The top 7 sculpting apps for 3D artists

This article is produced in association with Masters of CG, a contest for creatives in partnership with HP, Nvidia, and 2000 AD. Check out the shortlisted entries here.

Among the highlights of the ZBrush Summit 2014 were a series of demos of the new hard-surface modelling tools in ZBrush 4R7 – yet another free update coming to version 4 later this year. So it seemed to us like a good time to review the current state of sculpting tools in general.

Which apps are worth checking out right now? We've picked out seven that you should definitely be investigating...

01. ZBrush

  • Developer: Pixologic
  • Price: $795

ZBrush was first unveiled in 1999 at SIGGRAPH in Los Angeles, when it was a 2.5D painting app, employing proprietary 'pixols' that enabled artists to push detail into and paint objects on top of a clay-like canvas. ZBrush rapidly evolved into a true 3D sculpting app, using polygons instead of pixols, and letting users either create objects from scratch or add fine details to meshes made in other programs.

ZBrush is very powerful but has an unconventional interface and workflow and thus quite a steep learning curve (which doesn't get any easier as new features are continually added).

However it's widely regarded as the app that cemented digital sculpting as a viable modelling method, and remains the go-to solution for CG artists. But since its introduction, a number of similar tools and technologies have joined it, and budding digital sculptors now have a wide variety of options at various price levels.

02. Mudbox

  • Developer: Autodesk
  • Price: £425

One of ZBrush's biggest and most direct competitors is Mudbox, which was originally created by developers working on The Lord of the Rings trilogy at Weta Digital in New Zealand. It was released as a finished product in early 2007 and acquired by Autodesk later that same year.

Mudbox takes a much more traditional approach to sculpting, looking and working much like any other 3D app, with familiar menus, palettes and layer systems. It has the same multi-resolution sculpting as ZBrush, and a fully-featured painting system.

The latest release also received some great symmetry and retopolgy tools, and naturally, as part of the Autodesk family, it has excellent interoperability with Maya with support for Disney's Ptex texturing technology and multi-tile UV mapping.

03. Cinema 4D

  • Developer: Maxon
  • Price: £3,040

One of the surprise features introduced with the 2012 release of Cinema 4D Studio R14 was its new sculpting module. Like ZBrush and Mudbox, it features multi-resolution sculpting, with advanced symmetry options and comes with a range of brushes, stencils and stamps for adding fine details.

Because it's an integral part of the program, you can sculpt your object, and then immediately do a full render with it in situ, and the sculpting tools work across the app, so you can smooth out irregular points, for example. The system also features mirroring and mesh projection, which transfers your high-res sculpted detail onto a low-res poly mesh for retopologising.

The newly announced R16 update adds even more features with drawing along splines, poly selection masking and the use of procedural materials as stencils and masks. You can of course texture your models in Cinema 4D using Bodypaint, but users are hoping for an integrated sculpting/painting system in a future update.

04. Modo

  • Developer: The Foundry
  • Price: £599

Modo has had a sculpting toolset since version 301, which was released in 2007. The system provides tools to sculpt meshes by a combination of manipulating mesh vertices and then using image-based vector displacement maps to create the fine details.

The benefit of vector displacement is that it can create things like curved overhangs, rather than simple displacement along a polygon normal, and also keeps your geometry light. Modo 501 gained multi-resolution sculpting, and the system has been refined over subsequent releases.

Modo 801 now features the ability to constrain brush strokes to splines that have been applied to the mesh, allowing for precisely repeated strokes with different brushes, or the regular application of small details. Like Cinema 4D, the sculpting system benefits from being part of the wider app, enabling you to hop in, make modifications to a model, and even see it rendered in the live preview.

05. 3D Coat

  • Developer: Pilgway
  • Price: $379

Appearing pretty much out of nowhere, 3D Coat was developed by Andrew Shpagin, a Ukrainian game dev tool programmer. 3D Coat takes a different approach to the other apps here, in that the user sculpts using voxels, or three-dimensional pixels.

The advantage over more traditional polygon-based system is that you don't need to worry about the underlying topolgy; you simply draw out a volume, adding or removing geometry at will, and the program adds voxels as necessary. The sculpted shape is then turned into a surface (ignoring the volume beneath and speeding up operations), where it then works much like any sculpting app.

Because 3D Coat objects are made from triangles, the finished model needs to be retopologised to create a workable mesh, and the app provides some excellent automatic and manual retopologising tools. Not only that but the app also has a comprehensive UV mapping and a painting toolset which supports UV texturing, micro-vertex painting and Ptex UV-less texturing – all of which are useful for any CG modellers, not just 3D Coat users.

It's a little unconventional and slightly rough around the edges, but 3D Coat provides serious competition to the big guns from Pixologic and Autodesk.

06. Blender

  • Developer: Blender
  • Price: Free

Blender gained sculpting tools in version 2.43, released in 2007. The multi-resolution system works much like ZBrush and Mudbox, enabling you to make large-scale changes to the geometry, and then up-res the mesh to sculpt in the fine details.

However the addition of dynamic topology in version 2.66 gave Blender the equivalent of Sculptris' Dynamic Tesselation, allowing you to freely sculpt and create forms without worrying about stretching the underlying mesh.

It's a clever system and lets you doodle away, adding or removing geometry at will. However it will generate a densely triangulated mesh, and so – depending on the output – you may then need to spend time retopologising it. Blender's sculpting is surprisingly advanced and provides a great introduction to the field if you're on a budget or have never sculpted before.

07. Sculptris

  • Developer: Pixologic
  • Price: Free

An alternative to Blender is Sculptris. This small app was a hobby coding project developed by Tomas Petterson, but proved so impressive that it was picked up by Pixologic in 2010, with Tomas joining the programming team.

By using triangular polygons and 'Dynamic Tesselation', it allows users to quickly draw and sculpt, creating forms and – like Blender or 3D Coat – letting the app add geometry as needed. Again, the only issue is that the resulting mesh is dense and composed only of triangles, which is fine for static objects but will need retopologising if it's to be animated or used in a low-poly environment.

Sculptris connects with ZBrush via the GoZ bridge, and is great for those starting out. Sadly, it seems that Sculptris is no longer being developed and Tomas Petterson has left Pixologic, so grab the app while it's still around.

Words: Steve Jarratt

Steve Jarratt has been into CG for many years. A regular contributor to 3D World, he edited the magazine for a period of two years.

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