Things I wish I knew learning Blender

August 28, 2020
Oscar Jones

That's a render of a model I made in Solidworks. A year ago, it would have taken me hours to get from the model to this image, but now it can be done in minutes. I want to share a few things that I've learnt for anyone getting started Blender.

1. Models

Getting from Solidworks to Blender is the first challenge and there are a few ways to go. If you have a single part with a single material, it's easiest to Save As an STL with the detail settings on max. Then in Blender import the STL and add a material. The model will likely be enormous so you'll need to scale it down. If you have a single part with multiple materials things get a bit more complicated. I've found the best way is to apply my materials in Solidworks (it doesn't matter which materials, just so long as each bit of the model you want to have a different material has a different material) and then export to Solidworks Visualise. From visualise, chose file > export > obj scene. In Blender choose import obj, your model should also be the correct scale now. This imports a single object with multiple material slots. Now you can edit each material of the model, this is what I did for the above image.

If you have an assembly and each part is one material, you can simply Save As STL and make sure the "save as single part" is not ticked. In Blender choose import STL and select all. They'll import in the correct locations. It's a good idea to parent all the parts to the largest part at this point so you can move the whole assembly by moving just this part. If your assembly parts have different materials, you'll need to do the Visualise trick again to ensure each part imports to Blender with multiple material slots.

If you want to add more models to your scene like plants and furniture, look online for obj and fbx files. Turbosquid is a great place to start

2. Textures

In Blender you use the "shader" nodes to apply materials to objects. You can download materials / textures online for realistic looking renders. You should be looking for "PBR textures" which stands for "physically based rendering". PBR textures use image maps (square, repeatable images) to define the material properties. The basics are diffuse / albedo which is the material colour, roughness, and a bump / normal map, which is often blue looking and defines the direction light should bounce off the surface. Blender uses this to add fake bumps, which is more efficient than modelling actual bumps. This is the key to really realistic renders. Search online for these textures when you need some thing like wood, a fabric, or something complex.

For plastics / metals / rubber and other engineering materials, I've learnt a quick trick for accurately generating these materials without downloading textures. Simply add a "bump" node connected to the material's normal input and a "noise" node connected to the bump height input. Set the bump scale to something small and experiment with different noise values. You should find you can create most surfaces this way. Look for reference photos of the materials and look closely at how they are mostly noisy bumps.

3. World + Scene lights

To render the scene you need lighting, this is split into Environment (imagine a big sphere around your scene emitting light in) and Scene Lights. By default there is one scene light and the environment is a dark grey. If you delete all the scene lights but your render it still illuminated, it's probably because the environment lighting is on, check the world tab. The fastest way to get realistic lighting is with an HDRI (high dynamic range image). These are 360 photos (spheres) with extremely high dynamic range, capturing the brightness of the sun down to the shadows. These can be used to light your scene and produce good results. Simply download an HDRI (HDRI haven is a good start) and then in Blender in the shader editor switch to the world setting and add an "environment" node, connecting it to the background colour input. Open the HDRI file and that's it. *TIP* Go to preferences and in the Add-ons menu search and enable node wrangler. Now with the environment node selected press ctrl+t and use the mapping node it created to control the position and rotation of the 360 image.

For more tutorials to get started I recommend the Blender Guru on YouTube, his beginner series goes through everything

A good place for 3D models, Turbosquid

A good place for HDRI environments, HDRI Haven

For free PBR textures, check out CC0 textures, CG Bookcase



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