10 Tips for Working More Effectively in Blender - dummies

10 Tips for Working More Effectively in Blender

By Jason van Gumster

Working in Blender is a ton of fun, but you can adopt a few good work habits to make the experience even more enjoyable. These good habits let you work faster without sacrificing the quality of your work. Following are ten suggestions for working more efficiently and effectively in Blender.

Use tooltips and integrated search

Blender is a dense program, and users often forget what a button does or discover a new menu. If you don’t know what a button in Blender does, hover your mouse pointer over it. More often than not, a helpful tooltip pops up to concisely describe what the button does. And even if the tooltip isn’t completely clear, you have a better idea of what to search for to get help.

And speaking of searching, one of the best features of Blender is the fully integrated search functionality. Using the search hotkey (Spacebar) in a particular editor, you can type the name of the feature or tool you’re looking for, and Blender shows you a list of operations that may match within the context of the editor that you’re working in. Furthermore, if that operator has a hotkey, that hotkey also shows up in the search results.

Look at models from different views

If you work in an environment modeling and animating by using just one 3D View, you should definitely make it a point to periodically orbit around your scene and look at it from a bunch of different angles. Double-checking is particularly important when modeling because it’s very easy to get a model that looks perfect from the front, but really distorted and goofy-shaped from one side.

Split off another 3D View if you need it or use the numeric keypad hotkeys to quickly do spot-checks from different angles. If you’re coming from a background in 3DStudio Max or CAD applications, you may want to use the Quad View in the 3D window to see multiple views at the same time by going to View→Toggle Quad View or using the Ctrl+Alt+Q hotkey. If you have the Pie Menus add-on enabled, the Q hotkey brings up a fantastic menu for changing the view. Used at speed, it feels as if you’re flinging the scene in the 3D View around in front of you.

Lock a camera to an animated character

When animating a character, you frequently run into a case where you’re trying to animate a secondary detail on the character as he’s moving. For these situations, Blender has a handy Lock to Object feature. In the Properties region of the 3D View, look in the View panel. There’s an object datablock field there labeled Lock to Object. Type in the name of an object (or hover your mouse over the field and press E to get an object eyedropper) and the 3D View moves wherever that object goes.

Don’t forget about add-ons

One of the neat things that’s grown in Blender over the years is a thriving ecosystem of add-ons. Add-ons are a set of trusted Python scripts written to extend Blender’s capabilities. They can be as small as a little script that adds a new menu or as large as a wizard that generates a landscape for you.

Although many of these scripts ship with Blender, most are disabled by default because they’re meant to serve a specific purpose that not all Blender users need. It’s worth your time to go through the Add-ons section of the User Preferences editor (File→User Preferences or Ctrl+Alt+U) to see what’s available.

If you find an add-on that you know you frequently use (like pie menus or the Dynamic Spacebar Menu add-on or a specific importer or exporter), enable the add-on and include it on your startup by clicking the Save As Default button at the bottom of the User Preferences editor.

Name everything

Every time you add something to your scene in Blender, give it a name that makes sense. It’s a very disorienting feeling when you open a .blend file that you haven’t worked on in a while and you see that your characters are Cube.001, Cube.012, and Sphere.007, and that really cool skin material you made is called Material.015.

On small, one-shot projects, ambiguous names may not be so bad, but properly naming a material makes finding it later that much easier. And on larger projects, good organization is even more valuable. Not only is it smart to name everything in your .blend file, but it’s also a good idea to have a good structure for your projects.

Use scene layers effectively

Although only 20 scene layers are available, Blender’s layering system is very versatile and can be used for a variety of purposes. Objects can live on more than one scene layer, lights can be made to only illuminate the layers they’re on, and you use scene layers define render layers used for compositing. As such, keeping some form of organization in mind is in your best interest.

Also keep high-priority objects, such as characters and animated things, on the left-most layers, while keeping static objects like backgrounds on the right-most layers.

Do low-resolution test renders

When you’re finalizing the look of a model, you often have to make a quick change to the model and render (F12) it to see what it looks like. If you’re not careful, you could spend more time waiting for those little test renders than you do actually working on your model.

The progressive render update feature that Cycles uses in the 3D View can help mitigate this, but some projects may require you to use different rendering engines. And even still, on complex scenes even people who use Cycles could benefit from small test renders.

When you’re just doing test previews, these tips can reduce the render time:

  • Turn off anti-aliasing.

  • Render at reduced size.

  • Turn off computationally intensive features if you don’t need them.

  • Render just the layers you need.

  • Use the Border Render feature.

  • If you’re animating, use OpenGL previews.

  • If you’re rendering with Cycles, lower the number of samples.

Mind your mouse

When you’re using Blender’s hotkeys to transform objects, where you place your mouse cursor before performing the operation can be pretty important. Although the importance of your mouse cursor’s location has reduced a bit with the continuous mouse feature, cursor placement can still be an issue, particularly for rotating and scaling.

For rotating, it’s a good practice to keep your mouse distant from the object’s origin. Doing so gives you more control over how you rotate. If your mouse cursor is too close to the center, you can have your object spinning in all kinds of unpredictable ways.

The same is true for scaling, but it’s more dependent on whether you’re scaling up or down. If you’re scaling up, it makes sense to bring your mouse cursor a bit closer to the selection’s origin so that you have more control. If you’re scaling down, start with your mouse cursor farther away from the selection’s origin and, as with rotation, you have more control of how small your object can get.

Use grease pencil to plan

Blender’s Grease Pencil feature allows you to write or draw simple lines in 3D space. While this feature may seem a bit strange at first, it’s actually incredibly useful. As an individual, you can use Grease Pencil to quickly sketch out ideas prior to modeling them in Blender. If you’re working with a group of people, Grease Pencil allows you to include notes in the 3D View to facilitate collaboration.

You can sketch a pose that a character should go into or draw an arc that the surface of a model should follow and pass those notes back to the original artist. You can even do rough 2D animation with this handy little feature!

To use Grease Pencil, simply hold down D while left-clicking and dragging your mouse cursor around the 3D View. The default color for Grease Pencil strokes is black, but you can adjust it, as well as other attributes from Grease Pencil section of the Properties region (N).

Have fun, but take breaks

Don’t be afraid to just play with Blender. If you ever find yourself wondering “What does this button do?” just press it and find out. Now, if you’re working on something important, you should probably save first, but definitely make it a point to experiment and try things out. By this kind of playing, not only can you figure out how to use new parts of Blender, but you can also find new ways of using existing features in cool ways that might not have been intended.

Working in 3D can be incredibly serious fun, but it can also be addictive. Too much computer time can ultimately hurt the quality of your work. Try to step away from the computer for a bit to rest your eyes, get some food, stretch your legs, or even talk to another human being.