The best 3D modelling software won’t automatically make you a better artist – you’ll still need to hone those 3D skills. But when it comes to creating incredible artwork and animation, having the right 3D modelling software for your style, skill level and budget certainly helps.
Of course, what’s right for you as a beginner or pro might not suit another artist. But whether you’re a 2D artist looking to up-skill, or a seasoned 3D pro looking to upgrade your existing tools, there’s a program out there to suit you – and you’ll find it in this guide. You can help kick-start your creativity by downloading some free textures or free 3D models.
On this page, we bring you the best paid-for 3D modelling software; and on the next you’ll find the best free 3D modelling software.
So how do you choose the right 3D modelling software? Well, there are some key considerations to bear in mind. Firstly, as a general rule, any kind of 3D work will require around 16GB RAM or more. Most of the 3D software applications here need roughly 5GB of disc space to install, but you need to take rendering into account too.
Also, if you’re taking your digital art seriously, then investing in one of the best graphics cards , with a fast processor and a lot of memory is highly recommended. That way, you’re much less likely to experience a lag when displaying complex 3D scenes.
Read on for the best 3D modelling software packages the market has to offer…
An industrial-strength powerhouse, with a price to match
Cost: £222/month, £1,782/year | Pricing model: Subscription | OS: Window 7 & 10; Apple macOS 10.11.x and above; Linux Red Hat Enterprise Linux 7.3 and 7.5; Linux CentOS 7.3 and 7.5
Comprehensive CG toolset
Expensive and difficult to learn
Overkill for many 3D artists
Ask any 3D artist to name the best 3D modelling software, and most will choose Autodesk Maya. Largely seen as the industry standard for CG, Autodesk Maya boasts an unrivalled range of tools and features. This hugely extensible app isn’t for the faint-hearted: its toolset is hugely complex and takes time to learn. However, if you’re aiming to get a job in the animation or VFX industries, you’d be wise to use the same software that the likes of ILM, Pixar, DNEG and Framestore use.
Maya is great at modelling, texturing, lighting and rendering – its vast feature set includes particles, hair, solid body physics, cloth, fluid simulations and character animation. There’s a chance you may never touch some of its functionality, so you need to decide if it’s actually overkill for your specific needs.
This level of power also comes at a price – a subscription to Maya doesn’t come cheap. But for those who have the time, skill and patience to master it, Maya has some of the best 3D tools around and is a sound investment.
Want to get started with Maya? Our selection of mighty Maya tutorials will help you take a step in the right direction.
02. Houdini 17.5
The procedural power behind today’s movie and TV VFX
Cost: $4,495/yr (Houdini FX), $1995/yr (Core), $269/yr (Indie) | Pricing model: Perpetual and rental | OS: Windows 7 SP1 and above; macOS 10.11 and above; Linux Ubuntu 14.04+; Linux Debian 8.0+; Linux CentOS 7+; Linux Open SUSE 13.2+; Linux mint 17.3+; Linux Fedora 21+
Industry-leading procedural software
Capable of incredible VFX simulations
Free version available to hone skills
Complex node-based workflow
Coming in second place in our guide to the best 3D modelling software is Houdini by SideFX. Widely used in the VFX industry for creating a range of amazing 3D imagery, Houdini’s node-based procedural approach provides digital artists with an unprecedented level of power, flexibility and control. This nodal workflow isn’t to everyone’s liking, but Houdini also has more traditional tools for directly interacting with polygons on screen.
Like Maya, this level of power and non-standard workflow can be tricky to get to grips with. Fortunately, SideFX offers Houdini Apprentice, a free version of Houdini FX, which can be used by students, artists and hobbyists for personal non-commercial projects. The free version gives you access to virtually all of the features of the award-winning Houdini FX to develop your skills and for working on personal projects. The full-featured Houdini Indie also provides an affordable commercial option for small studios. See our review of Houdini 17 Banshee for more info.
03. Cinema 4D R20
Brilliant 3D modelling software for beginners and pros alike
Cost: Prime £670, Broadcast £1,235, Visualize £1,520, Studio £2,850 | Pricing model: Perpetual and rental | OS: Windows 7 SP1 and above; macOS 10.11.6 or 10.12.4 and above
Shallow learning curve
Hugely extensible with plugins
Only the Studio version has all features
Perpetual licenses expensive
Maxon’s Cinema 4D has been around for many years and is highly regarded in the worlds of motion graphics, visualisation and illustration. It’s a professional, complex piece of software, known for its overall stability and for being the CG app with the easiest learning curve.
Cinema 4D enjoys a thriving community with a huge online library of tutorials and how-tos – not to mention training site Cineversity, to which you get free membership when you buy the app or pay for the annual Maxon service agreement (MSA).
C4D’s parametric modelling toolset is generally very good, and you can add even more functionality with a range of inexpensive plugins. The latest release also introduced volumetric modelling, which is perfect if you don’t have the time or skillset to create smooth solid forms.
Perpetual licenses for C4D don’t come cheap, but you can always start with Prime and upgrade over time. Check out the trial version, which gives you 42 days to experiment for free. Maxon also offers short-term and student licenses at a reduced cost.
04. Autodesk 3ds Max
The best 3D modelling software for Windows users
Cost: £222/mo, £1,782/yr | Pricing model: Subscription | OS: Microsoft Windows 7 (SP1), Windows 8, Windows 8.1, and Windows 10 Professional operating system
Easier to learn than Maya
Substantial feature set for modelling and VFX
Recent updates have been underwhelming
3ds Max is Autodesk’s PC-only 3D computer graphics program, used for TV and feature film production and for architectural and product visualisation. Like its sister software Maya, 3ds Max boasts a very robust toolset for 3D modelling, not to mention fluid simulations, hair and fur, plus character rigging and animation.
It uses both direct manipulation and procedural modelling techniques, and a huge library of different modifiers makes the modelling process easier for new or intermediate 3D artists.
3ds Max offers a professional toolset and, unsurprisingly, comes with a professional price tag. However, students can get the software for free and a trial version is also available for 30 days.
A powerful and flexible 3D modelling, texturing and rendering toolset
Cost: $1,799 permanent license, $599/year | Pricing model: Perpetual and subscription | OS: macOS 10.12.x and above; Windows 7 and above; Linux RHEL and CentOS 7+
Excellent subdivision surface modeller
Impressive MeshFusion Boolean workflow
Some non-modelling tools feel underdeveloped
Borne out of the development team behind LightWave 3D, Modo has grown from a basic subdivision surface modeller to the fully-featured digital content creation app we know today. Its tools have been well thought through and implemented, making it very user-friendly, and when you throw in a really solid rendering system, it’s easy to see why Modo has grown in popularity.
With modelling at its core, Modo is one of the best apps out there for the creation of polygonal forms, using both direct tools and procedural techniques. The addition of the best-in-breed MeshFusion Boolean system simply extends its modelling repertoire.
Modo might lack the high-end dynamics and simulation tools you might find in a program like Maya, but it holds its own when it comes to creating stunning artwork, producing as good a 3D render as any other package currently available.
06. Blender 2.8
A free, open source CG app software with professional-grade features
Cost: Free | OS: Windows Vista and above; macOS 10.12 and above; Linux
Impressive feature set
Great community support
A little daunting at first
For CG artists on a budget, it doesn’t get any better than Blender, the free modelling, texturing, animation and rendering app. The long-awaited version 2.8 (due for launch July 2019) provides a modern, more consistent interface, plus high-quality viewport, real-time interactive rendering, and tons of fixes and features.
The open-source program has been around for a long time now, and subsequently has an army of artists, teachers and enthusiasts behind its continued development. It boasts a highly impressive 3D modelling and sculpting toolset, and is considered a completely viable alternative to paid modelling programs. Blender was notorious for its non-standard way of working, but 2.8 solves a lot of these issues, and so it will feel more familiar if you’re moving from an existing app.
Blender is a brilliant starting point to see if 3D graphics are for you – and we have a host of fantastic Blender tutorials to get started with elsewhere on the site. Despite the non-existent price tag, it’s capable of producing images and animation that on a par with just about any other 3D modelling software on the market.
07. Lightwave 3D
Fully-featured and production-proven
Cost: $995 | Pricing model: Perpetual | OS: Windows 7 and above; macOS 10.11 and above.10.8 or above
Complete modelling and animation suite
Really easy to get to grips with
Still works as two separate apps
Playing catch-up with competitors
LightWave was once the go-to app for TV sci-fi shows, but after a failed attempt to produce a modernised version, NewTek’s app lay fallow for several years. However it’s recently enjoyed something of a renaissance, and an updated version was introduced at the start of 2019.
Lightwave operates as two apps, Modeler – for building assets – and Layout for texturing, lighting, animation and rendering. A lot of the underlying toolset is quite old (although it’s had a lot of new features added in the last few years) but that doesn’t stop it from being a solid digital content creation suite, with lots of features and a fast interactive PBR renderer.
So ignore LightWave’s reputation: it’s a great 3D modelling app for learning the basics. You can try it for yourself with the 30-day free trial, while students can pick up a copy for just $195.
08. ZBrush 2019
Market-leading sculpting software that’s ideal for 3D printing
Cost: $795 | Pricing model: License | OS: Windows Vista and above; macOS: 10.10 and above
Incredible sculpting toolset
Handles millions of polys with ease
Difficult to learn
Non-standard menus and UI
Needs a graphics tablet for best results
ZBrush is a standalone sculpting and modelling app that is best suited to the creation of organic forms – although recent updates have gradually improved its hard-surface abilities. It works in a non-standard fashion, with a workflow and user interface that’s initially very hard to learn, so you really need to get ZBrush and use it every day to become proficient.
However, ZBrush isn’t only for sculpting and modelling: it can also be used to create UV maps and paint textures, enabling seasoned artists to craft entire figures, with clothing and props, ready for rendering. ZBrush is a popular choice among artists wanting to 3D print toys and action figures, too, with tools specifically aimed at 3D printing. For more infomation, take a look at our ZBrush 2019 review.
09. 3DCoat 4.8
Left-field sculpting app that continues to grow in stature
Cost: Amateur $99; Professional $379 | Pricing model: Perpetual | OS: Windows Vista and above; Mac OSX: 10.7 and above; Linux
Excellent sculpting toolset
Easy UV mapping and texturing
Slightly unusual interface
Needs a graphics tablet for best results
The biggest direct competitor to ZBrush is 3DCoat, from Ukrainian developer Pilgway. 3DCoat arrived on the scene as a voxel-based digital sculpting app, but has grown over time, adding UV mapping, texture painting, retopology tools, Substance Painter-like smart materials, PBR rendering and more.
From its niche beginnings in 2007, 3DCoat is now in use in game dev studios around the world, and continues to grow and expand its feature set.