How to Get Started with 3D Modeling: An Interview with 3D Modeling Expert Jonathan Williamson

Are you thinking of learning 3D modeling? Wondering whether it’s a good idea? Or how long it will take you before you can make your first 3D model? And what you should do when you are staring at a blank screen with no idea what to do next? We talked to Jonathan Williamson from CG Cookie, one of the leading digital art education sites, about the challenges and rewards of the trade and his insider tips for someone who is totally new to the world of 3D.

Jonathan, you are a professional 3D modeler with years of experience. For somebody who is thinking of getting into 3D, why do you think they should do it in the first place? Doesn’t the world have enough 3D modelers already?

Jonathan: Absolutely not. 3D modeling is omnipresent in today’s world and it is only going to grow as a sought-after skill. To put things in context: 75% of the IKEA catalogue is now done in 3D. We all know that Facebook bought the Oculus Rift for billions of dollars, you know they are going to have to get plans for growing that sector. If virtual reality keeps on growing, it is going to have a much larger impact on people’s everyday lives. And of course, the objects of virtual reality all start as 3D models. Next, consider architectural visualization; if you have a house renovation project or want to design a house completely, you can absolutely use 3D modeling for that. If you want to get started in 3D printing, whether that is designing toys, tools or anything, that is 3D modeling. It all starts with a model.

3D is getting to be more involved in so many different areas, everything from development of films, virtual reality, scientific research, to special design. It is touching hundreds of industries right now. If you want to get into a lot of research, visualization, medical design, much of that is 3D modeling. In short – the world needs 3D modelers!

Sounds great. So now you have convinced me to get started – but what do I need as a prerequisite? Is it a field that is open to absolutely anybody?

Jonathan: To get started in 3D modeling, you have to have a passion for the computer: that is without a doubt. You will be spending a lot of time working digitally and if you do not like working on a computer, 3D modeling is probably not your thing. If, however, you really enjoy the computer, have an idea for something that you want to integrate either with the real world or completely virtually, then 3D modeling may be it. For the most part, this interest or passion is the only prerequisite you will need.

One thing that is not essential but will absolutely benefit you is a good sense of spatial awareness. If you are one of those people who can visualize an object in front of you, a real world object – a peanut butter jar, can opener, car key or a wallet – you can spin it around in your mind and know exactly what it looks like, 3D modeling will probably be a good fit for you. That is essentially what you will be doing every single day. If you find that kind of spatial visualization challenging, 3D modeling will most likely be more difficult for you. It of course depends to what degree you are modeling, but some modeling is going to be strictly from existing blueprints.

You are good to go as long as you have a computer and a good sense of spatial awareness and beyond that, just the need and urge to learn.

I believe that anyone can learn modeling. It is a bit technical, but it does not have to be technical in terms of computer science. There are a lot of people who are very successful modelers and are absolutely on the artistic side rather than the technical side of the spectrum.

3D model of a creature created by Jonathan Williamson

3D model of a creature created by Jonathan Williamson

OK, I’ve decided to become a 3D modeler! What is the next step I need to take?

Jonathan: The next step would definitely be software. Most computers do not come with the software needed for 3D modeling. However, the software is starting to matter less and less as far as what you choose, it is much more up to one’s individual resources and personal preference. At this point, all of the main software packages are so close to being on the same level that it is really quite irrelevant. It almost does not matter if you choose Blender, 3ds Max or Maya; all of these tools are very capable in enabling you to do things you could have never done before.

What is your personal recommendation?

Jonathan: Keeping in mind how similar the 3D software packages have become, I think Blender makes a very good choice especially for new artists, for a few reasons.

One of the primary reasons is that there is no barrier to entry. Blender can basically run on any machine. If you only have access to a computer that is a few years old now, it will still work. Blender is very compatible and small. To give an even more extreme example, if you don’t have a computer at home, you can simply put Blender on a flash drive and go to your public library or any other place that has a public computer. You can take Blender with you anywhere you go without the need for access dongles, license keys, or anything else of the sort.

Also, Blender is built by the community and anyone can become involved. If you are an artist and you want to have input in making the software even better, you can do that and if the changes are good, they might be applied to future releases. If you are a computer science student and you want to start developing on Blender or if you are building a data visualization tool, you can integrate it directly in Blender without having to build the whole foundation, just leverage Blender.

And of course, it is completely open-source, so the software is free and there’s no usage restrictions on anything you create.

This is important because one of the issues that young artists may run into if they learn 3D modeling at school is getting a free student license which, as soon as you leave school, can no longer be used for commercial work. You have spent four years and thousands of dollars on your education, and you are most likely in no place to spend another few thousand dollars on a software license. Yet, the software that you just learned requires you to buy a license! So what kind of position are you in to start doing professional work while still paying back student loans?

With Blender, there is no license to worry about and you can use it for commercial purposes without restriction. Any work created in Blender can be sold, adapted and distributed. So for a new artist that is just trying to get their feet on the ground in their professional work, Blender makes great sense. Your start-up costs are your time; that is about it.

Another point is the community spirit of Blender. It is developed by Blender users and the community and I think that resonates with a lot of people. There is a very strong vibrant community behind Blender from people of all walks of life, different skillsets, there are different artists and researchers, you name it, so that side is very fun.


Sounds like a no-brainer. But regardless of the software, I decide to go with in the end, where do I find resources as a new 3D modeler?

Jonathan: Again, that depends on the software that you choose. If you are choosing Blender, then CG Cookie might be a good place to start. Or it may be YouTube for SketchUp or 3ds Max. There are a lot of different resources and honestly, if you are just getting started, Google is probably your friend. There are a lot of different educational sites out there and which one you choose depends on your area of focus. Of course, because I’m biased towards CG Cookie, that is the one I will recommend over the others if your software of choice is Blender. We have a free “Blender Basics” course that I personally created for total Blender beginners and I can very confidently recommend that as a great starting point. It will get you up to speed in under 45 minutes.

Do you recommend looking for education based primarily on your area of focus?

Jonathan: Absolutely, one of the things that makes 3D software a little daunting to learn is that they are really complex and nearly unlimited in what they can do. At this point, Blender and similar competitors are so big that basically no one person knows all of it. I do not think there is a single person on planet Earth that knows every single piece of Blender. There are many people, including myself, that try to get at least a general understanding of all areas, but we do not know it fully. There are now a lot of niche sites popping up that are focused on using their software of choice in a very particular industry, whether that is Blender with 3D printing or using Blender for architectural visualization or for data science. In this case, Google will be your friend to find those niches.

3D model of figurines created by Jonathan Williamson

3D model of figurines created by Jonathan Williamson

So let’s say I have my software and I am slowly starting to learn how to use it. How long will it take me before I can really turn my idea into a 3D model?

Jonathan: That depends almost entirely on you. Through CG Cookie, I have seen people do it in as little as a day and a half, to as long as a year. It is really up to the individual how much time they want to spend doing it. There are some people who want to absorb as much knowledge as they can and choose not to apply it until they have a good sense of understanding. Then there are some who are just eager to get started and may actually get started too quickly – but that is OK too because they are getting their hands dirty even if they do not know what they are doing just yet.

For me personally, keeping in mind that there was no training material when I started, it was a good couple of months before I really felt like I could do something, creating an idea I had. As long as you are taking advantage of the material that is now available, whether it is free tutorials, YouTube or CG Cookie, you should definitely be able to start creating and visualizing your ideas, regardless of how good they come out, in a few days or less.

What is your recommended approach to learning? Do you sit back and absorb the theory first, or just dive into modeling headfirst?

Jonathan: I prefer a mixture. When I am learning a new skill, say programming or sculpting, I prefer to sit back and watch and then get my hands dirty. First watch and then dive in. I jump back and forth by trying to completely absorb small things, sections and segments of a material and apply that, then learn another section and apply that. This works really well for me, but that is different for other people.

3D model of a military vehicle created by Jonathan Williamson

3D model of a military vehicle created by Jonathan Williamson

Jonathan, let’s say that in my journey to becoming a 3D modeler, I have a basic idea of how to create my first 3D model. But I do not necessarily know what it is I want to create. I just want to learn. What do you think would be the best thing to start with? Should it be a cube, a chess piece or something else entirely?

Jonathan: Haha, the old “blank slate” situation! Well, in this case what matters is not what you make as long as you make something. You might have learned some of the basic skills, you kind of know what you are doing and you want to create something. You open up your software and you have a blank screen. I think this is where tutorials become really useful. Not necessarily for the sake of learning new skills, but for explaining what you are actually doing and things you do not need to worry about.

So if you are having the blank slate issue, go watch a tutorial and just follow along with it because that is actually going to get you working. You will be applying what you are learning in the software, learning different tools, learning how it works. If you do that enough, one day you will find that you just start creating without even having to worry about the blank slate this time.

We would like to thank Jonathan and Pavla from CG Cookie for their help with preparing this interview. CG Cookie is an online learning hub for digital artists, hosting Blender tutorials, courses, and exercises.


Do you want to learn more about how to get started with 3D modeling? Check out this tutorial by Jonathan for the i.materialise blog: he will teach you how to create your first 3D print in Blender in an exciting video tutorial. New 3D modelers should also take a look at our “5 Mistakes to Avoid When Designing a 3D Model for 3D Printing” blog post.