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Want to become a famous 3D digital artist? Some professional tips to get you started!

Updated on March 1, 2012
Avatar: The film famed for its realistic and breathtaking visual effects
Avatar: The film famed for its realistic and breathtaking visual effects

If you have ever seen films such as Shrek or Avatar, you will appreciate why there are so many people wanting to pursue careers in the 3D digital media industry. With the power of technology at our fingertips, creativity is at an all-time high and the possibilies reach as far as ones knowledge and capabilities. Our lack of knowledge is the only real obstacle holding us back – I say ‘us’ in a broad term because everyone in this industry, (new and old alike) will have to learn and adapt to new methodologies on a regular basis. Without learning these cutting edge skills, our thoughts and ideas are merely a concept in thin air. With a bit of dedication, you can manifest your ideas into a reality!

What is 3D digital media?

The 3D digital media industry is quite a broad term used to describe industries such as visual effects, animation, visualisations and computer generated imagery. If you want to take a part in such a career but don’t know where to start - don’t be put off. I am hoping this introductory guide will assist you in finding your way. In the very least, it should help to motivate you.

Learning to draw is probably the most useful tool a digital artist can learn in order to share and communicate ideas
Learning to draw is probably the most useful tool a digital artist can learn in order to share and communicate ideas | Source

The skills needed

The truth is anybody with an ounce of enthusiasm, motivation and an eye for detail can learn to become a 3D artist, although if you have talent in a traditional artistic discipline such as illustration, painting or sculpture, you will have a distinct advantage over other learners. This is because the artistic principles you have learned are transferable into the world of 3D. The fundamental difference is that you are using your computer as a canvas instead of a traditional one. The geometry you model in a 3d program is similar to shaping a lump of clay.

If you do not consider yourself as ‘arty’, do not fear – there is plenty of scope for the technical minded folk. In fact, programmers are very sought after in the digital media industry. MEL scripting in Autodesk Maya for example can really take your animations and special effects to the next level of cool! Many artists tend to shy away from code but if you have the type of personality to handle both, you are very lucky indeed.

If on the other hand you wish to follow the masses and indulge in pure creativity, it is worth learning how to sketch at the very least. There will probably come a time when you need to show someone a design you have been working on - whether it be a quick sketch to help you communicate an idea across, or simply to help solidify a thought in progress. Photography is also a great skill to learn if you have an interest in photo real projects; nothing quite beats a real photo as reference material.

For all you animators out there, a foundation knowledge in drama could really help you capture the expression of your characters. You could even make a catalogue of facial expressions and body movements for your own reference. Get a friend to help you or scout the internet for suitable material (just make sure you don’t claim them as your own – copyrighting can be evil)!

It takes a lot of dedication to get what you want
It takes a lot of dedication to get what you want

Dedication to the things you love

If the whole concept of learning a 3D program seems daunting to you, you may want to think long and hard whether a career in digital media is right for you. If you are the type of person who wants fast results, you might be disappointed since it can take many years to get good at what you do. This is why enthusiasm is paramount in your success – if you live and breathe your work, you will learn so much quicker than others. If you lose interest then come bouncing back with enthusiasm, you risk forgetting most of what you have learned or even worse, your knowledge will become out-dated very quickly.

The best thing you can do to avoid such slumps of negativity is to take your time and learn at a pace you feel comfortable with. Read a few books relating to the world of 3D – preferably a subject that interests you such as 3D modelling, texturing, rigging, animation; anything that catches your eye. It is best not to learn too many things at once because you don’t want to dilute your knowledge at this stage. Instead, try to understand how each aspect of 3D relates to one another. For instance, you will need to know the process in which a project is put together; you cannot animate a character for instance, unless it has a skeleton or animation controls etc.

Finding your strengths and weaknesses

Once you have found a 3d package that interests you, you should then think about the skills that you want to pursue. If you like animation, you might want to download some free 3D models and practice your raw puppetry skills. On the other hand, if you would rather ‘make’ things, concentrate on 3D modelling to start with. Obviously, you can branch into other areas of interest as your confidence grows.

If you are like me, it took five years to discover what my specialisms were. After all, having an interest in something is one thing, but being good at it is another! If you are unsure, it is worth showing your portfolio to a professional and get THEM to tell you based on first impressions. Sometimes the answer you hear is not the one you want to hear but as a result it can really save you a lot of disappointment years down the line.

If you think you have to go to university in order to break into the industry, think again. University for me was great for giving me the confidence and motivation to self-learn but most of what I learned was actually afterwards. Don’t give up. The industry need people who are unafraid of change – the type of person to battle through, thick and thin - challenge after challenge. You will soon be rewarded with the fruits of your labour. When this day comes, nothing can stop you!

Use Social Media to your advantage. Network and learn!
Use Social Media to your advantage. Network and learn!

Talk the talk, walk the walk with the help of Social media

Over time, you will start to discover strange words or phrases – many of these ‘buzz words’ will help you later on if ever you decide to work with other 3d artists. If you are lucky enough to know such people, pick their brains a bit! Ask them questions. Find out what software they use and what the best learning resources are. If you don’t know any digital artists personally, check out forums, blogs or social media sites such as Twitter for the information you need. Even YouTube can be a useful resource from time to time.

Online digital communities are also perfect for discovering the best software and technologies on the market. There are hundreds of different programs but only a handful are really worth investigating, depending on your needs. There is no point choosing a program too obscure, else you will have difficulty finding tutorials to help you learn. Just because a program is free doesn’t make it totally useless. In fact, sometimes the simpler programs offer a firm introduction to higher end packages such as 3d Studio Max, Maya or Lightwave.

If you do decide to learn the higher end programs from the start, try downloading some free software trials first – most big companies have them. The full versions cost a lot of money so it is not a good idea to waste hundreds or even thousands of your hard earned cash on software, especially if you decide you don’t like it months down the line.


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    • geek_princess profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from West Sussex

      Hi Sunny, great to hear from you!

      Your 3D project sounds really exciting. Good luck with it!

      Sounds to me you would be better off learning 3D Studio Max instead of Maya. Both programs do the same thing essentially but 3DMax is better for games, (whereas Maya is more favoured by the animated film industry).

      Whatever program you decide to use, try to build simple, low poly models from the start as opposed to simplifying complex models that have tonnes of polygons already. Sure, Maya has the tools to simplify complex shapes but it can be hit and miss. After all, you can tell a computer to simplify a shape but who is to say it will look any good? If you want a job done well, it is better to make it yourself.

      Also Sunny, a piece of advice is to find out what file types your 3D models need to be in - some game engines are very specific and can cause you lots of headache if you don't export with the right settings. If your models need to be in FBX format for example, make sure your 3D program supports it.

      All the best!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      *if there are any other program except maya that I should learn for building game ready geometry

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Hi Geek Princess, I want to be a 3d artist and have started learning maya through online tutorials. Me and my friend are planning to develop a game for android and ios platform. He is a programmer and I am going to do the design part. Can you guide me if maya has feature of coverting high poly models to low poly game ready geometry and if there any program I should start learning for preparing models for the game.

      Thanks in Advance.

    • geek_princess profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from West Sussex

      Glad to be of help! The very best of luck to you :)

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Thank you!!! This helped sooooo much.

      Life just got a little easier!

    • geek_princess profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from West Sussex

      Thanks guys, I appreciate your feedback! Also hope it will help the new generation of digital artists. I was so lost when I started - I couldn't begin to tell you. I wouldn't wish that on any other poor soul :)

    • Armondff profile image


      9 years ago from Southern California

      3D animation is the best. Amazingly informative page, i am an aspiring animator and this is honestly the first time ive run across the subject explained in detail and specifically regarding the topic. COol :)

    • rembrandz profile image

      Remy Francis 

      9 years ago from Dubai

      Hi there geek princess... very nice hub!

      Wow!! I wish I had this hub to refer to more 15 years ago when I tread into my animation career.

      You have all the tips perfect for a passionate animation aspirant.

      Thanks for sharing.


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