Tutorials and Hairy Balls

Cube with applied material.

There are hundreds of tutorials for Blender. Maybe thousands. As you might expect they vary in quality from not-so-good to very good. One of the characteristics that they all seem to share is that they are fast! Some are far too fast, some are not too fast and I can keep up with them. What I’ve decided to do is watch a tutorial without making note of the techniques used and then go through it again stopping and starting to get a better idea of what is going on.

Another issue is that Blender is complex, as it needs to be to produce realistic 3-D images. That often means that there are usually several ways of achieving something, and a tutorial author might prefer one over another for some reason. Rarely does an author go into why he did something a particular way, and if he does, it can be incredibly useful.

Anyway, I’ve been looking into ‘materials’ and ‘textures’ recently. ‘Materials’ are the stuff that things are made of, like ‘metal’ or ‘marble’. Textures are, as someone said in a tutorial, descriptive of the material. For example a metal object may be rusty, or a marble object might be dirty.

Fabric ball

Fabric covered ball

There are hundreds of free materials and textures available for anyone to download. I’ve downloaded a few from Chocofur who provide a several useful packs of free materials for download. You can also purchase some impressive models from them.

Another source of useful materials are the tutorials. Sometimes a tutorial author will include the materials that he has used in his tutorial, to help those who have taken his tutorial, so that they can repeat the steps he took in his tutorial and learn that way.

Of course, a simple image downloaded from the Internet or a camera image can be used as a source of material and/or textures, but that means that the artist will need to do more work, which brings me to another point. When a texture is downloaded from the Internet, it is usually in the form of a “blend” file which has to be ‘appended’ to the model being created. (A “blend” file is the format in which Blender saves a file, whether it’s one of  your own creations or one from the Internet) When I downloaded my first materials, I didn’t know this, so I just used the images from the downloaded files. This produces results which are, basically, rubbish.

A downloaded texture usually contains several images, used for different purposes – as a colour map, a displacement map, or one of several other types of map. I use the word “map” loosely here. These are used in the “shader” in various ways. I’m not going to define “shader”, but loosely, it’s how the material/texture is applied.

A Hairy Ball

A hairy ball

What I didn’t realise when I started to look into materials, and textures and shaders was that it is fun to play around with them. A shader is a bunch of nodes linked together. Each node is a box with adjustable sliders and values in it, and you can play with them to your hearts content.

Here’s one of Chocofur’s shaders below. Note all the options that you can change! You can also add other nodes to modify the provided shader, and that where the fun begins! Of course, it helps if you know what the nodes do, but that doesn’t prevent experimentation of course.



Node map of Chocfur’s Solid Marble shader

OK, to end with I’m going to show you two of my images, created in the last week or two. They are renders of a cliff face. The first is my first attempt. I created a plane mesh and subdivided it with the fractal parameter set to non-zero. This has the effect of “crumpling” the surface a little. Then I added a pretty bland texture and rotated the plane so that it looked like a cliff.

Cliff version one

Cliff version one

There’s obvious problems with of course. It’s pretty meh! And the bands across it are distracting. Here’s the second attempt.

Cliff version two

Cliff version two

This one is the opposite of the first! It has a bolder material, and is considerably more crumpled. Back to the drawing board. Oh, and I’ve got to work on the lighting.

Please read my books. The paperback versions can be found Amazon, and the eBooks can be found there or at your favourite eBook store. Just search for my name, Cliff Pratt. I mainly write fantasy fiction.

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A Long Long Way to Go

River valley (Blender)

My first attempt at a landscape with river valley in Blender 2.8.

I’m pressing on with Blender, using the 2.8 beta, rather than the current 2.79 version. I figure that if I’m going to learn Blender, I might as well use the version that will be the current version when I get up to speed.

I’ll get to Blender in a minute but I’d just like to mention that I have a few writing ideas floating around in my head. I’ve completed one story and I’m mulling one story line in my head, but the characters want to do something that I’m not completely happy with. Yes, that is how it seems to me. I have little control over the characters and what they do!

The way that they want to act is within character, so I suppose I will put pen to paper, or rather, pound the keyboard, eventually. Sometime soon I’ll drop Blender for a while and switch over  to my word processor, but for now I’m still learning Blender.


The image is from FREEIMAGES (https://www.freeimages.com/photo/television-studio-1-1171607), supplied to them by Joseph Hoban.

Blender is complex because real life 3-D objects which artists are trying to draw are complex. For instance, in real life there is rarely a single source of light. We may say that a an object in a scene is lit by the sun, but really it is lit by the sun, by the ambient light from the sky and the surroundings, and by reflections from other objects in the scene.

The image above shows a studio set up for television, and it shows multiple sources of light and the stage on which the scene, whatever it is, is to be set. The stage is illuminated by a lamp, but there is also a shadow on it. The shadowed part can be seen because it is illuminated by other lamps. Things in the unlit areas around the stage can be seen dimly because some light is reflected from the stage or it spills over from other lamps.

Lighting is complex and one of the things that Blender does is emulate some of this complexity. When someone builds something in Blender the object that is modelled is colourless and textureless. It’s like one of those dressmaker dummies that is merely a shape and a framework for the clothes to be are created on it.

No materials

Some of the lighting has been set up for this object, but not enough. No materials have been applied.

The object in the above image is illuminated by a light source (or rather the object is drawn as if it is illuminated by a light source). It stands on nothing, is surrounded by grey, and is visually it is not that impressive.

For a number of reasons I recreated the tower and this time I gave it some colour by adding colour to the background and another light source, and some ambient lighting.

Cartoon tower

Cartoonish tower, with background, something to stand on and some ambient lighting. There is some other lighting, but it is a bit dim and hard to see.

That still looks cartoonish! It’s still decidedly unimpressive, but I am, I hope, making progress. I’ve learned a lot and hope to put some of it into practise soon. I’ve watched dozens of videos, some of which helped and some of which didn’t. Some of the people making the videos are very good. Others click rapidly on the various windows and menus, leaving me confused.

Some videos seem to refer to earlier versions of the software, which means I have to figure out some of the steps that the video creator just quickly clicked over. Some show how to do specific tasks, like create a floating island, or realistic landscapes, and I have to extract from those the techniques that I need. But I believe that I’m making progress. Maybe by 2020 or early 2021…

I forgot to mention that once the model has been built and been decorated with materials and  textures, it is finished but only exists as a Blender file. To produce images, like those above, the object needs to be rendered. The 3-D object needs to be converted to a 2-D image file. Rendering of complex Blender files can take hours as it is a complex mathematical task. The above images, and the one below that I am going to leave you with, took only a minute or less.

The last image is an early version of the river valley that I started this post with. Since then I have dialled back the ambient lighting and added some “materials” to colourise it. It’s probable that I will rebuild the river valley completely.

River valley (early version)

An early version of the valley and river.

Please read my books. The paperback versions can be found Amazon, and the eBooks can be found there or at your favourite eBook store. Just search for my name, Cliff Pratt. I mainly write fantasy fiction.

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Progress with Blender

This is an update on how I’m getting on with Blender. I spent some time reading and viewing tutorials about the Blender interface, and it is unusual in many way. There are dozens and dozens of menus, panel, screens, and many of the buttons are small on my not-so-big screen (see above). That’s not so good for my ageing eyes.

I decided to try some of the tutorials on how to build a simple house, and eventually I ended up with above. A grey house on a grey background in Blender’s 3D view window. I then tried to recreate the above without looking at the tutorial, but before I get into that, I’m going to mention “rendering”.

Rendering is the name of the process for converting the 3D model, whatever it is, into a image that can be used on the web, or as input for further processing using a different program such as the GIMP. It is during this stage that colours and textures get applied. Below is the image resulting from the rendering of the model above. I didn’t do any colouring or apply any textures so it still looks very grey.

As I said I now attempted to draw the house from scratch, not using the tutorial. It took me some time, but eventually I managed to create the model below.

As you can see, I forgot to create the eaves, but apart from that I managed to recreate something like the tutorial model. I should have planned the house properly before I started it. I could correct it in Blender, but it is easier, with such a simple model, to start again.

I’d read or watched a tutorial where materials were applied to a model to, among other things, apply colour to the scene. “Scene” in blender means a single model that can be worked on, such as the houses, backgrounds and lighting in the models above. I decided to render my house, and to colour it in the process, and ended up with the following image. The green area that the house stands on is an object in the scene that I created and coloured, a large flat “mesh”. In Blender your work sort of floats in space, although there is something called “Physics” that I haven’t investigated yet, that may change that.

I continued to familiarise myself with the Blender interface by playing around with house models, and then I decided to try to recreate my UFO from the GIMP in blender. Here it is, in Blender. Unfortunately, the image is quite small.

And here’s a rendered view. I coloured it black and white, so it doesn’t look too impressive and the light levels are a bit low.

I restarted building the UFO, and here’s a screenshot of the second version. This time it should be more visible. It’s view of the mesh that creates the shape of the UFO. Its skeleton, if you like.

And finally for this post, here’s a rendered image of the UFO. AS you can see, it’s a bit chunky, but I’ll be investigating how to smooth it out.

I’m deliberately not going into detail on how I built these images, since they only use the really basic tools, (the UFO is just a squashed sphere for example), and there are many good Blender tutorials on the Internet. If I find some process or facility that I find interesting, I might go into detail, and when I start building a full image, I may post the various steps that got me to the end result.

Please read my books. The paperback versions can be found Amazon, and the eBooks can be found there or at your favourite eBook store. I mainly write fantasy fiction.

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On Learning Blender

I’ve been using the GIMP recently to draw some things, and I’ve discovered that there are some things that it can’t do easily. Specifically, I want to draw a three dimensional scene, and that requires textures and other images to wrap around objects in the main image. Like, for example, the label on a can of beans. While this is possible in the GIMP, I’ve not been able to produce really convincing wrapped objects in the GIMP. This is almost certainly my fault and not the program’s fault, of course.

Anyway, I started looking at alternatives, of which there are many. Few of them are free, but one of the best, according to my research, is Blender.

The GIMP doesn’t pretend to be a painting program. It is as its name says, an Image Manipulation Program. (The G stands for “GNU”, which I will not explain. I will refer you to Wikipedia instead.) So, it’s main purpose is to take an image, perhaps a photograph, remove any blemishes, any unwanted photo-bombers, and apply effects and merge images to form composite images.

One task that can be achieved pretty easily in the GIMP is creating text strings and positioning them on top of images. That is great for creating book covers, for example, and I’ve created a few using the GIMP. It is great for two dimensional tasks, but is not designed for building things in three dimensions.

A book cover created using the GIMP

A book cover created using the GIMP.

Blender, on the other hand, is designed for creating three dimensional images. You can even fly or walk around them. A cube looks like a cube, a sphere appears spherical. You can see an example of the layout of the Blender screen at the head of this post. Unfortunately, reducing the Blender screen to this size makes it almost unreadable, but the cube can easily be seen.

So, Blender. I decided to try to learn Blender with the aim of creating images of three dimensional objects and “painting” them with two dimensional images to produce the effects that I wanted. I could then “render” them in Blender to produce images of the objects that I wanted, and then I could import them into the GIMP.

Blender is complex! Even the methods of navigating around the work area needed hard work to get my head around, and actually creating anything more than a simple primitive object such as a cone or a cube is hard.

If you go to YouTube and search for tutorials on Blender you will find literally dozens of them. I came across a series of basic tutorials which numbered forty one. If you perform an Internet search, there are thousands of Blender tutorials. It’s a very complex program.

It also has a quirky and very complex interface. For example, it doesn’t prompt you to save your work on exit, like many other programs, but if you forget to save, it has a way to recover your work from the previous session. This infuriates many people, and a search through the arguments for and against this feature can be entertaining.

Another quirk is that the “select” function is driven by a mouse right button click rather than the more usual left button click. This feature at least can be switched off if the user wishes.

Blender is most easily “driven” using hot keys, though the menus are there. There are so many hot keys and combinations of keys, that they are hard to remember. What does pressing Shift plus Ctrl plus the letter L do, for example? I don’t know, but it is probably something useful.

Anyway, I’m going to try to learn it, and I probably post some of my experiences with it here. So long, I’m off to read a 1900+ page PDF on Blender. It’s a beginner’s guide!

Please read my books. The paperback versions can be found Amazon, and the eBooks can be found there or at your favourite eBook store. I mainly write fantasy fiction.


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A UFO drawn in the GIMP

I’ve been playing around with the GIMP recently, drawing stuff, rather than editing or touching up photos. I decided to try to draw a small UFO, and the following post shows how I did it. There’s almost certainly better ways to do it, but I’m no Gimp guru!

[For those who don’t know, the GIMP is a free image processing program available for Windows, Linux and Mac, which has similar abilities to Adobe Photoshop.]

My main idea was to create the UFO as a rectangular image, and then to use the “Map Object” filter that comes with the GIMP to wrap this image around a sphere. So, first I created a rectangular image, four to five times as wide as it was high.

I wanted to have two chains of windows encircling the UFO, so the next step was to create a small layer for a single window. There are many ways to create a new layer, and I’m not going to go into details of all the methods. Please read the Gimp documentation if you want to know more.

One way is to open the Layers dialog either through the “Windows” menu or simply by hitting Ctrl + L, and using the small button at the bottom to create the new layer. I recommend right clicking the new Layer and giving it a name through the “Edit Layer Attributes…” option.

Anyway, having created a new layer, I selected a small rectangular area on it, and filled it with the foreground colour, black, then I used the “Select” menu “Grow…” option to grow it by 10 pixels all round. Here’s what I had at this stage. Note the Layers dialog on the right. I always keep the Layers dialog open as it is so useful!

OK, that’s a little hard to read, I know. The important bit is the bit in the middle, the black square surrounded by a white border, the current selection. I selected “Crop to Selection” on the Layer menu to shrink the Layer to the smallest size needed.

The next stage was to create more window layers with a window in each, so I just clicked the small copy button in the middle of the bottom of the Layers dialog about ten times, with no visible change to the image. This is because all the new layers get created right on top of one another! However, all the layers are listed in the Layers dialog on the right of the screen.

I then used the Move tool to move the new layers to different positions on the screen. I made sure that I’d spread them all out. See below.

As you can see, they are not exactly aligned and spaced, so that was my next task, using the alignment tool. I wanted this middle row to to be evenly spread along the mid line of the image, so in the alignment tool properties dialog I selected “Relative to     Active layer”. Then I selected all the layers on the middle line, and finally selected the Background layer. I selected the button to align the layers on the mid line of the image (the lower middle of the six buttons in the “Align” section) then I selected the button to distribute the layers evenly across the image (the one on the right of the first row of the “Distribution” section). Now the image looked like this :

So now I needed to make the second line of windows, just about the first line. So I created a further eight windows by repeatedly copying one of the lower windows, then I spread them out slightly above the other line.

Then using the alignment tool, I selected all the windows in the new line. I changed the “Relative to” value using the drop down menu to “First Item”, then aligned the windows to the first one by using the middle button in the second row of the “Align” section. The reason I aligned the windows to the first window rather than active layer is because otherwise the windows would simply overlay the first set.

Now I needed to space out the windows, so, leaving them selected, I changed the “Relative to” value back to “Active Layer”, then used the right most button on the first row of the “Distribute” section to spread the windows evenly along the line. They now matched the first line, as shown below.

At this stage I saved the image to disk, in case of accidents. The GIMP lets you undo the steps that you have taken in editing or creating an image, but sometimes (especially if you are experimenting), it is useful be able to abandon all your fiddling and start again from a known good image. However, saving an image means that you can’t backtrack from that version of the image.

Now I needed to apply the filter, but the filter appears to only work on a single layer of an image, so I flattened the image to a single layer (using the Image menu), and applied the Map Object filter to the resulting image (Filter->Map->Map Object…). I changed the lighting to make it appear that the lighting was coming from above and to the right and I also adjusted the orientation a little so that viewpoint was slightly below the UFO, as if it was flying overhead. These are options in the filter. I clicked OK and got the following result.

And that is it. It’s a simple enough image, but good enough for my purposes, and it shows a number of simple GIMP techniques. To create the image at the top of the post I merely hid the background layer and filled the areas around the UFO with sky blue. I hope that this post will be useful to someone.  Obviously there is a lot of scope to improve the image, perhaps by adding doors to the lower part, landing legs and so on, but it will do me for now.

Acknowledgement : Much of the stuff on the usage of the Alignment Tool was gleaned from this article. Many thanks to the author, Debi Dallo.

Please read my books. The paperback versions can be found Amazon, and the eBooks can be found there or at your favourite eBook store. I mainly write fantasy fiction.

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My Books in eBook form, half price.


I publish my eBooks through Smashwords and Amazon, so that I get the highest visibility for them. Smashwords has a “New Year” promotion, starting Christmas Day and extending through to New Years Day. During this period, my eBooks will be available through Smashwords at half price.

My paperback versions of “The Last Beautiful Woman” and “The Mage and The Boffin” parts one and two are available on Amazon only.

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The Mage and The Boffin : Part Two

I’ve published the second part of my series, “The Mage and The Boffin” in paperback. It can be found on Amazon, here. This complete the collection of current stories about the Mage and the Boffin, but I’ve a few more buzzing about in my head. Please keep an eye out for a possible “Part Three”!

[Here’s the link for The Mage and The Boffin : Part One – The Early Stories.]

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