Introduction to 3D

A comprehensive tutorial about getting started with 3D.


Introduction To 3D

A Comprehensive Tutorial About Getting Started With 3D

If you're a beginner in 3D, you're perhaps just starting to realize how huge of a world you're stepping into. Here's an Introduction to 3D. It's an immense field you can spend a lifetime learning, and as such, it's very intimidating. This is the exact reason we wrote this tutorial; we remember how incredibly lost you can feel when you’re new to 3D and perhaps art in general. We’re going to try to help you to get an overview of what 3D actually is and how you can get started with it, such as core concepts, basic terminology and a brief description of all the major 3D applications out there.

The internet is amazing for learning about 3D and all the information you’ll ever need is out there, but the problem is that it’s scattered all over the web. This was one of our main motivations for making this extensive tutorial - to collect the information in one place and to help beginners in the field.

Before we get into the more technical side of 3D, here are some images of CG art made by us to give you a good grasp of what kind of art people can create as personal projects. We are artists, so we appreciate software that allows us to be creative without having to go into a lot of technical detail, but this doesn't have to be the case. There is a big technical part behind 3D as well, and if you're more of a logical person who likes to delve a bit deeper to create something unique, most software allows you to do this very easily. It's good to go through the concepts below to get a good foundation to work from.


Overall workflow

While 3D can definitely be technical at times, once you know the core concepts, it’s fairly straight forward and you can start to create art from your imagination without being constrained by technical limitations. In this section, we’re going to explain the overall process when working with 3D, using more real world terms you are all familiar with. The numbered sections show the order of processes during a project. The earlier you are in the project, the more back and forth you can go between processes. For instance you can concept using modelling and vice versa. Once your concept idea is cemented however, you usually need to stick fairly rigidly to this process, to save yourself a lot of time and stress.

1. Concepting

This is usually the first step in any project. Here you start with really just figuring out what you want to make. There isn't really one way to do this, as the mindset of whatever works is king at this stage. It doesn't matter whether you use a photo or a drawing here. The point is to get an idea of what your want your final image to look like.

Here are some examples of concept sketches from various projects. As you can see, they vary a lot of style and how they are made. In the creative industry, a concept artist is also a profession which can be a full-time job in a lot of cases.


2. Modeling

We can compare 3D modeling to being a sculptor, but a digital one. In 3D, the basic building blocks are polygons, rather than stone, wood, or clay. 3D models you see in games and movies are made out of polygons.
All 3D applications can do polygon modeling to some extent, where some are better than others. Polygonal modeling is very precise, you create the 'clay' as you go along, kind of like lego bricks that you invent out of thin air.

We all know a cube is made up of 6 faces, and so it is made up of 6 polygons. Polygons is just a fancy term for what you learnt was called a face in school. When one is connected to other polygons, you can make a shape in 3D. You can also imagine them as sheets of paper you cut out and stick together in different ways to form a shape.

The fancy name for the corners or junctions of the polygon are called vertices (singular = vertex), and the corners are connected by edges to form the lines that bound the polygon. Together they are the simplest building blocks you need to know of to get started in 3D.

Below are three examples of this, a cube in 3D where you can see we have marked off one of the faces as a Polygon. Another is showing four Vertices selected and the last one is showing an Edge.

Face select Vertices Edge

You can start with polygonal modelling, which will help you really understand all 3D, or you can play around with sculpting, which is more specific to certain types of software and more like what a traditional sculptor does. In sculpting you start off with just a pile of 3D 'clay', that is basically a load of messy polygons which you move around to sculpt the characters and environments. This is very creative and flexible and good for things like people and trees, but not so much for objects like cars that are very precise.

So to sum up, you can split modeling into two categories: Polygonal modeling and sculpting. Both require different pieces of software and different skill-sets.


Sculpting is more organic and artistic friendly and for this we recommend checking out ZBrush or Sculptris (you can read more about these below in the Software-section). It’s a very natural process and it’s very similar to working with real clay. The ZBrush video below is a good example of sculpting. Here you’re modeling something which is alive, like a human, a tree or an animal.


Polygonal modeling

Polygonal modeling is different from sculpting in the way that it’s more technical and requires far more precision. What you prefer is completely based on your own personal preference. This kind of modeling is used for more mechanical or man-made objects, such as cars, spaceships, books and so on. If you were to model for instance your own appartment, most objects would probably be modelled using polygonal modeling.

polygonal modeling

Texturing & Shading

Texturing and shading is the phase where you’re defining the colors and materials on your model. While texturing and shading work very much together, we have to split them up in order to explain the two parts in an easy and understandable manner.

3. Texturing

Texturing can be compared to painting your model with real paint. You have a bucket of paint and a brush which you use to color the model. Of course, once we get into actually painting the textures, it will become more complicated than that, but for a simple explanation, it works fairly well. As opposed to modeling, texturing is a very specialized task and only a select few applications can actually do it, and even fewer are great at it.


Texturing is an extremely important part of the project. If the model is bad, you can sometimes hide it with good texturing, but a good model can never hide bad texturing.

4. Shading

Shading is where you tell the 3D application what material something is made of. For instance, if you’re making a soda bottle in 3D, you need to make the overall bottle transparent plastic and the cap into opaque plastic. You wouldn't need much texturing, if any at all, for this part. Then you need to make the label. You use shaders to tell the application that the label is made of thin opaque plastic, and paint a texture to put on the label, which shows the logo and anything else, like text, you want to include. Now your label will have the right paint on it, and it will be really reflective, shimmering in the light like a real plastic label. Shading can be more technical than texturing, as all you’re doing here is adjusting numbers in a shader. The key to mastering shading is to know how light operates in real life and how to control things like reflection, transparency and so on.

Shading examples

Four important concepts we’re going to explore in regards to shading: Refraction, reflection, diffusion and scattering.

Shading concepts

Refraction is the way that light behaves when it goes through a translucent or transparent object, like water or glass.

Shading refraction

Reflection is about how much light bounces back off an object when it hits it. An object can be fully reflective like a mirror, or only very slightly, like the black drapes used in theatres. A lot of people just think of 'glossy' reflections when they hear the word reflection. Glossy reflections are ones like reflections off water, or ceramic mugs, metal spoons etc. We are taught as children that reflective objects are ones that you can see your own face in. But objects can still reflect a lot of light without being glossy - you experience this when your eyes hurt after looking at paper or snow on a bright day. In reality, almost all materials that you will encounter in life are at least a little bit reflective, so remember this when you are building shaders, or none of them will look right.


Diffusion dictates how light scatters on top of a surface, and has to do with how rough the object is, An object that is fully diffuse scatters light particles in every angle when they hit the surface. Examples of objects which are diffuse can be bed sheets, walls or paper. An object with very little diffusion is one that reflects light particles mainly at one angle when they hit an object. Something like a mirror, that is very smooth, has almost no diffusion.


Sub surface scattering
Sub surface scattering which is often abbreviated SSS, is the concept of light going into an object and scattering around inside, rather than on the surface like diffusion. The best way to see this is to look at your hand in front of a light bulb. Sub surface scattering is the red light that seems to be on the insides of your fingers - it's light bouncing around off your blood and muscles.


Rigging & Animation

5. Rigging

In order to make a character move, you have to build a skeleton inside the model. This process is called rigging. It’s the step between modeling and animation and it’s essential in order to get any animation. Rigging is by far one of the more technical parts of a CG project. One of the reasons it's so technical is not because of building the bones, but instead defining how they move using maths and logic. For instance - how do you build a shoulder joint, versus how do you build a knee joint? Once the skeleton is built, you need to attach it to the skin of the model, as can be seen by 'smooth bind' below. This is the very artistic part of rigging, as it can be very enjoyable to define how the skin moves around the bones - like looking at how beautifully muscles move on a running animal or an athletic person. A lot of technically geared people tend to be attracted to it because it merges technology and art in a nice way. It can be overwhelming in the beginning, but once you get a hang of it, it’s a very rewarding process. The first time you see your model move, it’s like Christmas.

Placing bones

6. Animation

This is the stage where you get to move your model around. It's a very specialized part of a project. Once you dive deeper into it, there are a lot of things you need to be aware of, such as: acting, staging, timing etc. You're basically bringing the model to life. Before that, it's just a pretty statue.


 Animation by Anne Moth - website

More about rigging

Rigging is essentially split into two parts

Firstly you place the skeleton inside the model. This determines how your character can move. The skeleton will be different if you're making a human compared to a four legged animal. Other things require rigging as well. Take a light switch for example which can only be turned on and off, but as it's still moving, it requires rigging.

Secondly, you define the skinning. This is where you make sure that all parts are deforming nicely when you start to animate and move the character around. You are literally wrapping skin around bones, therefore the name skinning.


Scripting is basically using a little bit (or a lot) of programming in your 3D applications. Applications use different languages. Usually you script either to automate tasks that you do all the time, for creating things like rigs that are very prone to human error, or to create custom setups for things like shaders. If you know how to do it, scripting can be very powerful and save you a lot of time and effort. It is a discipline in itself though, and takes a time to learn. If you're interested, we would recommend checking it out after you have become proficient in the other areas of 3D.

Simulation & Effects

As this is an Introduction to 3D we have to talk about simulation and effects. The reasons we do this is to mimic reality as closely as possible. In some cases you save time by not having to animate everything, and other times simulation is essential to get the result you want, like making fire.

8. Cloth

Cloth simulation is used a lot in film and animation these days to provide realistic clothing. This means that clothing will react in a physically correct manner, based on forces such as gravity, wind, etc. All the major 3D applications are capable of doing cloth simulation.

9. Rigid Bodies

Rigid bodies is where you simulate something like buildings being destroyed. At it's core, it's basic physics at work and how the forces react to each other. It's generally being used for objects shattering or falling. Something simple as dominos falling over each other is a good example of rigid bodies. All the major 3D applications are capable of rigid body simulation.

10. Hair & Fur

Hair simulation is also used a lot in film and animation to achieve realistic looking hair. This again is done so that the hair will behave in a realistic manner based on forces of physics. All major 3D packages can do hair, but there are also specialized software and plugins such as Yeti, Hair Farm and Ornatrix.


11. Smoke, Fire, Water and Particles

Smoke, fire and water are collectively known as fluids in 3D terms. You see fluid simulations used all the time in films such as Life of Pi, where there are vast amounts of fluid simulations done on the ocean. We also do this to get effects such as realistic looking smoke, dust, etc. Some 3D packages can do this kind of work, but it's mostly done by specialized software or plugins such as Houdini, RealFlow, AfterBurn and Fume FX.



12. Crowd

In order to have huge crowds in films, you oftentimes need to simulate it using crowd simulation. This is used a lot these days, as you can use it to generate armies of soldiers which would be impossible to do othewise. Crowd simulation is mostly done by specialized applications and few of the major 3D applications can do it out of the box.

 13. Muscles

The film industry uses muscle simulation a lot these days to simulate muscles. This is used a lot to mimic the effect of muscles expanding and contracting based on the movement of a person or creature. It's good to simulate skin sliding on top of muscles, something which is traditionally tricky in rigging. Some of the major 3D applications can do this, such as Maya.


Lighting & Rendering

14. Lighting

The lighting stage is where you really set the tone and mood of your project. The process is very similar to the way you’d light something in real life: You get the required lamps based on your needs (brightness, colour, shadow sharpness etc.) and you then place them accordingly to get the feeling you want across. Here you can see a model being lit in different lighting settings. Hopefully it illustrates the importance of lighting and how it can drastically change the look and feel of an image.

Lighting example 01 Lighting example 02 Lighting example 03 Lighting example 04

15. Rendering

Rendering is the stage where everything is combined into a final image where the computer “draws” it for you. Rendering is essentially a press of a button, but you need a lot of technical knowledge to figure out how to render faster and better. It involves a lot of work with sliders and numbers.

Rendering example

Different types of lights

Spot lights
These lights are very similar to spot lights you have in real life, such as stage lights you find in theatres


Area lights
Area lights are like soft boxes which photographers use a lot. They are great for lighting characters as they will appear very soft and comfortable. They can also give you some very nice reflections.

Area light

Point (omni) lights
Point (also known as omni lights in some applications) are as the name implies points in space which sends out light. They are great if you want to mimic something like a candle or a light bulb.


Directional lights
Directional lights send out parallel beams of light, much like the sun light is perceived on earth. If somebody is lit from the sun, this is the light you want.

Directional light

Different render engines

A render engine is the program which “draws” the image for you and there are various engines out there which handles the task differently. Sometimes they are a part of the software in which you work, other times they come as a standalone program.

Mental Ray
Mental ray is a render engine owned by Nvidia which is integrated into 3ds Max, Maya and Softimage. It’s a powerful render engine which is used by a lot of people, but it’s losing popularity these days though, as render engines like Vray are becoming easier and faster to use. Mental ray can be hard to use for beginners, as it’s very technical and over-complicated in quite a few areas. It ships free with the two biggest 3D applications today: 3ds Max and Maya and it's very customizable. A lot of more advanced shader artists use Mental ray, because it is great for building custom shader setups, where you can really get deep down into how the shaders are programmed from the ground up. If you like it, we would not recommend getting into Mental ray until later, if you are interested in delving deeper into shaders.

V-ray is a great render engine made by Chaos Group. It’s used a lot in various industries, from feature films, advertisement to short films, from hobbyists to huge productions. It’s fast, user-friendly and produces great results in a short amount of time, which is why it’s our preferred render engine. It is hard to get deeper into the mechanics of shading using Vray as it doesn't have a lot of scripting support.

Render Man
RenderMan is a render engine made by PIXAR and it’s focused around big productions. It can handle huge data-sets and is widely used in the industry by professionals, but not much by hobbyists and small studios. It is very much for the advanced shader artist, as it allows you to get deeper into scripting shaders but with greater development support than Mental ray.


3D Software

When you’re new to 3D, you might be overwhelmed by the number of 3D applications. In this section, we’re going to try to shed some light on the various players in the industry and what the various applications are doing.

All the applications on this list can do mostly the same and their feature sets are mostly overlapping. They handle different tasks slightly differently and they all have their strengths and weaknesses, but at the end of the day, you can get pretty much the same result out of any one of these applications.

Main applications

Software here is something we consider feature rich and with multi purpose functionality. These are by no means the only ones, but some we picked out as a personal preference.


Maya is the industry standard when it comes to film and VFX. It can be intimidating for beginners as it can be pretty technical, but it’s also extremely powerful, widely used and production proven, with a large online community and a lot of support.

Official Site
Price: $ 3 675
Student price: Free for 3 years
Platform: Windows, OS X, Linux

Maya icon

3ds Max

3ds Max is used in games and architectural visualization as this is where it has traditionally been the strongest. It’s also used in advertisement and movies and it’s very production proven. It has a very strong history of active plugin development, for better or worse. It has a similar amount of online support and community as Maya.

Official Site
Price: $ 3 675
Student price: Free for 3 years
Platform: Windows

3ds Max icon

Cinema 4D

Cinema 4D has a rich feature set, like the other softwares on this list, but it’s more geared towards motion graphics than feature films. For motion graphics, you simply can’t go wrong with Cinema 4D.

Official Site
Price: Approximately $ 3 700
Student price: Free for 18 months
Platform: Windows, OS X

Cinema 4D icon


Softimage is pretty much like the other 3d applications, what makes it stand out is ICE. This is used a lot in VFX. However, as of early 2014, development has stopped.

Official Site
Price: Approximately $4 450.00
Student price: Free for 3 years
Platform: Windows, Linux

Softimage icon


Modo is a great piece of software, which is by far the youngest of the one on this list and is therefore not as feature rich or production proven as for instance Maya. That said, as it’s younger, it also feels more modern. It also has very robust modeling and rendering tools.

Official Site
Price: $1 495.00
Platform: Windows, OS X, Linux

Modo icon


Blender is a great feature rich free alternative, but also the least likely to give you a studio-job, as it’s simply not being used by a lot of places as their main application. It’s open source and it has a great community surrounding it, helping Blender develop.

Official Site
Price: Free
Platform: Windows, OS X, Linux

Blender icon

Specialized software

Software in this section has been built with very specific tasks in mind. They mainly focus on one part of the pipeline, but they do that very well.


ZBrush is objectively the most feature rich sculpting application on the market, but it can be difficult to learn, as they don’t stick to regular software conventions. It’s used in a lot of fields, from games, movies, advertisement and by hobbyists. If you’re starting with 3D, it’s one of the most creative experiences you can have, and we find ZBrush to be very enjoyable.

Official Site
Price: $ 795
Platforms: Windows, OS X

Zbrush icon


Sculptris is a great way to get into sculpting. It’s owned by the same company that makes ZBrush; Pixologic. It’s completely free and it’s very easy to learn.

Official Site
Price: Free
Platforms: Windows, OS X

Sculptris icon


Mudbox is a sculpting and texturing application which is a direct competitor to ZBrush. It’s easier to learn, as it's developed by Autodesk and therefore uses the same conventions as Maya. It is also a lot easier than ZBrush in terms of going to and from Maya. It also has more powerful texturing tools, but for pure sculpting it’s beat by ZBrush by a mile.

Official Site
Price: Approximately $1 100.00
Student price: Free for 3 years
Platforms: Windows, OS X, Linux

Mudbox icon


Mari was made for the feature film industry and is by far the most sophisticated texturing application out there. It requires really good hardware to run and it’s time consuming to learn, but it’s also extremely powerful. If you’re serious about texturing, it’s definitely worth checking out.

Official Site
Price: $1 995.00
Platforms: Windows, OS X, Linux

Mari icon

With all this said, 3D is so much about personal preference. Download the trial versions and see which ones are best for you. It’s important to note that the popularity of the various pieces of software doesn’t necessarily represent their their quality. Blender is used far less in the industry professionally than Maya, but it doesn’t mean that Blender is inferior. 3ds Max and Maya are the two biggest applications out there by far, but this is mostly because a lot of studios use them and changing their pipeline is both very expensive and time consuming.

For learning principles you should check out Blender, Modo and Sculptris, as they can be easy to learn. If you want to dive in deeper check out Maya, 3ds Max, ZBrush and Mari.


We highly recommend that you get a Wacom tablet. For one, it’s nicer for your arm and hand as the movement is more natural than using a mouse. In the long run, this can have pretty good health benefits. Certain tasks in 3D are almost impossible without a tablet, like texture painting, concept drawing and sculpting. Doing these tasks with a mouse is ridiculously hard, and the results aren’t going to be very good in comparison.

If you’re a beginner, you probably don’t need the most expensive model. We recommend an Intuos as they’re quite affordable; about $ 100. If you’ve more advanced and feel more committed to digital art, getting an Intuos Pro is a good investment. They start at $ 250, and come in various sizes.


This section will focus on some of the terms you might come across or have come across working with 3d, and explain briefly what they mean. We try to keep the explanations as short and precise as possible, though some concepts take a little extra time to explain.


A script is usually a short piece of code to do some specific tasks in 3D. The complexity of the script can vary a lot, from changing names to objects to making automated rigs.

A plugin is an add-on to a program which provides additional functionality. For instance, if you’re using 3ds Max and you need to make fire, you can easily get a plugin which does exactly that. Plugins are great, as they’re often expanding upon what the software is already doing.

Computer Graphic

Computer-generated imagery


A showreel is a video which you put your best work into. It’s usually between 1-3 minutes long, depending on which field you’re specializing in. If you’re applying for a job, you need a showreel, as it’s the main way candidates are being judged by their employers.


A primitive is simply a basic 3 dimensional object which the software can generate mathematically, like a sphere, cube, cylinder and so on.


UV map
A UV map basically a unwrapped and flat version of your 3D model, much like an animal pelt stretched out in real life. In order to paint a texture map, your model needs a UV map, as this is where you tell the computer how a 3D shape can be transferred to 2D.

UV map
Here’s a tutorial we’ve made on the subject.

Wireframe is a way of showing you how the polygons are constructing the model.


SubD (Subdivisions)
Subdivision is the process of smoothing your model. You usually always turn your models into subdivisions.


A polygon is the core building block in 3D. It consists of minimum 3 points.


A vertex is a point in 3D space.


A triangle or tri is a polygon consisting of 3 vertices.


Refers to the flow of edges on a 3D model.


Edge loop
An edge loop is a loop of edges which are connected.


Retopology is the step where you are remodeling a model which has been sculpted in order to optimize it for animation.


A quad is just another term for a polygon with four edges/vertices. You generally want your models to consist of mostly quads.


An ngon is a polygon with more than 4 vertices. You generally want your models to not have any ngons in them, as applications like ZBrush and Mudbox really dislike them.


A mesh is just another term for 3D model.


Global Illumination
Global illumination is a way to get more realistic lighting, by letting the light bounce around in the scene.

Global illumination

Ambient Occlusion
Ambient occlusion simply means that areas which are closer together will be darker. It has tons of uses, from shader tricks to faking global illumination.

Ambient occlusion

Render passes
You can split your rendered images into various so called passes. For example, you can separate it into a light pass, shadow pass or split it into characters and environment passes. This way you have far more control if you want to color correct the various elements.

Render passes

A lot of things in 3D use sample sliders, like lights, shaders and render settings. To simplify it, samples refer to the quality of whatever the samples is linked to. Something like lights usually have a sample slider for the shadow quality. A low number will give you very grainy shadows, while a high number will give you nice and smooth shadows.

A type of image that contains multiple levels of light information. They are used heavily in VFX because they come from real photos and can therefore create very realistic looking light.



Displacement map
A displacement map is a map use to get high resolution details on low resolution mesh.


Normal map
Normal mapping is similar to a displacement map, except that it doesnt actually change the geometry; the silhouette remains unaffected. It responds to lighting and it’s relatively cheap render time wise.


A bump map is a map you can use to bring out more details in a model, but it doesn’t respond to lighting like a displacement and normal map. We usually use displacement maps to get the big shapes, like muscles, big wrinkles and so on, and a bump map to bring out the final details like pores.


Map comparison



There are many more aspects to cover when it comes to 3d, but we hope this will help you on your way to becoming a great artist. Check out our Tutorial section for a more detailed explanation of the various subjects.

If you have any questions, found anything particularly confusing or just have something to add, please feel free to Contact us. We hope you enjoyed our Introduction to 3D.

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