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RenderHub 3D Blog

Being a Free-D Artist with Free 3D Software

Monday, February 25 2019 by NATHAN MARSH
This is an important article that I feel can greatly benefit the renderhub community. Included is a listing and brief descriptions of open source and FREE solutions for 3D artists. Hopefully there is a software in this listing that you can use to boost your speed and productivity.
We all love our tools for 3D visualizations. Whether you are a professional, hobbyist, or a dabbling enthusiast, you will find yourself in a situation where you want to create something but simply do not know how to do it, or you are limited somehow by the toolsets available in preferred programs. Sometimes that one project will call for a photorealistic character with animation, but you are an architectural artist. You may be the best 3D modeler around, but your texture game isn't up to par? You start looking for software and realize if you buy every specific program or purchase individual models with animations, you are breaking the bank. What is the solution? Luckily we are in an age where open source development is pretty much on-par with industry standards and expectations of quality.
Here I would like to provide a resource of open source free or low cost solutions. My goal was to capture a handful of FREE programs for each of the individual needs a 3D generalist artist may run in to:
1. General Productivity Tools
2. All Purpose Fully Featured 3D Hubs
3. 3D Modeling Tools
4. 3D Sculpting
5. Characters and Animation
6. Trees and Foliage
7. Terrain Generation and Modeling
8. UV Tools
9. Baking, Texture Painting, and Material Generation
10. Game Engines
11. Stand-Alone Rendering
12. 3D Printing and Photogrammetry
13. 2D Photo Manipulation and Painting

General Productivity Tools

1. Notepad ++
So easy to forget if you don't use it regularly. If you type, take notes, copy/paste info, whatever it is, tabbed note keeping is highly beneficial. I used this in a previous position as a technical troubleshooting agent. I carried it along with me as I started to do article writing and 3D modeling projects.
2. OpenOffice
Have you ditched Microsoft for word processing yet? Openoffice can do virtually anything Microsoft Word does, for free.
3. PureRef
Grab all your reference images and drop them into one large canvas. You can drag and drop images directly from your internet browser, or in bulk stacks of images. Arrange your reference or have it auto-organized for you. Zoom all around it, it feels like a 3D program for 2D reference images. "Keep window on top" mode and the ability to resize the window makes this program exceptional for reference viewing. PureRef has helped me dramatically in getting to know my selected reference images, whether it is anatomy, animal reference, or viewing architectural elements.

All Purpose Fully Featured 3D Hubs

You probably already have your favorite base 3D program or 3D hub. No need to "switch" for you, unless you want to switch away from a subscription model. Before I get too far into the article, I must mention Blender. For every category I mentioned in the list above, there is a Blender-based alternative. Having said this, if you are an independent 3D artist or Indy studio wishing to avoid licensing issues and payments and still have access to a full-fledged 3D program, you should get to know Blender.
1. Blender
Blender can be seen as a do-it-all tool, but it does take time to learn and become comfortable with it. It has some features that many 3D artists are unaware of. They include an internal game engine, GPU viewport rendering, 2D animation tools, Sculpting, Material editing, and endless plugins to assist in whatever you need to do. There is a wonderful community of hobbyists and professionals that use it, so tutorials and reference can be found very easily.
2. Clara.io
Clara.io has an impressive list of studios that have honed its workflow for highend movies and games. Since this is all cloud-based, this tool is great for collaboration on projects. It is FREE but there are a few limitations you will run into, especially if you want to take advantage of the rendering. Essentially your projects are viewable by other users and you are limited to 10 private scenes limit unless you upgrade. There is a great asset library. Many models are in Public Domain. License information is clearly available for every model that you can use. Click on it and it tells you if you can use derivations of it, or if it is for commercial or noncommercial use. VRAY cloud rendering comes standard in this package!
3. Art Of Illusion
I have to admit I did not look too deep into this tool. It has a very simple interface and allows for modeling and rendering. There is not much available online about it, except that it is "good enough for a free program". It may be worth a look.

3D Modeling Tools

1. Wings 3D
This open-source free Subdivision modeler has been around since 2001 and still sees updates. It has lighting and material support but no animation.
2. freeCAD (CAD)
Draw plans in 2D views or 3D. If you are familiar with AutoCAD, this will be easy to learn, but there is a bit of a curve due to interface and workflow differences. Free and easy.
3. TinkerCAD (CAD)
Made by Autodesk, this is a great tool for teaching 3D and introducing 3D concepts to kids. From the moment I had it up in my browser, my 4 year old son started asking me, "Dad, I want to try that." He is now, unguided by me. You can create models, print, and there are surprisingly many more tools that I keep discovering. If not a full-fledged solution for you, a learning vehicle for others.

3D Sculpting

1. Sculptris
This has been incorporated into ZBrush but the legacy version last updated in 2011 is still available as a standalone sculpting solution. Granted, this is mainly a demo of a full fledged modeling solution within ZBrush. If you are starting with 3D sculpting, try this to get your feet wet.
2. sculptGL
This is basically ZBrush/Sculptris in a browser. Very easy to navigate and start creating. There is also a fork of this called SculptFab which allows you to directly upload your creations to SketchFab: https://labs.sketchfab.com/sculptfab/
3. Blender
I know I’m not supposed to mention Blender again, but it does have a full featured sculpting toolset that allows you to easily move back and forth from sculpting to modeling.

Characters and Animation

1. Make Human
This is a great option for creating base meshes. I have used this for various projects where I simply needed a basemesh of a particular kind of body to work off of. Makehuman has options to add specific types of topology for added musculature definition, animation ready models, or game ready models. Make base meshes and import/export skin map textures. Edit skin maps in photoshop or clip studio. This has allowed me to skip straight to sculpting within zbrush, while preserving UVs from makehumans basemesh. You can find rigs for Makehuman characters here: http://www.makehumancommunity.org/rigs.html Also usefull, this full workflow wiki to export makehuman mesh, aplly animation, and export to Unreal Engine: https://wiki.unrealengine.com/Workflow:_MakeHuman_and_Blender
2. Adobe Fuse cc beta
Fuse is FREE Character creation from Adobe with a Creative Cloud account. As long as you have an account with Adobe, you can use Fuse for character creation and Mixamo to apply animation. It has limitations similar to Makehuman, but this is great to produce characters with animations already.
3. Mixamo
Mixamo allows you to easily take characters and apply rigging and premade animations. If you have a humanoid character mesh, you can easily drop it into Mixamo and have it autorigged in seconds. You will have thousands of animations available, with the ability to fine-tune all animations using slider controls. Great for game animations.
4. Daz3D - Freemium
Daz Studio is a composition and rendering software designed to highlight characters. character creator within a scene that comes with Hexagon modeller and dForce Physics engine for realistic draping of clothes. Daz is free to use and there are plenty of free assets, but if you continue to learn the program and expand what you would like to do with it, expect to spend some money for base characters or "Genesis" models that most other characters are derived from.

Trees and Foliage

Trees happen to be one of those things that most artists will need at some point, but we don’t always have hours to put into modelling individual trees, or the cash to buy tree packs with endless varieties of species in every season. Luckily, there are some options to generate trees and plants.
1. Tree-it
This open-source tree creator comes with many features, including an existing library of trees, create any species, ability to randomize for use with game engines. This was made FREE at the end of 2018 and has gained quite a bit of attention in game developer forums.
2. ATree3D
This 3ds Max plugin from Aviz Studios allows you to create trees and plants within 3ds Max. It also generates grass and offers low poly and high poly export options.
3. Sapling
This Blender Add-on allows you to generate decent trees within Blender.
4. ngPlant
You will need to change many settings to get a tree to look like a tree, but once you figure out some shortcuts, ngPlant will serve you well. It also has tools to create groupings of flowers, grasses, and LODs as well. Feel free to use on commercial projects as well.

Terrain Generation and Modeling

1. l3dt
Standard edition - recently made freeware. This does have limitations when compared to the PRO version, but there are so many ways to get comfortable with this tool that if you do decide to purchase the full version, it will be worth it. There is a PRO version that for indie developers costs $34.95 and has a 90-day trial.
2. Terrain.party
Generate height maps from real world data. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Very simple to use and outputs .PNG files.
Note: Some of the Game Engines that I list further down below have built in landscape generators and scattering plugins; Unreal and Unity in particular.

UV Tools

I don’t know many 3D artists who enjoy the UV process and most are looking for autoUV tools, or UV tools with better interfaces than what we get with any of the major 3D modeling packages. Most modelling programs will also have an interface for UVing solutions. If you use Blender, Maya, 3ds Max, ZBrush, all come with UV tools.
1. Roadkill (FREE version)
The latest version is a standalone application that can be called from Maya, 3DS Max and now Softimage XSI. The interface for this application is a bit dated, but the tool works efficiently.
2. Boundary-First-Flattening
An alternative to the aforementioned Roadkill. There are other low-cost UV tools as well.

Baking, Texture Painting, and Material Generation

Many of the 3D hub programs have tools to allow you to bake maps, but you may prefer to have a dedicated program for this feature. Substance Painter has been king at the baking game, but there are Free alternatives.
1. Xnormal
This has been around for quite awhile, but still works great and is free. There are now more solutions that are surpassing Xnormal.
2. Handplane 3D baker
This is a powerful program that allows for quick baking of high density meshes. There is no need to explode models for accurate bakes. Also has a Blender bridge mode.
3. Normal Map Online
This nifty app allows you to create textures, normal, displacements, etc based off images or geometry. Upload objs low and high poly for baking, or generate texture sets for materials using images. This is Online only for free, so there is no install and it runs 99% on GPU, making it blazingly fast.
4. AwesomeBump
This was created as an alternative to the commercial solution CrazyBump. It allows material generation from images.
5. Materialize
like Substance B2M. Create materials for use in games.
6. ArmorPaint
ArmorPaint is open source but not free. It is the closest thing to Substance Painter you can find for cheap at $19, and it is rapidly gaining steam. It may be released for free at some point in the future.

Game Engines

There are many free game engines available now. The "free to use, pay once you make money" model seems to be popular. There are a few I list below that do not even require royalty fees, making them 100% FREE.
1. Unreal Engine
Unreal Engine has been taking off, especially with huge money apps like Fortnite being created by Epic Games. You only need to pay if you are creating a commercial videogame or application that exceeds $3000 in which you would pay 5% royalties to Epic Games. It is quickly being utilized by more than just videogame and VR applications. Many render artists are switching over to Unreal in order to capitalize on realtime VR walkthroughs and animations. In fact, Unreal has been developing a workflow solution to bring assets from virtually any platform in to Unreal Engine. You can sign up for the 100% royalty free license beta here. https://www.unrealengine.com/en-US/studio
2. Unity
Unity is great for creating 3D or 2D games. Its graphics capabilities rival Unreal Engine and it is very friendly to independent developers. If your revenue exceeds $100,000 then you will need to purchase a Pro version.
3. Cryengine
Cryengine is an extremely powerful game engine. It is known for having very high visual fidelity but requires programming knowledge and a steep learning curve. Try for free and pay what you like. FREE to USE and even make commercial games for FREE.
4. Lumberyard
Lumberyard is fork of Cryengine that was licensed from Crytek by Amazon. It has gone on to diverge from CryEngine and is great for creating online games with Amazon Web Services.
5. Godot
Godot is completely free and open-source under the very permissive MIT license. No strings attached, no royalties, nothing. Your game is yours, down to the last line of engine code. Godot has separate render engines for 3D and 2D. It is a fully integrated program that has everything you need besides your created art assets.
6. Armory 3D
If you are a Blender user, did you know that Armory 3D is a FREE open-source game engine with full Blender integration? It is available for Blender 2.79 or 2.8 beta. Blender is removing support for its own game engine after 2.79, so keep Armory 3D in mind when you upgrade with Blender.

Stand-Alone Rendering

There are many free game engines available now. The "free to use, pay once you make money" model seems to be popular. There are a few I list below that do not even require royalty fees, making them 100% FREE.
1. Kerkythea
A full staging application for rendering. It offers an extensive library of PBR materials, material editing, and a GL real-time viewer. It is also available as a Sketchup plugin.
2. Ogre3D
This rendering program is great for programmers and it can easily be implemented into different render solutions.
3. Sketchfab
This is a 3D visualizer available online. The free version has limitations with texture sizes and mesh density, but so far it has been a great tool to quickly put a model in the hands of potential clients or fans to view. Realtime render online, doubles as a portfolio viewer. PRO options are low priced and you caa gain PRO by having friends sign up on Sketchfab. For every person you get signed up, you get 3 months of PRO for FREE and your signee gets 1-month PRO for FREE.

3D Printing and Photogrammetry

1. Mesh Mixer
Described as the "Swiss army knife" for 3D meshes. This allows you to clean up 3D scans, clean meshes for printing, and some mixing of meshes to create something new.
2. Meshlab
This allows you to clean up stl files for printing. It is a bit more technical but allows for cleaning up large models, editing, cleaning, patching holes, and rendering.
3. Meshroom
This program is simple to use and starts the whole photogrammetry process with 1 click. After the model has been created from your photos, you have plenty of options for cleanup and exporting.

2D Photo Manipulation and Painting

1. Gimp
The original open-source Photoshop clone, GIMP is still relevant and useable for image editing, manipulation, and creation of digital art.
2. Krita
Krita excels at digital illustration and painting.
3. Medibang Paint Pro
This is a very capable Clip studio replacement - Great Tool for Illustration or Manga style art work. Free to use, and also hosts a site for selling your work. Requires a Medibang account (FREE). There are also many free materials that can be used that come with a Medibang account.
4. Inkscape (Vector)
This is a vector-based illustration program. It can be used as an alternative to Illustrator OR can be used to handle splines, lines for 3D
5. Pencil2D (2D Animation)
Simple interface. Easy. Free. It is being updated regularly as well.
In compiling this article, I wanted to include free audio tools, video editing, and VR/AR tools but simply did not have enough time to go through all of these. The world is going open-source and there are free solutions to every problem that arises for us. Free assets are available through many of the programs listed. I wanted to include a listing of sources for free assets, but that will be left for another article. If there are any programs that I missed that should be included, please email me and let me know or simply reply to this post to get some dialogue going.



NaughtyStudioFri, Mar 01, 2019
Karma: 323
WOW, thank you very much for taking the time to share this!
matt69Sun, Mar 03, 2019
Karma: 154
thanks for the awesome list
NM3DTue, Mar 05, 2019
Karma: 168
Thank you for the comments! I hope every one reading can find at least one tool that they can add to their arsenal. If anyone has suggestions for more open-source or free tools, please add a comment below.
abnormalpixelsWed, Apr 22, 2020
Karma: 202
this was very helpful. thanks for posting.
tim58Wed, Apr 14, 2021
Karma: 100
what is the best program for me to print your 3d products I really like your stuff but having a problem in printing them please help me so I can print your items
cgiliaFri, Aug 20, 2021
Karma: 117
Thanx for this post