well. Not all the resins I used cured well. I ended up modifying one head into a closed-eye/sleeping version because the resin was so badly pitted.

That one ended up needing a lot of work, a lot of repairs, and a lot of extra love.

Some of the others, I decided to dye so I could see what they would look like in a flesh tone. I’d previously tried using pigments in my resin and found they were an absolute no-go without a pressure pot for curing.

And right now, that’s sort of where the story ends. I’ve been working on painting the head and getting the doll all put together, and hope to have it finished by the end of the month, but it’s been a long and slow experience… and I hope to have him ready to unveil soon.

I wonder who I should try to sculpt next?

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