Sculpting miniatures in 3D

James W. Cain is the 3D artist behind Joshua’s great model. He has sculpted for companies like Infamy Miniatures or Judgement. But he has as well an extensive gorgeous personal portfolio.

Hi James. First of all, thank you for freeing some of your busy schedule to do this interview for our website. Directed mostly towards miniature painters, my main goal here is to give a bit of insight on how miniatures are made, in this case, the 3D sculpting part, while letting people know a little bit more about yourself. 

Before we go into 3D questions, would you like to give us a bit of background on your career and who you are? 

Thanks Mario! I’ve been sculpting digitally for a few years now, I started out as an amateur making fanart, but eventually managed to get a few gigs sculpting on licenses such as Kids Cluedo and Despicable Me/The Minions.  Before that I was a Graphic Designer working on packaging and labels for coffee products!

Your about page in artstation reads “Aspiring toys and collectibles sculptor”. With several minis produced, and you participating in ZBrush conventions around the world, I would say you passed the “aspiring” phase long time ago. I which stage of your career do you see yourself? Do you still feel like you are aspiring to become a collectible sculptor?

I do still see myself as aspiring and at an early stage of my career. I’m a late starter at nearly 40 years old compared to a lot of my peers, but I guess i still feel like there’s so much more I’ve yet to achieve.  When I stop aspiring, I’m done with sculpting and I’ll move on to something else, perhaps when im like 100 or something.

Goblin rider

Was making miniatures something you aimed for when you started your 3D career? How did that happen?

Not really! I got my first miniature commission from Massive Awesome for their Shattered Earth kickstarter.  I had great fun on the project and learnt so much in quite a short space of time. Simon and John were great at art direction too and gave plenty of leeway on the sculpts which is always welcome. I sculpted the Human Resistance faction and most of the Children on the One True God faction.

In order to give people that is not familiar with 3D modelling an overview of how things are done. What would you say are the main steps when making a 3D model?

For miniatures:

  1. Concept: this is usually a 2d drawing, sketch or painting.
  2. Block in: I block in a pose and composition that matches the concept. There’s always a little back and forth at this point during the translation from 2d to 3d.
  3. Anatomy: once the composition is confirmed I’ll go back and make sure any bits of anatomy are correct.
  4. Detailing: dealing in on the details and fleshing anything else out.
  5. Approval: client feedback, making any changes and then final approval.
  6. Cuts: cutting the model up into pieces for easier casting.
  7. Hand off: delivery of the model in STL or OBJ format for printing.

I assume that for a 3D artist, miniature sculpting must feel a bit restrictive in terms of what you can or cannot include in the model. What would you say are the main differences between regular 3D modelling and miniature sculpting? What do you need to keep in consideration when making a model that is going to end up being a miniature?

It’s down to scale basically, you need a good feel for it. The main problem with sculpting miniatures digitally is you don’t have any idea of scale on the screen, you can zoom in infinitely. But it’s not just about losing detail during the print and casting process, it’s also about being able to use the design principles of shape, form and composition efficiently.  

What are your thoughts on textures when it comes to miniatures. Do you usually try to texturise things like cloth or leather or do you leave those flat so painters can have a more creative canvas?

High frequency details are very difficult to reproduce on sub 54mm minis and always diminish during the printing and casting process. Deep textures like wood and fur I tend to hand sculpt in detail but cloth and leather I mostly leave flat (even on larger minis sometimes).

El Dorado

From all your work I’ve been able to see, I can say with confidence that my favourite piece is “El Dorado”. What would you say is the sculpt you are most proud of?

I would say El Dorado too, theres a bit of my soul in that piece I think! Outside that I’m proud of all of my personal work but I think Bluebeard was great fun to sculpt.

And your most challenging model? What made it so challenging?

The Goblin Wolf Rider I sculpted for Infamy last year. I nearly broke myself sculpting the fur!

A lot of people prefer miniatures that have been made in the traditional way. It is said that 3D sculpting is not as detailed and tends to be very symmetrical. Do you agree with this? Have you tried traditional sculpting?

It’s awesome that there’s still an appetite for traditional minis out there, it’s a craft and art form I truly respect and am inspired by.  I think theres a lot of snobbery and misunderstanding about digital sculpting but I’m actually OK with some people not considering what I do as real sculpting (it isn’t).  Ultimately, i tend to glaze over when this subject comes up.  While others are debating, I’m busy working on my next piece!

In your portfolio you have great sculpts from Dishonored and busts based on Preacher characters that are just jaw dropping. When you work on personal projects, what does inspire you to start making a model? How do you decide that you want to sculpt something?

Thanks! In the past it was always computer games and comics that inspired me, I loved doing those Dishonored and Preacher busts!  These days I’m a bit more focused on my own ideas and story telling, and that’s what keeps me sculpting.  I have a folder of my own ideas (there’s like 50 of them in there now) and I just dip in there and pluck something out and start fleshing out the idea.

Bluebeard

Busts or full body sculpts. Do you have a preference?

Busts! There’s something awesome about having a limited composition.

As a last question, from all those models you have done, is there one you wish it would be produced for people to paint?

Ah well, I’ve actually been working on this for the past year. Myself and some friends of mine will be producing and selling our own sculpts through our company; Grim, which we’ll be launching soon so watch this space. wearegrim.com

And with this we conclude the first interview for our web. As part of the Bold project, we’ll be featuring interviews with some of the best sculptors, painters and relevant people for the miniature world. Stay tuned for more, and remember that we will be launching a Kickstarter campaign this October to fund the company and the production of Joshua, our first miniature. 

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