Later 2D, It’s Been Fun: Embarking on a 3D Modelling Journey with Blender

Earlier this year I got that deep-down, no-good feeling that I needed to learn something new. That inner voice who provides gentle but persistent reminders that there’s no bigger shame than an unused mind. Seeing as I watched all six seasons of Game of Thrones this past winter, I figured “What the heck?,” put the TV remote away and embarked on a new educational journey. I’ve got no shortage of things that I’d like to learn: javascript, augmented reality UI design, Google BigQuery, auto repair, building a stock portfolio, Spanish… well, you get the point. Although I’ll be soaking up knowledge from a number of new endeavours, I decided on 3D modelling and rendering as the next big thing.

So why did I choose to learn 3D? The answer is simple. I believe there is a massive change looming in the not-too-distant future that will deeply embrace augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technology.  This technology has the potential to impact everyones personal, social and working lifestyle. My goal is to competently design user interfaces for these technologies as they emerge further into the mainstream. My educational curriculum is broken down into these 10 steps, although they may change as I continue to progress:

  1. Basic comfort working in a 3D environment. - DONE
  2. Model simple objects. - DONE
  3. Export basic grayscale renderings. - DONE
  4. Model complex 3D objects with simple shapes: cubes, cylinders, etc. - IN PROGRESS
  5. Export full-color renderings with a plethora of materials and atmospheres.
  6. Model and export complex 3D animations using organic shapes.
  7. Knowledge of 3D object physics, motion capture and interactivity.
  8. Basic knowledge of VR interactions with 3D objects.
  9. Design UI in an augmented environment.
  10. Pair with a developer and build a simple AR or VR application.

My general preference is to self-teach and work at my own pace, but I may enrol in some courses later on if it seems worthwhile. Although I’ll likely switch over to Autodesk applications in the near term, I started with Blender. Blender is a free, open source 3D-modelling and rendering application that is surprisingly feature-rich and user friendly. Here are a few online Blender tutorials I found helpful to get started:

Continue watching episodes 2, 3, 4, 5 if you found the first one helpful.

My first project was a customized version of the house built using these tutorials. It uses simple planes, emitters and materials. I actually spent a lot of time in Blender just playing around and seeing what various features did to the basic scene. I did perform a full render of the house, and it was at this time that I found more than ever that there was as much to know about rendering as there is about modelling. 

The second project was a solid step forward. I’m not sure if I would have been able to make this big of a jump if I didn’t have 15 years of digital design experience, and would recommend that others take smaller steps. Nevertheless, I want to move fast and challenge myself pretty hard. So, after looking at dozens of house plans I settled on these:

Download full house plans here.

I’m a pretty minimal guy, but if a multi-million dollar dream home happened to land in my lap one day I hope it looks a lot like this place. Once I had the plans, the work was pretty straightforward. Get the general foundation and structure in place and keep layering on the detail until I just don’t want to see it anymore:

I did start adding color, advanced material nodes and textures pretty early on. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t. I broke the structure of my own curriculum trying to learn faster and it ended up taking a lot of time away from more efficiently learning materials and rendering techniques later on. I did however learn two very important things.  Big shout out to Blender Guru who has created tons of no-nonsense tutorials and unearthed some very important techniques:

Super Important Technique 01: RGB Sucks 

For the photography lovers out there, you know how much an additional few stops of light means to your overall dynamic range and exposure flexibility. This Blender color profile adds some serious rendering improvements when aiming for subtle contrasts and maximum range on your high and low contrast.

Super Important Technique 02: HDRI Lighting Rocks

Light your scene with an entire atmosphere of bouncing light.  Wave goodbye to using a default sun lamp or large emitter.

In the end, I reverted my materials back to grayscale and restored a basic diffuse material node. I very likely will return to this project and finish adding materials to produce a full-color rendering with all the right textures. However, I’d rather break that step up into a number of micro-projects that will allow me to cruise through material after material to define the perfect setup. This project took about 36 hours to complete, but a lot of that time was used figuring out material node recipes that were never used in the final renderings.

If you know any great tutorials or have any tips, please share in the comments below!