3D software can be intimidating to beginners. This article describes how I gradually overcame my fear of using 3D software and lists some 3D tools here: Solutions for making 3D art easier.
My experience so far
I’ve been learning Blender and 3D Coat since late 2018. I found that the learning curve was steep and for several years prior to actually learning it I was too intimidated to even try. I would open the software, take one look and then close it again. I eventually convinced myself that it would be worth learning it and bought some beginner tutorials off of the Udemy website.
Both programs felt friendlier after I learned how to navigate in 3D space and use the user interface. I love using Blender and 3D Coat now.
To help me learn and retain knowledge I made a personalised codex of notes for remembering hotkey functions and how to do certain processes.
Once I learned the basic workflow for creating 3D objects through practice and repetition things felt a lot easier to do and it even became fun to do.
I tried other courses such as CG Cookie and watched videos on YouTube as well. I believe it was worth the time and effort to learn Blender and 3D Coat and I’m still learning.
I’ve written an article about the workflow for creating 3D models here.
Having fun while learning 3D
When learning a new skill I like to approach it with an open mind and have fun with it more than anything else. I didn’t want the pressure of thinking I had to make money with it.
Doing something completely different from what I usually do (drawing and digital painting) gives me more creative ideas and energy.
It is a hobby and creative outlet for me at this stage (I really love 3D). It helped me understand more about the 3D form, materials, perspective, lighting and shadows which I have applied to my digital painting knowledge. Learning 3D has made me look at the world differently and opened up new ideas.
Getting into 3D
Before I decided to learn professional 3D software such as Blender and 3D Coat I had dipped my toe in the water with software that was easier to use such as Archipelis Designer, Smoothie 3D and Magica Voxel. I even tried one that was designed for casual interior decorators called Room Arranger.
Room Arranger was fun and easy to use but a little too basic for what I wanted to do. I learned about making floor plans in Room Arranger though which was useful. I really liked the ability to place 3D objects with the floor plan.
A step up from Room Arranger would be something like Home Designer by Chief Architect. Maybe if I was making a comic with lots of interior scenes in a modern setting that would be an interesting and perhaps better way of doing it than using Blender. I haven’t got anything like that in mind though, I’m more interested in fantasy and more organic scenes.
I found Archipelis Designer and Smoothie 3D easy and fun to use. I could use my Illustration as a guide for drawing out the model in separate parts. This approach gave me fast results with minimum of effort. I didn’t have to learn retopology or UV mapping, it did that bit for me before I had even learned what that was.
Edit Feb 2021: Archipelis Designer may not work very well anymore though, it hasn’t been updated for ages and last time I used it the image import didn’t seem to work so I guess a Windows update broke it. Smoothie 3D is developed by the same person who made it and it more up to date. For something similar but more advanced and versatile than Smoothie 3D there is Curvy 3D Go.
Some 3D models I made using Smoothie 3D using my Illustrations
I also tried Windows 10 free tool Paint 3D early on but it was far too limited unfortunately, although I like the focus on ease of use. I did make this silly horse in it.
What my goals were for learning 3D
My early intentions were to use 3D more as a drafting tool to create quick 3D references from my Illustrations for aiding my drawing and painting rather than create fully rendered 3D art scenes. I was also interested in the potential to create reference for Illustrated backgrounds and help with setting up perspective. I got the idea for using 3D as a tool for Illustration after reading an article on the subject by David Revoy.
I’ve written a detailed article here if you want more insight.
Later I experimented with using artistic filters on my 3D renders which was fun. The use of Non Photorealistic Rendering is something I have an interest in but haven’t really explored in detail yet.
2D to 3D
More recently I’ve been trying a different approach by making my 2D drawings into 3D meshes using height maps rather than modelling or sculpting them. This technique has limitations but it is really interesting. I’ve written about it a few times now.
SVG vector graphics to 3D meshes is also something that interests me and is easy to achieve using Blender.
However I’ve been doing less work with vector art due to a time consuming digital painting project. I’ll get to it again one day because I would like to make 3D text for a 3D logo idea I have for this blog. Something else you can do with 2D images and 3D is 3D scanning or Photogrammetry.
My journey and current aims
I got more passionate about using 3D software the more I learned about it and I’m still fascinated by it. I didn’t even know if it was something I would like at first, I just had enough curiosity and willingness to try.
What I am aiming to do is make characters in 3D. I’ve currently made more animal/character 3D models using the easier software than I’ve made using Blender, although I’ve found that combining Archipelis Designer and Blender is a nice solution to overcome certain limitations in the software. For this squirrel mascot I made I used Archipelis Designer to create the basic forms from side view textures of the character. I then comined the mesh parts in Blender and used texture painting and rigging techniques.
I love the concept of sketching in 3D which is why I wrote this article last year if you want more detailed information about that.
Sculpting in 3D is something that feels more intuitive than 3D Modelling techniques coming from a 2D art background, because it is like drawing in 3D. I think it is challenging but it is something I’m trying to learn more about. If you would like information about sculpting software please read this article.
I’ve been learning traditional modelling in Blender which tends to favour the creation of props rather than character models. Here are a few of my early models I’ve made while learning things:
To make smooth volumetric characters using Blender is a harder thing to do for beginners in my opinion. Usually starting with lowpoly art is suggested, which I agree with because I think it gets you going with less of a difficulty curve. However it is a little frustrating if you don’t want the lowpoly look, although I understand learning is a process.
Blender is a wonderful tool you can do pretty much anything in if you know how and it keeps improving. The sculpting tools in Blender are looking really improved from only 2 years ago since I started. I keep meaning to try them out more.
I’ve used 3D Coat more recently to create more organic looking models and I like texture painting because I can use my digital painting skills in 3D.
I still find 3D Coat’s voxel approach more useful and forgiving in the early block-out stages than Blender, although once you get into the later stages it becomes more technical and time consuming.
There are dedicated tools designed to prototype and pose 3D character models such as Poser and Character Creator. Blender has add-ons for it such as MB Lab. Rigging and animation is on the more complicated side of things, but websites such as Mixamo make that accessible to more people as well.
Update 2021: I have ZBrush now and I love it for sculpting, I have found it fairly easy to learn the basics after watching tutorials and it is really great. ZRemesher saves a lot of time. Still love 3D Coat for doing UVs, baking and painting. I use Blender mainly for basic modelling and rendering.
Solutions for making 3D art easier
I will now list some 3D software that was designed to be easy and fun to use, mainly for real beginners to 3D and children. A way to dip your toe in the water and get a taste for whether you want to invest more time into the medium.
If you do decide 3D art is something you want to do there is no point putting off learning the more established software’s such as Blender and ZBrush because it will take time to learn and it is best to get started as soon as you can, but here are some entry level and fun tools to try out.
My opinion is that if there is an easier way to do something by all means use it, but I’m also of the opinion that learning more dedicated software such as Blender / ZBrush is never a bad thing and gives you more options in the long run.
If I discover more in the future I will add to this article so be sure to check back from time to time.
Some of the tools I’m going to mention were aimed toward children and complete beginners to 3D, some are intended to be one stage in a larger pipeline process, and some of them are games rather than creative tools but I think they have the potential to be useful to concept artists, comic book artists and Illustrators.
If nothing else they offer a way to try out 3D Art for someone with no prior experience which I believe can help build confidence to learn more complicated software eventually.
This list is in no particular order
Archipelis Designer (not actively developed anymore and may be broken with current Windows version)
This desktop program works on the concept that you draw an outline using a background image and it creates a volumetric mesh for you. It is made by the same developer who made Smoothie 3D.
This works much the same way as Archipelis Designer except that it is a free web based app (donations help the developer keep it running). I learned that it is developed by the same person who did Archipelis Designer and it has some features Archipelis doesn’t.
Smoothie 3D is also available as an app for the iPad
This is primarily a curve based modelling tool (hence the name). It works by sketching curves and shapes to make 3D forms very like Archipelis and Smoothie 3D but with more advanced features. I tried the demo out recently and thought it had some great tools and was easy to use, comes with a good help document and lots of tutorials for the basic functions. It hasn’t got traditional mesh editing tools but models can be exported as obj. files and refined in other programs if needed.
Edit: December 2020
I did decide to purchase Curvy 4 and it is very useful for making quick base meshes. It also has an inflate height map feature which is useful for making quick meshes from images.
There is also a lite version available on Steam called Curvy3DGo which is aimed toward beginners in 3D. I’m using it more than the full version of Curvy 3D at the moment, but I did also buy ZBrush last year which I love as well.
If you just need a basic polygon based 3D modelling tool this one is free and Open Source.
Asset Forge is a game development tool I found on Itch.io for creating 3D models and sprites using building blocks. If you need quick space ships, cars and buildings it could be useful.
The same person (Kenny) who developed Asset Forge has created another tool for creating 3D meshes from 2D pixel art. I’m keeping my eye on this one, it looks very cool.
Dust 3D is an open source free tool for making 3D models using reference photos. It uses a very original approach and does complicated things like UV mapping, retopology and rigging for you.
Although more limited in comparison to things like Archipelis Designer and Smoothie 3D this one comes free with Windows 10 and is designed to be easy to use.
Making 3D art with MagicaVoxel is like doing 3D pixel art. It is very intuitive and fun to use.
From the maker of MagicaVoxel this new software is a signed distance field editor and path tracing renderer. Non-destructive boolean approach to making 3D forms and looks good for beginners to 3D.
Crocotile uses 2D tile based images to create lowpoly models and scenes with pixel art textures. You don’t need conventional 3D modelling skills to use it.
Blockbench is an all in one 3D Editor and Animator for Minecraft and other games and applications. It is free and open source software.
Very similar to Crocotile 3D but in the form of a free Blender add-on. It has recently been updated to work in Blender 2.8 as well.
FlowScape is marketed as a 3D art game, but this has great potential to be used as a creative tool for making fantasy landscapes for painting reference or backgrounds. It has some great features being worked on for a future version in this video
Clayxels is hard to explain what it is, but obvious if you watch some videos about it.
Here is the developers description of it:
Clayxels is an interactive volumetric toolkit to sculpt models in editor and in game. It doesn’t rely on per-pixel ray-marching, it uses voxels to generate a lightweight point-cloud that can be used in a whole bunch of different ways. Works both in editor and in game, everything made with Clayxels can be changed interactively at any time.
From my perspective it looks like how you would create vector art but in 3D with voxels which squish together to make whole forms and can be independently coloured like putting bits of plasticine together.
Currently it is available as a paid add on for Unity. I was told by the developer that he would eventually make a stand alone version, which if so I would be cool. As it is I may have to learn a bit of Unity to try it out.
TownScaper only just came out and is primarily aimed toward the casual gaming market. It is a creative game/toy which lets you build cute stylised town scenes. Keeping my eye on this one and future things from the creator of it.
Dreams is a popular creative 3D game for the Playstation 4. It’s intuitive fun system is inspiring. Fingers crossed they port it to PC one day. There are rumors of this, but it probably won’t be any time soon.
ZBrush Core Mini is a free stripped down basic version of ZBrushes sculpting tool. It can only be used for non-commercial use but it is easy to understand and play in. Honestly if you are only curious and getting started with digital sculpting this one is worth trying.
This is a 3D sculpting app available for the iPad and other mobile devices. It is very accessible for beginners due to price and looks really well designed.