Components of a 3D model

3D artist and enthusiasts strive to recreate what we see in our every day lives in 3D.  To do this we create 3D models composed primarily of 3 components: a 3D mesh, a Shader and textures maps.

3D Mesh:

The complexity and detail of the 3d mesh is dictated by the end use purpose of the model.  A game model will not be as complex as a movie model.  As a general rule anything you create for use in a real-time rendering application will need to be as light as possible, while a model created for a still render, image beauty shot, demo or pre-rendered sequence/movie can be as complex as possible.   For real-time rendering models, it is helpful to look for unique silhouettes, and then simplify the model while maintaining the silhouette.

For 3D printing, a 3D mesh needs to be “air/water tight” in most cases.  This means that you want to create your model as one continuous mesh or a combination of continuous meshes.  Your mesh should have no holes, missing faces, or gaps and their ilk.  Keep that in mind when building a mesh!


A shader is a set of descriptions that define what the mesh will look like when rendered.  The combination of a shader and a texture(s) create a Material. Shaders help us define things like color, transparency, shininess and reflectivity in an effort to approximate the look and feel of real life surfaces like plastics, metals, glass, water, and so on.  Common shaders include Lambert, Phong and Blinn shaders.

Shaders can also be created to provide advance effects like real time reflection and life like oceanic water but these are very dependent on the development engine and are coded individually by programmers.


A texture is an image that defines not only what your mesh looks like, but also help refine the many attributes in a Shader. As you can imagine, applying a flat image to a 3D mesh is an art onto itself! Imagine drawing on a piece of paper and then wrapping that paper on to a ball. I explain how a texture is applied to a 3D surface using the UV coordinates of the mesh in this previous article.

A texture can also be used as a height map, were darker colors represent negative height and lighter colors represent positive height.  This concept can be applied to the strength of a map, like transparency, were white is fully transparent and black is solid.

For example, topographical terrain maps have been used for years to help represent the different high and low points of an area.   They can be in grayscale (darker colors are lower in height than lighter colors) or in color.  With texture maps you can have fine control over properties like bump effects, shininess, transparency, reflection, glow, realistic depth (ambient occlusion) and baked in lighting to name a few.

There are tools that automatically help you create some of these texture maps from your original color/Diffuse texture.  One I personally like to use is called CrazyBump.  You can also create your own by using image editing software like Adobe Photoshop in combination with Nvidia’s Direct Draw Surface format (DDS).

And that’s just some of the tricks available to 3D artist to create and recreate life in 3D!  Next up we’ll show you how to upload models on with All these properties and enhancements.

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