Because I’m developing more complex and imaginative scenes, I’ve replaced my photographs with 3d renders. No longer can I rely on the visual information of the real world. Everything must be built and designed on the computer using artistic skills and art programs.

That means there’s a long workflow of going from a vague perception of what I want to draw or paint to actually seeing something to draw or paint from. The same technique is used to produce commercials, video games, and blockbuster movies. Luckily, the developers of Blender, a free and open source art program, have given artists like me access to tools previously reserved for giant production companies.

I can build complex objects, pose them in 3d space, animate them, and take pictures of them. The process is easy to understand, but difficult to master. It can even force you to recall lessons from high school algebra class! These are some of the necessary phases.

Box Modeling

Screen-Shot-2014-10-02-at-1.29.01-PMBox modeling, the process of pushing and pulling edges, starts with basic primitive shapes. This is the construction phase – how an object is built from the ground up like a kid playing with blocks. Moving back and forth between adding and subtracting geometric shapes, I move further along until I can squint my eyes and see the object starting to look like something real. This part contains no real life materials, just a matte neutral color. Grab, extrude, scale, and rotate are the words in my head as I form the 3d model. Sometimes I’m able to use a reference image in the background, but most of the time it’s eyeballing everything for accuracy.

Sculpting the Details

Screen-Shot-2014-10-02-at-1.29.23-PMEvery piece of art I make starts big and gets whittled down to the details. A couple of boxes can turn into a complex building with some time and refinement. Either by breaking up larger pieces into smaller ones or going in with a brush to carve out the details, the piece can be sculpted like clay. This is the time I bevel sharp edges, add ornate details, and form the object to its final shape. This part takes the most time and effort because I have to worry about correct scale, design, and complexity.

UV Unwrapping & Texturing

Screen-Shot-2014-10-02-at-1.33.34-PMThink of UV wrapping in the same way you would wrap a present. To put a flat image around a 3d object you have to cut seams and fold the image in a way that best fits. The image textures that you use are the wrapping paper. You use whatever images makes sense for the object – fabric, grass, metal, etc. This is the basis for getting a realistic material. However, that’s only the start. Obvously, just because you wrap wood themed paper around a box, doesn’t mean it’ll look like a real wooden box. This is mostly a preparatory step, one that most 3d artists dread because it’s time consuming, confusing, and not very rewarding.

Material Nodes

Screen-Shot-2014-10-02-at-1.35.18-PMThis has become my favorite part. To make the material of an object, you have to take special nodes and plug them together in specific ways to get the effect you want. This is a very analytical process. You can adjust things like how shiny something is, whether it gives off light or not, or how transparent it might be. It’s fun to experiment, but it’s even more rewarding to achieve a realistic material. This can become very confusing, though, and end up looking like the work of a bad electrician.

Adding the Lights

Screen-Shot-2014-10-02-at-1.37.52-PMWhether it’s a spot lamp or a sun, you can create any type of light source. Most of the time, a sun lamp is all that is needed, but to make a scene dynamic, you usually need some other support. With the sun, you just have to add it to the scene and point it in the right direction. You can turn any object into a light source with the option to change the color, intensity, falloff, and shape. Just like in real life, your lighting can bring an entire scene to a new level if handled correctly.

Setting Up the Camera

Screen-Shot-2014-10-02-at-1.46.51-PMThis part isn’t very hard to grasp. Like pointing a real camera, you just find the subject you are trying to capture and use the right settings. You need to find the best position, usually around eye level, and then adjust things like depth of field, f-stop, lens type, and field of view. Real life effects can be imitated. You can even set up the camera to look like a Steven Spielberg wide angle shot! In the end, though, it’s still all about composition and a good eye.


fire_test23Computers have come a long way and can now perform complex simulations and animations. Liquids, cloth, smoke, fire, and hair can all be faked using algorithms. These are constantly improving thanks to extremely bright developers. This is a huge time saver along with the humbling fact that the results are usually better than what an artist can achieve. Because realism is my main goal, the simulations I run can give me opportunities to play around a little more and set up pretty interesting scenes, all from the comfort of my chair.

Render the Final Image

Screen-Shot-2014-10-02-at-1.47.11-PMMy entire project revolves around the need to replace live photoshoots with digital scenes. After all the work of building, arranging, and lighting the scene, the last step is hitting “render.” It’s an exciting moment and sometimes one that takes quite a long time. This becomes a bridge to the more familiar part of the process, the traditional artwork. From here, I can continue to alter the image in Photoshop or jump right into a drawing or painting without the need for more sketches. I can also render images to stand on their own artistic merit or give alternate viewpoints to a scene.