3D isn't an easy creative discipline to learn. Just the basics of creating good-looking 3D models can take a while to get to grips with, and that's before you get to the technical challenges such as lighting, rigging and rendering.
Anyone with an eye on 3D is likely to be horrified by the price tags attached to some of the best 3D modelling software. However if you're looking to learn but don't have the budget to match, there are plenty of free options available. Here are nine of the best, starting with basic stuff for beginners and moving on to more advanced packages suitable for experienced 3D professionals.
For beginners wanting to get a feel for sculpting in 3D, it's hard to go far wrong with Stéphane Ginier's SculptGL. It's a free digital sculpting app that runs in the browser – you can also get it as a Chrome app and standalone version – and it comes with plenty of features to get you started with 3D sculpting with a mouse or tablet.
There are assorted brushes and manipulation tools to try, plus PBR vertex painting and alpha texture support, as well as multi-resolution sculpting, voxel remeshing and dynamic topology, and it'll export your work as an OBJ, PLY or STL.
02. Wings 3D
If 3D modelling's something you want to try, Wings 3D is a great way to dip a toe in the water. It's a pure modelling app that lets you build a basic 3D model out of polygons and then smooth it out by subdividing the mesh.
It's a fairly basic experience with a slightly unusual customisable interface, but it's designed to be easy to use and supports lights and materials as well as having a built-in AutoUV mapping facility.
Designed as an introduction to Autodesk's more heavyweight CAD tools, Tinkercad is a set of free online tools to get you started not only with 3D, but also with electronics and designing with code.
Built with teachers, kids, hobbyists and designers in mind, it's all about placing, adjusting and combining objects to create designs, and comes with a whole stack of tutorials to get you started, and when you're done you can export your work for 3D printing or export a slice as an SVG file for laser cutting.
04. Daz Studio
3D modelling isn't for everyone, but even if you can't get your head around it, there are still some great options for creating 3D art without having to deal with polygons and subdivisions. Daz Studio doesn't have any modelling tools, but with it you can build complex 3D scenes and animation using a vast library of ready-made people, animals, props, vehicles, accessories and environments.
For beginners there are plenty of in-app interactive tutorials to help you get to grips with its features, so you can start learning about things like lighting, texturing and rigging, and once you've completed your 3D masterpiece, you can render it at photo-realistic quality to use however you want.
A cloud-based 3D tool that runs in your web browser, Clara.io gives you all the 3D modelling, animation and rendering tools you need to create and share 3D models and photo-realistic renders.
It features a load of powerful modelling tools enabling you to do everything from tweaking an existing model through to building your own creation, and it uses VRay cloud rendering with an enormous material library and flexible lighting setups. And while it's web-based, Clara.io's front end is modelled on traditional desktop tools, so it's easy to get started with and should leave you ready to adapt if you decide to move onto a more heavyweight app.
Based on Pixologic's ZBrush, Sculptris is the ideal free 3D modelling app to move on to once you've exhausted the possibilities of SculptGL. Designed as an accessible, easy-to-use app for any type of artist, it uses dynamic tessellation with automatic subdivision to enable you get sculpting immediately, and features an intuitive, immersive interface with navigational controls similar to those in ZBrush.
If you want to take your work further, it's easy to export to ZBrush for additional refinement. Sculptris is no longer in development, but it's still available as a free download.
The undisputed king of free 3D software, Blender is an immensely powerful tool for 3D creation that can handle just about everything much more expensive packages can do, from modelling and texturing through to rendering and compositing. There are also plenty of helpful Blender tutorials out there to help you learn the ropes.
It's available for all major operating systems, and while it's traditionally had a bit of a reputation for being just a little too open-source in its look and feel, the most recent update has seen it adopt more industry-standard interface. So now it has a right-click context menu, as well as keyboard shortcuts that do exactly what you'd expect if you're used to other packages.
With Blender adopting a more standardised look, there's possibly less of a need for Bforartists, but it's definitely worth checking out if you're still not keen on Blender's user interface.
It's a fork of Blender that's aimed primarily at artists, and which has been created to be much easier to use, with a much improved and intuitive graphical UI. This shouldn't come at the expense of functionality, though; the development team promises that every feature that works in Blender should also work in Bforartists.
When you're thinking big on a 3D project, you need something that can create a suitably impressive world, and Terragen fits the bill in every respect. It's a powerful took for building amd rendering realistic natural environments; if you can imagine a landscape, Terragen can make it.
The free version is for personal use only (although you can use it commercially on a 30-day trial basis) and comes with a few limitations over the full version, but it's an ideal way to explore Terragen's stunning world-creation tools.