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3D Modeling is not easy. You’ve probably heard of a lot of rules or best practices, and if you’ve stuck around long enough you’ve also heard lots of exceptions to those rules. It’s easy to get caught up in the nuances of tools or topology, especially when starting out, and miss the metaphorical forest for the trees. Thankfully, there are a few universal concepts that apply to any project that, when focused on, will instantly improve your results.
The first thing that you want to think about when modeling is the overall shape of what it is that you want to create. This might seem obvious, but it’s the most important yet also the most tricky part to get right. Maybe it’s the ears on a character or a piece of a sports car - there are just some shapes that are hard to put together. The thing to keep in mind when dealing with those is that complex shapes are always just combinations of simple shapes.
Pretty much any form can be made up of simple adjustments to cubes, spheres, and the other primitives. You don’t always have to block out your model first, but doing so may help you get unstuck. Even if the primitive blockout is unusable in final production, it’ll help you understand the underlying structure of what you’re making.
Next, identify the most defining features and outline those first. That will allow you to easily tweak the form to get it just right, before you have too much geometry and it becomes difficult to manage.
Use a reference to check your angles, proportions, and curvature as you go. Be sure not to rely too much on modeling sheets, because what can happen is that we can focus too much on front, side, and top views, and not notice issues that are only visible at other angles. If you find that your features are too angular or that things just don’t look right when you pop out of orthographic view, it’s time to turn off the modeling sheets or move them to the side and work while rotating around in perspective.
If you start with very little detail and only move on when that simple shape looks as good as it can get from all angles, you’ll avoid SO many pitfalls later on. Whether you’re sculpting or poly modeling, not being impatient with the process will help your models to turn out clean, crisp, and well defined. If your models are always coming out a little lumpy, it’s likely that you’re adding too much geometry too quickly.
So you’ve got the overall form down and now you’re ready to really push your object to the next level. When it comes to detail in 3D modeling, it’s important to know exactly how much and what kind to make. Whether you’re modeling for a mobile phone game, desktop game engine, or for a short film that will take hours to render makes a huge difference in what you can model.
Even if you do have an unlimited rendering budget though, it’s important to understand levels of detail. 3D artist Neil Blevens has a legendary blog post where he talks about primary, secondary, and tertiary shapes. You want a good mix between areas of big detail, areas of medium detail, and areas of small detail.
Work in passes. Make all of the big things first, then all of the medium things, then the small things. Don’t jump right from big to small or spend too much time focusing on any one area at a time. Once you’ve hit your polygon limit, if you have one, use textures to add the smaller details that you’re not able to model.
Try to model to real world scale whenever possible. The size of your model makes a lot of subtle differences, from how the lights in your scene behave to how simulations will interact. Most importantly though, it forces you to be consistent. Exporting to other programs, adding procedural textures, adding bevels, or appending objects from another project will all just work like you would expect.
The second thing about the principle of scale is proportion. This is the #1 mistake I see 3d artists make, including myself. Things being the wrong size in relation to other things. Whether that’s a door that no human could fit through or a chair that has armrests all the way up to someone's chest, incorrect proportions are everywhere in CG. What’s a bit more subtle though is the thickness of objects and amount of bevel. Say you model a table that’s exactly to real world dimensions, but the legs are a little too thick and have a bit too much chamfering going on. Even though the table is technically the right size, it’s going to look too small and just feel off.