Creating 3D models can be baffling for beginners. Like any family of applications, from word processors to image editors, 3D modelling tools have their own shared features, toolsets and formats that must be learned first.
That’s why Google Sketchup is such a superb introduction to 3D. It’s about as simple as 3D can be made, comes with a massive catalogue of ready-made models, and the documentation is comprehensive. Oh, and the standard version is free.
SketchUp was originally conceived as a tool for creating 3D models and buildings for Google Earth. That remit has long since been lapped and surpassed. In the current iteration, version 7.1, the program opens with a wizard that enables you to start with a basic modelling template, architectural design, engineering design, plan view or a training template, for absolute beginners.
Once you’re in the main program, either in plan or full 3D view, you can go to the online 3D Warehouse, and place any one of thousands of ready-made models into your scene. The Instructor window tells you how to manipulate models once loaded, from simple commands like zooming in and out, to more complex modelling features.
It’s at this point that SketchUp loses a point from its rating. Finished models in the free version can only be exported in Google Earth or Collada interchange formats. The latter format should be good enough to get your work into other pacakges – but Google has a set of native export filters for 3DS and OBJ that have deliberately been left out. You can output to 2D formats, TIFF, PNG or JPEG for touching up in your preferred image editor though.
If you’re on a budget, and want an easy introduction to 3D modelling, SketchUp will give you the best of any package out there.