Luis Santander Art

Creating 3D Game Art: Where to Start in 2023

May 1, 2023

Welcome! With advances in art apps and the growing popularity of indie game development, there’s never been a better time to dive into this creative field. Making games and art for them is easier than ever. Let’s say you’re interested but don’t know where to start.

Here we’ll explore the tools, resources, and skills you need to get started as a 3D game artist in 2023. Whether you’re a complete beginner or an experienced 2D artist looking to make the jump to 3D, I’ve got you covered.

Table of Contents

Understanding the Basics of 3D Game Art

To create compelling 3D game art, it’s essential to grasp the foundational concepts and processes. Here, we’ll dive deeper into the common terminology and stages of the 3D game art pipeline.

Common Terminology

  • Polygons: In 3D modeling, a polygon is a flat, two-dimensional shape that forms the basic building block of 3D objects. The most common type of polygon used in games is the triangle or “tri.”
  • Vertices: A vertex (plural: vertices) is a single point where two or more edges meet, defining the corners of polygons.
  • Textures: These are 2D images applied to the surface of 3D models to add color, detail, and realism. Textures can include diffuse maps (color), normal maps (surface detail), specular maps (reflectivity), and more.
  • UV Mapping: The process of unwrapping a 3D model’s surface onto a 2D plane, allowing textures to be applied accurately. This creates a “UV map,” which serves as a guide for placing textures on the model.

Stages of the 3D Game Art Pipeline

  • Modeling: The process of creating a 3D object by defining its shape and structure using polygons, vertices, and edges. This can be done using traditional box modeling, sculpting, or a combination of both.
  • Box Modeling: Artists start with a basic shape (e.g., a cube) and manipulate its vertices, edges, and polygons to create more complex forms.
  • Sculpting: Artists use digital sculpting tools to mold a virtual “clay” into the desired shape, mimicking the traditional sculpting process.
  • Texturing: After the model is complete, artists apply textures to give the object color, detail, and a sense of material. This involves creating or sourcing 2D images and using UV mapping to ensure accurate texture placement.
  • Rigging: This is the process of adding a “skeleton” to a 3D model, allowing it to be posed and animated. Rigs consist of bones and joints, which define the model’s structure and movement capabilities.
  • Animation: With a rigged model, artists can create movement by setting keyframes that define the model’s position, rotation, and scale at specific points in time. The software then interpolates between these keyframes to create smooth, natural motion.
  • Lighting: Proper lighting is crucial for creating a believable game environment. Artists place virtual lights within a scene to create highlights, shadows, and atmosphere, considering factors like light intensity, color, and falloff.

By familiarizing yourself with these fundamental concepts and processes, you’ll be better prepared to tackle the challenges of creating 3D game art and navigate the complexities of the game art pipeline.

Essential Software and Tools

To create high-quality 3D game art, it’s crucial to master the right software and tools. We’ll delve deeper into some of the most popular options available for different aspects of the game art creation process.

3D Modeling and Sculpting

  • Blender (free): A powerful, open-source 3D software suite that supports modeling, sculpting, animation, and rendering. Blender is an excellent choice for beginners due to its accessible price point and strong community support, but it’s also suitable for professionals.
  • Autodesk Maya: A widely-used professional 3D modeling and animation software, known for its robust toolset, versatility, and strong support for character animation and rigging.
  • Autodesk 3ds Max: Another industry-standard 3D modeling software, with a focus on architectural visualization and game environment creation. Its strong modifier stack and procedural modeling tools make it a popular choice for creating complex assets.


  • Substance Painter: A powerful, specialized software for creating detailed PBR (Physically-Based Rendering) textures for 3D models. Substance Painter is known for its intuitive painting tools, smart materials, and real-time rendering, making it a top choice for game artists.
  • Quixel Suite: A set of tools that integrate with Photoshop, allowing artists to create high-quality textures for 3D models. Quixel Suite includes Megascans, a library of thousands of scanned materials, which can be combined to create realistic textures.
  • Adobe Photoshop: While primarily known as a 2D image editing software, Photoshop can also be used for creating and editing textures. Its robust layering system, vast array of brushes, and wide range of adjustment tools make it a versatile choice for texturing.


  • Blender (free): In addition to modeling and sculpting, Blender offers a comprehensive set of tools for animation, including an advanced graph editor, a nonlinear animation editor, and support for motion capture data.
  • Autodesk Maya: With its robust character rigging and animation tools, Maya is an industry-standard choice for creating character animations, offering features like blend shapes, advanced IK/FK systems, and customizable character rigs.

Game Engines

  • Unreal Engine: A powerful game engine known for its high-quality graphics and visual scripting system (Blueprints), which allows non-programmers to create complex game logic. Unreal Engine is often used for creating visually stunning, high-performance games (it’s also my favorite!). Sadly it doesn’t run great on Macs due to Epic and Apple fighting.
  • Unity: A widely-used, versatile game engine that supports 2D and 3D game development across multiple platforms. Unity offers a user-friendly interface, a robust asset store, and a strong community, making it a popular choice for both beginners and professionals.
  • Godot (free): An open-source game engine that supports both 2D and 3D game development. With its lightweight size, flexible node-based architecture, and built-in scripting language, Godot is an excellent choice for indie developers and those looking for a free alternative. This is what I’m currently learning (mostly for 2D though).

As you explore these software options, keep in mind that many providers offer free or discounted educational licenses for students and hobbyists. By taking advantage of these offers, you can gain access to professional tools without breaking the bank.

Tutorials and Online Courses

Learning from experienced professionals is a great way to jumpstart your 3D game art journey. There are countless online resources available to help you learn the ins and outs of your chosen software. Here are some popular platforms offering tutorials and courses:

  • YouTube: Search for tutorials by experienced 3D artists or follow channels dedicated to 3D game art.
  • Udemy: Purchase affordable, in-depth courses on specific topics or software packages.
  • CG Cookie: A subscription-based platform offering courses and resources for Blender and Unity.
  • Pluralsight: A subscription-based platform with a wide variety of courses on 3D art and game development.

Developing Your Artistic Skills

I think this is the most important point. While mastering the technical aspects of 3D game art is crucial, it’s equally important to develop your artistic skills. These abilities will help you create visually appealing and engaging game assets. Here are some key areas to focus on as you refine your artistic prowess:

Color Theory

Understanding color theory is essential for creating harmonious and visually impactful game art. Familiarize yourself with the color wheel, color relationships (complementary, analogous, triadic, etc.), and the impact of color on mood and atmosphere. Learn to balance saturation, contrast, and value in your work to create a cohesive and appealing color palette.

Lighting and Shadows

Effective lighting is vital for creating realistic and immersive game environments. Study various lighting scenarios, such as natural daylight, artificial lighting, and ambient occlusion, to understand how light interacts with different materials and surfaces. Learn how to use directional, point, and spotlights in your game engine to create dynamic and engaging lighting setups. Understand the importance of cast shadows, self-shadowing, and global illumination for achieving a believable sense of depth and space.


Composition is the arrangement of visual elements within a scene or image. It plays a crucial role in guiding the viewer’s eye and creating a sense of balance and harmony. Study the principles of composition, such as the rule of thirds, leading lines, and the golden ratio, to create visually engaging game assets and environments. Practice using focal points, negative space, and depth of field to establish hierarchy and depth in your scenes.

Anatomy and Proportions

Whether you’re creating characters, creatures, or even environmental assets, understanding anatomy and proportions is essential for creating believable and appealing 3D game art. Study human and animal anatomy to gain a solid grasp of musculature, skeletal structure, and movement. Apply these principles to your 3D models to create lifelike and expressive characters. Additionally, consider how proportions can be stylized or exaggerated to create unique and memorable designs.

Perspective and Foreshortening

Creating a sense of depth and space is crucial for achieving realism and immersion in 3D game art. Study the principles of linear perspective, including one-point, two-point, and three-point perspective, to accurately depict objects and environments in 3D space. Learn to use foreshortening – the visual effect of objects appearing shorter and more compressed as they recede into the distance – to create convincing depth in your scenes.

Visual Storytelling

As a 3D game artist, your work should not only be visually appealing but also contribute to the narrative and atmosphere of the game. Develop your storytelling skills by studying the work of other artists, analyzing how they use visual elements such as color, lighting, and composition to convey emotions, themes, and narratives. Practice incorporating these techniques into your own work to create game art that is both beautiful and meaningful.

Art Styles and References

Developing a unique and recognizable art style can help set your game apart from the competition. Study various art movements, such as realism, impressionism, and cubism, as well as different cultural art styles, like anime, art nouveau, and tribal art. Combine elements from these styles to create your own distinct aesthetic. Additionally, use reference images and inspiration from real-world sources to inform your designs and ensure accuracy and believability.

By focusing on these artistic skills, you’ll not only enhance the quality of your 3D game art but also develop a strong foundation that will serve you well throughout your career. But also it’s important to know that even if you don’t “memorize” the theory, just by doing art and evaluating, your brain starts getting used to seeing what’s right and wrong, so your artistic taste will let you know what you should focus on (does that make sense?).

In other words, keep practicing and looking at art obsessively, and without noticing, your skills will improve.

What’s next

Creating 3D game art can be a rewarding and fulfilling career path for those with a passion for both art and gaming. By understanding the basics, mastering essential software, and developing your artistic skills, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a successful 3D game artist. Remember to stay curious, keep learning, and never be afraid to ask for help or advice from the community. Happy creating!