Starting out as a 3D artist – 3D modeling software

Introduction

Welcome to the first part in a series of posts helping you get started as a 3D artist. The series includes delving into software, hardware, resources, and tutorials – everything that will get you going in the right direction as you embark upon this super exciting journey. I entered the world of 3D visualization as a fresh faced 19-year-old, absolutely clueless in so many ways. I was grateful for others helping me on that journey. Hopefully this series will be like the many tour guides that I had in the early days.

Modeling software

In this part we’re going to dive into software as it relates to modeling – choosing to do a separate post for rendering software. You might think it would make sense to start with hardware considering you can’t run any software without hardware but in reality, the type of hardware you will need will be so dependent upon the software you want to run. Our first step will therefore be to hone in on what software you want to use and more importantly what you want to achieve with that software.

We’ll take a look at six different options – each of which has unique selling points and price points.

Blender

Let’s start with the most well-known piece of free modeling software. If you’re starting out and just dipping your toes in then you’ll be unlikely to want to spend huge amounts of cash committing to a piece of software, especially if you don’t know whether it’ll be for you. If that’s the case Blender will be right up your street.

Blender is free and always has been free. It entered the market, so to speak, in 1994 as an open-source 3D creation tool. In the past 27 years it has gone from strength to strength gaining an impressive following of fans. And before you think it’s going to be lightweight because it’s free let me tell you that it provides an extensive set of tools that cover the whole creative pipeline including but not limited to modeling, animation, rendering, and compositing.

The open source nature of Blender also means that its functionality can be extended and a large community of developers have done exactly that. With the various extensions available there’s really not much you can’t achieve in Blender.

If you’re starting out you may also be planning to try and make some money from being a 3D artist. Even though Blender is totally free and open-source it has no restrictions on being used for commercial projects. It can also be run on both Windows and Mac systems unlike 3ds Max which we’ll take a look at next. Rendering tools are also built in.

blender model render 3d creation sculpting digital art

A free all-rounder that does it all
(Image credit supplied by Blender)

3ds Max

Autodesk’s 3ds Max is one of the most widely used pieces of 3D software. It was this tool that I first used when I was learning the ropes all those years ago. A lot has changed in it over the past couple of decades and it continues to be one of the most favored tools out there for 3D artists.

Before going any further in the description of this one it’s important to note that 3ds Max is only available on the Windows platform. Sorry Mac users. It’s been this way ever since 1996 and it doesn’t show any signs of being any different.

3ds Max is another piece of software that covers the whole pipeline for creating still images and animations. I have always found 3ds Max to be relatively straight forward and intuitive so picking it up as a beginner, assuming you have the right tutorials, shouldn’t be too difficult.

One thing that puts a lot of people off 3ds Max though is the high price point as well as the fact that it’s gone down the route, like many others, of only offering a subscription pricing structure. You can opt for a monthly, annual, or 3-year subscription with the price scaling down accordingly. If you want to give 3ds Max a go then grab its free trial and put it through its paces to see if it’s for you.

3ds max character design modeling platform model

An industry leading whole pipeline offering that has the price tag to match
(Image credit supplied by 3ds Max)

Rhino

Now introducing Rhino. Rhino is perfect if you are keen on modeling using NURBS. NURBS, in essence, allows you to accurately model curved surfaces like a pro. Examples of these include the body of cars, aircraft, or other vehicles. If these are the types of objects you’re wanting to create then there’s not much reason to look any further. But please go into it with your eyes open – Rhino has a notoriously steep learning curve and modeling using NURBS is not for the faint hearted.

Rhino is available with both Windows and Mac systems. Rendering can be achieved through Rhino but there are better options out there either as a plugin or by exporting your model for use with another renderer.

rhino 3d modeling curved surfaces modeling cars body

Use NURBS to create beautiful free form surfaces
(Image credit supplied by Rhino 3D)

Maya

Another one of Autodesk’s offering in the 3D market is Maya. This is distinct from the likes of Blender, 3ds Max, and Rhino in that it delivers tools that are perfect for animation, modeling, and simulation. You can also render top quality images and videos from right inside Maya.

Maya is utilized widely but has high take up for serious animators and artists working on big animation projects – including feature length films and TV shows. This is reflected in the pricing subscription structure which follows the same lines as 3ds Max.

In my circles most people learned to use this piece of software at university before finding a job in the animation industry. I don’t know a huge number of beginners who have picked this up as their first 3D tool, aside from in an education setting, but if you’re committed to character creation, animation, and a whole host of cool effects then this is well worth a trial.

autodesk maya rendering 3d model sculpting character design

Great for character creation and animation
(Image credit supplied by Maya)

ZBrush

ZBrush continues our exploration into the world of 3D software. We’ve seen the likes of Blender and 3ds Max taking the middle ground and more standard approach as well as casting our eye over Rhino and Maya which do things a little differently for specific outputs. ZBrush would fall into the latter. It’s not a standard piece of modeling software but instead using a brush ‘art-based’ set of tools for creating models.

One of the beautiful and elegant things about ZBrush is how natural the creation process is. That’s why it has broad uptake for concept artists and those working to create characters for films and animations.

If you would like a tool that is built on brushes but you don’t like the price tag of ZBrush then Sculptris is well worth a look.

zbrush pixology character design rendering sculpting modeling

Ideal for a natural and arts-based modelling workflow.
(Image credit supplied by ZBrush)

Sketchup

I think it would be a shame to finish this brief roundup without mentioning SketchUp. This is another piece of software that over the years has held a special place in my heart. It is a more traditional 3D modeler which has found favor with architects who want to design their buildings without too much focus upon the rendering side of things. During the Google ownership years this product was free but having changed hands you’ll now pay a small fee for the privilege of using it.

sketchup building software 3d mockups rendering modeler

Perfect for architects and designers.
(Image credit supplied by Sketchup)

Conclusion

We’ve by no means covered the full gamut of software available for those starting out in the world of 3D artistry. At this stage the key is to identify what area you want to focus in on and then download the trial version of the software which is devoted to that specialty. If you’d prefer to keep your options broader then go for a bit more of an all-rounder like Blender or 3ds Max. Next time we’ll dive into rendering software that will take your models to a whole new level.

Need more help? Take a look at what our 3dtotal Publishing library has to offer:

Read part two of this article tutorial: Starting out as a 3D artist – rendering software
Read part three of this article tutorial: Starting out as a 3D artist – hardware
Read part four of this article tutorial: Starting out as a 3D artist – tutorials
Read part five of this article tutorial: Starting out as a 3D artist – resources
Read part six of this article tutorial: Starting out as a 3D artist – 10 killer tips to drive you to success

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