It is one of the first objects that beginners try to create, the centerpiece of 1000’s of works of art that litter forums and social media platforms across the internet. It’s what almost everyone who wants to learn blender wants to be able to do.
To create a character model you first start by researching existing characters and the fundamentals of anatomy. you then use your reference material in Blender and begin creating a low poly based. Then you iterate over the model adding more detail until you reach the point where you can move on to textures, materials, and rigging.
Each step is just as important as the one before it. When designing a character it is not a case of learning tools but instead learning the workflow for creating a specific kind of asset. Many new artists try to learn character modeling and the tools for it at the same time. A lot of people find Blender hard to learn because they try to create character models too soon, as we discuss here.
But we recommend starting off learning the tools themselves, getting comfortable with the user interface, and get just a little bit of experience creating simpler objects first. Then we can focus on the workflow for a character model.
Research And Reference Material
Before diving headfirst into Blender and creating a character model from scratch, consider how long it will probably take you to complete your model, or if you even know what you are doing. Characters are very complex shapes for a beginner artist to try and create with lots of moving parts for rigging and animation. Even when the base geometry of a character model is done you still need to think about materials, textures, clothing, and hair.
What Are You Creating?
When we talk about character modeling we are not talking specifically about human characters, but rather an object that represents a human, animal, alien, or general creature that could be animated. The general process remains the same, pick what type of character you want to create, and then research it.
Let’s create an example, say you want to create a character model and an adult male wearing a suit and holding a briefcase. You should research two things here, starting with the general look of the model. How are you going to want to model to look in terms of its appearance?
The second factor to research is the anatomy of the character type. So for a human character, you should have a basic understanding of human anatomy. This may sound pointless given the wide variety of character designs across cartoons, anime, video games, and animations. The general shape of characters like Gru in Despicable Me is clearly different from what you would see in a video game, like call of duty.
Yet all characters created for these high production projects are based on the rules of human anatomy, of how the skeletal and muscular systems are constructed. Then in some cases, like Despicable Me, the character designs are altered for a more cartoony look, while always staying true to the notion that they are clearly recognized as human characters.
Setting Your Reference Material In Blender
Even once you have done all the research you think is necessary, avoid starting your model without any reference material on hand. There are different means in Blender of using reference material. One example setup is to add an image editor to the top corner of the interface and load in some reference material of the type of character that you want to create.
Having a second monitor can work wonders as a backup as well. You could have Blender up on your primary monitor and then several reference images in your secondary monitor to refer to.
Adding Your Reference Image To Blender
If you don’t have that second monitor, then you will need to make room in your interface to import your reference material. Using the modeling workspace gives us the most room to work with, as we don’t have the timeline at the bottom. We can either change our outliner panel to an image editor, or we can add an additional panel on top and make that the image editor.
To add a reference image using the second approach, which keeps the outliner panel, complete the following steps.
- Expand the outliner panel
- Right-click on the intersection and split the outliner into two panels
- Change the editor type of one of the outliner panels to an image editor
- Adjust the size of the panel to suit you
- Click on the open button in the image editor to load your reference image
- Repeat with the second outliner if you want a second reference image
If you want to just replace the original outliner panel with the image editor you can skip the first three steps.
Adding Reference Material In The Viewport
In addition to the reference material for the character design, you should also look at adding a reference image for the character anatomy as well.
Rather than adding this to the image editor, have your anatomy reference in the 3D viewport, adding as a background image that you can design the base of your model on. Think of this as 3D tracing, where you are trying to copy the dimensions of the background image as much as possible.
To add an image into the 3D viewport, complete the following steps…
- Place your camera into the front orthographic view (1 on NumPad)
- Bring up the add menu in the viewport with ‘Shift + A’
- Find the option for adding an image
- Choose either reference or background (Both will do the job)
- Locate the image that you want to import and then select ‘Load Reference/Background Image’
- Go to the object data tab in the properties panel
- Adjust the size and position of the image
- Set the depth parameter to front
- Enable image opacity and set to a comfortable value
You can also use the ‘Import images as planes’ add-on as a third option for bringing in your reference material. Simply go to the preferences panel, add on tab, and type ‘import image’ in the search bar, then install. But this is less useful as it does not have the same settings as the other two options and needs more work to set up.
Building The Low Poly Base
When all of your reference material is in place and Blender is set up the way that you want it, the next step is to create a low poly model that takes on the most basic shape of your character model.
From here you could go about creating your model in any number of ways. 3D modeling is a creative skill set where there is never just one way to go about doing things. Its down to the artist to determine what the best approach is for them to achieve the final result. So let us cover just a few ways in which we can go about creating the base of our model.
A very common way of creating a character model is to start with the head and then work our way to the body, before finishing at the limbs. The head is normally the most important aspect to get right as it is the focal point of almost any character’s appearance. Getting the proportions correct for the head will also make it easier for the artists to keep the rest of the body to the correct proportions as well.
Another way of stating your character is with the body, which is normally the largest part of most characters. Once the dimensions of the body are set up the artist can very easily begin modeling any of the limbs or the head, so there is a bit of freedom as to how the artist wants to approach the model.
A less common approach is to create each part of the body independently, and then connect each part together at the end to build the finished character. The main advantage to this is it makes it a bit easier to create each part by itself, as you are working with less complex shapes when they are separate from each other.
However, this approach makes it easier to get the wrong proportions if you do not have good reference material. You also need to make sure that the topology is correct as well. For example, the end of the arm is a circle of 32 vertices, to properly connect to the hand, the hand will also need 32 vertices at the wrist so that you can bridge the two parts together.
This involves using as few tools as possible until the structure of the model is completed. For example, we start from a cube as the head and use the subdivide tool to add some extra geometry, then we extrude down to create the neck and then the rest of the body.
Your character model may at first look like a robot from a 1960’s SciFi show but once the base shape is established you can then use the subdivision surface and vertex slide tools to make it look a bit more human.
Duplicating The Base As Its Own Asset
Before moving on to the next stage, think about the purpose of the model you are creating. If this type of model is something that you will be making more of in the future then does it make sense to always start from scratch, or can you start with a generic base that saves you time on each subsequent model.
Creating an asset library speeds up your potential workflow over time. The more objects and assets you can create the less time you will spend in the future recreating them if you have a library to store them in.
The Old Method
With Blender, the old method of reusing an asset was to either link or append it from another file. Appending allows you to import an object or any data block over from one file to another and then create a duplicate or ‘proxy’ of that data that be used and edited in the new file.
Linking does the same thing but without creating the proxy data by default. This means that when you link an object for example you can adjust its transform data, like its rotation, but you cannot edit the object itself as you are effectively borrowing the asset from its source file.
The key issue with both of these tools is the need to locate the correct project each time and then dive through several folders looking for the data block that you want to use.
The Asset Library
A much more convenient way of doing things is to store reusable assets in a single library that can be accessible at any time. Other the years’ addons have been created to generate these libraries although most of them do require some form of internet connection to use if they link to external assets.
Blender now has its own asset library for artists to use, and the library itself can easily be accessed as an editor type. With the new asset library, an artist can store an asset in either the local library or an independent location on their browser. By storing it in the local library you can reuse that asset multiple times in the same project by simply dragging and dropping it into the viewport.
You cannot use these assets in other projects if you store them in the local library, for that you need to create a neutral file location where all of your projects can access straight through the asset library editor.
Adding The Base Detail
When we talk about the base detail for a character model, we are referring to the parts of the model that require additional work before it truly begins to look like a character. Take our existing low poly base, what do you think is the next step. For the body, it could be creating the fingers and toes or refining the shape of the back or limbs. For the head, this could involve generating the nose and eyes, or the mouth and ears.
At this stage, the artist may start to use a few more of the tools at their disposal. For example, creating the nose and eyes may require the use of the inset and delete tools to create a good topology. There may be a few aspects of the model that do not yet follow the rules of anatomy for that character.
For example, the human back curves out on the upper half to make room for the vital organs. The width of the arms decreases as you get closer to the wrist/hand. The knee sticks out slightly compared to the rest of the leg.
All of these examples of what you need to think about when creating the base detail that will transform your model from a doll to an actual character.
Adding The Finer Detail
With each step in the process, our character model gets closer to being in a usable state. We avoid using the term finished state because no model is ever truly finished, as there is nearly always something that can be altered or improved.
Finer details for a human character may include things like fingernails, belly buttons, abdominal muscles, or face wrinkles.
Tip: Don’t waste time working on the finer details of an area that will never be seen. For example, if your character is wearing a shirt, then there is little point in modeling the belly button unless at some point the model is going to be used without the shirt.
The 80/20 Rule
In projects of almost any industry, you can apply the 80/20 rule, where 80% of the work is achieved in the first 30% of time spent on a project. Take this character model for example, where we added in the reference material, built a low poly base, and adding the detail necessary to make the object look human. When the base detail is added we can say that we are around 80% of the way there towards completing the project.
The other 20% is the finer detail and anything to go on top. However, what you will find is that the 80/20 ratio flips here in terms of time spent. An artist will spend roughly an hour bringing the model up from scratch to having all the base detail. that’s the 1st 80% done, but the finer detail used to create the unique look of the model, the final 20%, may take four hours to complete.
It’s at this stage of character creation that artists begin to use more advanced modeling tools like the sculpting toolkit to really add detail to their characters. Sculpting is a very different workflow from normal modeling in that it focuses on refining what is already there. If you don’t want to use the sculpting workflow to add those wrinkles to the forehead or define the biceps and triceps of the upper arm, then you don’t have to. But the process can take a lot longer depending on how much detail you want to add.
On the flip side, you could create a model, even a character, while exclusively using the sculpting toolset. Again, it can take longer overall to build up the basic shape, but it is still a perfectly viable workflow.
The ideal workflow for a character though is to create that base model using the traditional modeling tools, and then refining the details with sculpting brushes.
You can check out our article here if you want to learn more about Blender as a 3D modeling tool.
All The Rest
When you have finally finished the geometry of the model, you can then move on to the secondary aspects that will make your character truly feel complete. For any character model you will at this point need to and materials and textures across the body, bake your details onto a low poly model*, create some clothes for them to wear**, and set up a big for animations if you plan on making them do more than just pulling the basic T-pose.
Materials And Textures
The materials that we apply to our models will be key to transforming these objects into true works of art. The choice of material, along with the correct lighting conditions, can make an object or scene appear truly realistic. For a human character, you should look to apply a skin texture and a material that has subsurface scattering if you want to go full realism.
Make sure that all other areas of your character model have textures and materials applied to them as well, such as the hair, fingernails, and eyes. Leave out any part of the body and it will stick out more than just a sore thumb.
Textures may require the use of UV maps, especially for the eyes. A UV map is a 2D projection of a 3D object’s geometry and allows the artist to more easily map textures to that object.
A texture is also a part of a material data block. This means that you have to create the material first to define how the object appears under a source of light and then apply a texture to generate the actual pattern.
If designing an animal you can probably skip this step, or not, it depends on exactly what the model is being created for after all. But for human characters, we tend to want clothing to some degree. Don’t forget that any area that will have clothes covering it does not need any real detail, in fact, you could even delete the geometry of the body that won’t be shown entirely, as a way to save memory.
Clothes are a little bit more challenging than the body itself, but a good way to go about things would be to use the character model as a mannequin and work on your clothing using the mannequin to help define the correct shape and sizing.
Much like the body itself, you will need to make sure that the materials and textures are applied to individual items of clothing.
Another tip here is to create each item of clothing as its own object, and then once everything is done join all the meshes up together to form a single character object. You could also parent the clothes to the base model as another option.
This is mainly for video game assets that are created in Blender with the purpose of being exported to a game engine like Unity or Unreal Engine. While it is becoming less important as these game engines become more optimized baking remains an important skill to at least have knowledge of. This is the process of taking information such as light, texture, and geometry data and mapping it onto a model.
Before baking, the artist needs to retopologise the model. This involves creating a new lower poly version of that character using simple modeling tools such as the extrude tool. The aim is to create a model that has a very similar shape to the original with far less and much cleaner geometry.
We would then apply the baking process, transferring the detail from the high poly model over to the new character. this will give the low poly model a much more detailed appearance, but the topology itself remains comparatively low and easy for a game engine to work with.
When creating your model for the 1st time it will follow either a T-pose or a star pose, as these poses keep the limbs away from the body and make the modeling process much easier compared to creating a model with their arms by their side. By creating a rig the model can be repositioned into any pose that you want.
A strong rig makes for great flexibility for limb movement and can allow you to position your model in any pose you want such as a kung fu pose, hand wave or sitting down cross-legged.
A rig is also required if any time of actual animation is required from the model. The rig allows the character to be moved in a natural way and allows the artist to animate each part of the body independently.
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