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The Right Tool(s) for the Job

The Right Tool(s) for the Job

Over the years I’ve noticed a trend in games centered around weapon customization. Games such as Dying Light, Fallout 4 and Borderlands allow the player an array of weapons to choose from as well as the ability to upgrade or modify those weapons to improve their efficiency, increase their power or to simply make the use of the weapon more enjoyable.

Creating a “Flame Blade” with a machete which ignites the zombies was a personal favorite when playing Dying Light… but I digress.

I find the weapon selection and customization in games to be similar to the massive number of tools that are now available to artists these days as well as the ability to customize the tools. These options can come in many forms such as standalone programs, plug-ins, scripts, macros, customizing the user interface and more.

With all the options that are available, it’s interesting to me how many artists limit themselves to a single tool and/or avoid customizing their tool of choice to improve their workflow.

“For everybody in their busy lives, you need to invest in sharpening your tools, and you need to invest in longevity.” -Ryan Holmes

If you spend any amount of time in online forums where software is discussed, I’m sure you’ve seen this nugget of wisdom quoted often; "It's a poor craftsman that blames his tools". I’m sure at some point, I myself have used this quote in conversations and within forum threads. While I understand the concept that it’s not about the tool, it’s about the skill of the artist using the tool, I believe it goes much deeper than this.

My advice to artists has always been to focus on their craft and not on the tool. But this doesn’t suggest that one should turn a blind eye to additional options available to them. I believe there is a balance that can be attained where skills and tools meet in the middle.

While a great artist can create art with just about anything, one attribute of a skilled artist is the ability to choose the right tool for the given task.

Give a sculptor water and dirt and they’ll give you an amazing mud sculpt. But give that same sculptor clay or toy sculpting wax and a handful of sculpting tools, and chances are the sculptor will have far more control over his creation.

Warner McGee, 3D character artist shared, “While I firmly believe that it's the artist behind the tools that matters most, I think it's fair to say that today’s tools can elevate one’s work to levels not possible before. It's a balance of knowing what you want to do, researching the tools available and then leveraging their capabilities to help facilitate YOUR artistic vision.” 

I’ll use a portion of my toolset as an example. While MODO isn’t the only 3D software I use, it is currently my go to 3D application, as it affords me the ability to handle just about everything I need to tackle for most of the projects that come my way.

That said, if the task at hand involves heavy digital sculpting, I’m quick to launch Zbrush, even though MODO has built in sculpting tools. MODO also has a solid set of painting tools, but when I need to create detailed texture maps for my meshes, I head over to Photoshop where I have spent most of my professional career painting and editing images. There are other examples I can share, but I think you get the idea.

"Often when people are dissatisfied with the current software they're using, they talk about jumping ship and learning an entirely new set of tools in another DCC application.  I don't find that line of thinking beneficial at all.  Instead of jumping ship, I think of adding to my current set of tools. There's little sense in giving up the experience and comfort level you've achieved with one application when you weigh in the time involved in reaching a similar level of proficiency in a new one. I never think of giving up a set of tools, just adding some new ones.  If you've found the perfect application that does everything you could have dreamed of, you could very well be the first of your kind". - 3D Artist, Steve White.

I’m sure some of you are reading this and thinking, “What if I can’t afford additional pieces of software?”. While the examples I gave above all come at an additional cost, there are many tools that are available which are free that could be a great addition to your toolkit. Programs such as Gimp, Sumo Paint and Krita are free alternatives to Photoshop, and if Zbrush is out of your price range, Sculptris is an amazing sculpting program that you can add to your toolkit at no cost.

I also find that adding additional tools to the core software I use to be beneficial. Some of these add-ons come at an additional cost, but many are free. Most software affords its users the ability to create custom scripts and macros, and you can find a massive number of useful tools in online communities created by users that wanted to expand the software beyond the core tools.

3D Artist, Mike Jagodinski adds, "I’m all for any script or plugin that will save me even one click during production. It’s all about time savings in the long run."

A few years ago I started learning Python scripting so that I could create my own scripts to enhance the tools I use. The scripts I have written have increased my productivity and have given me the opportunity to give back to the community by sharing the scripts with other users.

Sometimes it’s not even about using an additional tool, plugin or script. You can increase your efficiency with the main tool in your toolkit by creating custom shortcut keys or reconfiguring the user interface. 

"Keeping track of the latest plugins and scripts can turn into a huge time-suck itself. Often their functionally might already be hidden in your main application. All it takes is a bit of customization to increase your efficiency - be that your custom shelf in Maya, a custom Viewport Layout in Modo, or wrapping up a commonly used nodal tree in a Macro in Fusion," adds VFX artist, Blochi.

With all these options available today, where does one begin?

Part of an artist’s job is to stay current with the industry and to know what is available. I have found that frequenting online news sites and community forums is an easy way to keep updated with what is available. It’s also a good idea to discuss tool options with co-workers and other artists online. If there is an artist whose work you admire, ask what’s in his or her toolkit.

When watching an artist like Tor Frick work during one of his live streams, it became obvious to me that taking advantage of some of the free scripts he uses would increase my speed when working with Booleans for example.

“One thing all great artists have in common is that they spend A LOT of time creating art.  You’re own personal workflow will begin to coalesce the more time you spend working, and pretty soon potential shortcuts and efficiencies will become apparent to you.  For example, as I got better and faster with MODO, I found places where I could be more efficient and created quite a few custom pie menus, keyboard shortcuts and even an entire new workflow (dubbed ‘slash-n-burn’ by Brad Peebler).  I was able to leverage scripts other people, such as Seneca Menard, had written using MODO’s flexible UI.  Customizing your personal workflow takes time and effort - but the people who have invested in that effort are invariably better and faster artists”, shared Greg Leuenberger, CEO of Sabertooth Productions.

I’m not suggesting that everyone stuff as many tools in their toolkit as they can. Too often I’ve seen artists spending a great deal of time hopping from one software package to another, hoping to find the “golden” software with the “Make Good Art” button. They lose a great deal of time on these quests that could have been spent on honing their skills. I’m simply suggesting that one be open to the tools that are available and to not be limited to one piece of software or off the shelf software.

“Do not wait; the time will never be 'just right.' Start where you stand, and work with whatever tools you may have at your command, and better tools will be found as you go along.” -George Herbert

At the end of the day, the most important thing to remember is that you should use the tools that work for you. Explore your options, discover what is available and then make informed decisions on how you can customize your toolkit.

If you follow this advice, your toolkit will be personalized to your needs, allowing you to create your art in the most efficient way and focus on what is truly important…. creating.

“You can have all the tools in the world but if you don't genuinely believe in yourself, it's useless.”-Ken Jeong

Special thanks to Kayla Roskopf for her texture work on my Bonnie model used in the article. 


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