Every new Blender animator practices with a bouncing ball - not because the result is particularly sexy, but because it packs so many important lessons into one project. What about modelers?
Not all practice is created equal
You’ve heard the saying practice makes perfect, which is a little misleading because it really matters what and how you practice. For example, sketching cartoon characters probably won’t help you to draw a realistic human body. On the other hand, drawing a realistic human body can help you make better cartoon characters. Some exercises just have way more payoff than others.
If you're looking to improve your modeling skills the smart way, here are the top 3 objects you should attempt.
1. To practice proportions, model a bicycle in Blender
The first challenging object I’d like you to try is a bicycle.
It can be as simple or as complex as you’d like. In fact, I’d encourage you to start extremely simple and then take each piece just one step further in detail than you’re used to.
Here’s why this works as a great exercise:
One of the biggest things beginners struggle with is proportions and a bike simply doesn’t work well or look right if it doesn’t fit with human anatomy. From how high the seat is off the ground to how far the handlebars are from the seat and how large the tires are, get the scale of all the pieces right in relation to each other first.
Pro tip: Use a reference or take measurements of your own bike if you have one! This takes no complex modeling, just scaling and moving basic shapes, yet it’s often the most overlooked part of the process. Keep in mind that once you start adding detail it’s hard to change proportions later.
The devil is in the detail
Once you have the base shape down, a bike is a good modeling challenge because you’ll need a variety of techniques in order to make the parts.
Of course, the frame can mostly be made from adjustments to cylinders that are then fused together, but you’ll need to find a way to make more complex things like gears, spokes, and tire treads. Even these things are less complex than they appear at first, though. Once you find the underlying pattern, model the most basic shape and use modifiers to repeat it until you get the result you’re after. You’ll be practicing reuse quite a lot!
Look for reference first
A bike is a mechanical contraption with lots of parts, but there’s a clear overall shape and all of the details are well known. You may not already know how to model a circular gear, but you can find exactly what it should look like online, start with a circle and take it one step at a time.
When in doubt, take a timeout
At some point, you’ll find an area where you know what you need to do in order to make it look better, but don’t know how. Or maybe, the process is challenging, or even boring? Taking a break and then coming back to problem solve your way through those tough spots is how you’ll become a better modeler than those that take the easy road or quit too soon.
2. Modeling a Simple Blender Kitchen
Another great beginner project is a simple kitchen (or other interior space). When starting out with modeling I often tried making one object or another, but it took me some time before I was confident enough to build out an entire scene. If that sounds like you, a kitchen scene is the perfect next project!
Tons of objects = tons of problems to solve
Since the types of objects are so different (bowls, mugs, apples, cabinets, and so on), each one will take a different kind of problem-solving. It’s like solving 30 or 40 mini exercises that all add up to one awesome result! And, of course, there is lots of opportunity for instancing. You can take a few objects and still make the scene seem full.
While the majority of the objects will be simple, there will also be one or two complex objects like a toaster or rolled up napkin that will push you outside your comfort zone. Even if you’re not a beginner anymore, there are always subtle details in things like a coffee maker or piece of food that will make you think.
Proportions will keep you on your 3D toes
Proportions are also a top priority here, just like with everything else. Getting it to look right depends less on making detailed objects and more on making simple objects that are the right size and thickness, as well as being spaced the right distance apart from each other.
Keep it real for a personal touch
Along with thinking about how big each object is in relation to a person, you’ll also need to use your creativity to think about how the person living there uniquely uses the space. It’s a chance to build your own personality into your render, which makes it more fun and also more meaningful of a result. Like your coffee brewed a particular way, or do you make all your meals in a microwave? Whatever your personal quirks are, build those in! Fueling your creative work with your own personal experiences is something you’ll want to carry over into all of your other projects.
Good organization is essential for this project
Since you’ll have quite a few objects by the end of this project, it’s a perfect way to practice organization in your scene. Without naming things, parenting, or making collections of similar items, it’ll become hard to manage and navigate very quickly. Take your time and structure it right, and you’ll see what a difference it can make!
3. Modeling a Character Base Mesh in Blender
Fear not, even beginners can model a human
Last but not least, I want you to try building a simple character, which can be pretty darn intimidating! Especially with the crazy detailed artwork you see online, but ignore that stuff for now. A character is definitely a little ambitious when just starting out, but I’d still recommend building a basic base mesh.
Solid topology is your friend
First, because organic modeling like this is a different animal than building objects like pipes and wine glasses. It forces you to learn about and pay close attention to edge flow and topology, which will be helpful beyond just organic shapes. Getting a handle on loop cuts, poles, and quad junctions will help you make complex objects that you’ve previously struggled with. So even if you only want to make hard surface art, interestingly enough, building a character can take your mechanical modeling to the next level.
As I’ve said for each object on this list, proportions here are key. Since we’re just going for a very simple character, detail becomes not about how many vertices you have, but rather where they are placed and how they connect. You can get a surprisingly anatomically correct model with very little geometry, if only it’s placed right.
Take a deep breath, then start with a cube
This is likely the most challenging of the three Blender project, so use a tutorial if you need to, but don’t over-complicate it. Start with a cube, add some edge loops, and extrude some arms, legs, and a head, and go from there. If it starts to get too messy, start over from scratch and try a different approach. While of course, the goal is to get it to look good, I’d much rather you make an awkward character and finish it then avoid characters all together just because they’re hard.
Please, please, for the love of god, don’t use Make Human or another character generator! If you’re making an environment or a vehicle and need to quickly fill it in, then that's fine, but if you want to be a good modeler, just make it yourself. It’s a shortcut that has its utility in certain scenes for sure (saving time is always good), but relying on it too much will just make it harder for you to learn in the long run. Give it a shot, keep it simple, and you’ll learn a lot.
Give these projects a try, grow your skills the smart way
Regardless of your skill level, I hope you give these three challenges a try and learn something new along the way! If it’s still too early for you to shoot for, come check out our beginner friendly courses. From the very basics to the Mesh Modeling Bootcamp to character modeling and more, we’ll get you on the fast track to a killer portfolio by showing you how to work through the hard things, so that you can have a well-earned confidence in your skills.