Choosing Software For Your Own Personal Art Pipeline
By Neil Blevins
Created On: May 28th 2015
Updated On: Mar 3rd 2017

Back in the day, there were plenty of all-in-one 3d packages, 3dsmax, maya, softimage, etc, and you could potentially do a lot of your work in a single piece of software. But these days, most pipelines rely on a whole collection of different pieces of software to get work done, everyone from a large vfx studio all the way to a single artist making concept art. The advantage of this de-centralizing of software is smaller software companies can specialize in making the very best software that does X, rather than a big software company producing something that's decent at everything but awesome in none. The disadvantage is now you need to transfer your work between all these different pieces of software, which causes headaches in terms of incompatible features, data loss, and manual labor.

I've done a lot of reflecting on my concept art process, and have split it up into a number of tasks, and then matches those tasks with a specific piece of software. Sadly, concept art is a tiny, tiny market, and no software is written specifically for the needs of a modern concept artist (If you're a software developer and want to write apps for concept artists, please contact me, I have so many ideas <G>). So artists instead have to cobble together a pipeline from a bunch of different pieces of software.

For example, a common one is modeling / sculpting in zbrush, then materials and rendering in keyshot, then final 2d paint in Photoshop.

Here's a little more information about my personal software pipeline.

First, I have split my software needs into the following tasks:
  1. 3D General
  2. 3D Modeling
  3. 3D Sculpting
  4. 3D UV
  5. 2D Pattern Generation
  6. 3D Shading
  7. 3D Detail Paint
  8. 3D Render
  9. 2D Paint
  10. 2D Comp
  11. 2D Image Viewing
Then I have matched up each task with a piece of software (3dsmax, Medium, Filterforge, Vray in 3dsmax, Photoshop, Magic Bullet Looks, ACDSee):
  1. 3D General -> 3dsmax
  2. 3D Modeling -> 3dsmax
  3. 3D Sculpting -> Medium
  4. 3D UV -> 3dsmax
  5. 2D Pattern Generation -> Filterforge
  6. 3D Shading -> 3dsmax / vray
  7. 3D Detail Paint -> 3dsmax / Photoshop
  8. 3D Render -> 3dsmax / vray
  9. 2D Paint -> Photoshop
  10. 2D Comp -> Magic Bullet Looks
  11. 2D Image Viewing -> ACDSee
Here's a little more info on my choices. Remember, there is no right or wrong, these are my choices and they're liable to be very different from your own:

1) 3D General -> 3dsmax
I started using 3dstudio DOS R2 back in the early 90s. So I use 3dsmax partly out of habit, and partly because I feel it's a good middle ground between a purely procedural program and a fast program that just gets the job done.

2) 3D Modeling -> 3dsmax
I do all my hard surface modeling in 3dsmax, I tried switching over to Modo at one point but discovered that I rely too heavily on max's modifier stack, and so have decided to stick with max.

3) 3D Sculpting -> Medium
I was a big mudbox user, but since the program has stopped development, I've been using medium in VR for a lot of my sculpting needs. Its so fantastic being able to create in full 3d where I can walk around my model and pull and push in full 3d space.

4) 3D UV -> 3dsmax
While I prefer to use uvless techniques, when I need to UV stuff, I use 3dsmax's unwrapping tools.

5) 2D Pattern Generation -> Filterforge
Filterforge is a great place for creating procedural patterns. I like darktree too, but darktree hasn't seen an update in a decade, so when it comes to an application with a future, Filterforge seems like the best choice.

6) 3D Shading -> 3dsmax / vray
I did all my shading and rendering in the Brazil Renderer years ago, but when it got discontinued, I switched over to vray since I found it had a pretty similar system. And it has a pretty big market share, which means it has a lot of development money going into it, and its not likely to get discontinued like Brazil did.

7) 3D Detail Paint -> 3dsmax / Photoshop
I don't do a lot of painting on organic models, so my pipeline for 3d paint is mostly for hard surface models, and I use a combination of projections in 3dsmax, and then painting the stuff to be projected using photoshop. I may move myself to a full 3d paint package at some point in the future when more of them have PTEX support.

8) 3D Render -> 3dsmax / vray
I use vray in 3dsmax for my lighting, camera work and rendering. While many people use Keyshot to render, I find the software too limiting in the material / texturing department, causing a lot of artists to add texture in 2d in photoshop on top of the final rendered image. This is fine, but I like to do more of my texturing in 3d if I know I'm going to see the model from several different angles. And with Vray RT (vray's realtime renderer), keyshot's realtime advantage is less unique in the industry now.

9) 2D Paint -> Photoshop
Despite how limited Photoshop is, there's still nothing that's as good at both hand painting and image manipulation in the same program. I'm looking to eventually replace this with Affinity Photo, it just needs a couple more features.

10) 2D Comp -> Magic Bullet Looks
Since Photoshop doesn't have much in the way of non-destructive filters, I need a compositor as well. While something like Nuke would be more full featured, its overkill for what I need to do (vignettes, chromatic aberration, post blur, etc) so I've found the simple to use Magic Bullet Looks by Red Giant is the perfect balance for me.

11) 2D Image Viewing -> ACDSee
There's a lot of image viewers out there, but ACDSee is one of the originals for windows, and I use it mostly out of habit because it has everything I need.

Every once in awhile I'll look at my tasks, my software choices, and ask myself is it worth switching some part of it to new software. The question is what features do I use all the time, and what am I willing to give up to get new features that my current software doesn't have. It's a constant evaluation. I have my favorites for sure, but it's best never to become too dependent on one piece of software because...
Some people in fact change their software almost on an image by image basis! This is fine too, but for myself I like having a bit more of a standard pipeline as my tried and true fallback, and I'll add extra software here or there if I want to try something out. But I always have my default pipeline!

Anyways, hope you found this peak into my own personal pipeline interesting. And I hope it gives you the incentive to take a look at your own personal pipeline. As an exercise sometime, try and write down the main tasks you perform, and what software you tend to use the most for these tasks. Then consider some alternatives. It may help you find something you hadn't considered and open you up to new possibilities.

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