How to Design 3D Art

Posted on July 28, 2020 | Updated on July 27, 2023

Computer-aided design (CAD) takes your business to the next level, allowing you to design 3D art. Perhaps you have someone in-house who can create art for you, or maybe you’re just a 3D art enthusiast. Learning to develop artwork on a three-dimensional scale gives your work an added edge it otherwise wouldn’t have.

Using CAD reduces design costs and helps you develop a prototype for a fraction of the expense. With the right printer, you can even make 3D art models for free. You might not be sure where to start, however. How do you make 3D art? Is it hard to learn the ins and outs? What kind of software do you need? This post can answer those questions.

How Do You Make 3D Art?

Three-dimensional art has a depth and technique that 2D art doesn’t require. With screen resolutions getting better and 3D printers becoming more affordable, there are many reasons why you might wish to enhance your skills in this area.

You use lines and angles to create depth within your work with illustrations. Many software programs can take 2D creations and transform them into 3D. For 3D printers, you create a prototype with a drawing and add in details for the printer. The equipment then creates a scale model based on your input.

Why Do Artists Need to Learn 3D Art?

Why would a 2D artist need 3D art? For one thing, you open up additional opportunities to showcase your abilities. You’ll expand your offerings for clients and attract higher-end customers and higher pay. Figuring out how to make the leap from 2D to 3D may seem a bit overwhelming, though.

The typical 3D modeling software on the market isn’t easy to learn. For those already used to Photoshop or other popular design software, the thought of learning yet another program may deter them. However, mastering new skills helps you create more realistic backgrounds and figures for various uses. Think of 3D art as sculpting. You may or may not use materials to bring another dimension to your art, but the finished work should look hand-sculpted.

Companies such as Adobe point to the added speed with which artists create when using 3D tools such as ZBrush and Blender.

Start With the Basics

If you want to learn more about 3D art, go back to the basics of three-dimensional drawing. You likely learned some of these concepts in design school, but a refresher never hurts.

3D art is a lot like photography. While the technical aspects of it have various differences, you’ll find it has many similarities to photography. For instance, the object you’re modeling needs a scene to take place. You also need a virtual camera to take pictures. Additionally, you need the right lighting and composition to make your 3D art stand out.

Once you’ve refreshed your memory on some 3D basics, look at software that will help you achieve your goals as an artist. Take one of your logo designs and make it three-dimensional, for example.

Software for 3D Art

There are several software solutions for creating 3D art. We’ve looked at the most popular choices and come up with four to get you started:

1. ZBrush

Known as the digital sculpting solution, ZBrush helps you with depth perception and the juxtaposition of light and shadow. You can also adjust drawings for 3D printing and export to your printer with this program. You’ll work with digital clay to sculpt the image into what you want, all at an advanced speed.

How much is ZBrush? A single user monthly subscription is $39.95 per month. Some schools license the software for students, so if you’re still taking classes, check with your university.

An artist uploaded this image of a white shark. He indicates he used sculpting, painting and retopology to create it.

2. Blender

Blender is open-source software that’s free to users. This open-source platform is a fabulous program to learn 3D digital art because it won’t cost you a fortune while you’re picking up skills. You can use Blender to model, rig, animate and render. You can even do motion tracking and video editing. The software offers simulation tools through libraries such as MantaFlow and Bullet.

Blender offers you the ability to work on a 2D concept design and blend artistic elements with a grease pencil effect. The image above is an example of the possibilities you can create with the program.

3. Rocket 3F

This open-source polygonal modeler helps designers develop new concepts. The software creates a faster workflow. The environment is What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG), making the software easier to pick up than some others. It also comes with a crease tool, so you can change the shape of an object with a few clicks. The website has dozens of video tutorials to help you learn the intricacies of the program.

Look at this image uploaded in the community forum by one of Rocket 3F’s users. They were creating an old western animated film and came up with an impressive concept.

4. Autodesk Maya

While this software is pretty complex and requires study and practice to learn, it offers unparalleled features. If you want to create animated films, it has all the tools needed. You can gain feature sets with hair, body physics, cloth, simulations of fluid movements and character animation. If you’re just getting started or only dabbling in 3D modeling, Maya is pretty pricey. Subscriptions start at $1,620 per year.

This image offers one of the many examples that Maya highlights as a possibility with their software. Note the realistic patterns and textures and the way the character pops. The image belongs to artist Valentin Erbuke.

What Does the Overall Workflow Look Like for 3D Art?

3D art can be a fairly straightforward process without being confined to the technical aspects of it. When working with 3D, it’s good to have an idea of the overall process. That way, you can imagine how your project will go. 

Yet, if you need to return to work on something else, you’ll know what steps to take afterward. Following the steps for creating 3D will save you time and make the process more seamless.

1. Conceptualization

When starting a new project, you first need to get a clear idea of what you’re creating. In many cases, designers like to capture their ideas from other artists. They do this to find out what style they’re going for and how they want their final product to look. 

Once you have your goal, get this down on paper. Remember, this is only a draft to help you shape your ideas. So start sketching them to visualize your final piece before you start working on it.

2. 3D Modeling

When you start your 3D project, using the right software is important. Be sure to pick one that suits your needs and comfort level. Then, start with the basics of 3D modeling techniques, such as extrusion, which is like pulling clay out of a model. Techniques like this are fundamental in creating your 3D model.

In 3D applications, you can also do polygonal modeling, the building blocks used to build your masterpiece. In other words, you develop your model piece by piece using geometric shapes. It’s great for hard surface models like cars or buildings. However, sculpting allows you to mold and shape your clay, which is best for creating organic forms like creatures.

3. Texturing

Once you’ve shaped your model, it’s time to start the process of texturing. In this stage, your model looks like it’s made of specific materials. These include metal, wool or skin. In texturing, you’ll use a process called UV mapping. It’s like a blueprint that tells the software where to place the textures on your 3D model. 

To create the blueprint, you’ll implement a task known as unwrapping, which takes practice because it can be tricky. However, you don’t have to make everything from scratch. Texture libraries are available to help you complete your project. These ready-made textures save you time and help you produce results more quickly.

4. Lighting

Have you ever noticed how lighting can change the way an object looks? In 3D art, lighting is crucial. There are three main types of light. The “key” light is your main source, like the sun in a landscape scene. The “fill” light helps reduce the shadows the key light creates. Then you have the “backlight,” which falls behind the subject, giving the object a soft glow.

Together these lights make your scene look balanced and realistic. However, different scenes call for different lighting setups. For instance, you might use a bright key light and a soft fill light for a warm, sunny day. On a mysterious night, you would use a dim key light and no fill light. Yet, deciding what lighting will make your scene look the best is up to you.

5. Rigging and Animation

To make your object move, you would use a process called rigging. This involves setting up a system of “bones” inside your 3D model. These bones control how your model moves, turning it into a digital animation.

To tell the bones how much they control parts of the mode, you would use “skin weights.” This makes sure all the pieces move smoothly when you start to animate. In animation, remember some golden rules. “Squash and stretch” makes motion feel more dynamic. “Anticipation” prepares the view for a big movement. Meanwhile, “Overlapping Action” makes movements feel natural and less robotic. 

At the same time, you’ll use keyframes on a timeline to control when and how your model moves. 

6. Rendering

Rendering is the last stage, where you combine everything into one final image. Rendering can be as simple as pressing a button, but many more technical aspects are involved. For instance, rendering requires you to define how surfaces react to light. 

Additionally, you would change the render settings to optimize your 3D art. The settings need to be adjusted to create a balance between quality and speed. If you incorporate high settings, you get a detailed image. However, the more precise, the longer it takes to render.

Tips for Creating 3D Art

One of the best ways to learn the ins and outs of 3D design is by practicing. Keep these other factors in mind:

  • Study real life: Pay attention to the world around you. You have no better example of 3D art than real life.
  • Practice: Practice every day, even if only for 15 minutes.
  • Ask others: Ask questions in forums made for the software you use.
  • Seek mentors: Ask an experienced artist to mentor you.
  • Take inspiration: Study what other 3D artists create. Figure out how to repeat specific techniques on your own.
  • Keep it simple: Use the fewest tools possible to create the look you want. Simplicity helps your designs come to life.
  • Make it realistic: Pay attention to poses. People have a natural range of motion, so try to stick to this for your modeling.
  • Seek feedback: Ask for honest feedback. The more tips you get for improving your art, the better you’ll be.

Creating 3D art is a labor of love. With time, you’ll find shortcuts to make your work faster and easier. You have to put in the time and effort now to learn the intricacies of 3D design in the future.

Get Started on 3D Art

The best way to learn 3D art is to jump into the program of your choice. Learn one program inside and out before adding additional ones. With a lot of hard work, your 3D creations will stack up against any other artists’ work. Adding another tool to your design portfolio helps you land more jobs and expand your earning potential.

About The Author

Eleanor Hecks is the Editor-in-Chief of Designerly Magazine, an online publication dedicated to providing in-depth content from the design and marketing industries. When she's not designing or writing code, you can find her exploring the outdoors with her husband and dog in their RV, burning calories at a local Zumba class, or curled up with a good book with her cats Gem and Cali.

You can find more of Eleanor's work at

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