Rich Suchy kindly allowed me to publish a short article about the art and the craft of 3D modeling. Rich Suchy is a professional Digital Artist working as 3D Prop, Creature and Character Modeler and TD, Creature and Character Designer, Texture Artist and TD, Rigger; with works as: Speed Racer, Beowulf, Narnia: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Open Season in his credit list.
For those asking, “How do I become a 3D modeler?” and “Can you make a tutorial for me?”
Some time back, I think it was in 1999, I made a tutorial using Lightwave, It showed one method for modeling a human woman. It may still exist somewhere but since that time I have altered the way I work significantly. In 2003 I rethought how one should teach. There are so many specific tutorials out there that fail to teach how to think about the process. I wrote a windy description that spelled out the hows and whys of Subdivision modeling. It was busy work between projects at Sony Imageworks and I tried to not get caught up in the politics over which methods were best, and included something for everyone, new or old to modeling.
Now, I think back to how simple it all really was for me. I knew nothing of “3D topology”, just a very basic understanding of a few modeling tools, and traditional knowledge about form and contour from years of illustration work, and study of the human form. So what I am about to say is likely to be less popular with those that want a quick solution to model making, but it will enable those that embrace what I say to model anything with skill and subtlety.
Topology is really a simplification of form. If one follows the natural contours of what they are modeling considering at once the form, and having enough geometry to hold the form as it deforms such as in a joint or in a facial expression, topology will be correct. It can always be refined with experience, especially if you rig your own models. So, “how does one know how much is needed?” The answer is to observe how it looks at the resolution you will be viewing it, and to test it with temporary bones. Do test renders for feedback, if it will be subdivided at render time. Avoid crossing geometry or acute angled edges on organic models mostly due to difficulty in rigging, lighting and stretching of textures. If you run into any problems, use critical thinking and do what seems a likely fix.
There are many ways to approach a 3D model and as long as the results are good, that is what matters. A tutorial can help you use the 3D program to get geometry down, and show you some tricks to getting the geometry down quicker, but there is no substitution for the knowledge of form an artist acquires from learning their art. It took my two weeks to transition from being an illustrator of comic books to being hired to work on the characters of a TV show. Those two weeks were spent learning the software and modeling my first human character. Steven Stahlberg suggested that I put that first model on-line. I guess I owe him my career change. I was hired to model and texture characters for “Roughnecks: The Starship Trooper Chronicles” two days later.
So one first needs to have a powerful understanding of the underlying form and structure of what one wants to model. This can be achieved with an application of copious amounts of reference, time and measurement, or with a knowledge born of years of artistic study and a practiced eye, or a combination of the two. Artistic sensitivity produces better models than reference alone. Flat reference is difficulty to work with due to distortions from the camera, and a lack of all the angles (usually) however, artistic knowledge of volumes can fill in the gaps left behind from photo-reference. If you can get sculptural reference, reproductions, you can accelerate your learning quite a bit.
I see many people trying to develop their models with poor artistic skill. They often ask for tutorials believing that all they need to do is copy. Practice will help but not as much as they hope. There is a tradition called constructivism, that can train the artist to understand form. Many books exist illustrating this school of thought to teach drawing. Notably Books by Andrew Loomis, Burne Hogarth and George Bridgeman do a wonderful job. Using the methods in these books to breakdown the process, while studying living examples, in person or in reproduced form will do much to help you achieve your goal of becoming a modeler.