Mastering 3D art is far from easy, but these incredible examples show what is possible if you're willing to put in the hours and effort. Working in 3D adds extra depth and realism to an image that can be very hard to capture in 2D. If you're on the long road to build up your skills, take a look at these artworks to inspire and guide you. We've also spoken to the artists to hear a little more about their workflow and design process.
The artists behind these images use a range of different tools – take a look at our guide to the best 3D modelling software to find out what each one does (there are a range of free tools included here, ideal if you're just getting started).
Click the icon in the top right of each image to see it full-size.
01. 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.”
02. 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.”
03. There’s a Pulse!
“I like experimenting in ZBrush,” says concept artist and comic book colourist Neeraj Menon. “Marvelous 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.”
04. 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.
05. 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."
06. 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."
07. 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.”
09. 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."
10. 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