One of the most enjoyable things about being an illustrator is all the toys we get to play with. I’m a tech nerd through and trough, so my tools and toys are probably more high-tech compared to artists who prefer to work with more traditional media. But it doesn’t really matter how we do our work – there are always neat new tools to work with that can inspire us to create amazing things in ways we never considered before.

Since I am often asked how I produce my illustrations, I thought it would be fun to write about all of the design tools that are currently in my arsenal that I absolutely cannot live without. I’ve used a lot of different software and hardware over the years, and there are a few products that have stood the test of time and will remain a core part of my design studio for a long time to come:

Wacom Tablet

I’ll admit that it took me far too long to get comfortable with a drawing tablet, but it’s been the biggest game-changer of them all for me over last 10 years. I bought my first Wacom tablet in 2006 (a white Graphire 4), and the frustration I felt after playing with it for the first 20 minutes is something I remember quite well. The hope of creating super-cool drawings with my computer was washed away like a tsunami as soon as I realized the necessary coordination involved, and I tossed it back in the box in a fit of frustration.

It sat untouched for the next 4 years, but I pulled it back out in 2010 determined to make it work because…well…all the other cool illustrators use them, so there must be something that makes the learning curve worth the effort. Right? Long story short, I stuck with it and I’m at the point now where using a mouse seems weird to me. I’ve since upgraded to a medium-sized Wacom Intuos 5, and I’m pretty confident when I say that my aircraft illustrations wouldn’t be possible without this thing. Manually applying soft shadows to complex surfaces in Photoshop requires a delicate and precise touch, and the Intuos 5 is the perfect tool for the job.

PhotoStore from Ktools.net

Jeff and Jon at Ktools.net have built an incredibly powerful photo store script that is something I have grown to depend on over the years for the distribution of my images. I started selling my own illustrations with PhotoStore 3 in 2007, and back then, I was a bit apprehensive about running my own store and dealing with all the potential headaches that might be associated with that. Server issues, corrupt files, updates…ugh. I am a designer who hates to dabble in code so I was very pleasantly relieved when I realized how stable the PhotoStore platform was. I’ve since upgraded to version 4 and I couldn’t be any happier – everything runs smoothly and exactly as it should so I never have to spend time tinkering with annoying technical issues. And even if I do run into a problem, the ongoing support they offer is top-notch. I’m a customer for life.

Sketchbook Pro

As I developed the hand/eye coordination to use my Wacom tablet, I grew more and more excited about rekindling an old passion of mine: drawing cars. I quickly found Photoshop to be too clunky for free and loose sketching, and that led me to SketchBook Pro by Autodesk. It was exactly what I was looking for in a drawing tool: a simple and clean interface, the ability to switch between pens and pencils quickly, super-fast brush size changes, and the ability to freely rotate the canvas as I worked.

Although I don’t post any of my sketches here on my blog, I’m trying to draw by hand as much as possible. Just seeing the app icon for SketchBook Pro sitting in the dock at the bottom of my screen every day has been an inspiring reminder for me to step away from the technical 3d stuff whenever possible and get back to my roots (drawing by hand).

FormZ

I’ve been a FormZ user since 1999, and I’ve grown to love it’s simplicity and ease of use for creating rich 3d content. It doesn’t get much love and attention from others in the 3d world (outside the architecture realm), but I’ve found it to be one of the tools I depend on the most in my day to day activities.

Even though I recently mentioned that I want to be using Maya as much as possible to create images for my Royalty-Free image collection, I’m starting to realize that might not be as realistic as I had hoped. Maya is incredibly powerful, and offers an awesome assortment of tools for building complex models. But the downside is that rendering times are often too long for high-volume production work. And that’s where FormZ shines.

FormZ is a powerful 3d modeling program without all the nauseating complexity that you’d find elsewhere (like Maya), and that allows me to create 3d content quickly (from rough geometry to final rendering) without much fuss.

The fastest computer I can afford

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this business, it’s that time is a valuable thing. Clients tend to demand things as fast as possible, and I like to move fast so that I can have more personal free time to do the things I want to do. Since I spend all day in front of a computer, it behooves me to be using hardware that can keep a fast pace and won’t leave me sitting and waiting for it to catch up.

That may seem like common sense, but for years I had a hard time justifying the cost of a powerful computer built for heavy visual design work. I’ve always been a bit of a tightwad, and the thought of spending a ton of money on hardware that would be obsolete in six months sent shudders up an down my spine. But two years ago, while working with a very complex 3d model that was bringing my years-old iMac to it’s knees, I decided enough was enough and went big on a beefy multi-processor Mac Pro. It was some of the best money I’ve ever spent in my life. Lesson learned.

Because I’m a sucker for hot new technology, I am always on the lookout for products that I think will allow me to grow as a designer. The list above is what I consider to be my “core” toolset – likely to always be there out of familiarity and alignment with my own design process. I am sure the list will keep growing as I advance in my career, but for now, I’d be lost without any of them.

How about you? I’m curious what other designers consider to be part of their core toolset, so please leave a comment and let me know!

soap box illustration

Are you totally sick and tired reading about me gushing over Maya yet? 2 out of my last 3 posts deal with my recent (er, ongoing) transition to this new modeling software and I’m here once again to let you know that still loving every minute of it. Mostly – though I’m not going to lie when I say it can be frustrating at times.

Most of that frustration has come from trying to figure out how I can keep using all of the 3d models I’ve built in FormZ over the years. Before I started using Maya, it scared me to death that all that work I’ve done over the past 8 years might be rendered obsolete by switching 3d platforms. You’ve probably noticed that I reuse a lot of my existing content to create new illustrations for my royalty-free stock image collection, and the thought of not being able to use any of that content anymore was keeping me up at night. Of course I still (and always will) have a licensed copy of FormZ in my creative arsenal, but that’s not the point – I want to do the bulk of my work in Maya from this point forward and reverting back to FormZ to create my stock illustrations is not what I want to be doing.

That said, figuring out how to import .fmz files into Maya has been a high priority for me. Early attempts were not good – Maya doesn’t like smoothed solid geometry very much, and simply exporting generating an OBJ file and then trying to import didn’t work well at all. A lot of geometry ended up getting lost in the translation, and the parts that did make it were often broken beyond repair. I was frustrated, but the optimist in me knew that there had to be a way.

It took me a long time of old-fashioned trial and error to find the best method of exporting solids-based smooth 3d models from FormZ to Maya, and I’m happy to report that I found a workable solution. To show you how that works, let me take you through the steps using my soap box 3d model as an example:

Step 1:  Prepare your model for export

In FormZ, open the 3d model you wish to export and delete all the lights, cameras (views), and unused shaders. It’s also smart to delete any geometry that is unrelated to the model you wish to export.

wireframe mesh

All unnecessary components (lights, views, unused shaders, etc) have been deleted in FormZ. Only the mesh wireframe remains.

Step 2: Export to DXF

Once you’ve deleted all of that unnecessary data, go to File > Export and select DXF. You would think that a more common format like OBJ would work better, but trust me on this – I tried them all and DXF works the best. Give it any name you like and save it anywhere – it doesn’t matter.

Once you press Save, a popup window will appear presenting you with a series of options for exporting to DXF format. The settings I typically use are as follows:

DXF export settings

DXF export settings in FormZ

You can choose whatever you prefer for Units, as well as the Grouping Method. It just depends on how you like to work.

Step 3: Import into Maya

Jump over to Maya and go to File > Import and choose your DXF file you just created. I should mention that you can import 3d content into an existing scene if you’d like, but I like to import models into an empty scene so that I can quickly identify and fix any issues that may come up.

import dxf file into maya

Navigate to where you stored your DXF file, select it, then press Import

Step 4: Cleaning up your model within Maya

It will take a few seconds for Maya to process the DXF file (especially if it’s a complex model) so don’t worry if it takes a bit of time. But once it’s finished, you will probably get something that looks like this:

reversed normals

Imported model with reversed normals

That doesn’t look all that great, does it? Yes, it appears that the entire model imported correctly, but there are obviously issues with the some of the geometry. Some parts look ok, but other parts are black. Once again, no need to worry! The problem is that the normals on those surfaces need to be reversed, and it’s an easy thing to fix:

A. Select all of your geometry

All geometry selected

All geometry selected

B. Go to Modify > Convert > NURBS to polygons

converting NURBS to polygons in maya

NURBS surfaces need to be converted to polygons

This is what the resulting mesh should look like.

Resulting polygon mesh

Resulting polygon mesh after the conversion

Note that you can select how dense you want the polygon mesh to be in the options panel before you actually do the conversion. For the sake of simplicity, I just went with the default settings.

C. Before reversing the normals, we need to delete the old NURBS surfaces.

The best way of doing that is by going to the Show menu and turning off all the geometry EXCEPT for the NURBS surfaces. Once only those surfaces are exposed, select them all and delete (or save them to another layer if you want to keep them).

Using the Show menu to hide all geometry

Using the Show menu to hide all geometry except for the NURBS surfaces

D. Reverse the normals

Once you delete the NURBS surfaces, go back to the Show menu and turn on all the geometry (the way it was before you turned them off). You should be left only with polygons at this point, so you can select all the black pieces individually or all at once and reverse the normals by going to Normals > Reverse.

Reversing the normals

Reversing the normals

Once that is complete, all of your geometry should look uniform and clean – just like this:

All normals reversed

All normals reversed and ready for texturing

Of course every model will be different, but of all the FormZ to Maya file conversions I’ve done so far, the reversed normals issue is the biggest problem. It did take me a while to figure out that I had to convert to polygons first (hey, I’m still a noob) but I’m feeling much better about my archive of FormZ models that will live on for years to come in Maya.

american airlines 767-200 artwork

I’m still taking a short break from building that 3d model of an R8, so I thought it would be fun to get back into doing some more airliner art. Jumping back and forth like this between 3d and 2d stuff like this is good for my brain, as it keeps me from becoming burned out from being focused on one thing for too long. Burn-out is definitely a problem for me – it tends to happen quite often if I don’t take the initiative to combat it (not doing any illustration work for a while or just switching projects is a good start).

Anyway, I’ve been wanting to do an illustration of an American Airlines 767-200 for a while now. For those of you who don’t follow the airline industry, the 767-200 has been a backbone of the American Airlines fleet for nearly 30 years, and the last one of them was retired earlier this year. They were old, tired, and in desperate need of replacement – but the aviation buff in me saw these old birds as one of the last of the flying classics. It was a real shame to see them go, especially since they were directly replaced by not-so-exciting Airbus A321 single-aisle aircraft.

Nostalgia aside, another reason for wanting to do this illustration was because of the complexity of the livery. I like a challenge, and creating a realistic-looking polished aluminum texture was not easy – I struggled with it for a long while before getting to a point where I was satisfied. Is it perfect? Hardly. There’s a lot about this illustration that I don’t like, and I’ve already got some ideas floating around in my brain about how I can do it better next time.

For the background, I created a simple silver texture and then placed a very large solid gray version of the American Airlines eagle logo on the right hand side to compliment the shape of the vertical stabilizer. It becomes more of an abstract element like this (as opposed to being identifiable as the AA eagle logo), but that’s why I thought it looked kind of cool.

And if you happen to need a very high-resolution version of this illustration without the background, you can find it in the aircraft gallery on my online store.

Audi R8 3d wireframe

Now that I’ve made the decision to migrate my 3d workflow to Maya, I feel like I’ve totally given up my “pro” status and reverted way back to newbie mode. You know…that awkward (and sometimes painful) stage where it takes far too long to accomplish seemingly simple tasks and nothing seems to be getting done. It’s a frustrating place to be considering how many project ideas I have floating around in my head, and learning a complex new 3d modeling package is putting a serious damper on my output.

Ive been busting my you-know-what over the past several months, and I’m not going to lie that I’m a bit irritated that I don’t really have anything to show for it other than a couple shiny renderings (that I can’t sell as stock) and a bunch of new data about Maya stored in my brain. I’m used to producing content at a high volume, so this is kind of a big change of pace for me. I know that I’ll be better off in the long run though, so slowing down a bit and learning Maya is not something I regret doing at all.

Building my first car

I’m currently up to my eyeballs with my second Maya project: a 2008 Audi R8. I admit that seems like a rather lofty goal for a Maya newbie, but I’m a 3d expert…right? Yes, I’m being sarcastic. While I do have years of 3d modeling experience behind me, nearly of all that has been with FormZ using solids-based modeling methods. The car I’m building in Maya is being constructed entirely with polygons – which is a completely different way of constructing objects. That means that I’m basically starting my 3d education over from scratch and there’s not much I can leverage from all my years of previous modeling experience. Sounds fun, right?

You have no idea. I’m currently about half way done with this car so far, and on two separate occasions over the past week I’ve come very close to giving up and forgetting about this project forever. I’ve been pushing and pulling vertices for weeks now, and it’s so intense that I actually dream about it at night (and these aren’t pleasant dreams). One step forward, two steps back – that’s the way it goes for a beginner to polygonal modeling.

Audi R8 wireframe I'm currently building

Front view of the Audi R8 wireframe I’m currently building

As frustrating as it’s been, I’m also having a lot of fun. Modeling with polygons in Maya has really opened up my eyes in terms of realizing what’s possible with 3d content, so I thought it would be fun to list out some of the things I’ve learned since starting to build this car:

1). Polygonal (subdivision) modeling is very forgiving

I know this isn’t a Maya-specific thing, but coming from a solids-based modeling background, I’m blown away at how forgiving modeling with polygons can be. With a solid object, the geometry essentially had to be perfect to achieve nice bevels and proper transformations – and many times those transformations simply weren’t possible. But with polygons, I can push and pull, merge and cut, extrude, and tweak forever to achieve the shape I want.

2). Tweaking forever can be a bad thing

Compared to FormZ, there is a control or adjustment in Maya for everything. And I do mean everything. That level and control and adjustment gets the designer in me very excited, but I find that the more I mess with stuff, the more I screw things up. This is especially bad when sculpting something very organic like the surface of a car. It takes a long time to get the surfaces and forms right, and I’ve ruined hours of work on my R8 trying to fine tune things after I was already satisfied with a complex panel. It’s tempting not to touch all those buttons and sliders in the control dialogs – and I’m learning to realize that less is more with complex models such as this.

3). A highly glossy and reflective 3d rendering can hide a lot of mistakes in the mesh

This is something I already knew, but Maya takes it to a whole new level. Mental Ray (the built in rendering engine) is really good at producing really juicy images without much effort. That’s a good thing, because I’ve quickly discovered that building a clean mesh is a delicate art, and I’m pretty darn far from being delicate. However, I’ve come to discover that if the end goal is just a pretty rendering or quick fly-by animation, a blingy Mental Ray rendering with some nice HDR lighting will draw attention away from the imperfections.

4). Rendering in Maya takes forever (or so it seems)

Generating quick renders to preview my progress on a 3d model has been part of my workflow for years, and in FormZ I could just quickly rip off small 320×240 production-quality renderings in a matter of seconds to check out surfaces and lighting. It’s not quite that fast in Maya – and to make matters worse, rendering completely locks up my stout Mac Pro until it’s totally complete. As a guy who likes to multi-task, this is borderline unacceptable. I can easily let a FormZ render run in the background while I work on other things, so this is a hard change for me to accept. Someone did tell me the other day that it’s possible to limit the rendering process to certain cores of my Mac’s processor which would alleviate that problem – so that’s something I’m definitely going to look into.

5). I’m not as good as I thought I was

Jumping over to Maya has been challenging enough, but trying to build a detailed car has taken it up another notch. I’m nearly in over my head here, and I hate the feeling of not being able to do what I want to do in a timely manner. This is my first truly organic 3d model, and to say I’m flailing at times is an understatement. I know I’m learning though, so I will continue to push on…

Anyway, I’m sure that I’m going to be learning a lot more as I work to complete this car, and I’m getting pretty anxious to wrap it up. I’m not rushing it though – this car will likely just be a part of my portfolio and nothing more, so it’s not like I’m under a tight deadline to get it done or anything. The wireframe previews I posted above show it in it’s current state, which is the result of about two weeks worth of work (about 2 to 3 hours each day). I figure it’s going to take another 2-3 weeks to finish completely, and at that point I’ll post some pictures here to show it off. I’m crossing my fingers that it comes together ok, so stay tuned.

3d rolex watch rendering

Way back in 1996, I started tinkering in the world of 3d with Alias running on Silicon Graphics workstations at my first job right out of college. From there I migrated to FormZ to design trade show exhibits at my second job – but that was very short lived. I only stayed in that gig for a year, throwing in the towel to go off and design websites during the dot com boom of 1999-2001. I thought my 3d days were behind me at that point, and to be honest, I was having more fun doing websites and user interfaces than anything else I had been doing so far.

2001 to 2006 was a largely 3d-free time in my career. I was strictly focused on user interface design, occasionally messing around with an old copy of 3DS Max whenever I needed to create some basic (really basic) 3d objects for interface projects. It was so sporadic, in fact, that I never really learned my way around Max that well – to say I struggled is putting it mildly.

In 2006, I was looking to expand creatively outside of my day job, and I started shooting stock photography. I launched the Norebbo brand, and I shot photos exclusively for the first month. But it wasn’t satisfying – and I quickly noticed how difficult it was to stand out from the plethora of other photographers who had a lot more talent that I did. I needed an edge! I started thinking about creating stock illustrations instead of shooting photos, and long story short – I downloaded a demo version of my trusty old friend: FormZ. I suddenly found myself back in the world of 3d, and that leads me to where I am today.

It’s been 8 years since I got re-aqainted with FormZ, and I’m happy to say that it’s become a tool I know well and like very much. Nearly all of my 3d illustrations up until this point have been created with it, and I really like the things that it can do. But the things it can not do well (like modeling organic shapes) has been eating at me for far too long and I am at the point now where I feel like it’s holding me back.

Six months ago I started looking around for a more powerful 3d modeling package, weighing the pros and cons of each, and I ultimately decided on Maya by Autodesk. I tinkered with it for a bit, became quickly overwhelmed (lol) and ran straight back to FormZ with my tail between my legs. But two months ago I decided enough was enough and that I needed to start taking classes or running through tutorials so I could begin the migration.

It’s been a hectic 60 days – but I’m learning a lot, and I’m absolutely blown away with how much more powerful it is over FormZ. I’ve followed a handful of really good tutorials, but the Rolex Daytona watch tutorial I completed just a few days ago was fantastic and worthy of a shoutout. It’s a 57-part youtube series created by Stephan Pilz (aka Pixelbahn), and he does a spectacular job of going through the process of building this watch in Maya step-by-step. It took me 4 weeks to finish my own model, but it was most certainly worth the time – I learned so much, more than any other tutorial I’ve found so far. The results speak for themselves:

close up rendering of the rolex watch

Close up rendering of the face of this Rolex watch

Front perspective view

Front perspective view

Rolex watch wireframe

Rolex watch wireframe

Maya default surface texture

One of the things I really like about Maya is that I can quickly evaluate surfaces, even after textures have been applied

Maya viewport windows

Maya viewport windows

This is by far the most complex 3d model I have ever created, and I owe it all to Stephan for creating and publishing this tutorial. After building this Rolex and learning some really great new modeling techniques, I’m really excited about going off on my own and building some new things that I never could do with FormZ.

Yes, FormZ will always be part of my workflow (I love it too much to abandon completely), but Maya has officially become my 3d weapon of choice. This is going to be good!

presentation template for design-related topics

Exactly one month ago today I uploaded a sparse-white industrial-themed PowerPoint template that featured some nuts and bolts as the primary image on the cover slide. I was satisfied with the way that it turned out, but you might find it interesting to know that it was actually a redo of a template that I created earlier (and wasn’t totally happy with). Anyway, I decided that I might as well upload that other template as an alternative – perhaps you might like it better!

The layout of this template is nearly identical to the other one, right down to the exact same table and bullet point slides. The difference is all in the cover slide with that thick gray horizontal banner cutting through the middle. It was that element that I wasn’t so sure about in the beginning, mostly because it’s the kind of thing I’ve been doing for years – and I felt sort of guilty for doing it yet again. But the fact of the matter is that I think it works well to create a lot of contrast between the background and the nuts and bolts rendering.

Design-related presentations are very common (I’ve certainly given my fair share of them) and my hope is that this template is generic enough to use for all sorts of design topics. I personally think it would be just as useful for an architecture firm as it would be for an app builder – after all, the act of design and construction requires assembly of parts whether they are physical or digital. The chrome nuts and bolts are simply a metaphor in this case.

So which one do you like better? I almost hate to admit it, but I’m feeling that I like this darker version more…

Click here to download it!

full screen green nature scene powerpoint template

Several weeks ago I uploaded a PowerPoint template that I called “grassy morning sunrise”. The cover slide photo (and general color scheme of the deck) was based on a photo I took while on a morning walk through our neighborhood a while back, and overall, I liked the way it turned out.

But there was something about it that was bugging me, and it took me a little while to put my finger on what exactly it was. I liked the colors and the light quite a bit. The typography seemed to work ok. The accent colors of the interior slides seemed to be working as well. But…that frosted transparent panel on the cover was something I wasn’t quite sure about. At first I liked it, and then I started to think that it was unnecessary and somewhat distracting. The background photo of the bright green grass and the trees was visually rich, and I was starting to think that I made a mistake by masking it with that frosted overlay.

These kinds of things eat at me until I make them right. I knew I could do a better job with that template, so I rolled up my sleeves and made another attempt with a version that didn’t include that transparent panel on the cover slide. I also chose not to crop the photo as tightly as I did in the original version, as I thought that the sidewalk on the left side of the image helped the composition quite a bit. The interior slides are mostly the same – only a few minor color changes were necessary.

So what do you think? Is this one better than the other? I tend to think it is, but I’m curious if anyone else has an opinion!

Click here to download this template in .zip format.

industrial design theme for PowerPoint

I’ve been creating royalty-free stock illustrations for a long time now, and I’m constantly looking through my archives trying to figure out how to keep all that content fresh and viable as the years pass and styles change. There are parts of my portfolio that are really starting to show it’s age, but on the other hand there are plenty of illustrations that I think will be very useful for many years to come.

Case in point: my “nuts and bolts” illustrations. I’ve lost count of the number of 3d renderings that I’ve created which feature these simple objects, but they are just so darn versatile and conceptual in nature that it’s hard not to incorporate them into whatever I’m doing as much as I can. And that leads me to this free PowerPoint template with an industrial design theme.

If you’re familiar with my work, you’ll instantly recognize the chrome nuts and bolts that are the predominate element on the cover slide. I placed them over top of the same generic blueprint drawing that I used for my recent design and engineering Keynote templates, and then placed the title text to the left. I was originally thinking about creating some sort of dark background texture for this slide, but ultimately decided that the sterile clean look of the white backdrop was the way to go.

The interior slides of this three-page presentation deck contain the same bullet-text page and sample table that I’ve used in some of my other templates, but if you’re feeling creative, you might experiment with reusing that same image from the cover slide as a background for these interior pages. Make sure you reduce the opacity of it though – almost watermark-like so that it doesn’t compete visually with your content.

Click here to download it!

foggy hillside theme for powerpoint

The photo on the cover slide of this three-page PowerPoint template was one that I shot several weeks ago as I was taking a break during a long morning bike ride. This is the time of year in San Diego where thick fog is common in the early mornings and late evenings, and I love the way it seems to hug the hills and mountains around here. Mix in a little sun, and the result is usually breathtaking.

To be honest, I didn’t think much of this photo at all after I took it, and I came extremely close to deleting it shortly thereafter. The problem was that there wasn’t very much detail in the photo, and there wasn’t a clear subject. I was too composed to be considered an abstract texture, so I had no idea what I could use it for.

After thinking about it for a bit, I realized that it might make a nice backdrop for a presentation template. The dark area of the hillside would be a good place to overlay text, while the light top section would be a good place for a logo. With that in mind, I dropped it into PowerPoint to see what I could do.

The end result was something that I ended up liking quite a bit. I did find that the texure in the hillside was a bit distracting with light typography over top, so I blurred out the image a bit to make the fonts more legible. Much better.

The elements on the interior slides use colors that are complimentary to that cover page image, and I think the overall template is something that would work well for environmental-type presentations – or any topic that has a “zen” vibe to it.

You can download the .pptx file (compressed in .zip format) by clicking here.