Introduction: Custom Figurines: the Easiest Way to Model Your Favorite Characters
Comic figurines are awesome. They provide dramatic, cinematic portrayals of characters that are usually rendered in simple lines and colors. Especially for obscure characters who get fewer opportunities for live-action adaptation (and less merchandise), they create some of the most compelling visuals anywhere.
Best of all, most people can make dramatic, realistic figurines surprisingly easily. The process consists of modeling a character, 3D printing it, and painting it. The secret sauce is a character creator tool called MakeHuman. Rather than sculpting from scratch, MakeHuman lets users generate a simple, posable human figure.
This is the process:
- Decide what you want to make.
- Create a simple base model and pose it.
- Sculpt features, clothes, props, base, etc.
- Clean up the model for printing.
- Print it.
- Post-process the print.
- Paint and seal it.
This guide focuses mainly on the modeling and sculpting process, which I learned during this project. It assumes a basic familiarity with 3D printing: either you own your own 3D printer or are comfortable sending your files out to a service like 3DHUBS or Shapeways. However, it offers some broad, basic tips for printing, painting, and finishing.
One great thing about this process is that the difficulty of each of these steps varies with personal ambition. Although sculpting was new to me, I'm comfortable with 3D printing and decided to make a few moderately challenging choices in the figures I'll show here. But if any step seems daunting the challenge can be mitigated with minor compromises on the complexity of your figure. Conversely, if you like to push yourself you can achieve truly stunning results.
For this project I made two members of the titular superhero team from Gerard Way's Dark Horse comic book series and Netflix show, The Umbrella Academy. I'll show how I developed my vision for Ben Hargreeves, a.k.a. Number 6, a.k.a. The Horror and Klaus Hargreeves, a.k.a. Number 4, a.k.a. The Séance. I spent around 20 hours modeling each of these characters and 20 hours assembling and painting each. This took me around three weeks for each and cost $10 in PLA printer filament and $10 in supplies. I had very little experience sculpting in Blender or using MakeHuman, so don't be afraid to try this.
Some Great General Resources
Here are three YouTube creators I love. Their channels provide a lot of general tips on the creative and technical processes that contribute to making your own figurine.
- A computer (Windows or Linux both work!)
- A 3D printer (or you can send it to a 3D printing service)
- 3D printing filament
- An X-Acto knife
- Sandpaper and files
- Cyanoacrylate (Superglue)
- XTC3D print surface epoxy (optional)
- Dowels and needles (for detail work)
- Paints and painting supplies such as a water cup and newspaper
- Spray-on surface sealing finish (aka clear spray paint)
Step 1: Planning Your Vision
Step one is developing a vision for the figurine. While it will likely adjust over the course of the project, developing the artistic intention is perhaps the most important step towards producing something mind-blowing. It's also one of the most fun and rewarding steps. Every comic book and fantasy character lends itself to interpretation, and in this step we get to tell a story through our art that appeals uniquely to us.
This section is wordy to communicate the process I used, so feel free to skim or skip. The tl;dr is that you should look through photos of characters, actors, and inspirational media, then decide what image and story you want to tell. Then take reference shots of yourself or a friend posing if possible and get started.
In my case, I was eager to portray what Ben Hargreeves looked like in action, as very few portrayals exist. I decided to show Ben as a teenager at the age of seventeen. I used the TV show as primary inspiration and imagined him in his Umbrella Academy school uniform. I wanted to show in graphic detail the tentacles bursting furiously from the portal in his abdomen. In an initial pose he had a hand out as telekinetic superheroes often do directing movement, but instead I ultimately showed him with balled fists and grit teeth as he struggles to endure the pain of his powers and direct Them: the bloodthirtsty extra-dimensional monsters over which he holds only partial control. His relationship with Them is not really established in official media, so this was my chance to tell the story of my own head canon and I was thrilled with the results.
A set of small figurines are shown in the Netflix show which are in production as actual merchandise. They're very cool, although the story they tell is a sanitized presentation of these heroes that conceals the traumatic toll of their life as superheroes, so I decided to pay homage to them while showing a much darker and more realistic version of their exploits. Consequently, I decided to include the Umbrella Academy logo beneath Ben. The story to justify this emblem I settled on was that it's printed on a parade banner over which Ben is standing when the team is attacked during a city parade.
My husband has a full UA schoolboy costume, so I used this to figure out how the cloth would look when Ben was in action.
I wanted to capture the character's youth and the struggle between his gentle nature and the violent nature of the entities within him.
Klaus has far more content to draw from, although most of it is as an adult, and as with Ben I wanted to show Klaus in the last days of his innocence before the team dissolved and he fell into a life of desperation and drug use. As before, I'm going to make Klaus seventeen and pay homage to the figurine in the show. I used photos of actor Robert Sheehan has a young man, as well as actor Emmy Raver-Lampman who played the younger Klaus. As much as I love the show, I decided to use comics Klaus as a primary inspiration as well, and looked through many images of him as both an adult and as a child to imagine what he looked like in his late teens.
I decided to portray him without shoes (as he does not wear them in the comics) and floating (as he typically does in the comics). I wanted his face to be angular and impish, with feminine qualities but a pointed chin, large nose, and sharp cheekbones. His hair is playfully curly like the badboy of a boy band, with the understanding that his overbearing father/headmaster Reginald would never let it grow very long. He is tall and lanky. His right arm is outstretched like in the TV figurine, but his left holds his signature Ouiji planchette. A tombstone is added for environmental effect.
Talk about it with friends. Share work-in-progress shots in fan groups and ask for suggestions. At this point, operate without thought of limitation. We'll constrain things to make them printable later, but for now let your imagination run wild and remember this is your chance to tell stories that no one else can or will make. Batgirl with the Venom symbiote. Static Shock saving a news helicopter. Captain America and Bucky kissing. Your D&D character getting arrested for drunken behavior. Go nuts.
Step 2: Creating a Base Figure in MakeHuman
The key to making awesome figurines is a big shortcut: you don't need to sculpt the whole thing from scratch if you can get a posable model to pose and modify.
In this step we're going to create a posed 3D figure using a free open-source character creator called MakeHuman.
That said, MakeHuman is a somewhat limited program. It has a small set of existing outfits (a dozen or so) and a similarly sized collection of hair styles and body and facial poses. There isn't much diversity. There's a few preset racial models, but that's about it. You aren't going to be able to find a model that resembles a specific actor, for instance. So to make your figurine, you'll need to get a little creative. If you're sculpting Spider-Man or Superman, it's a little easy because they wear tights. For the Umbrella Academy characters, I used a suit as the starting point, then cut the legs short in the sculpting step and added in naked legs to make schoolboy shorts.
Keep in mind that you can apply the principle here using other sources. If you wanted to model Iron Man or Sailor Moon, MakeHuman might not be sufficient, but you might be able to find posable videogame assets or buy models online. I also tried an alternative character creator called Daz3D. Daz3D appears to be a lot more feature-rich, but it provides even fewer free assets. The program costs nothing, but you'll need to buy figures.
There are many exchanges where you may be able to find a specific character, with many models available for free:
Outputing from MakeHuman
If you do use MakeHuman, you'll want to select the default posing rig (also called a skeleton) and set the scale for cm (I think). Export it as a MakeHuman exchange file (.mhx). In my copy, this was a default export format, although I've seen instructions online on adding an export plugin, so if you don't see the option, google around.
Step 3: Sculpting Our Figure in Blender, Part 1: Importing and Posing
Now we're going to import the posable mhx file into Blender and begin sculpting.
If you haven't used Blender, there are three things you should know:
1) Blender is professional quality software, which means there's not much you can't do, but it's easy to get intimidated by its interface.
2) Blender is F-R-E-E free Open Source software, and it's almost shocking how much you get for nothing. It feels like pirating expensive professional software, so consider throwing a donation their way.
3) Although Blender was created as a program for animation, it's so feature rich that it can compete in several classes. Not only is it top-tier sculpting software, it's also the best open source video editor.
Importing Your Mhx File
Unfortunately, recent versions of Blender don't include the mhx format importer by default, so you'll have to install it, which isn't fun for a beginner, but if you follow the instructions it's worth it. Download the mhx importer plugin, then go to Preferences > Plugins and click "install" and select the mhx importer plugin zip file. The importer will then be available on the upper right of the screen in the tool menu.
Before Proceeding with Sculpting
Before proceeding, export the file as an .stl file and import it into your slicer of choice to check that it's the correct scale and appears printable. I prefer Ultimaker Cura. I had some incompatibility issues when I started that stemmed from scaling problems which is why I recommend confirming scaling and compatibility before sculpting. If things look good, proceed with sculpting.
MakeHuman provides some starting default poses, but to create detailed poses you'll need to do the posing in Blender. To pose your figure, click on the bone you want to manipulate and turn your model so the plane the bone rotates in aligns with the screen you're looking at (it'll make sense when you try it). Make minor adjustments and use the Undo button liberally. Try it a few times. It gets easier with practice. This is the point when reference photos will be critical.
Step 4: Sculpting Our Figure in Blender, Part 2: Sculpting
Once your figure is posed you'll likely want to begin the actual sculpting step.
My first piece of advice: Don't be scared
Believe in yourself and be patient. Sculpting is intimidating to beginners, but starts to make sense surprisingly fast with just a bit of practice.
My second piece of advice: Imagine working with your hands
When uncertain, imagine what you'd do if the clay was in your hand. Here are the tools I found most helpful:
- The grab tool allows you to pull something in any direction. Rotating allows greater control to pull in the direction you want.
- The add tool allows you to put down more material. Using the Ctrl you can also subtract.
- The smooth tool allows you to make flatter or more gently curving shapes.
- The crease edge tool allows you to make corners (and the Ctrl key lets you make inner creases).
I used these to adjust Ben's jacket and to modify both Ben's and Klaus' hair.
Third piece of advice: Learn to use Dynamic Topology
The model is made up of polygons, which you can see by pressing the wireframe button or using the hotkey "Z". If you are trying to add detail to a surface without many polygons, you can't really add it until you add more polygons. By selecting the "Dynotopo" button in the sculpt tool settings you can tell the add tool to add new polygons.
Fourth: Experiment with the edit tools
Edit tools are accessed by switching from the Sculpt or Object modes to the Edit mode. This is used to modify vertices and faces directly. Here are some tools I found useful:
- Change the selection tool to lasso from the default square
- Use "H" to hide elements so you can see what's behind them and also to lock those vertices so they can't be accidentally modified while you're deleting or modifying other vertices.
- Use Alt+H to unhide.
- Use Ctrl + + to increase a selection to all adjacent vertices and Ctrl + - to reduce the selection.
- If you select two vertices and press "F" it will create a new face between them. If you press "F" repeatedly it'll keep making faces to close a hole.
- Use the Mesh > Clean-up menu to fill holes or collapse vertices that are closely spaced. Search online for more tips.
These tools are likely to be important, especially because the model has cavities for the mouth and within the eyeballs, which will appear when slicing the model. I recommend removing them if possible using the edit tools.
One other thing: Solving a weird problem I encountered
When I tried to sculpt Klaus' hair I enabled Dynamic Topology in order to add more vertices since the current model didn't have enough to add the detail I wanted to sculpt in. But when I tried I encountered a glitch. When I switched back to object mode after sculpting the new vertices, the new verticies were stretched wildly. You can see this half way through my video. The solution was to change the rest pose of the model, which The Mighty Ginkgo helpfully explains here: Quick tutorial: Quickly change your rest pose in blender
Step 5: Sculpting Our Figure in Blender, Part 2: Adding Props and a Base
A good figurine will need an environment, and typically objects that aren't in MakeHuman. In my case, this included the domino masks, Ben's tentacles, and Klaus' planchette.
You can make simple objects like a base by selecting Add > Mesh while in the Object mode to add a sphere or cube or cylinder for sculpting. Alternatively, sculptable props can be modeled in a parametric modeling program like Fusion360 (as I did for the gravestone) or from Thingiverse (as I did for the crown on the gravestone). The tentacles, believe it or not, were just spheres that I stretched out. I then drew little circles with the add material tool to make the suction cups.
Step 6: Preparing the Figure for Printing
Joining Everything into One Part
Preparing the model for printing requires us to join the figure into a single closed STL. You can print it without doing so, but you'll often get weird hollow spots within the model or other strange artifacts that will reduce the quality of the final parts.
To turn the separate pieces -- like hair, clothes, body parts, etc. -- into one object, select a part and create a Boolean Modifier. If we create a union between the selected part and another part they will produce a joined, seamless single part.
Breaking that One Part Back Into Multiple Parts
Depending on your approach to printing, you may be able to just print the model as-is, but I like to print complex prints in smaller parts to avoid the need for support and to avoid the stress of long prints that could fail at the last step. I printed the base and lower body as a part, then the torso, then the head, then each arm. This let me make sure that I liked the look of each part without having to reprint the entire model if I wasn't satisfied with the outcome.
To separate the arms from the torso or the upper and lower bodies, create a big cube and use it to include something, and then create another Boolean Modifier, but this time use the 'Difference' option instead of 'Union'. It will cut off the part of the object inside the box. If we duplicate an object we can use a Boolean Modifier to remove everything inside a cube (using the "Difference" option) and a second Boolean modifier on the duplicate to remove everything outside the cube (using the "Intersection" option). This is how I created segmented objects in Blender.
Btw, you'll need to delete parts you don't want for them to be not part of the STL. Hiding them doesn't prevent them from being exported.
Step 7: Printing the Figure
We now print our figure. I print on a FlyingBear 905p FDM printer with a 0.5 mm nozzle. I use a layer height of 0.05 mm and at least 4 walls with a 50% infill. There are many guides online on maximizing print detail, so feel free to incorporate your favourite techniques.
The files (including the Blender files) can all be found here on Thingiverse:
Step 8: Assembly, Gluing, and Surface Prep
A bit of sanding, filing, deburring, and other cleanup is typical using an X-acto knife, file, and sandpaper. If needed, this is the point at which we'll use a heatgun to soften and bend parts if appropriate. If you've never used a heat gun on PLA you might be surprised how accommodating printed parts are to reforming. I used this on Ben's tentacles to great effect. You could likely use this for capes and flags and other items to provide a soft, dynamic posing that might be difficult to model or print.
We now have our plastic pieces ready to glue together using cyanoacrylate (superglue). If you want to manufacture a batch of figurines, now is the point where you'll want to create silicone molds of each of your parts and then cast resin duplicates.
Once the parts are glued and otherwise ready you can coat them with XTC3D epoxy. If you've never used XTC3D, start on a test piece or on a piece you're less concerned about. It's not hard to use, but a bit of experience goes a long way in determining how thickly to coat a part. Make use of a wooden skewer to wipe off the epoxy if you apply too much, especially into crevices as a brush doesn't remove XTC3D very effectively.
Personally, I'm unsure if I'd recommend using XTC3D. It helps smooth layer lines but it also reduces some details. Test it and make your own decision.
If you do use XTC3D, let the epoxy dry overnight. Sand lightly if desired and then spray primer over the parts to prep them for painting.
Step 9: Painting and Sealing
To paint the figurine, apply the lowest layers first for instance skin, then shirt, then jacket. Acrylic paints are forgiving, so don't be afraid to make mistakes. That said, this experience taught me why the experts I watch on YouTube tend to use airbrushing. The acrylic paints are too thick which can hide details and add blobs or surface unevenness. Watering them down slightly can thin them, although extra coats may be required to get even color.
The natural surface finish of the acrylic craft paints is also rather chalky looking. I used a glossy black from Lowes when I was unable to get black acrylic when businesses were shut down in LA, and it had a much prettier finish, so I'm eager to try oil paints in the future.
Masking tape can be used to create sharp edges, and a sewing needle can be used for painting extremely fine details. For the embroidered patch, I painted the Umbrella Academy logo on a piece of masking tape and then stuck it to the figurine's breast.
Speckling and dry brushing can be used to add detail.
Take your time, let paint dry between coats, and keep at it until satisfied. Remember that paint can be gently removed with a wet swab.
Acrylic craft paints are very fragile. They chip or scuff off easily. To make the figure durable enough to handle and also improve the appearance we'll seal them with a coat of clear spray paint. Testors sells specialty clear coat for this purpose that I haven't tried, but Krylon and Rustoleum clear spray paints appear to work great.
I wasn't sure what I needed, so I bought a can of gloss, satin (semi-gloss) and matte finish paints. I found that the satin was too shiny for textures like skin and cloth, so the matte worked best, although I finished Them (Ben's tentacles) in high gloss for a wet look. What's great, though, is that the finish will be determined by whatever the top coat is. Matte on top of gloss makes a matte finish and gloss on top of matte makes a gloss finish, so you can try different things without consequence. You an also use up a can of satin if that's what you have available to seal things, then follow up with a final coat of something else if you just have a bit of it.
Step 10: Enjoy!
And that's it. As you can see, there are lots of steps, but many are optional in how much effort you want to put in. Using these methods, you can get a simple realistic body which you can use as the start of sculpt. You can add in accessories like a sword and print the model, and you can print these models to make beautiful display-quality figurines much like the impressive (and expensive) collector artworks you see at conventions. It's incredibly gratifying, and even if it's not perfect it'll likely bring a smile to your face to look at and have guests asking where you got such a unique piece. Have fun!
First Prize in the