Becoming skilled at creating 3D art is not easy, but these brilliant examples show what is possible if you're willing to put in the effort. Working in 3D adds depth and realism at a level that's very hard to capture when creating in 2D. If you're at the beginning of your 3D adventure, use these pieces of art as inspiration to guide you forward. We've also spoken to the artists to hear a little more about their workflow and design process.
There are a range of different tools around to work with, as our guide to the best 3D modelling software proves. This list includes a range of free software, ideal if you're just getting started.
Click the icon in the top right of each image to see it full-size.
01. Y-Wing redesign 2020
Work on the intricate 3D model of this Y-wing design took Ubisoft senior 3D environment artist, Encho Enchev, just three days to complete. Enchev built the model in 3ds Max, before rendering in V-Ray and applying finishing touches in Photoshop.
In his day job at Ubisoft Enchev will begin projects by making rough sketches to present his ideas to the art director. Next he creates a low-poly 3D model to figure out the correct proportions and composition for the piece, continuing with the details once he's satisfied. "If I'm making an in-game model for Ubisoft I unwrap the model and start texturing and baking in Substance Painter," he explains, "if I'm doing a design for me I will skip the UVs and just do a paintover after I'm done with the renders."
Enchev adds that his inspiration comes from seeing a work of art evolve from initial sketch to a real 3D model in a movie or game.
02. J.R.R Tolkien
It took character artist Roger Magrini three months to complete work on this lifelike recreation of The Lord Of The Rings author J. R. R. Tolkien. "Everything was hand-sculpted and Polypainted in ZBrush on HD Geometry," Magrini explains, "except for his pipe, I used Substance for that."
Magrini began by gathering as much reference as possible, all with different angles and lighting setups. "Likeness is like a puzzle," he adds, "so you need reference to fill in the gaps." Magrini sculpted the likeness in ZBrush, before adding skin details by hand, using brushes he created. "Then I Polypaint the Albedo, Specular and Bump maps," he continues.
Magrini challenged himself to achieve photorealism from the very first render, without any post- processing. "I also like to do a stress test in different lighting setups," he adds, "to see if things hold up."
Character artist Sina Pahlevani worked on this image every day after work, completing it in around ten days. Rather than undertaking extensive planning, Pahlevani likes to develop his artwork throughout the process. "Most of the time I don't have a clear image in my mind, I just define the main story of my artwork. I might change things a lot during the process."
First, Pahlevani blocks out the character's shape and silhouette in ZBrush. The second stage is adding further detail and enhancing the shape of the character, before it undergoes retopology, UV and texturing. "I do retopology and UV in Maya," Pahlevani explains. "For the texturing part you might use Mari, Substance Painter, or ZBrush Polypaint." The final stage of the pipeline involves setting up the shaders and lighting the scene, before making early test renders in Arnold. "After you get the first result you need to go back and forth to modify your model," Pahlevani continues, "using textures and shaders to achieve your desired result."
This appetising image provided 3D student Laura Keuk with an opportunity to use shading and lighting to create a dreamy and peaceful atmosphere. She used Blender’s cloth simulation for the noodles, doing one noodle and then duplicating it, before simulating them just like clothing.
“I used displacement for the oil,” she continues. “I spread the onion springs using a particle simulation with three different instanced meshes and shaders. I played with the scale and rotation to add more randomness to the elements.”
Keuk is inspired to create images like this by the ins and outs of daily life: “I love to watch all the simple things surrounding me and understand what makes it beautiful. It can just be a leaf on the ground, the way flower petals are arranged, the way light bounces off a piece of sugar, or just a cat walking.”
Food is a symbol of sharing, gathering and happiness in Keuk’s family, and she wanted to portray this in her Ramen image. As Keuk puts it: “The feeling I had when I was younger, the feelings food gave me, and a bit of a magical sensation, where the spectator could see that beauty can be from each thing surrounding us.”
05. The Golden Skull
To create this haunting image, CG director, art director and environment artist Hirokazu Yokohara used a variety of notable techniques. MECH/FY - Procedural hard surfaces for Blender 2.8 were used to help create the finer details of the mech. “In addition, I tried using the real-time renderer EEVEE experimentally,” adds Yokohara. The grass was made using Blender add-on Graswald.
The image took about five days to complete and provided Yokohara with an opportunity to learn and experiment within Blender. He continues: “Thanks to real-time renderer EEVEE, I was able to finish the work quickly because I could proceed with modelling, layout and lighting while watching the final quality image.”
Yokohara’s main tool is Cinema 4D (see here for some great Cinema 4D tutorials), which he finds intuitive and easy to use. “Since I am a CG generalist,” he adds, “I study various tools and workflows daily and try to output them as art.”
Previously Yokohara has worked on various CG projects related to movies, from photorealistic characters to more stylised characters and environmental design. “All these things inspire me,” he continues, “from artwork to everyday trivial events. The latest technology is also a huge source of inspiration.”
06. God Pan
The biggest challenge that professional 3D artist Baolong Zhang faced on this project was creating the character’s photorealistic hair. “He’s got very curly hair that required a lot of attention,” explains Zhang. “I used ZBrush FiberMesh to create the main volume of hair, then the smaller hairs were hand-placed. The shorter facial furs were created with XGen in Maya.”
Throughout the project Zhang was inspired by the photography of Cristian Baitg Schreiweis, and he particularly enjoyed searching for further references. “I started searching for more references like Greek statues and paintings,” he says. “It’s fun to put these together in 3D, especially with Unreal Engine 4.” Elsewhere he finds inspiration in nature and classic art.
Finding an interesting subject is crucial to getting a good start on a project, according to Zhang: “I try to have a good idea of what it’s going to look like. As I’m not a concept artist, I don’t really have a final concept, but I have a lot of reference to follow.”
07. Game Buildings
This project from art director and motion designer Gustavo Henrique is a simple yet effective 3D design. “All constructions were modelled in a very simple way,” Henrique explains. “Most of my designs are simple but full of details,” he continues. “I always try to work with geometric shapes and most of my models are made from a cube. I use the Bevel tool to leave the edges of the objects rounded and create the feeling that it’s something fluffy.”
After modelling the scene, Henrique gets to work on the render settings using Octane Render. “The first step is to work on the camera settings. I get a bit of perspective using a 150mm focal length. I also increase the aperture of the lens to achieve a blur and give it the feel of a miniature.”
Henrique gets inspiration from the feedback he receives from fellow artists:
“What inspires me most is to see people say that they are inspired by my projects. The feeling is incredible and the desire to keep on inspiring other people only increases. I believe recognition is very valuable to artists.”
08. Seahorse in the corals
This breathtakingly realistic image took CG generalist Nika Maisuradze just one week to complete. “I always wanted to work on an underwater scene,” explains Maisuradze. “I was surprised to find that creating a realistic underwater creature, which always seemed like such a challenge before, could be done with such ease and joy.”
The project, however, was not without its challenges as Maisuradze explains: “From a technical standpoint the biggest challenge was the shading. Instead of painting all my textures, I just painted the main aspects of textures I would need: the main base colour, small horizontal details, masks of each part of the horse, nose, body, tail, and these tiny blue dots. Instead of repainting textures, I just adjusted them with these detail textures in the shading process, on the fly. For these kind of projects this workflow is much more robust.”
09. Dear Fabricio
“It took me around three and a half days to create the whole piece from concept to final product,” says freelance director, CG supervisor and 3D artist Pedro Conti. This endearing image was a gift for his wife when she was pregnant with their son. The sculptures were based on their ultrasound photos and a little plush monkey from Conti’s childhood.
Conti has 13 years of industry experience to draw from on personal projects like this: “I ran a company called Techno Image for seven years,” he reveals. More recently he has worked on Disney’s Moana and currently freelances for companies like Dreamworks, Universal Studios and Aardman.
“I spent more time thinking about colours, layout and composition than on fancy 3D techniques with this image,” explains Conti. “I felt I should go back to the principles of design and learn more about traditional techniques such as photography, design and Gestalt Theory. If you understand those aspects of art you will find a way to make it work in 3D.”
10. There’s a Pulse!
“I like experimenting in ZBrush,” says concept artist and comic book colourist Neeraj Menon. “Marvellous designer is something new I’m playing with. I do a lot of digital painting so both software come in handy for initial ideas.”
“Although the majority of my time was taken up sculpting the underlying model, I think the most significant part was creating the cloth in Marvellous Designer,” he explains. “The actual design is simple, it's just a sheet of cloth. The real challenge was to lay it just right, hiding certain parts and showing others.”
Despite being a challenge at times, Menon maintains that the experience was an enjoyable one. He concludes: “The most fun part came during the materials and rendering phase. Once the translucency of the cloth was applied, what I had seen in my mind really became a reality. Everything fell into place.”
11. On the Road to Nowhere
This insanely adorable little alien monster pilot was created by Mohamed Chahin in Blender, before rendering in Cycles. Chahin says that when it comes to 3D art, he's most inspired by stories.
"As artists it's our job to tell these stories in a more visual manner," he says. "After all, all artists are storytellers." It's certainly fun to imagine just what this lovable little critter could be getting up to as he flies around in his orange aircraft.
12. The Forest
When lighting artist Joannie Leblanc created this beautiful woodland scene, she knew just how important it was to use lighting effectively to produce the mood she desired.
"Lighting is not just about light and shadows," she explains. "You need to think about what people will focus on in your art to grasp their attention. Contrast, depth, colours and rhythm will help the eyes travel in your picture like a flow, letting the viewers immerse themselves into your world."
13. Somerset Isle
Somerset Isle is a real-time environment rendered with Unreal Engine. "The composition and lookdev is heavily based on the amazing concept works from Chong FeiGiap (Running Snail Studio)," explains environment artist Tomer Meltser of his image, "while many of the design and structure ideas in the environment (boats, architecture) are based on images of Chew Jetty (Malaysia) and other waterfront towns of this nature."
14. Aghori Portrait
It's hard to believe that Aldo Martínez Calzadilla's 3D art, Aghori Portrait, created using ZBrush, Maya and Mari, only took two weeks to finish. "I try to work as fast as possible," he explains. "In my experience, moments of inspiration don't last too long, so I try to go through the process of creating an image as efficiently as I can."
The meticulous groundwork of modelling and sculpting was his favourite part of the project. "I knew that in order to do a good job with the Aghori, the forms and anatomy had to be good and accurate to the reference," he reveals.
PKTS is an abstract, sci-fi and contemporary 3D art series from freelance art director, concept and 3D artist Eugene Golovanchuk, also known as Skeeva. Personal projects like this always evolve out of the smallest and simplest of experiments.
“Combine simple shapes and colours and see if you have that inner sense of what you are going to see. If it works then you can develop the idea into something more fully formed. Cinema 4D is my main 3D software. I usually use the viewport as an empty canvas, combining different silhouettes and textures into one composition to see how objects ‘feel’ inside the scene,” he explains.
When it comes to achieving the slick and stylish look of his work, Golovanchuk has some simple advice: “The trick is to try and set up textures and lighting first, so it looks more or less like the final render. Then you can carry on tweaking the model and textures. Most people will say it’s wrong and that the process should be step-by-step. You know what? Don’t listen to anyone else, just do what you feel.”
16. Slug Race
It may be a whimsical scene, but Slug Race is closely based in reality. Brazilian 3D artist Fabricio Moraes and his collaborator Guilherme Formenti used Agisoft PhotoScan to generate 3D spatial data from digital photos.
"Photogrammetry was a technique that I had always wanted to try. So I scanned a lot of trees, rocks and ground to get a more realistic approach," says Moraes.
The pair used 3ds Max and ZBrush for modelling and lighting, V-Ray for rendering and Nuke for compositing. "I normally use Photoshop to compose the final image," says Moraes, "but this time I gave Nuke a try. I was amazed at how powerful it is."
17. Dark Forest
Jakub Javora's surreal Dark Forest scene, with its glowing doorway contrasting with the natural scene, perfectly sums up the artist's eclectic and eccentric interests. "I'm mostly inspired by weird phenomena like chaos theory, sexual selection and various religious practices," he explains.
Unusually for Javora, this scene was a pure 3D composition with no 2D techniques involved. "Some people are using the same tools and workflow without changing," he says. "I am always trying to do something extra to keep my creative spirit going and enjoy the work."
Next page: 10 more great 3D projects