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Mastering Digital Clay: Concept Artist Builds Hollywood Career with 3-D Tools

As gamers and moviegoers expect CGI effects to get more realistic and more fantastic, the demand grows for the digital artists who dream up the next big explosion or alien life form. Thirty-year-old Justin Fields is one of the young, talented concept artists whose imagination will lead to the next generation of CGI effects.


Concept art begins with a blank screen and perhaps an idea, or a direction, or maybe a dream. The role of the concept artist is to give the first shape to an object, whether it’s the latest sports car, or game character. Justin Fields focuses on concept art for movies and games. To make his characters come alive, Fields renders his art in 3-D using a Wacom Intuos Pro tablet and Pixologic’s ZBrush, making his work even more valuable to the teams of designers, artists and animators who will use his art as a the starting point to build a whole CGI world.

Now Fields enjoys a successful career, creating concept art for TV shows and movies such as Falling Skies, Maleficent, and Wolverine, but the path to his success wasn’t always clear. Though Fields was passionate about art, when he graduated from high school, he couldn’t find jobs that would allow him to pursue his love of drawing fantasy characters.

For eight long years, he set aside drawing and delivered pizzas. But the desire to draw never went away. In those eight years, technology had changed and artists were no longer dependent on a mouse to draw.

“In 2005, a friend of mine gave me a Wacom Bamboo Tablet as a birthday present and showed me how to use it. That really sparked my interest in drawing again,” he says.

“I gravitated towards concept art because the ability to create and be imaginative constantly as a career was very appealing to me,” says Fields. “I knew deep down in my core that I couldn’t do the same thing over and over again.”

Fields says one of his aunts noticed his passion and talent for computer graphics and gave him the push he needed to make his hobby a career.

“She told me that if I didn’t move to California where I could make a career in CG, I would die miserable,” says Field.

Fields took this warning to heart, gathering up his courage and submitting his portfolio to the Gnomon School of Visual Effects. He was accepted into the school’s three-year program and in a leap of faith, he pulled up stakes and moved from Illinois to California.

It was at the Gnomon School that Fields was introduced first to basic clay sculpture techniques, and then to the Pixologic’s ZBrush digital sculpture program.  Since it wasn’t unusual for Fields to put in 12- to 14-hour days learning his craft, Fields’ talent and productivity came to the attention of one of his instructors, concept artist Jerad Marantz.

“Jerad noticed that I treated every homework assignment like it was a portfolio piece,” says Fields. “And it was thanks to him that I got my first big career break.”

Working with Digital Clay

An alien creature concept Fields sculpted in ZBrush.

“ZBrush is an amazing piece of software, and I pretty much owe my career to it,” says Fields. He says the ability to customize the pressure-sensitive Intuos pen tablet and Express Keys to automatically apply different effects makes sculpting and painting in ZBrush just like working with clay.

ZBrush and the Intuos pen tablet platform helped Fields create the intricate details and dramatic lighting effects that sell this image.

Fields especially appreciates ZBrush’s Dynamesh active polygon distribution feature, which allows the user to transform objects with up to a billion polygons in real time without worrying about topology. This means a character’s proportions and perspective are always correct no matter what size or view is being shown, because the artist is working from a completely three-dimensional object.

“Dynamesh was a real game changer for me,” says Fields. “At the push of a button, it corrects my geometry. It’s just digital clay, so it is more about your creativity and imagination rather than technical aspects.”

The Intuos tablet’s pressure sensitivity means Fields can use ZBrush’s “imbed” feature to literally dig into a surface just like pushing into clay with his hands. Adjusting “Z intensity” lets him decide how much pressure on the stylus will create a prominent feature like a cheekbone or features as small as tiny wrinkles. Even painting color gradients across a surface can be set to blend naturally in response to how hard or soft the artist presses.

This ZBrush Introduction tutorial demonstrates the basics of working with “digital clay” using the pressure-sensitive stylus combined with keyboard settings. It is one of dozens of free tutorials available on the ZBrush Classroom site. Image courtesy ZBrush.

Using 3-D Sculpting to Speed Up 2-D Image Production

Fields says he now uses ZBrush even when creating 2-D concept images for consideration by art directors.

When preparing presentations for clients, Fields can quickly generate 2-D images in different poses instead of building the different views from scratch in Photoshop or Illustrator.

“I can create dozens more 2-D images by sculpting the concept out first in ZBrush,” says Fields. “For example, someone could spend two days drawing just a front view of a character. I can spend that same two days sculpting all views of the character and producing 10 to 15 images off that one sculpture.”

Sculpting in 3-D also allows him to quickly create character different action poses, so a series of these 2-D images can give the director valuable insight into how a proposed character might interact with others on screen.

A sample creature concept created by Justin Fields with the Wacom Intuos Pro and Pixologic’s ZBrush.

Learning More about ZBrush and Pressure-Sensitive Tablets

Fields says learning to use both the ZBrush and the Intuos Pro does not have to be time-consuming. Here are his top suggestions for getting the most out of these powerful tools:

  • The Wacom Community Product Tutorial page provides dozens of videos on how to configure and use its pen tablet products. “The best advice I could give anybody using Wacom products is to just get in there and play,” Fields says. “The Wacom team has made the tool so intuitive that once you get started, before you know it it’s 3 a.m. and you couldn’t be happier.”
  • When you first start working with ZBrush, just play around with different shapes and try out the different palettes and brushes to see what they do.
  • When you have a specific sculpture idea in mind, join the ZBrush Central community site. Get involved with the discussion forums, and don’t hesitate to ask questions. ZBrush employees and enthusiastic ZBrush users will gladly share their experiences.

“This is exactly how I learned to master ZBrush,” Fields says. “I never thought of it as work. It was always play.”

For Fields that play means more opportunities to continue pursuing his dream of drawing while also setting the tone for the CGI effects that will thrill, scare or inspire audiences around the world.

For more about Justin "Goby" Fields, visit his website.

Watch the videos below for more on how to use ZBrush and Wacom pen tablets.