Tips: Painting Versus Sculpting Detail

Jul 25, 2019 at 10:00 am by Warlord720

3D Sculpting

When you first jump into 3D, there seems to be so much to learn that it can be overwhelming. It's not just dealing with the mesh as you may have already found out. It involves a little planning due to the ever-increasing poly count with each new piece of clothing or body armor which leads to bloat that can make a computer run slow and become frustrating to work with.

One of the common misconceptions with new 3D modelers is that everything is mesh. That may have been the case at one time but with the advent of real-time game and animation engines the industry has found ways to get around poly heavy mesh.

One way to offload some heavy lifting is to pass it off to texturing… using map channels such as height to bring added detail instead of piling up polys.

Let's take a break here and briefly look at what I'm talking about before I proceed:

In the case of a piece of armor like a gauntlet or bracer, you have a choice of modeling the detail into the items such as the rolled borders or any decorative markings. All this will come with a heavier poly count because the mesh has to have enough polys to sculpt detail into, after which it has to be re-meshed or decimated down to a usable level further diluting the original sculpting lines unless you are using it for a high-poly, single-image render.

On the other hand, with tools like Substance Painter (SP), we can make a simple, flat-surfaced mesh with minimal polys and paint on that raised detail using the height channel instead of shaping polys in a mesh.

The result looks the same … as if both were sculpted but the computational load appears to be much different as height driven detail takes much less overhead to operate.

I'll the first to admit that I'm not that technically savvy about what goes on inside that little electronic brain when it deals with any type of 3D other than too much or too heavy a mesh impacts a computer's performance leading to slowdowns and bad animating or game experiences.

As a long-time 3D'er, I'm keenly aware of how adding just "one more accessory" can tip the balance taking a character from usable to a resource hog that no one wants to deal with.

And again, to make it clear, this isn't as big a problem in the higher poly world like Poser or DAZ as those are mainly still image renders that can reliably be resource-intense as only single frames are rendered instead of an animation. Even then it never hurts to have a low poly count while maintaining as much of the original look as possible.

ZBrush is an early entry to painting on detail with its texturing ability. 3D Coat seems to be a formidable tool as well. My weapon of choice is SP because of their relationship with Reallusion products. Without this relationship, ZBrush might have been all I used but thankfully that wasn't the case as SP has, for me, a better, more intuitive workflow in texturing.

SP deals with texturing without all the other 3D clutter and while it's alphas and other tools worked similar to ZBrush the learning curve was much easier due to its specific focus. Plus… all the research and development from a task-specific application goes directly back into that app. For ZBrush, it's just one of many tools… for SP… texturing is the product.

So next time you are looking for a 3D tutorial on how to add more detail look at using one of the modern texture painting applications like Substance Painter or 3D Coat. Don't let the term "painting" scare you away… there are smart materials for simple drag and drop and one-click alpha brushes make us all look like a master painters/sculptor.

In fact, with the proper texture painting tool … you can take your model "sculpting" to another level. Just like the 3D industry in general … it's not all as it seems to be.


M.D. McCallum, aka WarLord, is an international award-winning commercial graphics artist, 3D animator, published author, project director, and webmaster with a freelance career that spans over 20 years.  Now retired, M.D. is currently working part-time on writing and select character development projects. You can learn more about MD on his website




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