Introduction

Computer Generated Images, or better: User Generated and Computer Rendered Images, are truly fake. They exist as 0’s and 1’s in a completely virtual world namely the computer and its memories (hard drive, RAM). Each time you want to create a new image you virtually start in an empty world and in consequence you can fill this empty world with anything you like.

If you are a beginner in the world of 3D and have created some images you might already know the problems accompanied by the virtual world. For me it was two problems at the same time: firstly I didn’t know where to start and secondly I didn’t know how to create the models convincingly.

If you have similar problems as I had the best advice is to start with the nature around you. In other words it means for you to do either one of those:

  • Imitate the real world
  • Exaggerate the real world and
  • Use imperfections as the real world

Imitate the Real World

When I started my art classes in High School, our teacher told to us again and again that by mastering abstract painting we first had to learn naturalistic drawing. Well, we didn’t really believe him at first but we quickly had to acknowledge his statement as he let us try to paint abstract bodies and faces and each attempt looked horrible. After that disaster he showed us early paintings from Pablo Picasso. We were stunned. Compared to his latter works, his early paintings were an explosion of naturalistic/realistic paintings.

In a way we can say that by creating 3D images we in fact try to use the two opposites of painting in one task: whenever we try to make a 3D image that resembles our reality, we have to create abstract models/representations in order to create a more or less realistic/convincing result.

Since both tasks are not that easy, we can say that the best way to learn 3D is to simply imitate the real world at first. This way, you avoid the problems of creativity and reduce your work to “simple” reproduction. It is the same approach many Chinese artists take and took in the last centuries: to learn from the masters you have to copy them. In our case, the master is nature.

So, what does this mean on a more practical level?

If you want to learn to create convincing 3D, take your camera and make a photo of something you think might be easy enough to reproduce. Or look in the internet for a picture. Then load this image into your 3D program of choice and start to reproduce this object or image in 3D.

As soon as you start this practice you will notice how many things you will learn. This might start with the lens that was used for the photograph and most surely will end with the material, the lightning and much more. You will learn about specular lightning and where it belongs, bump mapping, shaders and much more. And of course, you will learn much about the shape of objects as well as how to model them efficiently.

And with each image and step you can use more and more complex objects as reference, and end with the most complex of all: the human body and its skin.

Exaggerate the Real World

When you are working on a real 3D image, meaning, an image with a true artistic or visionary goal (instead of purely practicing) you can try to exaggerate the real world to make the result much more compelling:

The two images above show the exaggeration quite well. As you can see on the left there are people out there with really interesting faces and wrinkles. If you compare the real life example with the 3D counterpart you can see that the artist not only added wrinkles to the model but in fact wrinkled it almost too much. Nevertheless the result is great to look at. On the other hand, if we imagine a real world lightning situation for this model, the now really deep and exaggerated wrinkles might result in a seemingly realistic image.

If you exaggerate your models and everything else in the scene you not only make the final image more interesting to look at, but on a more practical level also create enough visible details that won’t fade away in your rendering (as with wrinkles or bumps). This not only goes for model details, but also for shaders, lights and colors.

As a result we can say that you always try to exaggerate your 3D image as much as possible. Try to reach a level you are comfortable with and that fits your image. If you try to create something truly realistic, keep the exaggerations to a minor level. If you are going comic, try go the full way.

Use imperfections as the Real World

What is one of the biggest problems of 3D images? They are in fact artificial. They show something that isn’t truly real or in other words non-existent.

There are many consequences of this fact (as that everything is possible), but one of them is the perfectionism we see in so many images. Compared to real life, 3D images are created by algorithms and mathematics and those ones tend to be perfect.

Now, one if not the best way to counterattack this virtual perfectionism is to add imperfections to your images in two ways:

  • on (and with) models
  • on textures.

Adding imperfections to 3d polygon models is rather easy and straightforward. If you have a model from a technical or organic object (a monitor or a face) look at it and try to spot possibilities to destroy their perfection. On a technical model it can be harder to add imperfections but they are possible. It can be something subtle as a non-centered plug or a small dent for example.

Adding imperfections to organic models is comparatively easy, as you simply can move complete parts of it to make it imperfect. Imagine a face you have modeled. As with most virtual objects you might have done this by modeling only one half of the face, then inverse duplicating the half and finally merge both parts to create the full model.

If you now look at the model it is perfect in its symmetry. But in real life, symmetry of the face is an attribute only pretty models can draw upon. Therefore you can add realism and “beauty” by destroying the perfect symmetry of the face: move the nose a little bit to the left, lower the right eyes, add a non symmetrical wrinkle and so on. Since the model is not technical it is no problem to move some parts without virtually destroying it.

Another way of adding imperfections is on the texture level of your images. Compared to modeling it is even easier to accomplish but also very often ignored.
When you have a texture ready to be used in your rendering don’t go forward but add one last step to the process: make it dirty and full of variations.

Imagine a wall you want to texture. If the wall is outside it is quite possible that the lower parts became dirty of the sidewalk, plants and rain. Perhaps even some gangsters added their painting. Add all elements necessary or fitting to the texture. This rule can be applied to almost any texture. Always ask yourself the question where dirt could have been added over the years.

And then, before finally going 3D, make just another step and add some color variations to your textures. They can be as subtle as a grain or being true color variation caused by usage over time. Here you can think of jeans that have been in use for more than ten years.

Each and every variation you add to your texture will make it less perfect. And in the end more interesting to look at.

Summary

Nature is our friend. Not only in the real world, but also in the virtual counterpart.

When you are starting in this world, the best way to start is to imitate the real things around you in 3D. This way you not only learn much about objects, materials, textures and lightning, but also about modeling efficiently and fast.

But imitation is not the only possibility. Besides the fact that you can use nature as some sort of blueprint for your exaggerated work you can also use nature as a reference for how things look dirty or used. This way you can prevent your work from looking perfect or even dull and make it more interesting to look at. Try to achieve the level of dirt, exaggeration or realism that best fits for your image and go for it.

And don’t forget: have fun with your work.