100 Days of 3D Design

How I taught myself 3D modeling in 100 days

Tiantian Xu
Jul 23 · 9 min read

It was a rainy weekend in Seattle. I drank some tea, watched a YouTube tutorial, and downloaded Blender 2.79. A year later, I completed my 6th 100-day-project — 100 Days of 3D.

Since 2015, I have been doing the 100-day-project. My past projects include 100 Days of Doodle, 100 Days of Lettering, 100 Days of Watercolor, 100 Days of Vector Illustration, and 100 Days of Motion Design.

My Past 100-Day-Projects

While all of my past projects were done in 2D, I was always intrigued by beautiful 3D artwork on the internet. I would stare in awe and wish I had made it.

As a product designer, I believe 3D skills could broaden my horizons and open up opportunities in VR/AR, indie games, and 3D printing.

In 100 Days of 3D, I taught myself to create delightful 3D artworks in 100 days. I used a free open-source 3D software named Blender. It has an extensive feature set and a fast-growing online community.

Here is my workflow, my 100-day journey with tips, and a reflection on the project.


My workflow

3D art is very technical. In this project, I developed a 3D workflow and aimed to complete it in 2–3 days.

Step 1: Ideation

I browsed my YouTube collection and my Pinterest boards for inspiration. Once I had an idea, I doodled the concept on paper and searched for reference photos.

A collection of ideas & reference photos

Step 2: Modeling

I modeled the 3D object in Blender using a technique called “Box Modeling”. The process starts with a basic primitive (e.g. cube) I refined via editing and subdividing.

Modeling a soup dumpling using the box modeling technique

Step 3: Materials

I applied materials to the 3D model to achieve a cartoony style.

Applying material to the soup dumpling in Blender’s Node Editor

Step 4: Lighting

I used a lighting setup called “three-points lighting”. It lights the object from three different light sources and angles.

Applying the three-points lighting by adding key light, fill light and backlight

Step 5: Rendering

I rendered the final scene using Blender’s built-in rendering engine Cycles. Sometimes, I edited the image in Photoshop to give it a nice final touch.

Final render of the soup dumpling

My 100-day journey

Day 1–5: Get familiar with Blender

I spent the first few days learning how to navigate Blender’s user interface.

I created my first 3D model in Blender — a coffee cup — by following a 10-min tutorial made by tutor4u.

100 Days of 3D — Coffee Cup

I created 3D donuts by following Blender Guru’s beginner tutorial series. This series was so helpful that I found myself referring to it frequently.

100 Days of 3D — Donuts

Tip

Blender is a shortcut heavy software. I recommend printing out a shortcut sheet and memorizing the common hotkeys which will allow you to work faster.

Day 6–70: Climb the learning curve

Once I became comfortable with Blender’s user interface, I applied the following methods to climb the learning curve.

Method #1: 1-on 1-off

I used a method called “1-on 1-off” invented by Blender Guru:

  • 1 tutorial project
  • 1 project created entirely by myself
  • Rinse and repeat

I created a pink cupcake by following Mr. Sorbias’ cupcake tutorial. The next day I created a blue cupcake by myself.

100 Days of 3D — Cupcakes

I created a glass of beer by following Blender Guru’s beer tutorial. Later I created a cocktail using the same techniques.

100 Days of 3D — Beer and Cocktail

I learned how to simulate physics by following Oliver Villar’s chocolate tutorial. The next day I added this to a bag of popcorn.

100 Days of 3D — Chocolate and Popcorn

The 1-on 1-off method helped me to re-apply learned techniques intentionally. It also encouraged me to create something new on my own.

Tip

Be patient. The first render isn’t always good. It takes time to adjust the material & lighting to achieve the esthetics you want.

Method #2: 1-hard 1-easy

Learning 3D could be mentally exhausting. To prevent burnout, I alternated between hard learning and easy learning.

I spent 3 days working on the snow globe by following an intense tutorial. After that, I created a simple popsicle.

100 Days of 3D — Snow Globe and Popsicle

I spent 3 days following the Minion tutorial. The next day I took it easy and made a little pig.

100 Days of 3D — Minion and Pig

Tip

When I was stuck in modeling, I found it’s easier to delete the unfinished work and start over — a fresh start helps with problem-solving.

Method #3: Work on different themes

Always modeling one type of object could be repetitive and boring. To keep things interesting, I worked on different themes.

I created the abstract series by following Ducky 3D’s tutorials. They introduced me to new techniques that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise.

100 Days of 3D — Abstract Series

I created the plant series as I started to fill my apartment with houseplants.

100 Days of 3D — Houseplant Series

I experimented with the low poly style by following tutorials made by Polygon Runway and Tiedie.

100 Days of 3D — Sushi and Planet

Tip

Creating abstract 3D objects is a good starting point for beginners, as it doesn’t require extensive modeling or texturing.

Method #4: Take classes & read books

Halfway through the 100-day-project, I signed up for Blender Mesh Modeling Bootcamp. It reinforced my knowledge and helped me to connect the dots.

I spent a weekend reading <The Pushing Points Topology Workbook>. This software-agnostic book taught me the best practices to manage the topology of my meshes.

I also discovered a digital Blender magazine published by the Chinese Blender community. I enjoyed reading a broad range of 3D case studies.

Tip

Keep your learnings and frequently performed actions in a notebook so you can refer back to them and work faster.

Day 71–100: Create my own art

As I became more skilled at Blender, I had more creative freedom to bring my own ideas into life.

Some of my work was inspired by my favorite games and movies.

100 Days of 3D — Crow People (Inspired by the game Monument Valley)
100 Days of 3D — Enchanted Rose (Inspired by the movie Beauty and the Beast)
100 Days of 3D — Balloon House (Inspired by the movie Up)

I created a series of cartoon characters.

100 Days of 3D — Gunter (Inspired by the cartoon Adventure Time)
100 Days of 3D — Cat (Inspired by the movie The Legend of Hei)
100 Days of 3D—Ghost

I reworked mountain whale, my watercolor painting from a prior 100-day-project.

100 Days of 3D — Mountain Whale

Loving the low poly style, I created a series of floating islands.

100 Days of 3D — Moose Island (low poly tutorial)
100 Days of 3D — Lighthouse Island (Inspired by Jeremy’s artwork)
100 Days of 3D — Watchtower Island (Inspired by game Firewatch)
100 Days of 3D — Windmill Island

At the end of the 100-day-project, I reworked my first 3D model.

100 Days of 3D — Daydream in a Cup

Tip

To overcome the fear of starting a complex scene, I always told myself to create a simple object first. Once you get started, you’re likely to stay with it.


Reflecting

1. Create something on your own

In the beginning, I relied heavily on existing tutorials. As I got more familiar with Blender, I pushed myself to create something on my own.

Creating something on my own was much more difficult than following a tutorial. I would spend hours looking things up and experiment with various techniques. I often felt frustrated because I couldn’t achieve the result I wanted.

However, as challenging as that process was, I acquired some of the most useful techniques from it.

The real learning happened when I pushed myself into the “problem-solving” mode and tried to figure things out on my own. Passive learning creates knowledge. Active practice creates skill.

2. Learn just enough

As a beginner, I was overwhelmed by the vast amount of knowledge in the 3D industry. The more I learned, the more I realized that there was so much to learn.

To navigate my learning, I embraced the mindset of “learn just enough”.

Learn Just Enough means I don’t have to learn everything in order to feel good or get started. Instead, I just need to learn enough to achieve my goal.

Since my goal was to create simple 3D objects with a cartoony look, I skipped advanced tutorials on texturing and focused on learning basic modeling techniques. In the end, I was able to stay focused and complete this project.

3. Done is better than perfect

Towards the end of the project, my level of expectation increased. I became hesitant to finish a piece, worried it wouldn’t be perfect. I also had trouble starting a new piece, fearing that the new one wouldn’t be as good as the prior one.

As I was fighting this fear of imperfection, I stumbled upon Elizabeth Gilbert’s words: “A good-enough novel violently written now is better than a perfect novel meticulously written never.”

To paraphrase her words:

A good-enough piece of artwork violently created now is better than a perfect piece of artwork meticulously created never.

With that in mind, I acknowledged the imperfection in my artwork, called it done, and moved on to the next one.


End

Looking back, 100 Days of 3D is the most challenging 100-day-project I’ve done. Compared to my other projects, the amount of deliberate practice required to learn 3D was way beyond my expectation.

It also taught me that the real challenge of learning 3D, for me, was not motivation or time. It was to constantly confront my own skill gap and to not look away.

Special thanks to the free open-source software Blender. It lowers the barrier of 3D creation and makes projects like mine possible :)




Special thanks to Lisa Gettings, Grace Fan, Elliot Peng, Niki Ni, Qingyue Li, Fan Guo, Jinlong (Jason) Liu, Catherina Han, and Yingying Zhang for their generous feedback on this article.

The 100 Day Project

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