Take Control of Your Sculpt with a Level-Based Workflow
Control is usually a good thing. With sculpting, it's a great thing. By using a level-based workflow you can get more control and work quicker without having to focus on the details right away.
A level-based workflow works by starting from the lowest subdivision level and sculpting as much as you can until there is just no more detail you can get into the mesh.
If you're familiar with 3D modeling then you understand subdivisions and the type of effects that it has on your 3D model. The higher the subdivision level the smoother the mesh. On the other hand, the lower the subdivision level the rougher the mesh.
In a sculpting application, like ZBrush or Mudbox, the right subdivision level is extremely important for being able to actually sculpt enough detail onto your model without needlessly bogging down the model with too much resolution. If you're at a low subdivision level, it is basically impossible to sculpt finer details into your mesh. Whereas with a higher subdivision level, you have much more control over the details on your sculpt, and you're able to create those fine details that would otherwise be impossible at a lower subdivision level.
It might seem like always working at a higher subdivision level is obviously the more logical route to take. This is certainly true when you need to start sculpting in those finer details, but most often an artist will take what is called a level-based workflow in order to achieve the final model.
After there are no more details you can add, you subdivide one more time to a higher level to add in a little more detail until once again you can’t add anymore detail into the mesh. Then continue this process, slowly building up the model one subdivision level at a time.
With each subdivision level, you add more detail until eventually you have your finished model.
This level-based approach is extremely beneficial because you’re able to sculpt in the overall form of your model, and establish a great silhouette early on without having to worry about making sure that the fine details look good. It's much easier to make large changes to your model at this lower subdivision level, and it gives you a great deal of control over your sculpt by working in this level-based fashion because you are only creating more resolution when you absolutely need to.
As an added bonus, because lower subdivision levels aren't as taxing on your computer, you can take advantage of the faster speeds to make big changes a lot faster. Often times you’ll find once you get into the millions of polygons, your application will start to slow down. This can become very frustrating, especially when trying to sculpt in the rough form of the character. Another great benefit to working in this level-based workflow is that you can always go back to lower levels if you need to do any large modifications to your sculpt, and you're not locked in when you get to those higher subdivision levels.
While it is possible to start at a very high resolution and slowly build onto your model by using a wax-type brush, similar to a traditional sculptor adding strips of clay, a big downside to this more traditional approach in the digital world is it can become very difficult and unnecessarily tedious to rough in quick forms and move large areas of the model efficiently.
A great workflow technique often utilized when working in this level-based approach is the use of layers inside your sculpting application. You're able to work with a sculpt at many different stages of subdivision levels, and incorporating different layers into the mix means you can create smaller details, like skin texture or scales, and not have to worry about destroying your model if you don't like the results because this detail is sculpted onto a layer, not the base mesh.
This also means you can simply turn these details off and refine the major forms of the mesh if you need to make larger scale changes.
The best way to quickly rough in the correct form and silhouette for your character is to use simple brush tools like the default sculpt brush or the grab tool or move tool, depending on your sculpting application. Working at a low subdivision level, you can easily move large portions of your model around and not have to worry about the typical bumpiness that would occur if you were at a high subdivision level. Since you have a low amount of polygons, you will have much more control over the sculpt.
When you’re working in a level-based workflow like this and get into high subdivision levels in order to sculpt in the detail you want, you may find there are some areas you don't like about the model. You might need to make a large scale change to the form of the sculpt, like adjusting the placement of the jaw or tweaking the eye brows, changes that would be difficult to do at a high subdivision level.
In most sculpting applications, each subdivision level is saved so even though you may be at a subdivision level of five, you can always go back to level one and make the changes you need, and then jump back up to the higher level and continue sculpting.
Try incorporating this level-based workflow into your next project and you'll quickly see the benefits it gives you. If you’re new to sculpting, learn how to get started with these 3D sculpting tutorials for ZBrush, Mudbox, MODO, and CINEMA 4D.