How To Become a 3D Modeling Artist in 2022
The journey toward becoming a 3D modeling artist is a trip unlike any other. We’ve all been there. I have vacationed on a lonely mental island, wondering what to do next, more times than I can count. This was until I came across 3D modeling. Back when I was just another player of City Skylines, I realized that I could make things to add to the game. That is where my next professional chapter began.
Through 3D modeling, you are able to let your imagination run wild, and you know what the best part about that is? It’s to be able to trace back your steps and create 3D objects that you are proud of as close to perfection as your skill allows because you’re doing it on a computer. Computer graphics give you an advantage over traditional artists because you can fix your mistakes or start again at the press of a button in a virtual space.
What are 3D modeling artists?
Modeling artists use specialist software to bring to life objects and surfaces through 3D digital representations. Movies, games, and even some of the most popular furniture catalogs like IKEA use 3D models to illustrate, engineer and advertise. From Dreamwork Studios’ 3D animated characters to Avatar, 3D modeling has been part of our lives more than we know. Modeling artists also make 3D emojis—pictorial representations used in day-to-day social media communication. McDonald’s and other fast-food industry giants have also embraced 3D, and the days of hairspray on burgers are gone.
The question is, how do you become a 3D modeling artist? Digital artists do not require a specific background and you will find that many 3D artists are self-taught, university educated, or have transitioned through both routes—like me. I began 3D modeling by building houses and factories or office buildings. I also spent some time focusing on character design before settling as a full-fledged 3D environment artist.
Many skills need to come together to create a good model. Modeling only provides you with the basic shape. We also need to paint and texture, and show off the model. I will be honest. I’ve experienced what others called imposter syndrome. When I look at the sheer level of 3D art, it looks like an impossible task. What made me good enough to work in such a technical industry? Am I an artist? Over time, I came to realize some of the attributes that made me well suited to being a 3D art professional.
Table 1: Ideal Skills & Attributes in 3D Modeling Artists
|Skills & Attributes||Description|
|Artistic||3D modeling artists benefit from a natural knack for being artistic. Drawing by hand before teaching yourself how to draw or sculpt in digital space, can help you pick up 3D modeling quicker on the computer as well.|
|Creative||Being creative helps with finding different pre-existing pieces of art or inspirational pictures or places to act as references for what you will create.|
|Technological aptitude||Digital technology has provided 3D modeling artists with the ideal space to practice in. There is a great variety of free, subscription-based, and other purchasable software that 3D modelers can use. With the right support, your technological aptitude can grow.|
|Attention to detail||An easy way to recognize a good 3D modeling artist is from their attention to detail. If you’re one of those people who notice the wood grain on wooden planks, then you already have a good head start. All in all, being intentional in your observations and doing a lot of real-life location scouting helps.|
|Networking skills||Being able to make connections with others online or in person can help 3D modeling artists increase their reach. Networking is also important from a branding perspective. It’s important to know where, how, and when to promote yourself to grow on your own or as part of an artistic community.|
Paying attention to detail is something that’s central to all of my courses on Udemy. Looking at my newest course, “Blender the Ultimate Medieval Scene Course,” you will find out how to achieve realism through aging your 3D game environments. After all, you rarely see objects completely covered in rust—rust populates the areas where the water drips down. “Blender 3 The Ultimate Medieval Scene Course” focuses on adding little details to enhance a 3D environment. Among other character-boosting assets, you will find out how to make a pitchfork and ladders and where to place them. Learning about correct placement will allow you to make your 3D modeling skills stand out more than before.
The tools of the digital artist
Digital artists, like all of us, appreciate being given some recognition for the efforts they put into their art. Artstation and Behance are excellent spaces to post and showcase your art projects. Lighting is very important for your 3D designs, which is why I produced an entire tutorial that shows you how to set up studio lighting in Blender on YouTube.
These digital spaces allow you to get constructive feedback to help you advance your skills as a 3D modeling artist. Another way I have used Arstation is to follow other 3D modeling artists whose work I admire to get inspiration to get over “hump days”—when my motivation is lacking. Remember, we are artists after all, and we all get our own version of “writer’s block.” Looking at other artists’ work also helps you propel toward your next 3D art project, be it concept art, graphic design, 3D modeling and texturing, character design, or environment art.
One of the best new finds of my 3D modeling artist career has been Pureref. Pureref is free software that has allowed me to take my referencing process to the next level. It allows you to drop and drag images from anywhere, it’s cross-platform, and you can add videos to it as well. You can reference everything, from every bolt and door handle to environmental aesthetics and lighting. Watch my quick free 5-minute tutorial on YouTube to get started: “Blender References Not Working | How To Set Up References Tutorial.”
I used to think that referencing delayed my 3D modeling workflow. I found out the hard way that without referencing, my 3D props and assets tend to be a lot less detailed and high quality. Referencing ideas is the same as utilizing concept art to create something unique and aligned with the story you are trying to tell through your art. Sometimes, it just takes one image or video to change your design completely to become something you never imagined possible.
As a 3D modeling artist, you will swim in a software ocean so deep that you will feel unable to conquer it. There is specialist software for retopologizing like Topogun, or cloth simulation, like Marvelous Designer. For 3D modeling artists who choose to import their models to a game engine and make them functional, you get to choose between the two main contenders; Unity 3D and Unreal Engine. You will find even more choices in 3D modeling, sculpting and painting software with Blender, 3D SMax, Maya, Mudbox, ZBrush, Substance Painter, Substance Designer, Quixel.
Maya by Autodesk has been the industry standard software for 3D modeling and animation for years. Maya is the go-to software for films and video games and was unparalleled by any other until recently. In my Udemy blog, “Blender vs. Maya: The Top 7 Points To Consider,” I put Maya to the test, setting it against one of its 3D modeling software contenders—Blender.
As a 3D modeling artist, your professional workflow is your own, and you must make your own informed choice about what software to use. Still, it is important to choose software that feels instinctual to you, from keyboard shortcuts to menus, where things should make sense. You can choose to stick with a single piece of software that can help you complete almost all aspects of your work, from modeling to texturing, to animating, to post-production, and sometimes sculpting. Your goal as a 3D modeling artist should be to feel comfortable. However, should you want to put your flexibility and ability to adapt to new software to the test, my course “Blender Stylised 3D Game Model Complete Beginners Guide” will show you a AAA asset professional workflow pipeline with the best software for each task.
The background of an (a)typical 3D modeling artist
The backgrounds of 3D modelers vary depending on their specializations. Having a university education is definitely not a must when it comes to this. Going to university benefited me because of the variety of projects I was involved with in a short time. It also helped me put together a game development team with individuals whose skills matched mine in a very short time. University speeds up the process but it is more focused on deadlines. Becoming a self-taught 3D modeling artist tends to take longer. With the right courses, you can actually become quicker. It’s really only about three things: hard work, consistency, and belief.
Social media allows us to communicate without borders, with a little self-motivation, and this is also possible outside university. Having an artistic background to start with is also not always a must for becoming a 3D modeling artist. For example, you might give yourself a significant boost in your designs if you have a scientific background and understand the anatomy of different living beings that you could transform into 3D characters. That does not mean that 3D modeling artists do not study anatomy, because they do.
Independent of one’s educational or professional background, one of the most important skills for 3D modelers is to have the self-determination to do things the right way. By that, I mean that 3D modeling artists need to be able to see how things work to breathe life into what they make and make it believable. In my course “Blender to Unreal Engine 5,” you will find out how to build an intricate medieval windmill and watermill hybrid in 107 lessons. Our 3D modeling focus will be on creating realistic and fully functional subcomponents for our windmill. This will include an intricate set of wooden supports, balconies, stairs, a water wheel, and windmill arms. Knowing how things work is especially important for 3D modeling artists who create assets and props for video games, where, for example, a cannon would need to properly fire.
Of course, realism is not the aim of all 3D modeling work since some 3D art is abstract or stylized, but it helps to have that knowledge. With that, I am confident in saying that 3D modeling artists need to have some of the most diverse knowledge out there to create admirable 3D props. To be an artist, one does not just study art. It is all about opening yourself up to seeing and understanding how things work.
I learned one of my most important lessons about becoming a 3D modeling artist when I was at university. I understood that working in a game or film studio is not the only place I could work. I founded 3D Tudor during my third year at university, and I have never looked back. The possibility of working as a freelance 3D modeling artist is often overlooked. Freelance has become the norm for most other types of art, but 3D art has lagged behind. The fables of needing to find work at a studio to be a 3D modeling artist are a thing of the past. This is one of the best things about 3D modeling because you can work on so many different things. For example, concept artists have traditionally been 2D artists, but that has quickly started to change. What’s more, with the popular rise of indie movies and games, it has never been a better time to be an environment artist, character artist, or animator.
3D modeling artists as jacks-of-all-trades
One of the most widespread fallacies about 3D modeling artists is that they can only do 3D modeling. In fact, the very concept of 3D modeling is also misunderstood. Many 3D modeling artists phase their modeling pipeline, starting with referencing and sometimes storyboarding as well. This varies according to personal preference, but you could see 3D modeling artists pre-sketching their designs on paper or using a digital tablet, and sometimes in 2D as well as 3D. You might also see 3D modeling artists photobashing using software like Adobe Photoshop. Concept art is sometimes seen as existing in isolation or outside 3D modeling because it is made by different professionals in a studio environment. Even though this is more common in 3D modeling artists working in video game or film studios, graphic design is an art domain 3D modeling artists do not shy away from.
At the other end of the creation process, you might see 3D modeling artists whose work does not end when they have a completed render of their 3D model. Many 3D modeling artists also animate their models—assets or characters. I would recommend that all 3D modeling artists learn the basics of animation (e.g., a windmill turning) even if they choose not to pursue that aspect of 3D modeling often. Another way to continue working with a 3D character or video game prop would be to 3D print it. Printing 3D models have become part of our day-to-day lives so fast that it escaped our attention. With the cost of 3D printing becoming a lot more affordable, making 3D models for that purpose adds another entire element to the professional prospects of 3D modeling artists, game designers, and environment artists alike.
A different way to understand 3D modeling artists is to see what they do as specialized skills. You will come across 3D artists who specialize in making a certain type of prop (e.g., military equipment) or who focus on one genre (e.g., sci-fi art). For me, I learned about how to achieve realism and medieval era aesthetics, to begin with. Over time, I branched out to sci-fi which was succeeded by my favorite art style: stylized art.
There’s so much diversity that if you find your niche and see that you are one of the best at doing something like making materials, you could become a 3D modeling artist specializing in creating just that. In a few words, you do not have to be able to do everything perfectly to be a 3D modeling artist. With this role, you have an immense amount of freedom which will allow you to spread out or focus on what you are best at.
Table 2: 3D Modeling Artists | Project Diversity
|Finding what you are good at||Different Ways of Utilizing it|
|Creating base meshes||Sets of base meshes for different groups of props, assets, or characters|
|Cloth SimulationsCottonLeatherDenim (aka jeans)||Ships sail packsClothing packs from different historical erasFabric sets that can be utilized for different purposes in Unreal Engine 5 (UE5)|
|Creating Foliage||Tree set packsBush set packsFlower set packsGrass set packs|
|Hair Simulations||Sets of different wigs/hairstyles that can be directly applied to modelsAnimal fur sets|
|Textures & Materials||Sets of textures and/or materials that diversify the mood and aesthetics of a sceneSets of tileable texturesSets of smart materialsSets of procedural materials, which can be altered with a few clicks.|
Table 2 shows you the great variety of projects you could use to take your 3D modeling artist career to the next level. Even though this is a limited list of examples, I hope this helps you feel confident that you can be a 3D modeling artist without being an expert at everything.
A day in the life of a professional 3D modeling artist
My typical day starts with a coffee. I check all my emails, and social media, including Artstation and marketplaces I publish my content on. After making a second cup of coffee, I set off to go to my office which is a 15-minute commute. I keep a flexible work schedule to work around the needs of my family and the times I work best. As a night owl, I stay up late and my typical workday starts at 11:00 AM.
Once I get to work, the first thing I do in the morning is open the office blinds. I find that natural sunlight helps boost my mood and accelerate my motivation. As an avid video game enthusiast, I like to listen to game music while I work. I tend to play a small list of selected ambience music from World of Warcraft, Witcher 3, and Oblivion on repeat to get into my creative zone. The first thing I do at my desk is respond to student questions and help requests, be it on Udemy or by email. This allows me to maximize the time I am available just in case the student replies while I am still at the office. What I do next depends on what my goal is that day.
During course development and crunch periods just before releasing a course, I will chunk what I need to do. For example, I will record lessons in succession from one another, and switch to responding to student inquiries and comments before going back to recording. Speaking to my students is one of the most important parts of my work because I enjoy doing what I do and helping others solve problems. In between work tasks, I might log onto Artstation and draw inspiration for future projects from other creatives. When I get a new idea about a course, I log it onto my course development board on Trello. Creating 3D content for a new 3D modeling course or entire environment is the most exciting part of my work as a 3D modeling artist.
I can lose myself on Pinterest for hours, looking for the perfect combination of ideas that will finalize a 3D character or environment concept to work on. When something exciting happens in my working day, such as when I first got my office keys or when I am close to releasing a new course, I will treat my Patreon followers to an early access post. Before leaving the office, I send myself the files I need to work from home. I leave my office around 17:00 to eat dinner with my family. In the evening, after taking a break, I will continue working on outstanding tasks before brainstorming tomorrow’s to-do list.
A 3D modeling artist’s journey varies from person to person. There is no set way of turning this dream into reality. The imagination of Chris Metzen—one of the creative minds behind World of Warcraft lore—is what gave birth to the utmost respect I feel for video game artists. I also got inspiration from other creatives such as Darrin Lile who molded my artistic dream into actionable steps. To get your own inspiration, check out the article Blender vs. Maya: The Top 7 Points to Consider. Also, Oblivion and Skyrim are video games I continuously turn back to no matter how much time has passed since I walked those virtual worlds. As a 3D modeling artist, I am doing what I love every day and I am getting paid for it. For that, I could not be more grateful and I hope to make my children proud.
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