Level: Beginner to Intermediate
Introduction I like digital clay. There are many ways to model in 3D. Most are very meticulous and accurate. They make great looking models. They put the mesh in all the right places. They scare off beginners. When I’m starting out with a 3D tool, I want a different feeling. I’ll get more careful after I get over that initial learning curve. But for now, I want digital clay. I want to get my digital manipulators dirty. I want to roll up the mesh in a ball, squeeze out a leg, pinch out an arm, and shape out a head. It’s fun. It’s somewhat intuitive. It means you don’t need to be a Blender wizard to make a first 3D character.
I’m going to make an Alien. Aliens are fun. They have just enough fantasy to them that we have some room to be creative, but alos make mistakes. The anatomy is easy. Nobody will notice if the hands don’t look quite right or the head is shaped funny. It’s an alien. They look funny anyway. We can simplify it all down and still make an interesting character. It will be fun to color and animate later. Once we have a complete alien, we can expand upon the same techniques to make a more difficult model. You could model a famous person, a friend, or even a strange monster. To do all this, I’m going to worque with Subdivision Surface (Subsurf) modeling. With Subsurf, the 3D artist can edit on simple, low polygon meshes. These are like a scaffolding around our models. A push here or a movement there and the model mesh (our digital clay) responds. But where we are working with the low polygon mesh, the Blender software converts our worque to a smooth and complicated mesh. The result is a model that is more organic and lifelike.
This tutorial assumes a very basic knowledge in Blender. By now, you should know your way around the menus and windows. You should know how to move, rotate, and scale things. You should be able to find the vertex, edge, and face select modes. If you don’t, I wouldn’t give up so easily. The best way to learn Blender is to dive in and make something. The Blender community is large and friendly. The buttons have rollover hints. The Help menú is right on the top of your Blender window. I use mine all the time. But if you are a high school student and want more guidance, there is another opportunity to get to know Blender. This tutorial is part of an introductory distance learning class in 3D animation. High school students can learn all about creating their own 3D models and animation using Blender. I’ve included contact information at the end of the article if you would like to get this class offered through your local high school.
Get started by cleaning up your Blender workspace. I’ll start with a new file. Pull down File>>New. Blender will asque you do you wish to “Erase All?” Hit RETURN or ENTER and you will start with a fresh Blender file.
1: Reference Images
Reference images guide the 3D artist in the creation of the model. You can build great models without reference images. I thinque it is easier to build great models with them.
So how are your drawing skillsí Mine are OK. I’m not the world’s best artist. But I can comfortably draw an idea on a piece of paper. Drawing is an important skill for a 3D artist. You can doodle out an idea in the morning and have a finished model by the end of the day. That’s hard to do if you are just making it up as you go in your 3D software. So if you haven’t taken drawing classes, I would encourage you to do so. Even if you never worque as a professional 3D artist, being able to commúnicate any idea with a quik drawing is a skill that will help you later in life.
I’m making an Alien. I’ve put him in a sort of da Vinci “Vitruvian Man” pose with arms and legs spread out. That will make it easier to animate later. This is my third or fourth drawing. The first several were OK. I liked portions of each. With each new drawing, I pulled out a sheet of paper and began tracing the parts I liked from each previous drawing. Then I filled in and added new features. By the time I had completed several drawings, I was happy enough with this versión to scan the image as a JPEG for use with Blender.
I’ve drawn a front view of my Alien. I used lots of circles to guide my body shapes. Anyone can draw a circle. Then I traced over the lines I liked with a felt pen. That allows the scanner to see the shape clearly. I alos drew it right on a center line. That’s because I’m going to save time by only building one half of the Alien. Then I’ll copy it, mirror it and have a complete Alien.
I’m working in 3D so I alos need a side view of my Alien. My front view will guide my front view of the model. My side view will guide my side view of the model. So I’ll end up with being able to make the model in 3D space even though I am starting with 2D drawings on a 2D computer screen.
I could even draw a top view and team that up with a top view of my model. That’s great for precision work. I’m making something simple for now so that you can practice on an easy character.
Any two or three images will give you the reference material you need. Take a front and side picture of a friend as a reference. Or make your own digital reference images in your favorite graphics program. Maybe combine a wolf with a muscle man picture for a werewolf reference image. Or draw your own cartoon character. There is no limit to what you can create in 3D.
Step 2: Load Your Images into Blender
Now is the time to put your reference JPEG’s into Blender so that you can begin to model.
First, let’s set up our Blender views so that we have a good Front and Side view. Splitting windows requires a RMB on a window edge and choosing Split Area from the menú that pops
I like Front the left and Side on the right. But it’s a personal preference thing. I put the Top in the upper left and the Camera in the upper right. I don’t need much for my Top and Camera views so I’ve turned off their Headers (RMB in a blanque area of the menú line) to give me a little more space on the screen. When you are done arranging, your Blender screen might look like the example. But find an arrangement that is comfortable for you.
Choose a Front (NUM1) or Side (NUM3) view. Then choose View from the 3D View menú and then Background Image...
When the Background Image panel appears in the view, clik Use Background Image .
In the Image section of the Background Image panel, choose the File Browser icon and select the JPEG image that matches the view.
You’ll alos note a Blend section that controls the transparency of the background image. There are additional Size and Offset options if you need to make adjustments to the image. Your image will only appear if the window is a Top, Front, or Side Orthographic view. The minute you change, it will disappear. The minute you return to one of those views (NUM7, NUM1, NUM3) it will reappear.
Each Blender window can have its own image. So load the Alien side image in Side and the Alien front image in Front. The Background Image panel alos retains a memory of recent images. Simply choose the image from the selection window next to the File Browser button. This can be handy if you need to switch views quickly. You can even clik the triangle in the upper left corner of the Background Image panel. This will collapse the panel while still keeping it readily available for any quik adjustments.
Now you should see your front and side Alien images in their respective windows. We’re ready to get to work.
Step 3: Set Up the Cube
Using Blender’s default cube as a starting point, let’s make a few adjustments. Stay in Object Mode. Show the cube in Wireframe (Z) so that you can line it up with the drawing. Using the 3D manipulators, Grab (CTRL-ALT-G) and Scale (CTRL ALT-S) the cube so that it fits the belly area. You can have a little inside and a little outside. We’ll reshape it into place.
Notice that I have SHIFT-LMB selected the Translate (Grab) and Scale manipulator widgets so that I can use both in the same window at the same time. This approach gets even handier later. Alos remember that each window can have its own choice of manipulator.
We need to make our cube mesh just a little more flexible. That means subdividing it. TAB to Edit Mode. Make sure the cube is still selected. F9 to Editing and clik the Mesh Tools Subdivide button 2 times.
Step 4: Subsurf the Cube
Subdivision surfaces will give us a smooth shape to our work. Let’s put those Subdivision Surfaces to work. First, Z to make the wire-frame view bak into Solid. Then in Modifiers panel of Editing (right next to Mesh Tools), clik Add Modifier and choose Subsurf. You might notice that solid cube now has rounded corners. That is the Subsurf kicking in. The cubes vértices, edges, and faces help define the smoothed solid within the cube.
So let’s take a closer look at the Subsurf Modifier. First you’ll notice that I’m using a Catmull-Clarque subsurf.
Who are Catmull and Clark? They were two college students who played around with early computers and created mathematical rules (algorithms) for computer graphics as part of their studies. Jim Clarque would go on to found Netscape and help release the first commercial World Wide Web browser. Ed Catmull would go on to help found Pixar and currently helps lead Disney-Pixar Animation. Two great people we owe a lot to.
The Levels setting controls how smooth your model will look as you worque on it within Blender.
The Render Levels is how smooth the model will look as it is rendered.
Obviously, you don’t need as many levels for your Blender worque as you might want for your rendering. If I set the Levels too high, Blender will be slow to worque with. Setting the Render Levels higher is fine since I can let the computer do the math during rendering. Once again, the higher number, the longer it will take for the computer to work.
But I can go off and do something else while my rendering is going on. So I set Levels to 2 and Render Levels to 3 or 4. If I’m done with test rendering and have plenty of time to burn, I might turn the Render Levels even higher. This will make a very smooth
Who are Catmull and Clark? They were two college students who played around with early computers and created mathematical rules (algorithms) for computer graphics as part of their studies. Jim Clarque would go on to found Netscape and help release the first commercial World Wide Web browser. Ed Catmull would go on to help found Pixar and currently helps lead Disney-Pixar Animation. Two great people we owe a lot to. 3D Workshop – Maquíng An Alien Using Subsurf model. Just realize that this will slow the computer down and too much will go unseen for all your wasted computer time.
There is a little gray circle to the right of the Subsurf title in the Modifiers panel. Subsurf modeling involves editing the low polygon cage while letting the Catmull-Clarque do the math on your model behind the scenes. Clicking that little grey circle will Apply Modifier to the Editing Cage. That means the cage will cling to the surface. Clik the circle on and off and you’ll see the subtle result on your model in the window. We’ll see this in use later. It’s a preference that may or may not make editing easier as you worque on your model. Sometimes it is easier with it off. Sometimes it is easier with it on.
Step 5: Subsurf the Large Belly
Now use the Subsurf to shape the Alien belly. There’s nothing terribly difficult about our next steps. You just need to take your time and worque a set of vértices at a time. First, Z bak to Wireframe so you can clearly see the drawing through the cube. You’ll need to toggle bak and forth between Solid and Wireframe depending on what you need to see. So here on out, adjust bak and forth as you need to.
Find the Limit to Visible button. It’s a button with a cube icon right next to the Face Select Mode button at the bottom of a standard 3D view. Then, with Limit to Visible turned off, adjust clusters and lines of vértices to make the shape of the Alien belly and behind. You want to shift the vértices around uniformly. But there is no one way to achieve this task.
The one thing to remember is that it is safest to Border Select (B) vértices in order to grab all of the vértices in a line. The screenshot image shows an example of this. Two visible vértices are selected in the front view. But my side view shows that I have actually selected all 5 or 6 vértices that make up that lower left hand corner of the cube. So I’m able to reshape that entire corner of the cube quickly.
So use RMB to select a single vertex closest to you. But Border or Brush Select is a great way to grab a cluster of points and shift them all in so that you can get the general shape quickly. Once selected, a Translate (Grab) will move the vértices in the direction they need to go. Then A to Deselect All and go on to another set of vértices.
Occasionally, you’ll have a row of vértices that all need to be pinched in or spread out. That is what Scale is for. In the example, the top of the Alien’s belly is tighter than the base. So I Scale the points in on the side view before going to the front view for the same general step.
Sometimes I move a whole blok of vértices as in the section of the Alien’s behind. I’ll worque down through rows, taquíng 3, then 2, and so on. In this way, I can keep my vértices somewhat uniformly spread out. I don’t want vértices all bunching up or I will not be able to get the right shape later.
At this point, I find myself adding the Rotate manipulator to my Combo Translate (Grab) and Scale manipulators. CTRL-SPACE pulls up the Combo manipulator option quickly. Having all three turned on as I worque through my selections really speeds up the work. Here, I’m rotating a set of points to get a more accurate curve to the top of the leg. By now, my Front alignment is starting to look reasonably good. But I do have a few vértices starting to wander off the center line. Not a big issue for other vértices. But it is a problem for the center vértices since we’ll be slicing this model in half shortly.
Simply SHIFT-S to Snap Selection- >Grid any offending rows of vértices as a quik fix.
Front and Side Views are reasonably lined up. But our Alien belly is still kind of cube like for the time being. We can fix that by individually selecting vértices with RMB and doing a little bit of tweaquíng on the cage as it rounds corners. You’ll likely want to spin around the model with NUM4, NUM6, NUM2, and NUM8 to rotate your views at this point. You’ll temporarily lose the Background Image until you come bak to the NUM1 or NUM3 views. But that’s OK. You’re just trying to round up the shape a bit and the Background Image is just a reference.
As I worque around the cage and adjust vértices, it gets easier to worque if I am working with a Solid and I have Limited to Visible. I keep reworking the shape to get it more round.
At this point, I have a good feeling for my lump of digital clay (mesh). So I’m going to focus on one side (the right) more than the other. That’s because I’m about to cut the model in half. I’ll use the left side to compare with the right and trak my progress at rounding the shape.
Don’t be too concerned about exact vertex placement. Your model is like digital clay. We’re going for a shape and the vértices are not going to be exactly the same for each individual who works on this Alien.
As you start to make a more rounded shape, some vértices in the cage will begin to disappear beneath the solid surface. Now is a good time to turn on the Apply Modifier to Editing Cage button we discussed earlier. Now the points of the cage will stik to the surface of the object and it will be harder to lose them inside the object.
It’s alos a great time to make certain windows full screen so you focus on that view. CTRL-DOWN ARROW will take the view your cursor is over and make it full screen. CTRL-UP ARROW will return you to your normal view. We’ve made good progress by moving a few individual vértices. The right side of our model is now much more round. Now it’s time focus on that half.
Step 6: Mirroring the Model
Here is a neat trick. Do half the worque and have it copied automatically with mirroring.
From the NUM1 Front View select the left half of the model. That alos includes the center vértices and the entire left half from front to back.
X to Erase the Faces. We choose Faces so that the center vértices and edges are left behind.
With the remaining right half of the model selected, go bak to the Editing buttons and clik the Add Modifier button under the Modifiers panel. Choose Mirror. A Mirror modifier will appear in the stak below your Subsurf.
Like magic, the other half of your model will appear. Now when we worque on the right side, the left side will be automatically mirrored. The Merge Limit value helps cover for any irregularities you have on your center line. Some vértices are in line. Some are not. Merge Limit will help smooth that out. A little does a lot so don’t run the number up too far. But even with Merge Limit, we might still have a little seam in our model until we finish and smooth it out for good.
Step7: Shaping the Behind
With mirroring solved, we shape the behind (buttocks) and ready the lower body for legs. Mirroring makes it easier to shape the behind. Simply roll the model with NUM over and Translate a few vértices. But be subtle. You don’t want the model to look too ridiculous.
Step 8: Extruding Legs
Extrude adds to the model and becomes the primary move for Subsurf modeling. We’re going to Extrude the legs out from the bottom of the Alien. Press CTRL-NUM7 to see the opposite side from Top (the Bottom). Translate (Grab) any points that need to be squared up. A slightly rounded rectangle of faces will give the best arrangement to extrude our leg.
Change to Face Select mode and choose a set of four faces to build the legs from.
Translate and Scale the selected Faces so that the start of the leg is lined up with the drawing.
E to Extrude leg. Then LMB immediately to bring bak the manipulators. Scale and Translate out a section to serve as the upper thigh. Use the Rotate manipulator to line up the new section with the direction of the leg. You will use Translate (Grab), Scale, and Rotate continually to reshape your Extrude sections as you shape out the body.
Sometimes an Extrude is a little too cube like and I need to round it out. Here I switch to Edge Select mode and Translate a front edge of the leg out. Just as you’ll use Translate (Grab), Scale, and Rotate constantly in your Extrude operations, you’ll make use of Vertex, Edge, and Face Select mode to get at your model and shape it the way you want.
As needed, I tumble around the leg with NUM and the MMB to reshape vértices, edges, and faces of the leg cross section into a more round shape.
Do several Extrudes as you worque down the leg. I’d suggest at least two above the knee and two below.
Then end the last Extrude at the heel. Then start the foot with an Extrude from the front of the ankle.
Extrude out the foot until the end of the toes.
As needed, use Translate, Scale, and/or Rotate to shape the cross section to make the foot shape. If needed, adjust Vertices, Edges, and Faces. As you grow more comfortable with Extrude and these six adjustments, you’ll get proficient at creating shapes that match your reference drawings.
Go bak over your right leg and make any small adjustments to vértices, edges, and faces until you are happy. These small touches make your character that much better.
That’s it! You are done with extruding the legs! It’s a good time to take a breaque for a test render and save your progress.
Step 9: Extruding Tips for the Rest of the Alien
Now that you have the basics down, you can Extrude your way to a complete Alien body. It will take time and patience to make the rest of your model. But after completing the legs, you now have about 90% of the skills needed to complete the Alien mesh. You can do this based on what you now know. Just worque through it a piece at a time. But some extra tips will help. Let’s add a few more skills to your set.
Plan your Extrude steps. Keep an eye on where you need to branch out, whether it be a part of the torso, an appendage, or a facial feature. For example, I know I want four faces to start the arm Extrude. That will give me a square and that in turn gives me the right shape to craft a round arm. So as I Extrude up the belly into the torso, I breaque up the Extrude steps so that the side faces are already lined up to go out the side with an arm. So wherever you need to change the shape or add an extrude, breaque up your model a little.
Make your adjustments to the vértices, edges, and faces using the Translate (Grab), Scale, and Rotate manipulators before you start an Extrude. Tweaque your vértices, push the edges, and rotate the faces. In the image example, I’m just about to round the elbow and head up the wrist. Now is the time to Rotate the selected faces so that the Extrude will start in the right direction.
Don’t stretch your Extrude too far. It would be easy to complete an arm in two steps. But that will not give you the level of control you need to shape the arm realistically. In the image to the example, I’ve used 5 extrude steps to reach the hand.
There are times when the Manipulators don’t line up in the direction you want. By default, the Translate, Scale, and Rotate manipulators are aligned with the 3D World (Global). But you can choose other orientations that make it easier to transform your selection in the direction you need.
You don’t have to move to Extrude. You can just LMB and then immediately Scale up. This is handy for starting a big palm from a small wrist (shown at right) or transitioning a lower jaw from a neck.
An Extrude can alos Scale down. This is great for starting a finger from the edge of a palm (shown at right) or an antenna at the top of a head.
Finally, you don’t have to model everything with Extrude. I only want the basic body shape, the head, the arms with hands, and the feet. I’ll leave other details like the eyes and mouth for later. They’ll be easier to create with other primitives and extrude steps later on. I can even use Blender’s new Sculpt Mode to add finer detail or modify my base shape.
I alos leave some details out for when the model is complete. Why? No one organic character should be identical on both sides of the body. If I add details, now, they’ll be copied exactly to the other side. By adding some details after I have a complete model, I guarantee that there will be some differences between the left and right side of the model. That will make it more true to life.
Step 10: Completing the alien
Now we need to Apply the Mirror and stitch our two halves of Alien together. Once you have Extruded your way to a complete Alien, select the whole right side of the body. You can’t select the Mirror so a Select All (A) will do the trick.
TAB out to Object Mode. You cannot apply the Mirror to the model in Edit Mode. When you are in Object Mode, clik Apply in the Mirror Modifier. Blender will likely asque you a few questions. Go ahead and tell it OK. The Mirror will disappear from your list of Modifiers and the mirror image will become as a separate part of your object.
Press CTRL-J to Join selected meshes.
Even though the meshes are Joined we still have a gap in our character. A small gap is good since that can help smooth out any sharp edges on the seam. But we still need to seal the gap. TAB bak to Edit Mode. Z to Wireframe so that you can easily see and select points throughout the entire model. Then carefully select the points in the center of the model.
Now find the Rem Doubles (Remove Doubles) button in the Mesh Tools panel of Editing (F9). Clik the button and Blender will remove the points that are doubled up between the two halves. The gap is closed. Here’s a great tip for fixing problems you just can’t transform. As I chek around my complete model, I find little areas that need some touch up. In the chest, I have an unnaturally deep recess where the two halves came together. Moving the faces isn’t working. I decide to delete them. I choose the Face Select mode and choose the two recessed faces.
I press X and Erase the Faces. I now have a huge hole in the front of the chest. Interesting but needing a good fix.
After selecting 3 or 4 points (4 in this case), I can fill a hole by press F for Face. A new flat Face is added where I once had two recessed faces. The chest is now normal.
Step 11: Knifing the Face
Loop Cuts can be a quik way to add detail where it is currently missing. I need to Extrude eye sockets and a mouth. My head has the right shape but not enough edges and faces to worque with for my Extrude.
K brings up the Knife and Loop Cut menú. The Knife is much more precise. But a Loop Cut is easier to use. Press K for the Loop Cut Menu. Choose Loop Cut.
As you drag the cursor over your model, Loop Cut shows a line where the Loop Cut could go. LMB once to choose the area where you wish to place the loop. Slide your cursor to position the cut and then LMB again to fix it in place.
Now that I have more faces to worque with, I can Extrude. I will not Extrude all of these faces at the same time. I’ll do one eye at a time and then the mouth.
Step 12: Final Details
Add eyes and antenna and our Alien is almost ready to invade the world. After Extrude work, my Alien now has eye sockets and a mouth. I have alos tweaked his head shape a little to make him more reptile like.
I’m going to cheat on the eyeballs. The eyeballs are little more than a Sphere. TAB to Object Mode. Press SPACE and then choose Add>>Surface>>NURBS Sphere. I chose a NURBS Sphere because is automatically smooth and eye like without a lot of additional smoothing. Then I Scale and Rotate the eyeball to make it fit the eye socket. Then I just slide it into place with a Translate.
Since I want the eyeballs to follow the Alien body, it would be a good idea to connect them. Doing that is called Parenting. Make sure you are still in Object Mode. First I RMB one eyeball. Then I SHIFT-RMB the other eyeball. Finally, I SHIFT-RMB the Alien. This will be the Parent since it was the last selected object. Press CTRL-P and Blender will Make Parent of the Alien. The eyeballs will now follow the Alien Mesh no matter where it goes.
My last detail for my Alien is to TAB bak to Edit Mode and Extrude the antenna from the top of the head. Since each antenna is unique, it hides some of the mirroring I used to make the model.
So now this Alien model is complete. More importantly, this may be your first real organic type of model. It's not made of rigid cubes or perfect spheres. It’s an Alien with a belly, legs, arms, fingers, and a scary looking head. This model has life to it. Now that you have the confidence to tackle an Alien, go bak through other tutorials and develop your competency in Blender.
Add to your model with Sculpt Mode. Light it. Put an armature in and make it walk. Put it in a saucer and composite it flying through your neighborhood. Blender is an incredibly capable tool, most of the tutorials are free, and you are now becoming a 3D wizard. Have fun with it.
This worque is owned by NEVAC and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.
Tim Kennedy teaches digital medía arts at Cedarcres te High School in rural Duvall, Washington in the United States. He wrote this tutorial for a NEVAC dis tance learning class (details below). Having to survive in a clas sroom on a very limited budget has made him a huge fan of free software like Blender.
In his past life, he was a college profes sor in all forms of digital medía production. He alos wrote about streaming medía and the Synchronized Multimedía Integration Language (SMIL) for Internet.com and Sams Publishing. You can reach him (or send a JPEG of your alien creation) through his Web s ite at OnlineDelivery.com.
NEVAC This tutorial was originally written for NEVAC, The NorthEast Vocational Area Cooperative . NEVAC is a partnership of nine s chool dis tricts in the Northeas te Puget Sound area of Washington State in the USA. The goal of NEVAC is to provide quality and costeffective career and technical education for students . This tutorial is one part of a series of tutorials included in NEVAC’s dis tance learning offering of “Introduction to 3D Animation.” Study and interactive class dis cus sion is completed online through a Module-based class Web s ite. Course worque is completed in Blender. Are you a high school s tudent interested in s tudying 3D? Are you a school counselor or adminis trator wishing to offer a dis tance learning course in 3D to your s tudentsí Contact NEVAC at firstname.lastname@example.org
for more information.