Before sculpting applications like ZBrush and Mudbox, 3D modeling mainly consisted of box modeling techniques to create the creatures, characters and environments in everything from film to video games. However, as time advanced, so did the applications used to create these 3D models. Now, sculpting applications hold a huge importance in the industry, allowing the modeler to create intricate detail that would otherwise be nearly impossible with traditional box modeling techniques, or simply take far too long. Sculpting can be seen as a little daunting at first, because it is a very different approach than traditional modeling, and quite literally is like sculpting in clay, only in a digital environment.
So if you want to get into 3D modeling, or maybe you're experienced with modeling, but haven't doved into the realm of 3D sculpting yet, is sculpting something you should add in your tool belt? Let's discuss this common questions.
So what type of modeling do you want to do, Organic? Like creatures and characters, or hard surface? Buildings and weapons, etc. Sculpting is really there to help with organic modeling. Of course, you certainly can create hard surface models in a sculpting application, but even in today's industry, traditional box modeling is the go-to for hard surface models.
If you want to get into character art, then the answer is pretty simple, yes, you should know how to sculpt. Sculpting applications allow you to push your models to the next level, and create those details that would otherwise be much too difficult to create in a 3D application like Maya or 3ds Max. However, you should never replace your 3D program like Maya with ZBrush or Mudbox, because that's not really what the sculpting programs are meant for. They are meant to be an extension of your traditional modeling workflow.
Using a sculpting application for your 3D models has really become the norm in the industry, whether it's for video games or movies. Being proficient in a sculpting program like ZBrush or Mudbox, and knowing how to put them to use to enhance your 3D models are typically a requirement when it comes to recruiting. Just like you should be familiar with texturing if you're a 3D modeler, you should also be familiar with 3D sculpting. While there are certainly times when you may never need to use a sculpting application for your model depending on what you're working on and the art style of the project, it's still a vital skill to have as a 3D modeler.
That being said, learning how to sculpt doesn't have a steep learning curve, if you're already familiar with the fundamentals of 3D modeling, you should be able to grasp sculpting very quickly, and use it with your modeling workflow. As mentioned previously, sculpting is an extension of your modeling, and sculpting doesn't always mean a great model. It still comes down to the essentials, like form, anatomy, appeal and a strong silhouette that creates an excellent model, not whether you have lots of small details like wrinkles and blemishes. A firm foundation still must be established first.
If you're new to 3D modeling, it's beneficial to learn sculpting early on, because you'll only get better with time and practice. However, it's still important that you first understand the essentials of 3D modeling, jumping straight into a sculpting program like Mudbox or ZBrush can be difficult if you don't have previous experience with 3D modeling.
Depending on your workflow, you may use a sculpting application differently. Some artists create the mesh in a program like Maya or 3ds Max and import that into ZBrush or Mudbox to add in the finer details. Others might create the model entirely in ZBrush whether with Zspheres, or from a very basic base mesh and then extract normal maps and textures and retopologize it later in Maya or 3ds Max if they're working in games.
As mentioned above, sculpting programs are used less often with things like architectural work and hard surface modeling. That being said, it still helps to be familiar with a 3D sculpting application, and being well-rounded can always help when searching for work.
If you want to add sculpting to your modeling tool belt, check out some of the great sculpting tutorials in ZBrush and Mudbox and learn how to adapt them to your existing workflow.