To Those Learning 3D

Table of Contents

Introduction

This isn't a quick-start guide to Blender. I'm writing this to lead people that are new to Blender away from major pitfalls that I see so many fall into. Of course, even those that are more seasoned would benefit from a few good reminders.

I feel very strongly about everything I have written in this article. Some of these are my own opinions while others are fundamental truths that transcend the barriers of 3D packages and fanboys. They are true to art in general, no matter what medium or computer software you use. These are things that I have learned from accomplished artists, designers, other Blender users and my own personal experience.

A fairly significant portion of your artistic success as a 3D artist depends on how well you know the software, like Blender, Maya, 3D Studio Max, Lightwave 3D, and so on. However, that doesn't even compare to the importance of knowing the principles and elements of design and having a good process. That is what truly makes your art good.

Since I'd like to become a great artist, I'm writing this for people that have the same ambition. Since most people that I know in the Blender community are those who are struggling to learn the software, I'll talk about that first, then I'll talk about those things that separate a Blender savvy person from a great 3D artist.

First Things First

The first thing I want to say is simple. It's in answer to the biggest problem I see new 3D artists get into. It's a cliche, but I'll say it anyway, "First things first". Learn how to use the program before you jump in and start an advanced project.

On the message boards I see so many people asking questions like, "How do I model a space ship," or "How do I model a human head?" even though they don't even know what the extrude tool is yet.

I understand that this is perfectly natural behavior. I've been there too and I don't hold this against anyone. Either I'll find a software package, knowing exactly what masterpiece I want to make with it, or as soon as I start up the program I'll have a flood of ideas of things that I want to create. What is true with both of these situations is that my mind is more concerned with the final product than actually learning the software front and back. I want to take shortcuts.

When I install a software package the last thing I'll do is read the manual. This is probably because I've used a lot of software and I'm confident in my abilities to figure it out on my own. Immediately I'll want to get busy and create whatever I have in my head. This is healthy enthusiasm. The problem is that I really don't know how to use the software well enough to even start on my big project. And so, like most people, I go to the forums and ask for help.

The only thing I have in my mind is my project. So if I got Blender because I wanted to make an animated short about two badgers, then I might ask questions like, "How do I model a badger? What are the proper material properties to make fur?" And so on.

Tutorials

I'm convinced that it is because of questions like these that a large number of the tutorials on the Internet have come from frequent questions on the same topic until someone decides, "I am going to make a tutorial on modeling badgers because so many people are asking for help on that topic."

You should remember that many of these tutorials are written to give you a solution to a specific problem--not to learn all of the modeling tools. Tutorials are great resources that can really help you out in a bind and give you insights to a problem that you haven't thought of yet. However, I'm not convinced that these "how-to" tutorials are the best ways for beginners to learn. A tutorial that explains everything step by step on modeling a specific object may not be enough to teach you all of the modeling tools. You can still learn most of the important tools this way, but modeling is a problem solving process and you need to understand all the tools.

I'm not saying that you should forsake tutorials for learning altogether. There are wonderful tutorials out there that focus on teaching you the software. You should look for those. What you shouldn't do is start looking for tutorials on those objects that you want to create right now before spending the time to learn the basics. If you try to jump ahead by getting a tutorial about how to make that badger for your animated short, you are taking a shortcut.

There's something special about that shortcut. It's much longer and filled full of potholes. Don't do it. You may think it's the quickest route to your masterpiece but it's really holding you back. Instead of focusing on creating something beautiful right away, focus on learning the tools first. Go to blender.org to read the documentation and learn the software.

Start with the Basics

It is well understood in the study of visual arts that you need to start with the basics. I can't tell you how many days I've spent drawing cubes from still life for my art instructors. I've drawn them as construction drawings, perspective studies, pencil-shaded value studies, and then later painted them as monochromatic, complement, split-complement, analogous, cool color and warm color studies. And they were all drawings of the same cube!

I didn't want to spend a month doing tedious assignments! I wanted to be a digital illustrator, a character designer, or a graphic artist working in motion design!

Even though I was annoyed by most of the drawing exercises--which fortunately didn't consist of just wood cubes--I wasn't stressed out. I was a little antsy to move on, but certainly not stressed. Drawing a cube isn't hard. Instead, I was able to focus on value and color without having to worry about getting a complex object to look right.

Had I sat down on the first day and tried to make an oil painting of the human figure I would have been frustrated and stressed beyond belief because I wouldn't have known how to mix paints to get the color I want, design a visually interesting piece, get the shading right, and make a non-deformed figure (forget about trying to get a likeness). It would have been a terrible mistake and I would have been turned-off to becoming an artist as a result.

The sad thing is that this is exactly what some new 3D artists decide to do. Don't make that mistake. If you have just started, hold off on your masterpiece and learn the tools. Do a few tests. Make a few simple characters, rig them and animate them just so you get a feel for it before you make that fully animated short you've always wanted to do.

Then if you have a problem, message boards are a great resource. You'll also get help faster because you'll be able to communicate with people better regarding your problem and in return you'll understand what they are talking about.

Modeling is a Problem Solving Process

There is a reason why you need to understand the tools before you start doing some serious modeling. There are an infinite number of objects that you may need to create. This is why "how-to" tutorials can only get you so far. They can help you learn new techniques and point you in the right direction, but they cannot guide you through every possible object you will want to make. Modeling is a problem solving process. So it is critical that you know as much about the tools as possible.

Making a model that will animate well is an art form all it's own and takes a lot of thinking, planning, trial, and error to get it right. If you are still stuck, you can look at someone else's tutorial to see their solution to that modeling problem, even if it's not exactly the same model you are working on.

Let's say that I'm making a model for a talking badger. Let's say I can't find a tutorial for "How to effectively model a talking badger." Even though I might be having troubles modeling the object so that his mouth will animate well, I can look at other tutorials on that subject and get some clues on how I can solve the problem. In this way you can look at any tutorial written for any software package to get help because the principles of edge loops and good topology are the same.

Be an Artist

To be a good 3D artist you have to be an artist. That isn't meant to be redundant. It's just that some people think there's a difference. If you think that being a 3D artist means that you never have to touch pencil and paper, then you are terribly mistaken. I am not joking when I say that most of my time spent making 3D art is actually spent away from the computer.

If you can't draw the object out on paper, then how can you expect to do it in 3D? In fact it is easier to draw the object out on paper and then use that as a guide to make the model. I can't think of a single thing that I've made that wasn't planned out on paper first.

I'll be getting to how this applies to a good process later, but it is important to remember that your knowledge of traditional art applies directly to being a 3D artist in every respect.

For me, Blender substitutes paint and canvas. It doesn't replace the sketching. It doesn't replace good composition and design. It doesn't even replace my understanding of light and shadows as it applies to nature and 2D art.

In traditional 2D artwork, I have to think about which direction I want the light to be coming from so that I can properly light an object to make it interesting to look at, have the shadow play along with the scene composition so that I can group my light and dark areas, and I even have to decide what color I want the shadow to be. Shadows in nature are usually the complement color of whatever the light source is. In other words, shadows are not black.

I don't draw what is physically correct, I draw what I want to see. With 3D software, the shadows are physically correct. Sometimes this is not desirable to make a scene fun to look at. There is more to making a good image than photorealism. How can I make that decision between physically correct and artistically right? By being an artist.

To summarize: Blender is a tool, not a process. If you can't make something good without it, you won't make something good with it. It doesn't enable you to create a well-designed image without first being an artist and understanding the principles and elements of design.

Know the Principles and Elements of Design

Why is it that while walking through a gallery we stop and look at a painting? Is it because we are interested in the subject matter or that it's photorealistic? Most of the time none of above are true. The painting could be about anything and sometimes the shapes are very abstract. But still we stop and look anyway. Something about this painting drew us in.

Our eyes flow through the painting as if the artist opened a door into the scene. He leads us around to some of the little details until we get to the main subject. We are guided around in circles again and again, continuously returning to the focal point. After showing us around, the artist gently shows us the way out. We are not led to the next painting on the wall, but rather through the top of the painting, leaving us wanting to go through it again. That is good design. The subject matter of that painting could have been about anything. But it is what the artist did with the subject matter that made it a great work of art. 3D art is no different.

If I haven't made my point about why it's important to be a good artist, then I'm making it now. Knowing how to design a scene well so that your viewers will have the same experience as in the above example is why knowing the principles and elements of design is so important. You really need to know these things.

Take an Art Class

I've already said that someone with good artistic knowledge makes a good 3D artist. You should know how to use color, and what makes a good design. What would I recommend? Take a college level art class. Introduction to Drawing is a good course to take if you haven't done much drawing. They'll teach you the principles and elements of design, but nothing covers that topic as well as Design and Color--that's also a good class to take. They won't expect you to be an artistic genius. It's a class that even first-year Art Education majors take, but you will learn a lot about the principles and elements of design, and how to use color.

I understand that many of you are hobbyists, and are not serious about doing any kind of art for a living. May I recommend going to the library and picking up books on the subject? I'm very serious when I say that knowing these things will benefit your work immensely.

Study of the principles and elements of design and how to use color opens up a whole new world. It will also help you enjoy life more. Nothing pleases me quite as much as going out and walking in the city parks two hours before sunset and noticing that the sidewalk isn't gray but a subtle gold, and that shadows are not black but range from blue to purple. Life is full of colors and I never noticed before.

I admire art more. I can see how well the artist designed their painting to want me to spend some time looking at it. I love the way they used color to give me an emotional response. I feel just a glimpse of that same joy that the artist had when their work was finished and they sat back and thought, "Wow, I did well."

Have I made my point yet? Take an art class!

Good Process

Having a good process in making a painting or designing a magazine spread is just as important as having a good process in making a 3D scene. When I say "process" I'm referring to everything that goes into a work of art from research, conceptual drawings, value (gray scale) sketches, color studies, and the final rendering.

Let's say you want to make a model of a ninja character and put him in a proper setting. Never sit down and start using Blender right away. Do your research. Look at pictures of ninjas. Then sit down and start drawing sketches. You should even go as far as drawing out the image that you want to make in Blender. From that image you can draw the shadowing so you'll know where to put your light sources. Figure out what color you want parts of the ninja and scene to be to set the right mood and to lead the viewer to the focal point of the image.

This designing process doesn't take that long and it will save you a lot of time, make a better composed scene, and will also help you jump right into Blender knowing exactly what it is you want to create. It is easier to start working from a blank piece of paper than from an empty three dimensional void.

Before you start modeling, it's a good idea to sketch two really good front and side views of the character or object you want to model, scan it in, and then start modeling with those images as the background. Even before you start modeling you might want to think about the patchwork (or topology) on your model so that it will animated properly.

Much of the time you spend on a character will be away from the computer. One example of this is a product design assignment I had. My assignment was to make the perfect mouse, as in the computer input device. So I spent five days doing nothing but research on how people held both their one-button Macintosh and three-button PC mice and what they wanted in a mouse. I then drew pages worth of small thumbnail sketches to find the best design that was both ergonomically designed and looked cool. Then I drew two large sketches of the final design, both top and side views.

Remember, I spent five days just doing research and sketching. Modeling and rendering the animation only took two days. Considering that I was a full-time student and had a job, two days equals about 8 hours.

That was not because I'm proficient with the software, because I certainly wasn't at the time. It was because I had a good process. I knew exactly what I wanted as soon as I sat down and loaded Blender. Had I skipped the planning process the assignment would not have gotten done, and if it did get done, it wouldn't nearly have looked as professional.

Faking It

There is another benefit to being an artist. On the message boards we often hear questions about how to speed up the rendering process. Remember what I said about making the decision between "physically correct" and "artistically right?" The things that take the most time to render are those that are physically correct. For example, ambient occlusion, which allows you to make realistic ambient lighting, is physically correct. It also takes a heck of a long time to render. The same goes with ray traced shadows, ray traced reflections, ray traced transparencies--heck, anything that requires you to have that Ray button in the render panel turned on is going to slow things down!

One Blender user said it best, "Cheat like hell." This is very true. If you can set up a dome full of shadow buffered spotlights to simulate ray traced ambient occlusion then do it! Yes, it does take more time to set up. But I've found that in most cases you are actually saving yourself time. When working with Blender or any 3D program you have to make a lot of test renders. When doing a test render you are not working. If test renders are taking longer, you are working less. Or even worse, if you are rendering an animation you might miss your deadline because you didn't spend the extra hour to cheat!

I have said on numerous occasions, "If your render looks great and it's fast, then you are doing something right." By the show of hands, how many Blender users have a Pixar-sized render farm available to them down the hall? Yup, me neither. For still images render time isn't that much of an issue, but when doing animations it is critical that each frame renders quickly.

I wonder how many people know that big movie studios like Dreamworks, Pixar, or any studio that does a lot of CG work actually cheat to speed up the rendering time. Yes, they can get away with more because they have massive CPU power available to them. However, they still use the same bag of tricks that individual 3D artists use.

How do they cheat? Render in passes. Render the background separately and then overlay the characters on top of it. The simpler a scene is the faster the computer can render it. It also gives you full control of each part of the scene so you don't have to worry about lighting that's supposed to light a character properly but interferes with the scenery. It also gives you the option of just re-rendering the background or foreground instead of the entire scene if something goes wrong. Find out ways to cheat. Cheating is encouraged. It will make you more productive.

Cheating brings me back to being an artist. How will you know to cheat if you are not an artist and understand how light works, or rather how you want light to work in your scene?

I had a spaceship model once where I wanted the wing to cast a shadow on the hull. I wanted this to be a soft shadow so that it was sharper where it connected to the hull and softer the further away it got, just like in real life. Did I add a cluster of spotlights that cast shadows to make the effect? No. I just drew the shadow right into the texture. I also wanted the bottom of the wing to receive reflected light from the blue paint of the hull. Did I use radiosity? No. I just drew it into the texture! Which is great because instead of having to tinker with the radiosity settings or getting the spotlights to behave, in the case of the shadow casting trick, I just drew what I wanted the end result to look like and that's it!

Do you want a really good example of cheating? Look at video games that don't use per-pixel lighting (Doom 3 and Unreal 3 use per-pixel lighting). If you have a video game that comes with an editor, take a look at the models and their UV-mapped texture. Take a look at what you notice. They look good, don't they? Their faces are lit properly. The underside of their armor is darker. It looks as if the artist actually drew the UV-mapped texture as if there wasn't going to be any real time lighting in the environment. How many polygons make up the nose? Maybe a few. It can't possibly look right unless they draw a fully-shaded nose in there.

You, on the other hand, may be working with models that have a few million polygons where you can have a fully-defined nose so it can be lit properly, but the principles are still the same. Sometimes, in order for something to look right or render quickly, you have to draw some of the lighting on your own.

Much of my time on a model is spent drawing the textures. A texture makes or breaks a model. Sometimes that little artistic touch is what really makes the difference. If you want good practice in cheating, make low resolution models and then paint the texture so that it looks right without any light sources.

Desire and Talent

I've been focusing a lot on artistic knowledge so far. That is because it is so very important. "Wow, I wish I was that good." or "I wish I had your talent." are phrases I read on the message boards all the time when people describe other's work. Let me tell you something right now:

Quite honestly, it bugs me when I hear people say that. Don't belittle yourself. The people you think are more talented just have a little bit more experience. You might say, "Well, they are talented." If I hear you say that you are not talented, I'm going to grab an empty paper towel roll and beat you with it. Natural talent doesn't mean everything. It just means they can pick it up faster. Desire and persistence mean a lot more. If you are not persistent, then everyone else that has worked harder will be more talented in the end.

I am convinced that everyone is talented to some degree in every art because they are human. People understand at a basic level what art is and can appreciate those things that are done well. Do they know exactly why they admire a certain painting? Probably not, but they know it is good, and can later learn the reasons why.

So, instead of bringing your self-perceived low level of ability into a critique, just say "Good job." and give some constructive criticism. Work hard and remember that every one that is making good work started out making crap.

Conclusion

If you have just started using Blender, focus on learning the program first. Get comfortable with the software before you start doing something serious with it. It will save you a lot of time and a lot of grief and will get you to your masterpiece faster.

Blender is a tool. It doesn't replace the skills that you'll need as an artist. Your knowledge of the principles and elements of design and color theory apply directly to 3D art in the same way it applies to everything else.

Always have a good process. Do as much planning as you need to before you go into Blender and start modeling and texturing. And most of all, work hard. To be good you have to be persistent.