Beginning in 3D: Tips for Creating Your First Portfolio Piece

Beginning in 3D: Tips for Creating Your First Portfolio Piece

Viviane Feltrin is a 3D student at Think Tank Online, and has worked as an UI/UX designer for games before transitioning careers to CG. As a self-taught professional, she shares her experience on taking an online course and creating her first 3D project.

Viviane Feltrin is a 3D student at Think Tank Online, and has worked as an UI/UX designer for games before transitioning careers to CG. As a self-taught professional, she shares her experience on taking an online course and creating her first 3D project.

Starting my first 3D project

I have read amazing articles written by so many talented students and professionals here at The Rookies. At this point, I feel it would not be interesting to do a tutorial on how I created this piece, so instead, I would like to share the things I faced that went wrong, things that nobody tells you when you are starting and how I overcame them.

The concept

If you intend to share your work online and you did not create the concept art you are going to translate to 3D, make sure to contact the artist who created it to ask permission to post it online. They put their heart into the work and they have the rights to the image. With so many things changing in this industry and new business models rising, artists are afraid to have their work stolen or to find out another person is making money out of it.

Since the beginning, I knew I wanted to share my first project on the Rookies and Artstation and I contacted Greg Craola Simkins before starting anything. I was lucky to have his authorisation but if an artist says no, move on and work on another piece that you received the approval for. With a bit of research, you will be surprised by the number of talented people out there.


After 3 months of learning the basics of CG, it was time to start creating my first final project in which I would apply all the things I have seen in the course material for the first term. Before starting anything, we were asked to create our calendars to make things more organised, so we could visualise the big picture of this project. By creating a calendar, I could foresee how much time I needed to execute every task.

Here is my calendar highlighting my progress into the second week. However, as is the reality for most “newbies”, I was not able to follow exactly as I had planned.

As you can imagine, the problems started to rise in the third week. I was going back and forth checking displacement maps, redoing UVs and tuning down strong lighting. Not only that, I also had to spend a lot of time troubleshooting software - which I heard is quite common even with the veterans in the industry - and upgrading my PC’s memory to handle the software I used.

After seeing the time I spent troubleshooting software, I knew that problem-solving was a must-have skill in this market. I remember I was feeling frustrated by spending more time troubleshooting software than being creative. I was not used to troubleshooting software that much back when I was a Game UI/UX Designer.

By the end, this was the calendar that showcased my progress close to what I actually did:

Taking action

One of my favourite teachers at Think Tank Online, Matthew Novak, once said that “Problems are good!” and that phrase had a huge impact on me when I started seeing that things were not going well.

Getting many error messages makes you feel that you are either not capable of completing the project or that maybe CG is not something for you. However, experiencing those issues drove me to seek information online, to talk to people about it and learn from all the resources I had at my disposal. Then I understood that, without problems I would not have learned so many things.

What also kept me going was to see others online having exactly the same issues I was facing and that showed me that I was not alone. In a good way, it gave me confidence to continue.

In order to make my life easier, I started documenting all the error messages I saw during the process so I could look back and check if I have learned how to solve them. Taking screenshots of the messages, bookmarking forums or blog posts that show how to avoid them, and also taking notes on how to fix things are crucial. By doing things like this, it will help you to feel more prepared if the same error occurs in the future.

Software and Support

I am sharing below a list of links that helped me a lot during hard times and I hope you, the reader, can get something out of them too:

Here are a few examples of things I had to change or troubleshoot during the process of creating the “Yellow” piece:

Mudbox was the first sculpting tool I had contact with at Think Tank Online and it is great to work with because of the amazing integration with Maya. You can send your geometry automatically to Mudbox by clicking on the Send to Mudbox option under the File menu in Maya. To enable this feature, I had to install both software in the same version. For example, if you have Maya 2018, make sure to install Mudbox 2018.

While importing the mesh to Mudbox, I got tons of error messages indicating that something was wrong with the geometry, so I had to double-check and fix the things that were not working well. I have added an example of what you can do if you face the “high-valence vertex” error message below:

If you are comfortable texturing things in Mari by using the layer system, keep an eye open when exporting your textures. When I first started exporting textures I would see the progress bar working properly, but my folders were empty in the end. This error was caused by the large number of layers I had in my file.

I like to keep my files organised by creating groups, and this is something required to enable the Flatten Layer Group option. The cool thing about this feature is that if you have a mask stack in the group, Mari preserves the content inside of it so you do not need to share it again. Be aware that when you flatten a group, you are not working procedurally anymore, that is why I highly recommend duplicating the group first, that way if you need to change anything later you will have access to the “backup” group again.

Based on the error message, I also increased the resolution of the Virtual Texture under the preferences menu from 2K to 4K. After these changes, the issue was solved.

My learning curve

Think Tank Online is a very intensive course as we are learning many aspects of 3D at the same time. I also came to realise that the work I would see online was not always done by someone new to this industry as it seemed like. There are many people out there with a few years of experience trying to get into the market at the same time as someone like me, with just a few months in. So, it would not be fair for me to judge my own work based on the work from the more experienced people. We all have different backgrounds, skill levels and learning curves.

With that being said, what I seek as a 3D student is basically this: I need time to absorb information and to explore what I have learned (workflows/software). I want to create and practice as much as I can, so I am able to refine my skills and techniques. Only then, I would be able to say that I have had a meaningful learning experience.

When we are exposed to something new, it is normal to feel overwhelmed. When we feel overwhelmed, we normally try to find the “right” answers.

What is clear in my mind now is that students are like sponges. We absorb opinions from mentors, colleagues, professionals and basically anyone with a bit more experience than us and that could cause some harm if we do not know how to handle that. So my advice for you is, do not take other people's experiences as being 100% true. We are still evolving as artists, the 3D industry is constantly evolving and we are all figuring things out.

I remember I had so many headaches with topology and sculpting tools for the first time and that affected my productivity and motivation. Do not feel bad if you are not good in all aspects of CG. If you really like something specific in the process, stick with it, learn more about it and practice.

If you can not do grooming, for example, you can collaborate with another colleague and create something together. Collaboration is something I have seen a lot between professionals and I wish I could see more students collaborating with each other.

In my opinion, the best decision is to focus on what you do best and have the most fun doing it. I recently saw this phrase online and it totally relates to me now:

“If you focus on what you have, you gain what you lack. If you focus on what you lack, you lose what you have.” Greg McKeown

Take care of yourself

I can not emphasise this enough: please, pay attention to your body. We are sitting in front of the computer for long hours, so we need to take breaks. We need to stretch, drink water and have good sleep in order to produce the best work we can. There is a ton of content online on ergonomic workstations, and it is 100% recommended.

Sometimes we let the competitiveness of this industry take control of our actions by thinking that we always need to deliver more and more. We are often feeling guilty when we are having our breaks out of the computer, which is not right. If you do not take breaks, you will end up tired and burned out at some point, which will force you to take even longer breaks from the things you like doing now.

Lastly, try to surround yourself with the things you enjoy. It can be literally anything: music, movies, posters, figures and even people! Why not? Anything close to us has a huge impact on our creativity and motivation. And it is great to have people who are supportive and caring around you whenever possible.

That is all folks, I hope you learned something from my experience. If you are new to this like me, welcome! You are not alone and we will all go through the same error messages at some point. If 3D is something you love, do not give up. May 2022 be more creative and less buggy to all of us!

Viviane is an aspiring Texture and Lookdev Artist who loves movies, nature, drumming and all things purple. You can find more of her work on The Rookies, ArtStation and Twitter.