New to Computer Graphics? Start here

The following article is an excerpt from the introduction of my eBook The Beginner’s Guide to Blender. You can get it for free here.

Ready to make the jump into 3D? Here’s what you’ll need to know.

Blender is only one of many 3D graphics applications. But before we can take a look at Blender and its alternatives, let’s talk about 3D computer graphics in general.

What is it?

3D software is used to create a virtual representation of anything. Even things that don’t exist. Essentially, you take something from your imagination and make the idea more real than has ever been possible in the history of the world. Sound awesome? It totally is! Imaginary environments, sexy concept cars, absurdly realistic portraits, goofy character designs, epic posters, and emotional animations are just a few examples of what’s possible to make with 3D software. Not easy, but definitely possible.

I am confident you have seen or experienced a plethora of 3D graphics. What you may not know, however, is just how widely they are used. It is always best to have a goal in mind when starting to learn a new skill, so I have outlined below a few industries in which 3D content is heavily utilized today. See any that interest you?

  • Video Games
    • Most modern games, from iPhone to Xbox, rely completely on 3D characters interacting with 3D environments.
  • Film and Television
  • Marketing
    • Because 3D images and animations can look lifelike and flawless at the same time, those looking for advertising are rapidly turning to 3D artists to create advertisements. This not only includes television commercials, but print advertising as well.
  • Architecture
    • Architects often employ 3D artists to create representations of what they want their building to look like when completed. This can help in pitching a project to investors (for a skyscraper, bridge, library, etc…) or in selling a home before it is built.
  • Medicine
    • Anatomically correct 3D models help medical practitioners create surgical plans and simulate organs. Scanned data, such as MRI voxel data, allows doctors to take 3 dimensional snapshots of a patient’s brain or organs.
  • Science
    • One large 3D industry is scientific visualization, which helps scientists simulate and study everything from black holes to microbes.
  • Education
    • Besides just creating engaging images for textbooks, interactive 3D models can help students better understand topics relating to anatomy and physiology, geology, engineering, archeology, architecture, or chemistry.
  • Everything Else
    • With the rise of consumer 3D printing, the possibilities really are endless. You can create your own board game pieces, replace a broken dishwasher part, build a gun from scratch (not recommended!), or even create custom 18k gold jewelry. Heck, scientists are even on their way to 3D printing human organs.

Clearly, there really is no better time to learn a 3D program. Especially since you can start right now! But which software is for you? In this book we will be learning Blender (hence the title), but I want to list some other helpful software here as well in case you might want to use them alongside Blender. Each package has its own strengths and weaknesses, so you might find that one suits you better than another. Software is just a tool to get you to your destination, so choose whichever one will help you achieve your goals the easiest.

  • Autodesk 3DS Max and Maya ($3,675 each)
    • Industry proven tools for modeling, animation, simulation, and rendering. Although both packages can do either, 3DS Max is used primarily in the game industry and Maya is used mainly for film and animation. You can download both programs for free for student use only.
  • Zbrush ($795)
    • All about digital sculpting. It is designed to be used with a tablet, and is very artist friendly. Another sculpting alternative is 3D Coat ($379).
  • Unity (Free basic, Pro $75/Month)
    • A game engine that works well alongside Blender. Unity shines when it comes to mobile, 2D, or simple 3D games. When it comes to making next-gen games for consoles or PC however, I would recommend Unreal (5% commission).
  • Sketchup (Free basic, Pro $590)
    • When it comes to building from blueprints, Google’s Sketchup is your friend. Great for building houses and mechanical parts.
  • Autodesk Inventor ($7,295)
    • If your interest in 3D is to invent machines or build working robot prototypes, Inventor is where you should be looking. Free for students.
  • Open Inventor ($?)
    • The go-to software for those in the fields of medicine and biology. There is no apparent price or way to purchase, so it is likely not open to the public at this time.
  • Nuke ($2,500 – $5,600)
    • Nuke is a fantastic compositing tool, and is widely used in film production. Similar to After Effects, but more powerful and extremely flexible.
  • Photoshop ($19.99/Month)
    • A very helpful companion for Blender. Photoshop can be used to paint textures, create matte backgrounds, and color correct rendered images.

So what is Blender?

Blender is an all-in-one 3D software that can be used to model, sculpt, texture, animate, camera track, render, and composite awesome looking graphics from start to finish. The best part? It’s free for everyone!

Free often means low quality, but thankfully that’s not the case with Blender. It was written in 1995 by Ton Roosendaal as an in-house software for a Dutch animation studio called NeoGeo. It was originally sold to other studios as well, but in early 2002 Blender needed to be shelved due to economic decline. To keep his project alive, Roosendaal convinced investors to convert Blender to a GNU General Public License by raising €100,000 in only seven weeks. Blender has been free ever since, and is continually being developed thanks to generous donations from the community.

I started using Blender in 2011 because, like most people, I like free things. I stuck with it over time thanks to its awesome community. I have consumed so much free learning material, benefited from helpful in-depth critiques on forums, and been motivated by the many contests. Thanks to Blender and its community I’ve been able to make some awesome artwork and make new friends along the way.

So what are you waiting for? Go get it!