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How to Build a Convincing Interior Space with 3D

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Last December, I decided to start learning 3D modeling using the program Blender. The goal was to learn enough to build 3D models for use as illustration references.

Nearly a year later, I am using Blender with almost every project! It’s probably one of the most adaptable tools I’ve recently picked up. Sometimes, I just use it to model a quick belt buckle, but other times I end up building an entire environment. It’s become just as useful as a digital camera in my reference process, allowing me to tackle reference challenges much quicker than would have been possible before I started working in Blender.

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This futuristic city is a perfect example of this. I was working on a really tight deadline for a book cover last month and the brief called for a future city in the background. Using simple cones and cylinders, I threw together this city, dropped a simple backlighting scheme and some very small cylinders for some flying space traffic. The model took about 2 hours to construct and I probably spent less time than that painting it in.

How would I have done this without Blender? Well, I probably would have built an actual city out of toilet paper tubes, straws and other materials. While there’s nothing wrong with that strategy, it would have taken so much longer – more time than I could afford when on a tight deadline!

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For my Halloween themed painting, “A Lesson in Witchcraft,” I wanted a character in an abandoned library space, surrounded by piles of books. I’ve painted piles of books before and my old method was to just take books off a shelf and photograph them. But for “Lesson,” I wanted like an entire room full of book piles as though a librarian totally lost their mind. It just wasn’t practical to take every book in my house off their shelves and create this space so I decided to use Blender.

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The great thing about 3D modeling is that you can iterate off of a base object very easily. I spent some time getting one book right. Though a book is basically a rectangular shape, there is a curve to the binding on bigger, older books (my favorite kind) and often the edge of the pages will have this curve as well. I worked in this curve and then just copied this one book over and over, changing its scale, height, depth, and width to make all manner of different size and shapes to get a wide variety.

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By rotating and stacking the different books I easily obtained this haphazard pile of different sizes and shapes. I wanted it to look like small novels got stacked on top of huge reference manuals and Blender made the entire process surprisingly easy. I even constructed a window with some bounce lighting coming through and this worked well in conjunction with the books. I’ve found that lighting is typically the most challenging thing to figure out. I’m still getting the hang of it!

In case you were wondering, the sitting woman in the scene is not my creation. I found a stock model placeholder on the website Turbosquid where free and purchasable 3D models are available for download. She worked well in a pinch to estimate shadow placement and help me build out the scene for my illustration.

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Here’s a work in progress shot of “A Lesson in Witchcraft.” While the 3D model helps tremendously, I still have to paint all those books in on top of it. You can see that the books on the right are mostly painted in, while those on the left are just the 3D model with a single color applied. I really want to avoid the clean, digital look of the model, so I mostly add color and texture – the old wrinkled leather of the covers, the layered look of the pages, etc. Like any tool, it’s best used to solve a singular problem, which in this case is perspective and lighting. I still need to figure out how to make everything gel together into a cohesive picture. In the end, I just want the viewer to become immersed, so the 3D model is just a part of the symphony of suspending a viewer’s disbelief 🙂