Becoming a Fast and Effective Blender Modeler

By Jason van Gumster

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, but 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 idiosyncracies 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 tips should help give you a 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.

    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 (such as vertices, edges, faces, and control points). 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.

  • 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 Bezier curves are very powerful. They’re great for logo patterns, complex knots, and trees, for instance), text, or even a clump of metaballs. 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 propotional editing feature (O), especially the variation for proportionally 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 plant life, 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: 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; 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.

  • 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 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 by using methods and techniques that are very familiar to traditional artists. 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. 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. 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, a few add-ons 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 excellent RetopoFlow add-on for retopology are distributed separately (and sometimes for a nominal cost) on sites like the Blender Market. After you get familiar with Blender’s base tools, give these add-ons a try. You’ll find yourself working even faster!