How the 3D cow illustration was made

There are lots of steps involved in using 3D software to make an illustration and plenty of really good information about the subject already published, in books, magazines and online. So I won’t try to explain everything here. Instead I’ll show you the basic stages.

3d cow

First thing is to model the cow. 3D artists talk about how easy 3D software is to use, and once you’ve learned how to use it, it’s true that you’re able to work quickly. But it’s not so easy to learn! I use Cinema 4D because when I bought it, it seemed to have the easiest learning curve among the various packages, but if you want to do this kind of stuff, expect to put in lots and lots of hours.

Cow head model

Whenever I model an animal I always start with the head. Here’s the first stage of the cow model.

Cow model seen in perspective Cow model seen from the side Cow model seen from the top Cow model seen from the front

The software lets you view the model from all different angles while you work. The pictures here show the finished cow. Those 4-sided tile shapes that make up the cow shape are called ‘polygons’ and the structure made up of all those polygons is called the ‘mesh’.

Cow skin rug

When it came time to put spots onto the cow I didn’t try to simulate a cow texture. Instead, I took a photo of a cow skin rug. This resulted in a pattern much more realistic than anything I could make up.

Cow skin rug

This picture shows a flattened version of my cow mesh with the cow rug spread over it. That allowed me to line up the spots with the cow’s geometry. I used software called BodyPaint to map the texture onto the mesh. It lets me see the flattened surface of the cow in the same way as a map of the world lets us see a flattened surface of the globe. That’s why 3D artists call this process ‘mapping’.

You’ll see I’ve made a few changes to the cow skin and also painted in some of my own colours so things like the cow’s lips are the right colour.

Cow model with its texture applied

I’m satisfied with how the texture wraps around the cow now. I haven’t bothered modelling the hooves because I planned to have them mostly hidden by some long grass.

Cow surrounded by other elements

Here’s where I put the cow into a landscape. I couldn’t resist the classic idea of rolling green hills. I used the same Cinema 4D software which I’d used for the cow to make the hills, the fence and the foreground grass.

I modelled a wheat plant and flowers, which I duplicated lots of times around the cow. If you rotate them a bit each time you use them, it tricks the eye into seeing them as all being different.

screen preview of the full scene

I’ve finished the job of putting materials onto everything and am ready to get the computer to ‘render’ the scene. It looks a little bit strange because I’m only showing it the way I see it when I work on it with the computer. But rendering will change all that.

During the rendering process the computer does all the hard work. It makes an assessment of every part of the scene I’ve assembled and draws up the final image, pixel by pixel. During rendering the computer makes decisions based on the modelling, texturing, lighting and any other effects going on in the scene. It can take a long time.

How much time, depends on a whole lot of things, like for example, how fast your computer is, how many objects are in the scene, how complex those objects are, how many lights are used in the scene, and how big you want the final image to be. To render this image big enough for, say, a half-page magazine illustration would take about 10 hours on an old computer or about an hour on a new one.

cow's head

Here’s a close-up view of the finished illustration after it had finished rendering. I’ve opened the rendered file in Photoshop and painted a bit of fuzzy hair around the top of its head and ears, but the 3D software did everything else in the scene.

Making the Cheddar Warrior

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