If you’re new to the Blender scene then one of the first things you’ll probably encounter is modeling. It’s a 3d artist’s bread and butter really.

Modeling seems to be the most natural place for new 3d artists to settle into honing their skill sets because it’s the skill that keeps on giving. Even if you wind up meandering around in the modeling sphere for only a short time and then decide to dedicate the majority of your time elsewhere modeling is a very useful foundational skill to have in your back pocket. If you’re ever up against a deadline it can be handy to have the skills necessary to put an object together from scratch on your own instead of having to rely upon someone else to build it for you.

The Spade Topology
An ace of spades keychain that I modeled in Blender and printed at Shapeways.com.

So this month I’m going to start off by digging into some basic modeling operators used in Blender. In this first part I’ll cover Blender’s modes, basic selections, deleting and merging mesh components, and how to navigate the menus without losing your mind. Then in part two I’ll talk about how to really get your hands dirty with my most used mesh editing operators. I’ll do my best to give you a solid overview of the essentials, but entire books have been written on the subject of modeling. So for the purposes of this month I’m going to be covering mostly basic modeling skills. I’m going to try to be as clear as I can about how this all works, but my best advice would be to watch the accompanying video and follow along with me inside Blender. That way you will get some practice if this is your first rodeo.

First Things First

I’m going to assume you know the basics about how the 3d process works inside Blender. If not then check out my previous post on Making Sense of the 3d Production Pipeline for some basic definitions and then come back here when you’re ready.

Blender works like most things: general to specific. Remember this basic concept and you’ll find that you can apply it to most things that seem complicated and it usually helps simplify things.

Understanding Blender’s Modes

The first thing to learn about modeling in Blender is that Blender has separate modes for working with a model in different ways. When you want to work on something that is fairly general having to do with a model then you do this in Object Mode. But if you want to modify how a model is actually put together then you have to switch from Object Mode into Edit Mode. You can switch which mode Blender is currently in by locating the mode dropdown at the bottom of the 3d viewport near the center. Alternately, the keyboard shortcut for toggling between your current mode and Edit Mode is the (tab) key.

Mode-Anim

These modes are there to make it easier to stay organized while you work. Depending on which mode you’re in the options you have available to you change to suit what you’re doing. You’ll find out later just how important this is when you start learning all the different workflows available inside the software. Because if you had all those menus shown on the screen at the same time things would get really confusing.

How to Edit an Object

Inside Edit Mode there are separate menus that contain all the operations you can perform on a mesh. The mesh editing operators in these menus belong to one of three individual categories. These categories are: vertex operations, edge operations, and face operations. Each menu can be accessed by using the keyboard shortcuts (ctrl + v), (ctrl + e), and (ctrl + f) respectively. You can also access these menus by going through the Mesh menu located at the bottom left hand corner of the 3d viewport. Note that the Mesh menu will only be visible if you are in Edit Mode. When in Object Mode the Mesh Menu is replaced by the Object menu.

Quickly Selecting and Deselecting Everything

Learning how to build models like a master has as much to do with intentionally selecting the right parts of the mesh as it does with knowing what commands you need to execute. After all your selections are what drive the effectiveness of your actions. So the first thing to get really comfortable with before you dive into all the commands below is how to select the right pieces of your mesh.

The easiest place to start is with the Select / Deselect All command. Most of the time I would recommend finding the command in the menu so you know where it is in case you lose it, but in this case I’m going to insist that you just learn the keyboard shortcut from the beginning because it’s so easy to remember. To toggle selecting or deselecting all objects, meshes, basically anything in the scene just hit the (a) key on your keyboard. With something selected in your scene you can quickly clear the selection by double tapping the (a) key which will quickly select all remaining parts of your mesh and then deselect everything after the second tap.

Select-Deselect-All-Anim

If you read my previous post Taking Your First Steps with Blender, then you’ll remember how to select and deselect specific parts of a mesh or whole objects within a scene. To make a single selection simply right click on a component in the 3d viewport. You can use this in conjunction with the Select / Deselect All command to quickly select and clear the selection while working on your model. You can also hold the (shift) key and (right click) multiple times in the 3d viewport to select more than one item at a time.

Displaying Vertices, Edges, and Faces

In order to build something more complicated than a barrel or a pyramid it’s important to learn how to select different parts of your mesh. Blender has built in modes for your mesh components just as it has modes for your objects. To toggle through the mesh components you can use the mesh mode icons at the bottom of the 3d viewport. By clicking on each of the icons for vertex, edge, and face modes respectively you’re able to switch between each of these components for your current mesh. You can also hold shift and select more than one of these component icons at a time giving you the ability to show the vertices, edges, and faces of your mesh simultaneously if desired.

Components-Anim

Now if you don’t know this about me yet then you will soon…I’m all about the keyboard shortcuts in Blender. I’m doing my best to slow things down and explain where to find these things in the menus in Blender, but after you start getting your feet wet I think you’ll find (as I did) that the menus only really serve to slow you down. So I’ll be sprinkling in the keyboard shortcuts throughout my posts as well as in the tutorial videos so you can get a feel for how big of an impact they can have on your workflow inside Blender.

A much easier way to switch between each of the component modes for your mesh is to use the keyboard shortcut (ctrl + tab). This will bring up a contextual menu labeled Mesh Select Menu which has all of the selection options we just covered. And you can still hold (shift) while clicking on one of the options in the menu to toggle it on or off.

Everything is the Same…Sort Of

Perhaps now is a good time to mention that most of the commands in Blender are contextual. What I mean by this is that depending on what you’re doing inside the software different results may occur when using the same keyboard shortcuts. People who have lived with the software for a while will learn to appreciate this because it cuts down on the number of keyboard shortcuts you have to memorize over the lifetime of being a Blender user. However, beginners may find this extremely confusing or frustrating at first as it does mean that you have to keep this in mind while learning to work. It can also make memorizing specific keyboard shortcuts a challenge due to the changing nature of the commands in different contexts.

The easiest way to demonstrate how this works is by using the (ctrl + tab) shortcut mentioned above. When in Edit Mode this command shows you the Mesh Select Menu; however, when in Object Mode this command will switch you into Weight Painting Mode. By the way, if you accidentally do this, please don’t freak out, just hit (ctrl + tab) again and you will switch back into Object Mode. But this is a great example of just how different things work and how important it is for you to learn how Blender ticks early on so it doesn’t get confusing.

Shortcut-Context-Anim

So how do you remedy this somewhat confusing learning curve? My best advice is to master one part of the program at a time and then move on to something else. So if you want to learn how to model then jump into edit mode and learn how things work there first. Don’t try to constantly jump around from one thing to another learning modeling one day, shading the next, node compositing the next, and animation the day after that. Each of these workflows has their own commands and their own shortcuts. This is the quickest way to get overwhelmed and burn yourself out on learning this software. Take it slow, take it easy, and master one trick at a time. The rest of it will always be there when you’re ready to move on. So realize that it’s not a sprint to the finish line, it’s a full blown marathon with twists and turns and a whole lot of fun and rewards for those who commit to staying the course.

Alright Brandon, stay on target, moving on!

Hiding and Unhiding the Global Manipulator

The Global Manipulator is the little widget that is turned on by default in the 3d viewport with the red, green, and blue colors. It’s used to aid you visually when moving, rotating, and scaling your objects. Now I’m not here to judge. Some people really like the hands on feeling they get by using this little widget. Or if you’re migrating from another brand of 3d software such as Maya or 3DS Max then you may be used to working with a widget like this one. But personally being the keyboard monkey that I am I can’t stand having this thing clutter up my 3d viewport when I’m trying to work on an object. So I typically turn it off pretty quickly after I fire up Blender.

If you look at the bottom of the 3d viewport you’ll see an icon with three lines and the red, green, and blue colors for each line. Clicking this will toggle the Global Manipulator on or off. And the icons directly to the right of it will allow you to switch between the translate, rotate, and scale versions of the widget. These work exactly as the mesh component selection icons did that we covered above. You can hold (shift) and turn them all on at the same time if you wish.

Manipulator-Anim

A much easier way to turn the Global Manipulator on or off is to use the (ctrl + spacebar) keyboard shortcut.

Deleting, Dissolving, and Collapsing Mesh Components

Before you learn how to build onto a mesh it can be helpful to know how to remove parts of it. So there are three basic ways to get rid of mesh components. You can delete, dissolve, or collapse.

How to Delete Something

Deleting is exactly what it sounds like. You simply select a vertex, edge, or face and remove it by hitting the (delete) key or, more commonly, the (x) key on the keyboard. This will bring up the Delete Menu and you’ll be hit with several ways to destroy parts of your mesh. To really get a feel for what each of these options does my best advice is to make a selection and experiment with a delete operation; however, I’ll do my best to break down the basics for you here.

Delete-Anim

The first thing you’ll notice in the Delete Menu is the option to get rid of vertices, edges, or faces. You may be thinking, “Why are those there? Doesn’t Blender already know what I have selected?”. And you would be right, but what if you have more than one type of mesh component selected at the same time? Remember that you can basically select vertices, edges, and faces simultaneously and when you have a face selected you also technically have all the edges and vertices that make up that particular face selected. See what I mean? Things can get a bit hairy here so Blender allows you to get specific in the Delete Menu.

For example, if you select all the faces in your model (just in Face Mode) and select Vertices from the Delete Menu then it will get rid of all the components in your mesh. So why is this? Quite simply, it takes two vertices to make an edge and so if you get rid of all your vertices then your edges can’t exist in 3d space. And by process of elimination if you get rid of all the edges then you don’t have any faces that are defined in 3d space. But notice that if you instead choose the Only Faces option from the Delete Menu then you will still be left with your vertices and edges for your mesh because they are able to exist in space without faces. It’s all very logical when you think about it, but it may give you a bit of a headache when you’re just getting used to how it works.

How to Dissolve Something

Dissolving part of your mesh is just like deleting it with one small exception: it attempts to keep the surrounding geometry in tact. Remember the example above where we deleted the vertices in our mesh and the rest of the mesh disappeared? Well if you were to successfully dissolve part of your mesh then it would remove the selected component and then blend the removed section back into the rest of the model. Now you’ll discover through trial and error where the Dissolve command is best used. It won’t work successfully on every part of your mesh and it will even give you errors if you try to select everything in your mesh and use it. But when trying to get rid of superfluous vertices or edges in your mesh it can be a real time saver.

Dissolve-Anim

To see an example of the Dissolve command in action select an edge on the default cube and choose Dissolve Edges from the Delete Menu. You’ll notice how it doesn’t leave a hole in your mesh as some of the other delete operations do. It basically gets rid of the edge and then smartly collapses the surrounding geometry to accommodate the edit.

How to Collapse Something

Collapsing a part of your mesh is a bit of a combination of both delete and dissolve. What it basically does is allow you to get rid of a mesh component by deleting it and then it implodes the surrounding geometry and merges the result in the middle. The collapse command can be used in conjunction with the dissolve command to help save a lot of time while editing the base properties of your mesh. Most beginners struggle with limiting their options to simply deleting things. And this works, but it also means that you have to continuously reconstruct the geometry around whatever you delete which can be a big time suck. So the more you play around with the different methods of deleting something the smarter and faster your mesh manipulation will become.

To see an example of the Collapse command select an edge on the default cube and choose Edge Collapse from the Delete Menu. You’ll notice that it automatically removes the selected edge and collapses the surrounding geometry in towards the exact center of where the edge used to be turning half of the default cube in to a sort of pyramid shape.

Collapse-Anim

I guess the best way to separate the dissolve and collapse commands in your head is that dissolve sometimes removes surrounding geometry and smooths back over the surface to resolve a situation while keeping everything in tact whereas the collapse command always removes and brings the surrounding geometry in towards the collapsed area. Think of dissolve as buffing out a scratch on the surface of a car and collapse as the implosion of a dying star. At least that’s what I think about when I’m modeling, don’t judge me, ok?

Merging Mesh Components

Sometimes you don’t necessarily want to delete something you just want to combine them. That’s where the Merge command comes into play. You can merge vertices, edges, or faces depending on what you have selected in the 3d viewport. In order to merge you need to have at least two mesh components selected. Most commonly you will want two mesh components of the same type selected (ie: two vertices, or two edges), but this isn’t a strict requirement. Technically you could attempt to merge a vertex with an edge; however, I haven’t found an application where this has been necessary to date.

Merge-Anim

To merge two or more mesh components first select them and then use the ((alt(option) + m) shortcut to bring up the Merge Menu. The most common option inside the Merge Menu is probably the At Center option. This averages the distance between all the components selected and merges at that location. The At First option will merge at the location of the first selected mesh component and as you would probably expect the At Last command will merge at the location of the final mesh component selected before the merge command was initiated. These are the three most common options I use regularly. The other option I use in special situations is the At Cursor option which will merge at the location of the 3d cursor anywhere in the 3d viewport. Just make sure before merging at the 3d cursor that you have positioned the 3d cursor where you want the merge operation to take place.

Sliding Vertices and Edges

Quite a bit can change on a model just by moving things around on the surface. Luckily Blender has a couple of awesome sliding operators that make this a breeze. A slide operation will allow you to select a mesh component and move it through 3d space while keeping it stuck on and edge or face of a mesh. I use this one operator more than I ever thought possible just because it’s so convenient to be able to maintain the shape of your mesh while still modifying the underlying topology. Most of the time I find myself sticking to the Vertex Slide operator; however, you can technically slide all mesh components.

Sliding-Anim

For an example of how this works just select a vertex on the default cube in edit mode. To initiate the edge slide first initiate a regular translate or move command by tapping (g) on the keyboard. Follow this up by tapping (g) again and it will put you into slide mode instead of move mode. And this works the same with whatever type of mesh component you have selected: vertices, edges, or even faces. Note that when sliding a face you’re basically just sliding all the edges around that make up the face in 3d space.

How to Find Any Command Quickly

Ok so now that I’ve confused you with a lot of keyboard shortcuts I’m going to make your life a little easier so you don’t have to try to memorize them all in one go. You can actually do most things in Blender using any one of a dozen techniques you just have to know where to look.

The Search Menu

The easiest thing for beginners to access to find a command is the Search Menu. To access this in the 3d viewport all you have to do is tap your (spacebar). You will see a little popup with a search box and a list of results underneath. This will update live as you start to type in the name of the command you’re looking for. So if you forget how to merge two vertices then just hit the (spacebar) and start typing the word ‘merge’. Remember how I mentioned earlier that Blender was context sensitive? Well it applies here as well. So make sure you’re in Edit Mode when you are trying to find the search command or you will have a hard time finding it with the search tool.

The Dynamic Spacebar Menu Add-on

Dynamic-Addon-Anim

Another handy tool is actually an add-on that comes bundled with Blender called the Dynamic Spacebar Menu. To activate it just go to the File Menu and then click on User Preferences and navigate to the Add-ons Tab. About three lines down you should see an entry for the Dynamic Spacebar Menu add-on. Just tick the box to the left and it will then automatically be loaded right into Blender. If you don’t see the add-on in the list then use the search box to the left to search for the term ‘dynamic’ or ‘spacebar’ and you should see it pop up in the list.

After the Dynamic Spacebar Menu add-on has been activated you can access it using the same keyboard shortcut for the global search menu: (spacebar). What you’ll see now is that you still have access to the regular Search Menu at the top of the new popup; however, you now have all of your mesh options underneath as well. This essentially eliminates the need to go digging around in the 3d viewport menus at the bottom because it puts them all in this one easy to access menu.

Looking Through the 3d Viewport Menus and Tools Palette

Menus-Anim

If you really want to go on a scavenger hunt then you can try finding the commands we talked about in the Tools Palette on the left hand side of the 3d viewport (Toggle this palette on or off with the (t) key), or you can look through the menus located at the bottom left hand corner of the 3d viewport. Both the menus and palettes are used by successful artists within the Blender community; however, as I mentioned before, the last thing you want to be doing while you’re in the middle of a project is digging through a bunch of menus trying to find a command. It really kills the groove and can disrupt the creative process. But not every command in Blender has a keyboard shortcut. I know shocking, right? So unless you want to go assign custom shortcuts for all the extra commands then I suggest at least taking a glance at the menus so you know what’s available. This way you can refer to them as needed and it won’t slow you down as much as it would if you had to use them for every command.

Don’t Miss Out on Part Two!

So we have covered a lot of ground in this overview of basic modeling operators in Blender, but we are just getting started. There’s always more to learn. And you’ll find that as you evolve as a 3d artist Blender continues to evolve and grow with you. So in part two I’ll kick things into high gear as I finish with some more essential modeling operators I think you should be aware of as you sharpen your modeling skills. Thanks for taking the time to read this. If you managed to make it all the way through please leave me a comment below and consider sharing with your friends if you found the information helpful. Now go out there and unleashed yourself!