Welcome to our first ever Artist Spotlight! Here, we take a moment to get to know some of the artists behind the sculpts and models that have changed our hobbies and game tables so dramatically over the past few years. We’ll laugh, we’ll cry, it will be an all around great time. We’re going to kick off this parade of grand artistry with Will Sutton, the artist for and owner of Zandoria Studios. For those that might not know, Will is the master of all things gnome related, though he also makes a lot of terrain using his PuzzleLock system and branches out into other minis as well.

For every Artist Spotlight, we have one of the artist’s miniatures professionally painted by our friend Chris at The Spotted Painter. Will chose one of his new troll miniatures, and we are were blown away at how it turned out. Above are the final images. If you’d love to print this beasty out and give it a paint job of your own, you can find it here.

MH: It’s always interesting to hear where artist’s come up with their studio names. Where did Zandoria come from?

Will: “Zandoria” was a name in a shared campaign world that my friends and I used for our D&D games years ago… We took turns DMing and had a different part of the world that our game took place in. Part of the map, I noted “the lost kingdom of Zandoria”… In 1999 I started using Zandoria Studios for a business name. Because it is a unique name, it doesn’t get lost on the world wide web!

I also used the name/setting for my story of a wandering hippopotamus Barbarian named TAR. This was a character that I created in Animation:Master with the plan of making a series of animated shorts.

Zandoria map
Map of Zandoria

It is a kind of Zatoichi/Conan character in an anthropomorphic world… I only made one short before I realized that my story would take me a hundred years to finish as an animation! When you watch the credits in any Hollywood animated movie, you will not only see hundreds of artists involved, but it also take a lot of computers to render all of those frames! I started thinking that I should make it a graphic novel instead.

Guardin Gnomes
Guardin' Gnomes

MH: I feel like it would be negligent not to dive into your bread and butter, gnomes. You have some fantastic pieces, and by far the widest variety of gnome characters that I’ve ever seen. How did you get into this niche?

Will: After I had created PuzzleLock, which was designed for FDM printing, I wanted to do miniatures too! Everyone was starting a Patreon, and I already had one – so I retooled it to add 3dprintable miniatures.  But since most of the things that I had sculpted were not for D&D, It was hardly a success – given that the early adopters on this space were Dungeon Masters!  I needed something besides anthropomorphic animals to appeal to them…

I had this idea for sculpting Gnomes like garden gnomes, but outfitted like gnome adventurers in Dungeons & Dragons.

The gnomes turned out to be pretty adorable, and I got a lot of likes on Instagram and Facebook. What I didn’t realize until then is that Gnome enthusiasts are a much bigger niche than Dungeon Masters with 3Dprinters!  I keep making more gnomes and am even getting knocked-off by fake companies on the internet pretending to be selling mass-produced ones! At last count I have had to issue DMCA takedowns against 15 different domain names!

MH: Are there any sneak peaks or anything that you can provide that might give us a clue as to what you’ll be releasing next?

Will: I started reading more about Gnomes, their place in folktales and mythology, and branching out to some other things like Trolls. So I started creating some trolls too. My influence was the fairytale artwork of John Bauer.

Continuing to read about lost civilizations, I have run into a theory of a lost antediluvian “golden age” that was lost beneath the floods at the end of the last Ice Age, when the changing climate flooded large areas of the Continental shelves, forcing survivors to higher ground to start over…  This is the setting that I am exploring now – and of course, gnomes are involved! Maybe this will finally reveal the Lost kingdom of Zandoria!

MH: Let’s talk about these trolls for a moment. I have to say, the first time I ran into them I thought they were someone else’s work, just because I didn’t realize you had branched out from the gnomes (or hobbits… let’s not forget your hobbits). I really love the look and feel of these models. Was there anything about your process that you had to change when switching from a small humanoid that’s wearing fur and armor to a larger monster that’s mostly covered in fur?

Will: I had made a poll on Patreon about what other kinds of model would they like. Items from the Pathfinder Bestiary made the top of the list! I started to sculpt the Troll from the first Bestiary, as painted by Wayne Reynolds.  Because Pathfinder is a spin-off from D&D using the open Gaming License, I didn’t think they would care – and it was just for Patreon…

Work in Progress from Paizo
Early Work in Progress

But Jim Butler from Paizo Inc. (who I am friends with on Facebook) sent me a message saying NO to that idea! I could do it, but it can not be behind a paywall like Patreon.  I totally respect that, and stopped working on it.  But it gave me an idea…  The thing that is the IP of Pathfinder is really just the artwork and stories – what they did was to create a unique interpretation of those OGL monsters.  Games themselves – the rules and methods of play – are not protected by copyright. That is why Wizards of the Coast and Games Workshop put so much art and story into the games!

I decided to do a little research on Trolls, as well as gnomes, to did a little deeper into folktales and mythology, in order to inform my own interpretations. This would let me create my own IP within this fantasy world, and give everything my own spin.

I discovered the works of the Swedish illustrator, John Bauer. He brought these tales to life in the early part of the 20th century. He is also an influence on later artists such as Paul Bonner and Brian Froud. Since he died in 1918 and his work is in the public domain, I knew I would be OK to take some inspiration there.

My first troll is carrying a bronze age Scandinavian sword, and using a door for a shield. If you look at the design of the hinges on the door, you will see it is a dragon-like monster from Scandinavian mythology, called a Lindwurm – the design of it was inspired by a Mountain troll’s door in the background of one of Bauer’s paintings!

Troll Sketch
Troll Sketch by Will Sutton

My Trolls are hairy and shaggy – reading the stories, I felt that the Trolls might be like the Neanderthals displaced by the arrival of men–maybe the origin of Yeti and Bigfoot and trolls.  In some of the fairy tails, the trolls would tuck their tails in their belt, and try to disguise themselves as men…They would venture near the farms and villages and take things. that gave me the idea for the Troll Thief.

The 3rd troll that I sculpted was a Mountain Troll. For this I wanted him to be a little bigger, maybe the same thing as a Frost Giant or jotun. Some of Paul Bonner’s paintings of Frost Giants and trolls for Trudvang have big horns. So looking at some mountain goats, I picked a big shaggy goat for my inspiration for his fur and horns!

Because Trolls are not crafty like gnomes, I figure that their weapons -especially for a giant – would need to be stone-age hafted weapons.  I watched some videos on YouTube to learn how to haft an arrow head, and how to wrap the sinew to hold it. It was very fascinating! Then when I looked at photos of artifacts of stone age weapons and even some bronze age axes, I could understand better what I was looking at, and how it really worked. I even have a paleolithic axe head in my personal collection of stuff!

The fur was a lot of work! I didn’t want it to look cartoony or too stylized. I had done some miniatures with fur, but this was a step beyond my comfort zone, for sure! I took it eave further when I had the idea for the Ice Age Gnome, LOL! That mini has the sabretooth rabbit, the fur cap and cloak, and the gnomes beard and hair – that was a big challenge!

MH: Can you describe your process for us a little bit? Any favorite tools of the trade or specific steps you take when deciding what to sculpt?

Will: Because I have a background with CAD, a lot of times I will design something in Rhino. This is what I used to design PuzzleLock. I can work out the tolerances there and later export it to ZBrush for sculpting details. I think this design for manufacturing background give me an advantage when it comes to designing for 3Dprinting.

Printed PuzzleLock Pieces
Puzzle Lock Design
PuzzleLock Design Layout

For pure sculpting, like for miniatures and figurines, I will start in ZBrush with a ZSphere armature to create the basemesh for sculpting:

Sculpting with ZBrush zspheres

ZBrush is indispensable for an artist in this space. I am lucky that I bought it when it was only $299—They have continued to improve and update it at no cost to their users. It is just fantastic! I never jump right in to the computer with an idea. I always start with a sketchbook. This is a habit that I also encouraged with my designers at SMP. It is faster to iterate and work out the design on paper first. Sometimes I will only have a doodle for inspiration, and sometime I will do a lot more on the concept before I start sculpting.

Gnome Ranger Sketch

MH: While your work with gnomes is some of the most popular, you do a very broad variety of art, from comics to, of course, sculpting. How did you break into sculpting for 3D printing?

Will: I was a traditional artist long before I got my first computer. drawing, painting, sculpture, airbrush art… I got a job doing Design for point-of-purchase displays, and learned how to model in 3D, and make renderings for presentations. I work for SMP Instore Marketing for about 15 years, starting as a designer and then Creative Director.

Even so, I was fascinated with the technology and the whole idea of it. By the time Makerbot had the Replicator2 available, I bought one for the Design and Engineering department at SMP. That was my first experience printing myself, and learning about it. I had ZBrush at this time, and I could see the potential, though the quality was not good for miniatures and the only Resin printer was the Form1, and it was over $3000… so I couldn’t buy one. 

During those years I was also learning computer animation on the side and pursuing that. When 3Dprinting was first available it as only for prototyping parts which would later be injection molded. The machines were so expensive that you had to send to a service bureau to get them printed.

Around 2014, I started freelancing from home. I had a Printrbot Simple Metal that I used for printing my own stuff. One of my freelance clients was Shapeways. They had a designer-for-hire program that I was a part of, and later a Design with Shapeways program. I learned all of the limitations and constraints for their machines and materials and picked up a lot of modeling gigs through their forum, and also on Reddit. the cost for prints on Shapeways kept getting ridiculously higher every year, and at the same time the project managers that had come on board kept trying to get us to lower our quotes and would pitch things to different artists and take the cheapest – so I eventually stopped responding to quote requests from them.

Point of Purchase Design
Point of Purchase Design

I started getting into designing my own STL files for sale, because I could see that the cost of printers was dropping each year, so it was not going to be long before home users started to adopt the technology. It made sense to me that there would be a market for the patterns, in the same way that you might go to a fabric store like Joanne’s and buy materials and a patttern to make something. I joined Cults3D.com when it was a NEW website! I have a good relationship with Pierre who is the founder.

When I was able to get my own resin printer, it was a SparkmakerFHD that I pledged for on Kickstarter! It was only $249 at the time and Form2 was the other I was looking at, and it was $3,000. Once I could print things myself, I could see that the machines could print much finer than Shapeways would allow, and my cost was a tenth of theirs.

MH: Do you have any tips for folks that are interested in pursuing digital sculpting or art in general and are just getting started? Any major pitfalls to avoid that you had wished someone would have warned you about?

Will: Don’t go on Artstation and get bummed out and depressed that you will never get there! Everyone starts at the beginning – I am embarrassed by my old work that my mom will bring out to show her friends!  It takes years to master the craft – whether drawing, painting, sculpting, etc.  But whatever you create, it was only you who would have done it. We are all unique, and the vision we have is unique to us.  Don’t rush past those beginner exercises. Every stroke that you make is practice. Be mindful and give every piece of art your best.

Never do a rush crap job, because you are in a hurry, or the budget is low – give it your best.  It will stay out there in the world with your name on it!  So be proud of what you do and be true to your art. If you remain true to your vision, then your true fans will respond to your work, and they will find you. And though I am not taking STL subscriptions on my Pateon, I am still looking to connect to my fans there!
Sketchbook by Will Sutton
Will Sutton's Sketchbook

MH: Speaking of Patreon, you recently made a drastic change in your subscription model… and by drastic, I mean you pretty much cut it off all together. Could you tell us a bit about how you came to make those changes and the direction your future plans are taking you with regard to your art?

Will: Like many artists, I hoped that I could use Patreon to connect with my fans, and with their combined support I would be able to just make art all day! I’ve had a Patreon for several years, but only had a few fans on it, and I really didn’t have an idea of how to use it… As you have seen in the past couple of years, Everyone is jumping into it – especially after the exponential growth of the market after Artisan Guild launched their Patreon a couple of years ago.  I like to take my time on a sculpture, because it is a timeless medium and I want my work to last.  I can’t create at the frantic pace that is burning out even the younger artist in our group, so I decided to take an approach that was all-inclusive. I would make ALL of my work available to print, without a fear of missing-out! I thought of it like Netflix – binge print everything!  My hope was that people would join if their was a theme that they were interested in, like the Trolls. I knew that people would come and go, but I had a hope that I could get my number of subscribers to at least 100 – which if I had a good ratio between $10 Adventurers and $20 Merchants, I might actually make Minimum Wage!

Patreon Manifesto

During the pandemic, we saw Raging Heroes and Titan Forge enter the Patreon market – maybe others that I’m not thinking of – which I believe were companies who had previously manufactured minis. Now they were pulling from back catalogs of models which they had purchased as work-for-hire and dumping them into Patreon and just swamping it! 20 or more models for $10, and 10 years worth of back catalog to pull from! So it was the beginning of the end for smaller patreons in this space… Patreon “Samplers” is another get rich quick scheme flooding the space.

It isn’t just that it is a crowded field. I don’t see myself and my fellow artists as competitors. While we are all wanting to sell our models, everyone is going to have their own interpretation of a particular thing – whether Orcs or Dragons or trolls or gnomes. No one else’s work will be the same as your own. So in theory, even Titan Forge should help the “market” in a rising-tide lifts all boats kind of way…

But even though this is an expensive hobby, and people buy the latest and greatest 3Dprinters – sometimes owning multiple! There is an idea that they can spend thousands of dollars for printers, but they aren’t going to pay more than a few dollars for STL files! The Kickstarter and Patreon markets both contribute to this idea that the STL has no dollar value – because there is no shortage of models available. 

Compounding this is the ease of Piracy… Even though I had let patrons have access to my entire library of models for a very low price, as a reward for their subscription, my models still end up on Telegram channels and pirate sites such as The Trove… There is no respect for the artist in a community that turns a blind eye to this problem… A prominent moderator from our 3dprintiong community, tells me that it is OK because they were never going to be your customer anyway…But this same person is a member of those file-sharing groups! (which really makes my head spin)

My future plan is to re-evaluate the entire way that I have been thinking about 3Dprinting.  I will still put up STL sets on Cults3D. But instead of just selling the STL files, I want to print and hand-paint as collectibles. I keep getting requests for the gnomes from fans who are not a part of this hobby. They just want the sculptures! So I will look at using the printer as a tool of production, not as just prototyping.

The Grande Finale

We’re very grateful to both Will for taking the time to chat with us, as well as Chris Spotts for doing such a fantastic job on painting the Mountain Troll. Will’s work can be found here on MiniHoarder, and for those who just want to support his art, you can do so via his Patreon.

Chris is the painter behind The Spotted Painter, and runs a YouTube channel and can be found via his FaceBook page.

If you’re an artist and would like to be featured in our Artist Spotlight, give us a shout at hoarderhelp@minihoarder.com.