Blender is an incredibly powerful software package capable of helping you create beautiful 3D images and animations. It’s also a very complex tool with a way of working that’s very different from most other programs — not just among 3D applications or even graphics software, all other programs. But give this little collection of function ones and zeroes a chance. After you have some familiarity and experience working in Blender, you find that what you once considered unconventional idiosyncrasies are actually efficient approaches to working very quickly. You’ll be hard-pressed to work at equivalent speed in other tools, especially when modeling.
Getting to that point, however, can be time-consuming and demand quite a bit of dedication. The following list of tips should help give you a little head start into becoming that speedy monster of 3D modeling.
- Learn Blender’s hotkeys: There’s an active effort to make Blender more friendly to use for people with drawing tablets or multi-touch interfaces, but Blender remains at its speediest when you’re familiar with its hotkeys. Fortunately, for every operator that has one the hotkey is clearly shown in all menus where it’s accessed, even the search menu that appears when you press spacebar. If you find that there’s an operation that you do regularly, have a look at its menu entry and tooltip to find its hotkey. The next time you use it, you’ll be that much faster.
- Shift+R is your friend: Speaking of hotkeys and being faster the next time you do something, the Shift+R hotkey is quick access for Repeat the Last Operation. Perhaps you extruded a face by 0.873 cm along its normal axis. Press Shift+R and you’ll extrude your new face by the same distance. Press Shift+R once more and it does it again. You can repeat this as often as you like until you need to do a new operation… and Shift+R works on any operator in any of Blender’s mode. With a little creative thinking, this can give you a monumental time savings.
- Become a 3D cursor ninja: Blender’s 3D cursor seems like a peculiar and alien concept to beginners, but it really is a powerful feature. It’s not just for placing new objects. The Snapping menu (Shift+S) gets regular use in my workflow for precisely positioning both objects as well as object data (vertices, edges, faces, control points, etc.) And by temporarily setting the 3D cursor as your transform pivot (press period .), you can grab, rotate, scale, and even mirror your selection relative to that point. Quick example: say you have a bunch of vertices that you want to have all lined up along a single axis (let’s say it’s the local X-axis). Set your pivot to the 3D cursor (period) and scale your selected vertices along the local X-axis to zero (S → X → X → 0 → Enter). Done!
- Use the right primitive for the job: Blender’s modeling tools are optimized for mesh modeling. That said, sometimes a mesh isn’t the best starting point for a particular model. Sometimes it’s a curve (Blender’s Bézier curves are very powerful. They’re great for logo patterns, complex knots, and trees, for instance), text, or even a clump of metaballs. Yes, eventually you may convert that primitive object to a mesh for further detailing, but picking the right starting point can get you to that detailing step faster.
- Proportional editing is great for organics: The proportional editing feature (O), especially the variation for proportionlly editing connected vertices (Alt+O) is an incredibly powerful way to make dramatic changes to a model. This is particularly handy for creating organic models of animals and plantlife, where parts tend to smoothly transition from one shape to another. Combined with using the 3D cursor as a pivot (period) you can cleanly pose a character’s limbs by just selecting and rotating a handful of vertices.
- Modifiers make your life easier: I mention in Blender For Dummies, 3rd edition that Blender’s modifiers are a great way to let Blender do a lot of your modeling work for you. But many modelers are sometimes resistant to the notion of “temporary use” modifiers. That is, there seems to be an expectation that if you use a modifier on your mesh, you should avoid applying that modifier or removing. Don’t fall into this trap. Modifiers are just another tool for manipulating (or creating) geometry. If you need to make adjustments to the results of a modifier, go ahead and apply it. I sometimes like duplicate a mesh (Shift+D) prior to applying modifier and move that duplicate to a hidden layer. This way I have a “save point” on my modeling process that I can always go back to if I end up botching my model in future steps.
- Hide what you don’t need to see: A complex scene with a lot of geometry can dramatically slow down the performance in Blender’s 3D View, especially on older or low-end hardware. By judiciously moving objects to other layers (M), hiding objects and geometry (H), and editing a model in local view (Numpad-slash /), you can get Blender to handle a scene with much more complexity that it may otherwise.
- Start with a simple base, detail with sculpting: Blender’s sculpting tools are very mature and refined, especially for a general purpose 3D application. Especially with features like Dyntopo, you can add a lot of detail to a model using methods and techniques that are very familiar to traditional artists. And while it’s possible to create fantastic models by sculpting on a simple cube or ball, you can get a lot further faster by first using Blender’s regular mesh modeling tools to first create a base mesh that has the correct general form of your model.
- Create your own asset libraries: There are some objects, or parts of objects, that are notoriously difficult or time-consuming to create (I personally have always had a hard time with ears). However, one of the beautiful things about working digitally, is that you can always reuse the things you’ve made. Take the time to model that problematic part once and save that model to a library folder on your computer. The next time you need that part, just append it to your scene and edit it to suit. And you don’t have to limit yourself to models. You can do this for materials, lighting setups, complex compositing networks, and even sculpting brushes. Create once, reuse whenever!
- Add-ons for modelers: The default tools that are built-in with Blender can get you really far. However, if your focus is on 3D modeling, there are a few add-ons that people have made which can make your life incredibly useful. Some of these add-ons, like Extra Objects and F2, come with Blender when you download it, they’re just disabled by default. Other add-ons, like the very excellent RetopoFlow add-on for retopology are distributed separately (and sometimes for a nominal cost) on sites like the Blender Market. I suggest that you get familiar with Blender’s base tools first, but once you’re comfortable, give these add-ons a try. You’ll find yourself working even faster!
There you have it! A handful of tips to bump up your speed and efficiency while modeling in Blender. With a bit of time and effort — not as much as you might think — you can be cranking out awesome-looking 3D models with the best of them. Have fun!
Like these tips? There’s more where that comes from in Blender For Dummies, 3rd edition. It’s available anywhere books are sold. Thanks!