The 3D Art Process

For those of you who are unfamiliar with what all goes into making a 3D render, I thought I’d let you in “behind the scenes.” This is part of the lengthy process involved in making the upcoming render I titled “The Customer Is Always Right.”

3D art is very helpful for people like me who envision images like Frank Frazetta but draw like a kindergartner. Many scoff at 3D art and say, “That isn’t art. Anyone can do that.” I beg to differ. A 3D artist just doesn’t say to his computer, “Oh, computer. Make me a scene of a knight saving a naked lady from a dragon,” and ramo gatesjobsium processoro, there it is. For every render you see, the artist spent hours assembling it. The 3D artist must think about composition and drama just like a painter, illustrator, or photographer. Like a sculptor, he needs to know anatomy so he can pose characters in a lifelike manner. Like a movie director, she must think about lighting, set placement, and actor coordination. Like a stage director planning a play, the 3D artist must consider the availability of needed items (sets, props, costumes, and actors), her ability to make the ones not commercially available, and the limitations of her “stage,” or her computer. I had to consider all that in making this scene.

“The Customer Is Always Right” began as something to pass the time when I had a bad head cold last Friday. At first it was just a customer expressing her anger over being served cheap beer when she ordered ale. With each coughing fit and each fever spike, the scene grew. By the time the cold subsided, it looked like this:

Render 1

I can be grandiose. One friend told me that I needed to get sick more often.

This is not the actual render. It’s the setup screen in DAZ Studio, the main 3D art program I use. DAZ Studio is Poser’s chief rival. The high end programs include Maya, based on the system used by Pixar. This is the moment where I check composition and storyline, and decide on any changes to positions, poses, costumes, etc. While good, the overall scene wasn’t good enough at this point. So, it was time to tweak it.

The first thing I wanted to change was the set itself. This set is Faveral’s Medieval Tavern, available at DAZ3D. It shows up in almost every render involving a tavern, and for good reason. It’s a marvelous set. But I wanted something more original. So, it was time to use those stage manager skills I learned in college and think like a set designer.


I decided to extend the ceiling over the bar area throughout the entire scene. To do that, I imported the bar wall into a 3D modeling program called Hexagon. If you ever wondered what the wireframe process looks like, take a gander.


In model railroading, this is called “kitbashing.” I kept the Medieval Tavern; I simply reworked it to look more like what I wanted. I duplicated the bar wall, and moved it to the viewer’s left to extend the ceiling. In this screenshot, I am removing the pieces that do not appear in the final scene. Just because you and I can’t see it doesn’t mean the computer doesn’t see it. If it’s there, the computer will try to render it, and that chokes valuable RAM resources.

Time for some technojargon. All 3D programs use things called maps. They make objects like the one in the screenshot above look like real wood. Most objects use two, but some use up to five. The most common are the diffuse map and the bump map. The diffuse map is the actual surface texture itself, be it stone or skin. The bump map makes the diffuse map cast shadows and look realistic. Bump maps, however, force shadows in a fixed direction. So, I prefer the alternative called a normal map. They cast shadows in the direction of the light source. Video games use normal maps. Not only do they result in a more realistic look, but they use fewer computer resources. For stone and wood, and closeups of people, I add a displacement map as well. Displacement maps actually bend the wireframe, down in dark areas, and up in light areas. Great for old wood, and human muscles. (In case you’re interested, the other map commonly used is the specular map, to bring out highlights and shadows, but I only use them for human skin and hair).

In the screenshot below, I’m using the program ShaderMap 2 to make a normal map for the wood in the tavern.


In bar on the left, you can see the other maps. ShaderMap 2 automatically generates the needed maps from the original. The diffuse map (the original from the tavern set) is in the upper left hand corner. The discplacement map is in the center. The normal map is in the upper right hand corner, with the ambient map (I never use those) beneath it, and the specular on the bottom. To make a bump map, I would transform the diffuse map into a grayscale image in GIMP and modify the contrast. Don’t ask me why the normal map is purple. I don’t know, but most normal maps are.


With the changes made to the set, it’s time to import it into DAZ Studio.

render scene

I pulled back to let you see what the whole thing actually looks like. It is rather like playing with G.I. Joe and Barbie in a dollhouse. The gray squares are the lights (do not ask me how those work — they just work). Here, you can also see the contents of the scene in the bar on the right. Every one of those names represents a wireframe item in this scene, and the scene does not include any people yet. This ruins the illusion, doesn’t it.


At this point, you may be thinking “This still isn’t art. It’s engineering!” Well, perhaps you’re right. But let us see what the result of all that work is.

Below is an actual render. I tested the modified set under actual lighting conditions just to see what it looked like. The render itself involves the use of two more programs. To achieve a more photorealistic effect, I use a plug-in called Reality 2.5. It takes all those DAZ objects and maps and pumps them full of Underdog Super Energy Pills (please do not ask me to explain the algorithm process to you — I don’t understand it myself; it just works!). Then, it sends the results to the rendering engine, in this case, Luxrender 1.3.

Render light test

It only rendered for an hour, and at half size. This was just a test, after all. I like it. Still think this isn’t art? All that wood and all those candles. No wonder these places burned down.


If I worked for Pixar, my computer would be large and powerful enough to save a scene with fifteen wireframe characters in it. Alas, I am just one lone writer working on a Sager laptop. So, I can’t save the scene that opens this post. I use a workaround method. Each character has his or her own file. When it’s time to test positions, or make the actual render, I import that character file into the set scene above.

This is what a character file in DAZ Studio looks like.


To me, it’s a lot easier to give each character his or her own file and make the changes there, instead of using groups. Granted, I have to merge other files into the one I’m working on to get the poses and positions just right (this one alone required the merging of three others). Once everything is set, those merged files are removed before I save the changes. This is the woman in blue by the door in the opening scene. Here, I’m changing her storyline, adding props, and altering the color of her clothes. This is all that is in her file, and it will be merged into the set when it’s time. Notice the few items in the scene contents bar, compared to the set a few shots above.


So, after all the changes to characters and the set are finished, how do they all look together?

Render 4A

Now, I need to test everyone’s skin and clothing under actual lighting conditions, and to see if I can compose this whole scene. To do that, I need to make a few renders. Next time, the composition process.

2 thoughts on “The 3D Art Process

  1. Pingback: The 3D Art Process, Part Two | NATHAN BOUTWELL

  2. Pingback: Just Another Saturday Night | NATHAN BOUTWELL

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