Things that helped me improve as a 3d Artist
I wouldn't call myself a seasoned artist just yet. I'm still waiting for that major breakthrough, and by that I mean finding job at a large well known company. However I did some occasional short term contracts and I frequently participate in various online competitions. So I'm not a complete beginner either. Needless to say, improving my skills further is crucial.
The lessons I learned either came from trial and error, or through feedback (forums or online tutorials). Over the years I found out, that some methods and teachings work better than others. I would like to share these valuable lessons with you , so incase you are another struggling artist, you might be able to find some of them helpful.
Paint other pictures
This well known exercise is great for more traditional artists, but I noticed it helped improve my 3d modeling and texturing as well.
This is how it goes. Pick any kind of picture. Preferably a piece of well known art or any still life image. Then simply try to copy it. Now the most important thing is to copy the original as close as possible, so if you were to place them side by side, you almost won't be able to tell the difference. Take your time and don't rush it.
How exactly does it help? I don't really know myself and perhaps it's just a personal thing. But my theory is, that it trains your eye to "see" the 3d model better. After all creating 3d art (and the same thing goes for texturing), is all about replicating reality as much as possible.
The pic below shows one of my personal attempts. It's not quite perfect, but the final product is not as important as improving your skills.
What's it made of?
You have to literally know what your 3d model is made of. Let's say you're going to model a warrior type character. Which parts are metal? Which parts are cloth? Which parts shine more? Is something made of plastic? You have to be sure when designing your character. Decide which part is made of what material, then download picture references so you'll have a more solid idea to work with. If you only have a vague idea of what materials your character is using, you risk making it look fake.This is where the painting practice comes in handy. You have to know how to "create" the necessary material. In 3d we do this by tweaking on the color, specular map and normal map to realize what we envisioned.
Both human and animal anatomy. Don't just guess how a body looks like. Don't just model a muscle based on how you think it should look. Try to learn each muscle by name and how they look like. Learn about the human skeleton. Find out the name of each bone and how they connect. Learn to make the right proportions. This may take some time, but it's extremely important. One of my many teachers once said, the more you know about a muscle, the more realistic it will look, since you know what you are modeling. If your base model is correct, the armor you create for it will also look believable.
Again, while modeling or drawing, try to make things look as close to the original as possible, like what you would do in the painting practice.
Learn how to draw and sketch
You don't have to be an expert, but your skill level should at least be decent. This would be a good chance to sign up for some drawing classes or look around for some books that might help. Taking drawing classes are also a good reason, to get out of the house and get to know like minded people. Look around for cheap life drawing sessions without any instructors. You won't get feedback, but at least you get some practice.
When you are proficient enough, try sketching out your next character project, or simply try to practice sketching human faces. Don't settle for just one idea, try out several. A good sketch is a good foundation for your future 3d model.
Things are definitely easier with some kind of mentor. Through feedback or constructive criticism, your personal development will definitely speed up. The most ideal in my opinion are online courses or forums that offer you feedback as you progress. The websites CGtalk, Uartsy, Zbrushworkshops or Digital-Tutors not only offer quality education at a very affordable price, but instructors are sometimes available to help you out with your homework or personal projects. I registered for some of their courses in the past (and will continue to in the future) and I can tell you, it really is worth it. Just have a look around and see what courses might suit you.
Additionally, just post your work at forums to get some feedback. Forums are also frequented but a lot of industry professionals.
"Stay hungry, stay foolish." is what Steve Jobs once said and I couldn't agree more. No matter at what level you are, don't just stay there, try and keep improving. Wether you finished studying at a college or online course, you still have to keep refining your skills. When are you good enough? Hard to tell, I guess once you find a job at a huge and famous company, or job offers just keep pouring in, maybe then you could start to take it easy.
Best of luck
Like I said, these lessons are all just personal observations and experiences. They might help you or they might not, and then maybe only some of them might help you. At the very least, I hope you found some inspiration or enjoyed reading what I wrote.
On that note, I wish you good luck on your journey on becoming a better 3d Artist, and be sure to check my Hub frequently, for more interesting and helpful topics.