What is Blender?

Blender is a fantastic 3d application that has so many features you could literally spend a lifetime learning, and relearning all of them. It’s so powerful that you can accomplish pretty much anything if you set yourself a goal and follow through, but when you’re first starting out things may seem a bit overwhelming at first. Even if you’ve already encountered some problems getting started I encourage you to keep at it. You’ll find that Blender has a thriving, supportive community ready to help you with whatever challenges you’re currently facing.

(Image courtesy of (CC blender.org) Pokedstudio – Racers – www.pokedstudio.com)
(Image courtesy of (CC blender.org) Pokedstudio – Racers – www.pokedstudio.com)

Focusing on 3d Fundamentals

During June, I’m going to be focusing on 3d fundamentals with Blender, and this week I’m jumping in head first by giving you a complete tour of Blender tailored for the absolute beginner. So even if you have no idea where to start, this simple guide will walk you through what you should do first from the first time you open up Blender. Before we jump in here’s a brief overview of Blender’s history and how it’s maintained by the Blender Foundation.

Find more support for Blender at blender.org/support/

Blender isn’t like most traditional software in that it’s under a license known as GPL (GNU General Public License) and is more generally known as open source software. The term open source refers to the fact that you can actually download Blender’s source code, modify it if you wish, and then compile your own version of the software. Even if you aren’t a programmer, and never have any aspirations of becoming one, then this is still a huge deal you should be aware of. Why? Because it’s what keeps our software so amazing and alive.

Blender’s development is driven by an open community made up of partial full-time development and many more people working part time to make enhancements, fix bugs, and keep Blender rolling along smoothly as it grows. What this means is that there isn’t a giant corporation with its thumb on things keeping Blender from being amazing. The future of Blender is literally in the hands of the people who use it. So even if you aren’t a programmer simply by using the software and sharing it with the world you are doing a small part to keep the machine running.

And if you start feeling really passionate about Blender as you begin to learn and use it you should really consider making a contribution to the developer’s fund. Five, 10, or 20 dollars here and there can really go a long way in making sure that bugs are fixed and that brand new features make their way into the software in the next release. I know it would make Ton happy!

To learn more about the history of Blender and it’s founder Ton Roosendaal, check out the history section on the Blender website.

Ton Roosendaal

Installing the Software

No matter which operating system you use you’ll find that Blender is ready to accommodate your needs. In the download’s section on Blender.org you’ll find software installs for Windows, OS X, Linux, as well as the full source code so you can compile Blender from scratch (in case you ever become a super user and want to take a crack at this!). So for now locate your operating system, pick a 32 or 64 bit flavor of the software and download from one of the several available mirrors.

For some operating systems you’ll notice that you have the option of downloading an installer program that automatically installs Blender to your hard drive, but every system also offers a download of Blender in a ZIP archive so that you can run Blender from any location (even a portable hard drive). Each mirror provides identical software so if you find that one mirror is slow then just try another one. I’m running Blender from my Mac so when I install a new version I just grab the latest archive and unzip it into my Applications folder.

If you really wanted to you could even throw the installation folder onto a flash drive and keep it on your keychain. That way no matter what system you’re on you could have Blender ready to go at a moments notice. Blender doesn’t have to be formally installed on your system in order to run so this makes it extremely portable. Once you have it installed you can launch the application and you should get an interface that looks something like this:

Blender at launch

So there’s really not much to the installation process. One thing to keep in mind is that ever time you update you’ll have to re-initiate all your preferences and settings by default. There are a few ways around this (mostly saving your preference files somewhere between updates), but they are beyond the scope of this article. There’s really no need to worry about this when you’re first starting out.

So now that you have Blender installed on your system let’s take a look at what you’ll see when you launch Blender for the first time.

A Tour of the Default User Interface

When you first open Blender you’ll be greeted by the default interface. Now what may look like a complex set of icons and menus right now won’t seem so overwhelming in a few minutes. So bear with me while I break down each of the main sections so you know how to get around the interface. I’ll start at the top of the screen and move clockwise around the interface. Here is an overlay showing each of the sections I’ll be covering.

Examining Blender's Panels

At the top of the screen is the info panel.

the info panel
At the top of the screen is the info panel.

On the left you’ll find a set of menus filled with commands used commonly as you work such as creating, opening, and saving scenes, importing and exporting objects, rendering your scene, changing your window settings, and finding help. In the middle you’ll find options for changing the layout of Blender’s interface, switching scenes, and choosing a rendering engine. Finally on the far right of the info panel you’ll find information about the current version of Blender you’re using as well as information about the number and kinds of objects in the current scene.

On the right side of the default interface you’ll find the outliner and the properties panels. You can think of the outliner as a list of everything in the current .blend file. It’s great for sorting through your scene when you have a lot of objects and you need to find something fast. And it also allows you to toggle the visibility, selection, and render-ability settings for each object in the scene. The properties panel contains several sub menus that allow you to change attributes for pretty much everything in your scene. You’ll be spending a lot of time here tweaking settings as you work in Blender. By default you’ll see the render panel, but you can switch through each sub panel by selecting a different icon at the top of the properties panel.

At the bottom of the screen you’ll see Blender’s timeline. The timeline works just like any timeline in a YouTube video or when you’re watching a movie at home. The vertical green line shows you where in time you are currently and you can left click and drag anywhere in the light gray part of the timeline to switch to that point in time. At the bottom you’ll see additional menus for the timeline as well as start and end frames for your scene, the current frame, and a series of buttons that are essentially the same as on a standard multimedia remote for play forward, rewind, step forward / back, and skip ahead. The timeline is an essential part of Blender that is extremely important when you start learning how to animate, but until then you may not use it much. Just make a mental note about where it is in case you need it later.

At the far left is the tools panel. Now the tools panel is actually integrated directly into the 3d viewport. So you won’t find a panel button for the tools palette. Instead you can hide and unhide the tools palette by using the keyboard shortcut ‘T’. The tools palette will be extremely helpful when you’re first starting to learn Blender because it has many of the basic operations you’ll learn to use first. So under the tools tab you’ll find buttons that allow you to edit and modify objects in your scene. And under the create tab you’ll find several buttons that will add mesh objects, lamps, and cameras to your scene.

And finally in the very center of the interface you’ll see the 3d viewport. You’ll notice in the screen shot that I’m also including the tools palette because it’s actually inside the 3d viewport. This area is where the magic happens in your scene. It’s where you do all of the work like modeling, uv unwrapping, lighting, rigging, animation, and rendering.

Although there are many separate panels that make up the default interface they work together as a unit to provide a very flexible way of getting around the software. At first you may feel comfortable digging through all the menus on screen and just exploring what’s there. Over time you’ll learn that there are many ways to do the same thing inside Blender. So as you learn you can adapt your workflow to what makes you feel the most comfortable and allows you to produce your best work. As someone who has been using Blender for a while now I’m more comfortable using keyboard shortcuts to navigate around the software. It’s a great habit to pick up early because it really speeds up your workflow and allows you to become very efficient as you work.

Rendering Your First Scene in Blender

So now that you know a little bit about Blender’s default user interface let’s jump in and start using Blender. If you’ve been a little overwhelmed by everything on the screen at this point then that’s ok. You’ll have plenty of time to get acquainted with the ins and outs of the software in future tutorials. But what I want to show you right now is how to render your first scene. Even a simple step like hitting that render button for the first time can be rewarding enough to make you want to take that next step and there’s not much to it actually so let’s jump in!

The first thing you might have noticed when you launch Blender is that the 3d viewport already has some objects in it. There are three objects placed in your scene by default at launch and these three objects are a cube mesh, a lamp, and a camera. What’s great about this is that we already have all the pieces in place to get our first render going. All you have to do to render your first scene is move your mouse over to the properties panel on the right side and left click on the button that says ‘Render’. You should see a new window pop up and a few seconds later you’re scene will be rendered to the screen. To get back out of the render preview you can hit the ‘Escape’ key on your keyboard or if Blender opened a new window you can simply close the window to return to the default interface.

Where Do I Go From Here?

Alright so at this point you might be saying, “Yeah, so what? It’s just a stupid cube!”. Ok, I get it you want more.

I’ve got to admit the cube is a little boring so I’m going to give you a rundown on some basic commands you need to know in order to get started with tweaking your render to make it look more interesting. First I’ll give you a written breakdown below and then we’ll take a look at how to get started with all this new Blender knowledge.

  1. Selecting Objects – To select an object in Blender simply right click on an object in the 3d viewport. The object should change from a black outline to a bright orange outline to indicate that it is now the actively selected object. Left clicking in the 3d viewport will reposition your 3d cursor. The 3d cursor is there to assist in manipulating objects in the 3d viewport. For now just be aware that the 3d cursor controls where objects are inserted into the scene. So if you want an object to be inserted at the origin of the scene make sure that your 3d cursor is in the center of the 3d viewport.
  2. Navigating In the 3d Viewport – To move around in the 3d viewport you use your middle mouse button to orbit around. You can zoom in and out using the scroll wheel on your mouse and you can pan or track around the 3d viewport by holding down shift and holding down the middle mouse button as when you are orbiting. It’s important that you have a 3 button mouse to most easily navigate around in Blender; however, using the user preferences you can turn on some options to accommodate your situation if you happen to be working on a laptop.
  3. Moving, Rotating, and Scaling Objects – You can move, rotate, and scale an object using the manipulation widget that is turned on by default when you launch Blender. The colors blue, green, and red are used in the manipulation widget to indicate the x-axis (red), the y-axis (green), and the z-axis (blue). Alternatively you can use the keyboard shortcuts for move (G key), rotate (R key), and scale (S key). If you want to constrain any of these three operations to a specific axis you can initiate the operation (ie: G for move) and then enter ‘x’, ‘y’, or ‘z’ to constrain the operation to that particular axis. Once you are done simply left click to accept the operation or right click to cancel.
  4. Deleting Objects – In order to delete an object it must first be selected. So right click on an object to select it and then hit the ‘x’ key on your keyboard. A small menu will ask you if you’re sure you want to delete the object. Just left click on the menu marked ‘delete’ to confirm you wish to delete the object. If you accidentally delete the wrong object you can undo the operation by using ‘CTRL + z’ or ‘CMD + z’ on the mac.
  5. Adding Objects from the Tools Palette – The tools palette is visible by default when you launch Blender; however, if you wish to hide or unhide this palette simply hover over the 3d viewport and hit the ‘t’ key on your keyboard. Since the tools palette is part of the 3d viewport you must have your mouse over the 3d viewport in order to hide and unhide the panel. Once the panel is visible you will notice a column of tabs on the far left starting with tools at the top followed by the create tab directly underneath. Navigate to the create tab and you can choose to add any of the objects found inside to the 3d viewport. Remember that the objects will be added to the viewport at the location of your 3d cursor. You can move your 3d cursor to a new location in the 3d viewport by hovering over an area in the viewport and left clicking with your mouse. Use the keyboard shortcut ‘Shift + c’ to align the 3d cursor back to the origin of the world and auto align your 3d view around the objects available in the scene.
  6. Duplicating Objects in the 3d Viewport – To duplicate an object it must first be selected. Right click on an object to select it and then you can go to the bottom of the 3d viewport and locate the object menu. Inside the object menu you will find the duplicate command. Alternately you can use the keyboard shortcut ‘Shift + d’ to duplicate the selected object. As soon as you duplicate the object Blender will automatically switch into a move command allowing you to reposition the object somewhere else in the 3d viewport. Move your mouse to the new location and left click to accept. If you want to leave the object at the original location when you duplicate it simply right click to cancel the move operation or hit the ‘Esc’ key on your keyboard.
  7. Looking Through the Camera – To look through a camera a camera must be present in the current scene. By default Blender adds a camera to the scene when you launch. You can go to the view menu at the bottom of the 3d viewport and select camera. Or you can alternately use the keyboard shortcut ‘Numpad 0’. This will allow you to look through the camera and preview how your scene will be framed when it is rendered. In order to go back to the 3d viewport simply use your middle mouse button to orbit back out of camera view and into the scene as before.
  8. Changing Object Properties – Each object created in your scene has a set of properties that define characteristics about how the object looks, behaves, and affects other objects in the scene. To see an objects properties simply select an object and then look to the right hand side of the screen under the properties panel. The properties panel is context sensitive so depending on what type of object you have selected you will notice that the icons at the top of the panel change. Look through each of the icons at the top of the panel to see which properties of the object you want to change. Note: Some of the icons will always be present because they represent properties that are global and not directly related to a selected object such as the Render and World properties.

Below is a tutorial running through all the things in this article. Once you have Blender installed on your system you can launch it and follow along with the video to make sure the concepts from this article make their way into your long term memory.

These are your first steps towards becoming a successful 3d artist using Blender. More questions, a story perhaps about your experience? Please leave me a comment below and let’s chat about how you’re doing. Watch the video and get unleashed.