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Last update: April 27, 2021

3D art motivation, planning, and workflow

This article is about going through an art project. Actually starting, actually doing the work and actually finish on time. That is what it’s all about. Therefore, no matter what level you are on this article will be valuable for you.

We all struggle with these fundamental things at one point or another. So, before we all get further discouraged by unknown external (or internal) forces, let’s begin!

How to plan for continuous action

Here is where I tell you that the planning stage is the most important part of any project and bla bla bla...

It could not be further from the truth. The only thing that gets a project done is action, action and action until all the actions are done and the project is complete.

But then again, the plan dictates what actions to be taken, and if we do some actions not related to the project, we could end up completing someone else’s project, or worse, nothing at all. That is not what we want.

This is what I think about planning. Make the planning stage as short as possible, but long enough to avoid any major mistakes.

Minor mistakes are fine. We can remodel some background asset or change up lighting as much as we want. But if we intended a car and modeled a farm, we are slightly off track.

How do we keep the planning stage short then? Glad you asked. We skip it. At least we pretend to skip it and dive right in.

With our general idea of what we want our finished project to look like, we dive in and start creating some basic shapes. We develop the idea, move over to the browser and look for some reference and then back again.

Continue developing the idea by modelling, looking for reference and testing things. Try some different lightings in a basic placeholder scene for instance. Take a break and come back with refreshed eyes if you need.

For me, I generally spend between 5 minutes to 3 hours before I conclude this first step.

Once we have an idea of the finished result, make a list of easy to accomplish actions that will act as your next steps. Write on paper or any software you like. Personally, I prefer paper so that I don’t have to give up screen space. Also, I feel much more invested in something I wrote on paper over something I wrote on a keyboard for some reason.

The list should be written in such a way that you know how to do each step and each step should be quick enough to complete so that you see the light at the end of the tunnel when you start on any of the steps. In this way, you always see the light and that is a key part of planning for continuous motivation.

Here is an example for a modelling session of an interior arch viz scene.

  • Setup the blueprint as reference in the scene
  • Make sure scaling is correct
  • Create the walls
  • Add windows and doors
  • Add and test lighting
  • Adjust the scene settings to minimize noise for test renders
  • Start detailing
    • Materials
    • Furniture
    • Details

The list can be much more detailed or much less detailed or anything in between. The most important thing is that you know how to complete the next step or what the first step would be to find out how to complete a step. The goal we are trying to achieve with our planning is to have a good idea of where we are going and know what the next step is always. Note that the list does not have to be complete. But you should continue filling it up before you reach the end while working on your project.

Next, write a handful of sentences or so about what the general idea of your project is. Write longer if you need or shorter if you can keep it short. I generally try to include these things in my short description.

  • Emotion
  • Subject
  • Setting
  • History

For the example, a children’s room with a wooden toy train as the focal element:

“I want the viewer to feel nostalgia and coming to a smile when looking at the wooden toy train on the children’s bedroom floor. The room is small and minimalistic, and the train seems to be a precious toy for the kid. It has been left on the floor overnight. The kid is just off to breakfast as the morning sun shines in through the window.”

It is not perfect, but it will do. Perfect usually ends up uncompleted, anyway. The goal of this text is to remind us where we are going with our project, even if we have been away from it for a couple of days. It is our compass for the project. The list is our map, telling us what lies directly ahead, and since we just dived in, we can continue with the scene we already started. It got us out of the harbor.

We completed:

  • A brainstorm session that ended in our first draft
  • Started the to do list with manageable tasks
  • Wrote our compass

With these three ingredients you are passed planning, you are out on open sea, headed for a direction with a map in your hand.

Next up, doing the work.

Get the work done

We have the tools we need to get started. The list. Designed for motivation with short enough steps that we know how to do or start doing. Each step not taking longer than we can complete within a reasonable amount of time. We always see the light in the tunnel.

The file that we started working on. It has some objects and possibly a decent lighting setup. We are no longer in blank canvas land.

Our small piece of text. Something to remind us of what the end goal looks like. This becomes important when starting every new session working on our project. Since most projects aren’t completed in a single sitting, we will need to remind ourselves what we are doing. Reading the text is your 30 second meditation before getting started again.

To get started from here, I usually turn to the Pomodoro technique. Sounds fancy! Not so much, though. All it means is that you set a timer, usually 25 min and you get stuff done, then you take a 5 min break.

After 4 sessions you take a slightly longer break for 20 min or so. Then you start over. This way of managing a session helps me get going because I know that if I get stuck, I get a break at some point.

I also realize that there is not that much time until the next break and makes me want to move. I don’t want my future self to stare at nothing for 5 minutes 25 minutes later.

Within each 25 minutes timeframe I try to complete at least one full bullet point from my list. If I do, I get the honor of not only getting more coffee but also take the remaining 4 minutes and 30 seconds to draw the most symmetric and esthetically accurate checkmark ever known to humankind.

…Nah I don’t really do that.

But I would recommend you get up during that time and walk or do something a bit more physical. I usually just walk back and forth in the house, if I am alone, I might talk to myself or sing on some song I don’t know the lyrics for. Perhaps some quick cleaning up your space and keep organized.

Inevitably though, we will fail. So, now I want to talk a little bit about that and how we can deal with it as artists, or how I have come to deal with it.

What does it mean to fail? I think the religious word sin is a good one to explain it. Sin only means to “miss the mark” and when you view it that way it can be applied to the goals, we set up for ourselves. Just not completing something that we set up to do or stepping on someone else’s toes could be considered failure if we chose to.

In our context here, though, it mostly comes down to procrastination. Doing the work or not doing the work. I can sometimes feel that when I write I procrastinate from making art and when I test out things in Blender, I procrastinate from writing. Now that is something….

So deal with it. Step one, be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself for failing. Realize also that there is not much failure that can’t be fixed. It just gets fixed later and late is better than never.

The best time was yesterday, but the second best time is today. Silence the inner perfectionsit because yesterday won't be back tomorrow. There is only now.

I also have started to recognize that humans view their future selves as someone else. When planning for instance, subconsciously we plan for someone else. Therefore, it is easy to plan to much in a too short amount of time.

Because we usually think higher of other people than we think of ourselves. Since we think of our future selves as someone else, we tend to plan in too much because we think that in the future, we can handle it.

I would like to encourage you to think of your future self as another person even consciously. Someone else that you care deeply about. If you do, you can ask yourself today how you can make life easier for your future self as if it was someone else and that mindset might help you to help yourself.

After all, we are much keener of helping others than our selves anyway. What you sacrifice today then becomes a sacrifice for someone else rather than yourself.

Making life better for others and for the future is the only true goal where we can find meaning. Do me a favor and help your future self.

Now to some midway recap.

  • Use the pomodoro technique to manage time. There are plenty of apps to help with this. Personally, I use Brain Focus.
  • You will fail from time to time. Don’t be too hard on yourself.
  • Think of your future self as someone else, you subconsciously already do anyway. Make it someone that you care deeply about and make it your lives goal to help that person out right now.
  • The only true goals in life involves others and the future.

For me these simple nuggets have helped me to be a lot more productive and work towards my goals. I believe they can do the same for you.

Art in focus

Ok, we reflected over ourselves and looked at some key tools to help us get through the project we just planned. Now I want to direct your attention to the work itself.

I have three parts I want to touch on.

  • Dealing with critique
  • Making a representation
  • Using stock assets

Let’s start with critique.

You, the artist, is separated from your work. You are not your work. You cannot take the work personal. What does this mean? It means that any feedback or critique directed at your art is not directed at you, even if it may feel like that.

Critique is another person’s perspective on the art that you made. Critique is as far from fact as you can come. It is subjective. An opinion, and it should be filtered.

To deal with critique, I have made it a habit to always agree to some critique and disagree on some. Whatever the person critiquing is saying. After all, you made the art the way you made it for a reason. Therefore, there must be things in there that you feel are good. Trust yourself in that.

You don’t have a complete picture. Not every human on earth together would have a complete image. But adding someone else’s perspective will add to your perspective. Giving you a view, you may not have seen before. Mix it up with your own thoughts instead of replacing it all together.

Over to the second point, making a representation.

Now, what is the artwork really? What are we creating? I like to think of whatever I am creating as a representation.

When I started out with 3D, I was always thinking that I was creating the actual objects. Every little piece needed to be in its place for the model to be complete. Even the smallest details where to be modeled and the textures where to be laid out as perfectly as they could. This led to a lot of incomplete artworks and models that still lurk somewhere on my hard drive. Probably somewhere close to /dev/null.

Not too long ago while having watched the third part of this interior render series by CGGeek I realized that the TV set that he makes is extremely simple but when watching the intro and renders beforehand, I did not realize this at all.

Another way to view it is the duck test. It is mostly adopted in software development, but I think it applies to 3D art as well. It goes like this: “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it is probably a duck”. Our brains are just so good at filling in the details. Make it work in your favor.

Simplifying is far more effective than working on details that won’t be noticed in the result, anyway. Personally, I used this to shift my mind from perfectionism to making representations of things. Completing projects and doing it faster as a bonus.

Speaking of faster, let’s talk a bit about using pre-made assets.

Another lesson that I learned over time is the absolute brilliance of utilizing pre-made assets that are just waiting for you out on the internet. A lot of artists are afraid of using stock assets, as they feel it might devalue their art overall. I have had that mindset as well. I was also terrified of legal issues from using other people’s assets. Same went for reference material.

Now, I don’t want to dwell on legal issues for too long, but here are my 2 cents that should not be taken as legal advice.

I stick to assets clearly labeled as royalty free or cc0, and for reference I just stay away from logos or stuff that is related to trademark. After that, I focus on making my art as much as possible. There will always be similarities and differences in all art. Just don’t let it get in the way for you. Recognize that there is always a risk, even if it is small. After all, people want to be useful, and using their assets they put out there for free is probably more encouraging than anything else.

Using pre-made assets is a means of learning and saving time. Most art coming out of studios is made by a team. Using pre-made stock assets is a way to extend yourself as an independent creator into a team, and that is the main reason I use pre-made assets. It is an excellent way for me to stay independent and still be competitive.

For learning it is also good to use assets. It means that you can get through some processes in the workflow faster and work on things that otherwise get less attention. Like lighting, atmosphere and post processing. I am not saying that you should neglect any area of the pipeline, just save time in some areas and give to other areas that often get less time and thought but have an enormous impact on the scene.

Also, just viewing the assets and see how they are built will give you some insight. You may learn new ways to solve problems or better things that you would never do.

To summarize this last section.

  • Always agree with some critique and disagree with some. Make sure that your own ideas are not overwritten by another person’s critique.
  • Remember, we are not recreating things; we are making representations of things.
  • Use stock assets to your advantage

Final thoughts

Go make some art and enjoy the process! Keep it simple but productive and you will be better for it.

Written by: Erik Selin

Editor & Publisher

Erik Selin
3D artist, writer, and owner of artisticrender.com

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