The world of 3D art is a costly one. Programs such as Autodesk Maya and 3DS MAX have price tags of thousands of dollars, making them inaccessible to anyone but those already established in the industry. These programs are typically used in tandem with others, such as Adobe Photoshop or CrazyBump, and these also run for hundreds of dollars each. However, as the industry has expanded, so too have alternatives, and nearly everything a prospective artist needs can now be found for free. These three free programs are the essentials for any 3D artist on a budget.
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Most important is the 3D modeling suite itself. For this there is Blender, an open-source program which stacks up well when compared with its pricey alternatives. Blender 3D has everything a user needs, from basic functions such as mesh editing and sculpting to more advanced features such as node-based material creation and surface tracking. Additionally, its development is almost entirely community-based, so anyone with a good knowledge of coding and an idea for a new feature can contribute via plugins, and end users can download and use these community plugins. Blender can be found at blender.org.
However, the models created in Blender will still need color to bring them to life. Be it photographs or hand-drawn art, high-quality textures can be created using GIMP. GIMP, or the GNU Image Manipulation Program, is another open-source program, this time replacing Adobe Photoshop. It has advanced features similar to that of Photoshop, and, like Blender, a large number of community-made plugins. This is a great tool for generating basic textures, although for more advanced texturing, one may want to purchase a texture-painting program. Substance Painter is one such program, and can be had for $150, which is a hefty price tag for some, but one shouldn’t need this until one is sufficiently experienced with GIMP and Blender. GIMP, however, can be found for free at gimp.org.
Finally, for bump map creation, there is really only one free program worth anything. That rather obscure program is Njob, which is by Charles Hollemeersch. While rather simple and lacking in features, Njob can quickly and effectively generate bump and normal maps from photographs or photograph-based textures. While it lacks advanced features such as height customization and a 3D viewport, it certainly is enough to create high-quality texture bumps for any need. This program may require a bit of a search to find, but Google should do the job.
As the 3D industry expands, so do alternatives, and there will likely soon be free competitors to more advanced programs such as Substance Painter. Until then, with a bit of work, this set of programs will fulfill any user’s needs, and may very well get him or her started on the path to a career.